He leans against a tree, clutching his binder full of Pokemon cards. He’s waiting for his friend to come home from school. He casts a long shadow in the fading light. Tall for his age at 6 ½, he’s grown an inch in 3 months, with the pencil marks on the doorframe to prove it. His hair is sticking up funny in the back, thanks to a too-short haircut he hates. He waits.
The school bus pulls up and discharges its passengers with a hiss. A gaggle of colorfully clad kids heads for home, bulging backpacks in tow. My son’s friend darts past with a wave, eager to get home for a snack and a rest.
We trail after him, the younger siblings and moms, talking about the chill in the air and the early darkness. A few weeks ago we would have stayed outside for hours, feeling the sun on our backs as the kids tore around with scooters and soccer balls. Now, everyone scatters to their separate houses.
My son is hopeful that his friend will come back outside to play after a quick snack. He waits on his doorstep patiently. The little kids run through the leaves, tumbling and shrieking. The sun slants ever lower in the sky. I push my sunglasses on top of my head and shove my hands deeper into my pockets.
The neighbor boy’s mom comes out and says he’s tired. He won’t be coming out today. Would we like to come in? No, not today, thanks. There’s dinner to make and homework to do. Another day. My son starts to bawl. Big, fat tears of disappointment roll down his cheeks. Ragged sobs erupt. “But-but I wanted him to come out and play!” he wails. He’s still young enough that he wears his heart on his sleeve. He hasn’t learned yet to tamp down his emotions and shrug off disappointments.
I know, sweetie. But he’s tired. It’s getting late. It’s already dark out. It’s cold. I need to start dinner. Your brother will play with you. He continues to sob. No manipulation, no melodrama. Just real, raw grief.
The most apt quote about parenthood I know is the Elizabeth Stone one that says having a child “is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside of your body.” It’s hard enough to watch any child suffer. With your own it’s excruciating. You want to protect them from everything – the bad haircuts, the skinned knees, being chosen last, feeling left out. But you can’t. And you shouldn’t.
The things that hurt when you’re 6 still hurt when you’re 36. But there’s no avoiding it. No shortcuts through the painful life lessons we all must learn. I had the momentary urge to try to fix things — invite his friend over, go inside for a few minutes — but I didn’t. I’m sorry, sweetie. I know you’re disappointed.
Within a half hour, he had rallied and was laughing and clowning around with his little brother. I would not recover as quickly. As I chopped and stirred over the stove, I marveled at his resilience, his naturally sunny nature. There was no lingering hurt, no grudge, no wallowing. Once again, like so many times since I had children, I wondered who exactly was teaching whom.