Who doesn’t, right? It means bedtime is looming large, and with it the promise of peace and quiet in each sweep of flannel slipping over still-wet heads, each flamboyant stripe blazing across tummies and around scrawny arms. It means we’re finally winding down around here, that the curtains are closing on our little world, and three kids are climbing onto the couch, waiting for story time.
First, Nate or Calvin reads to Toby. This ritual began on some harried night or another, when I begged reprieve, hoping to fold one last load of laundry or send one final email before reading to the older boys. Now, I cherish it and so do they; each night it’s an argument waiting to happen as they struggle to decide who will get to read Adventure on Klickatat Island while Toby’s blond head bends low, studying the pictures of bears and baby cranes.
When I join them, their hair smells like the pink watermelon shampoo they picked out at the grocery store, and their breath smells like Diego toothpaste, and it nearly stops my heart. Because really, how long will this be so?
Already, Nate’s legs reach nearly as far as mine as he stretches them out, feet propped side-by-side on the coffee table. Yesterday, I reached hastily for a pair of shoes to slip on to feed the dog, grabbed his by mistake, and had been shocked to find they nearly fit.
Calvin wiggles for space next to Nate, and even his knees, drawn toward his chest, are knobby and sharp; there’s a grass stain on one. How could that be, after a day in jeans followed by a bath? Toby cracks a joke about bananas, delivering the punch line in perfect pitch, and they all laugh.
Nate especially is growing up. In the car on the way to Calvin’s karate class this week, he confides to me that he hears kids in his class say the F-word every recess. This shouldn’t surprise me, I’m sure, but it does. He’s my oldest, remember--his every new milestone is either a thrilling boost to my motherhood-ego or a bucket of ice water in my face, and sometimes both at once. I play it cool, though, in the car.
“Really?” I ask casually.
“Yeah,” he says solemnly, “but they usually use the long version.”
The long version? Suddenly, my mind is playing swear-word scrabble while I navigate five pm traffic. I’m elongating, shortening, discarding prefixes. Are we actually talking a phrase here? A string of nouns? Verbs? “Maybe you can tell me what word you mean later on,” I suggest, but he refuses, shaking his head emphatically at even the thought of uttering something so profane out-loud. My heart swells. I have such good boys.
Later, as Calvin is throwing punches at padded targets and Toby is running up and down the stairs of the karate studio, I discreetly ask Nate to write down the long version of the F-word for me. I want to know what I’m up against. After much deliberation, he concurs. I watch him bend over his task, one long arm curved in a show of secrecy around his paper as he prints carefully with a borrowed pen. He folds the paper in half, and then in quarters. I gesture for it impatiently, take it, and, bracing myself, open it.
I exhale, swift and deep and somewhere on its wake is the sound of my apprehension crumpling, fear falling in on itself at least for that day. He watches me smile, and to my amazement, he blushes. “Did I spell it wrong?” he asks me, and my chest suddenly aches in that way it can when something unspeakably good is right there, laid before you, but will be gone in an instant, like a wild animal posed at the sound of your approach or the electric charge to the air just before a hard rain.
“I’m glad you don’t say that word,” I tell him, and ball the paper in my fist. I let him toss it into the trash can.
We read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire after Toby gets tucked in, and they stop me to ask what tangible means. I pause, looking over at them in their glow-in-the-dark spaceship ‘jayz’ (our personal derivative of pajamas), with their Star Wars pillows tucked against their chins, and I want to tell them it‘s the exact opposite of what they are, here but for the blink of an eye, like holograms fluctuating erratically between the ghost of their past selves and the hint of their futures.
But I don’t, because for today, they’re still small, these boys. They still curl into themselves as they seek sleep, thinking of Harry and Halloween candy, and when I come to check on them in the late evening, their knuckles are still dimpled where they loosely grip the edges of their blankets.
And once again, I breathe a sigh of relief.