jen groeber: mama art

4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.

My Son Turns 12 (A One Year Late Birthday Post)

Boy cake

(My husband and I sat drinking wine late into the night last night watching videos of our kids as toddlers. Because… pandemic. And this video came on of my oldest child as a toddler, crouched in the bathroom, midway through toilet training, having a conversation about life.

My husband said, “My god, I totally forgot this video,” just as I said, “I watch this all the time, it’s my favorite.” And then I remembered that I wrote about it in a birthday blog last year that I never posted. It’s a message for the ages about loving our kids, which we should likely be doing now more than ever. So before he turns 13 this month, let me gift to you without further ado…)

My oldest son turns 12 today. And for some reason I keep picturing him at three. He was an awesome three-year-old. He would walk around like a little man, directing the traffic that was his baby siblings.

I wanted to find a video or a photo that would capture this, something I could show on Facebook. I wanted to subtly say, “This isn’t just any old boy turning 12. You need to see, this is a special boy turning 12.”

Because we all see our children like that, as singular, special. But I mean it. If you knew him like I knew him, you’d know.

So I sat curled up in a chair midway between baking a cake and dealing with seven loads of laundry. And oh, the videos. We didn’t make enough. We never do. We make even less now. But the ones I could find, the one where he sat naked on the toilet, he must’ve been barely 4. My husband sat across from him and held the camera perfectly framing the toilet, the tow-headed child, peach-colored walls around him. And interview style my husband asked my son questions.

“So, um, why are you hanging out here?”

And my son’s answers, as he sat, then crouched, then stood on the toilet, were these utterly earnest things, thoughtfully shared. So garbled I can’t believe we did not realize he probably couldn’t hear us. (Ear infections throughout his toddlerhood, overlooked because he has a very high threshold for pain and because he had three baby siblings taking up airspace.)

So he said something like, “I goo Coob-ee.”

And sitting today watching I immediately translated in my head just as my husband did in the video, “Oh you were sitting on the toilet because you want to go to … [the name of his pre-school.]”

Then he said, “Dad da tee-ja dah.”

“Because there are teachers there,” my husband translated in the video just as I did in my head.

“Dat go.”

“And there are goats,” my husband translated.

His garbled words, his sweet gestures, the pitch of his voice once so familiar, his earnest face. I just couldn’t stand it.

Now he memorizes a 70 line Pablo Neruda poem about death for declamation and is bitterly disappointed when he just misses being picked to go on to the next round. Pablo Neruda. He is 12.

And yet I drive my kids today and watch his face in the rearview mirror. What is he feeling? He’s a thinker. Strange things sometimes make him a little sad, transitions, not meeting expectations, things that are beautiful. In that way, he’s so much like me. Or at least, I think he thinks these things. I think he must be seeing the world like me.

He meets my eye in the rearview mirror and gives me a quick smile. He’s packed in-between his brother and one of his best friends. They are headed to lacrosse practice like they are headed to lacrosse practice almost every night these days. He’s wearing special brand new sneakers. He has been talking about getting these sneakers for at least six months.

My eyes dart away to the road and when I look back in the rearview mirror his face is serious again. I catch his eye and he smiles quickly. And I wonder, what is he thinking?

Earlier his sister told me that one of his friends said his new sneakers were ugly. If she hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known. Is that what he is thinking about? Or is it lacrosse. Or his friend. Or something about the day. Or is he thinking about absolutely nothing, content to play this smile game with me while his brain snoozes for a second.

And then it hits me all at once, like a punch to the chest, right there in my minivan. I can’t do it anymore.

I do not know what he’s thinking. I cannot translate for him. There are things going on in his mind that are sad and complicated or nostalgic or simply tired. But I’m not positive which one it is.

When did that change? When did it go from his thoughts being my thoughts so dependably that the translation came like nothing, like translating my own thoughts.

How many years ago did things change? Was it all of a sudden or gradual? Was it when he started to read? Or when he began sports? Or when his muscles pushed away any baby fat, his feet took on that teenage smell?

Tonight I go into his room and kiss him on his cheek slowly, pressing my lips on the still smooth, soft skin. He sits up still asleep, starts speaking in tongues, garbled words said urgently as his brain spools through his complicated day. I catch a word here or there, “Don’t… what to… I don’t…”

He lays back down snatching at blankets, smacks his lips with a sucking sound the exact sound he made when I would go into his bedroom to wake him as an infant. Like he is tasting the air, figuring out the temperature of the room, the atmosphere.

I sniff his hair as he returns to sleep and it still smells sweet, although like Irish Spring now, not Johnson & Johnsons.

This afternoon, right after school and a few minutes before practice, we had cake with his friend and my children all gathered around wearing their lacrosse gear. I’d put two candles on his cake, an 8 and a 4, because I didn’t have a 1 and a 2.

“Nice math, Mom,” he’d said.

Afterwards, I was sitting by the table, cutting slices and passing plates. My son cleared his dishes then came over to give me a hug where I sat.

“Thanks for the cake,” he said.

He was standing over me, his face just above mine.

“This is how it is going to be someday,” I said. “You’ll be taller than me and above me just like this.” I meant it to be playful but it came out as more of a heavy, longing thing.

He nodded his head with a serious expression and dropped his face down and around my body, enveloping me. Then he tucked his face into my neck. And he let me hold him.

My boy turned 12 today. I can’t read his mind anymore, I don’t speak his secret language of hurts and triumphs, longing and boredom. We are eight years away from that little tow-headed boy of four with his garbled words that rolled out of his mouth as if they came from me. And eight years from now he’ll be driving, living somewhere else, taking care of responsibilities.

So tonight I slide his new size 6 ½ sneakers in his shoe cubby, lay his sweaty lacrosse gear out to dry overnight, line up his backpack with everyone else’s.

He is another being altogether, this pre-man of mine with his quick smiles and serious expression, his friends and sneakers, smelly gear and Irish Spring.

My boy turned 12 today, but I still recognize the heart of him. And for today that is gift enough.

2 comments on “My Son Turns 12 (A One Year Late Birthday Post)

  1. lafriday
    May 2, 2020

    Thank goodness you didn’t let chronology prevent you from posting this beautiful reflection on your eldest (the tears are falling). Parenthood: a convoluted mixture of pride and longing; you unravel the mystery so well. Happy almost birthday to your TEENAGER! (Nice to read TWO posts from you this week!).

    • jgroeber
      May 4, 2020

      Thank you so much. Now will any of the gifts I’ve ordered for him come in time? Birthday in the time of pandemic. It’s a thing.
      (Pride and longing is right. xo)

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