In a few short weeks HH and I will be returning to New York.
The trees outside our windows have almost completely filled out with leaves and the spring bulbs are beginning to fade. That’s our signal that it’s time to go home. When HH was old enough to notice such things and still in his actively inquisitive phase, one of the questions I would get repeatedly was when we would be returning to Smallwood. I told him that when the trees were fully green we would return home. It was an easy answer to give and one he could measure each day on his way to kindergarten. It also kept the question at bay through the long German winter.
One morning recently he broke into song. That in itself isn’t unusual, he sings just about all the time, but on that morning, as I was pushing my bike along the sidewalk with him sitting on the back, his song was about leaves and flowers and how everything was green. And he was right: It was time to set the date and make our plans. Summer is right around the corner and with the coming of summer another marker is about to be passed, another birthday celebrated, actually two, mine at the end of spring and his at the end of summer.
Last night as I was preparing him for bed I told HH to pick out the book he wanted me to read. I had to leave the room because the chosen book is a secret. This is a new wrinkle in our bedtime routine. I leave the room and he pulls a book from his shelf and hides it under his blanket. Then I crawl into bed with him, close my eyes and he lays the book on my chest and I have to guess which book it is. Last night the book was unfamiliar to me, it was a very small book and I was a bit surprised because he usually picks a large book, one that takes a long time to read. But last night it wasn’t the book he wanted as much as the story that followed it. The second part of our routine, after the reading is finished and the book put away, is me telling him a story. Sometimes he wants me to talk to him about stars or hats or animals or some other thing or phenomenon, like rain or thunder. But last night he wanted a story about me, about my life, and it seemed by the way he asked the question, and from the fact that our first book took about five minutes to complete, that this was something about which he had given some thought.
It’s a real challenge to look into the eyes of your son and talk to him about your life – at least it is for me – and particularly now. I’ve noticed a change in HH, I would have called it a growth spurt even a year ago, but now that term seems inappropriate because he isn’t a baby any more or even a toddler. He’s maturing and last night when I started my story he looked me in the eye, in a way he had never done before. He was truly looking at me, through me, questioning me with his heart. I was taken aback for a moment, it was a little unnerving because I wasn’t looking into the same face I thought I knew so well, the face of a soft, sweet child absorbing the world around him, but rather I was looking into the face of a little boy who was beginning to take the true measure of things.
I told him the story of a trip I took to Africa, it is a subject I had mentioned many times before, usually at dinner when he pushed away his green beans before tasting them and I heard myself saying the same things my mother used to say to me – reminding me of the starving children in Africa and how I shouldn’t take things like fresh food and water for granted. The difference is, in my case I had been to Africa and seen children and their parents (those who still had parents or any relatives at all for that matter) who lived in the most desperate conditions imaginable. At the time I was making a film for an NGO (www.cmmb.org) involved in providing anti-retrovirals to expecting mothers who were HIV positive. Most of the children I encountered in the hospitals and clinics we visited were also HIV positive and many of them had already lost their entire families to the disease. Even today, five years later, it is difficult to recount the experience.
Last night my story was heavy with airplanes and animals and subjects I knew he was interested in hearing about. But I also told him a little about my experience on the ground. I told him about my first full day in Ghana, when I went out with my crew to a small village about an hour outside of Accra to interview people afflicted with elephantiasis. I didn’t go into detail about the disease but I did tell him about my reaction to seeing it all, about the fact that when I returned to the hotel that night I cried. I couldn’t join my colleagues for dinner because the experience of being thrust into the thick of such suffering, of stepping onto a plane in New York City and two days later finding myself in another world, a world I could never have imagined, was too much for me. He asked me if I had cried like a child. For a moment I didn’t know how to answer him. Then I told him that I had cried like an adult, that the things I had seen had made me very sad and that I needed to acknowledge that sadness. I also told him that the next day I went back to work and that I didn’t cry anymore. But that wasn’t true, because the next day I cried again, this time in the field, after a particularly difficult interview with a woman who had suffered her entire adult life from the disease and who, during a long interview conducted through an interpreter, told me more with her eyes than any words could ever have described.
I got about halfway through my story last night when his eyes began to get heavy and I promised to tell him the rest of the story the following night. We kissed each other goodnight and he rolled over and fell fast asleep. I sat there for some time just looking at him, at his face, his hair, his lips. Sleeping, he seemed the little boy I think I know so well. He is growing and changing so fast and the questions he asks and the manner in which he asks them are changing as well. And so our relationship is shifting yet again, becoming more challenging, challenging in a different way than it was just a few months ago.
We are about to enter summer, when we will spend a good deal of time together away from the distractions of school and work and life in the city, when HH will have more and different opportunities to question me about life. Another marker has passed and another is waiting just around the corner.