The other day, while I was putting lotion on in the bathroom, my son stood on his tiptoes in front of the full-length mirror just outside the door and considered himself.
“I’m tall!” he shouted.
He let his heels drop, walked over to me, and asked, “Is time going to pass and I’m just going to get older and older?”
That was when my heels also dropped to the floor, so to speak.
“Um,” I said.
It only took a moment for me to get where this was coming from. He’d been recently asking for two books to be read to him over and over. The first, "The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore", is a lovely meditation on the immortality of the written word and the way storytelling shapes our lives. The second, "The Giving Tree", about a boy who loves a tree but treats it like garbage so he can achieve his standard-issue dreams, is a book I respect for its poetry but despise for what I consider its totally absent heart. In both, the boy telling the story grows and ages and, ultimately, dies or gets as close to death as one can in a children’s book. I didn’t realize how much he’d been thinking about that stuff. I didn’t realize he knew it could happen to him – the frightening effects of time – but of course I should have. So how, I wondered before the bathroom mirror, would I tell my son the truth without scaring him?
Time will pass. He will get older and older. So will I and so will his dad and so will everyone he knows and loves, and someday, if he is lucky, his face will not look like the face of the baby I gave birth to three-and-a-half years ago, but of a man on whom life has taken all of its magnificent and terrible tolls.
“Well, yeah,” I said, squatting down to meet him eye to eye. “But it takes a long time.”
“I don’t want to get old,” he said. He looked scared.
“You will,” I told him, trying to sound not scared. “But that’s a good thing! Someday, you’ll get to grow a beard, like Daddy.”
I don’t know why this seemed to me then to be a real enticing reason to become a grown-up. I could’ve come up with a million better ones, like that you can have ice cream for breakfast or drive a car or stay up all night, but he’d asked before about the beard on the man in "The Giving Tree". It just came out!
He shook his head with certainty.
“I don’t want a beard.”
“Because Daddy’s beard scratches your face?” He nodded soberly. “Yeah, I hear that. You don’t have to have one.”
“I want to grow up to be a pig,” he said.
He’d already told my mom this pig thing – that rather than growing up to be a man, a pig would be better. So I wasn’t shocked to hear it. It seemed ill-advised at that moment for me to let him know that some boys grow up to both. Instead I said that was great, and we moved on.
For the next day or so, I thought about what more I could have said, about how I could have better put his mind at ease about the inevitability of time. I remembered reading the trippy, haunting "The Lonely Doll" as a very young girl and considering, for the first time, the whole notion of loneliness. Flipping through that book – I don’t think I could read yet – I started worrying about what happens after you die and that breathless whirling terror would seize my stomach and I’d have to distract myself, fast, before the panic immobilized me. I remember this so well! It was so scary. It still is.
And yet, I’m OK. There might not be a special trick to talking to your kid about time and aging, probably because both are unavoidable. But I learned how to extract myself from wading around in the unknown. Hopefully, my son will too. And if he doesn’t, I’ll be there.
Right after I tuck those books into the back of a closet. And tell my husband to shave his beard.