When I turned five, my mother reportedly invited all the kids in my kindergarten class to a party at our house. Nobody showed. Not one child. What I remember is our neighbor, a first grader – “my sister’s friend” – coming over to watch me open gifts. I remember going to see “The Muppet Movie” and that, upon emerging from the dark theater that early October afternoon, snow had begun to grey the black asphalt.
Thirty-five years later, I don’t know how much of this I’ve chiseled and shaped in my museum of memories, and how much I actually remember as it happened.
My son recently turned six – a late July baby, who entered a world made from sunshine and warmth. We bobbed through postpartum days on (mostly) smooth, summer waters, the years passing through waves of awe and angst, worry and wonder, rapids and ripples.
Six years later, his birthday floats in the murky waters of transition. The weeks preceding his birthday have gotten lost in preparations for an international move. The weeks after, he’ll have started in a new school, which for the first time will be different from his younger brother’s. I’ll start a new job, and we’ll all be fumbling until we settle into a new routine.
He’s all legs and arms, curious, active, and sometimes lazy. At times, all I see is the innocent toddler in his grin. Other times, all I see is a sarcastic teen in his side-eye glance. He’s doing chores, getting his own drinks, but still sleeping with his blankie. He’s desperate to lose a tooth.
For months now, he’s been telling me one tooth or another is feeling “wobbly,” but when I go to check, they are firmly cemented in his baby gums. “Maybe just a little.” I try not to sound relieved. “It will probably take a long time for it to fall out, though.”
The constant tension of him wanting to grow up and me wanting just a little more time cements us as mother and child. His bottom middle tooth is now legitimately wobbly. What is more symbolic of the metamorphosis of a child than shedding baby teeth to make way for adult teeth?
My son’s birthday quietly passed. Pulled from his cocoon of friends – real friendships, forged and nurtured on his own at school, not carefully coordinated by me – we didn’t have the pool party he’d been talking about for months.
Instead, we spent the day playing mini golf with cousins and grandparents he will finally get to see regularly. We indulged in two kinds of cake (a motherly attempt to provide something extra special), blew out the candles on both, and wished our silent dreams.
He didn’t pick out themed party supplies, shop for deliciously junky junk to fill goody bags, or get to hear his buddies croon “Happy Birthday.” Yet the sun still rose, the earth still turned its 365th rotation, and ready or not, he is six.
My dad used to joke, “You don’t look any different” on the morning of a birthday, as if the occasion were a haircut. Maybe there should be something physical, tangible, to denote that one day you were five and the next you became six. But traits like character, temperament, and strength aren’t developed overnight. These changes come into focus as you step back and look through the macro-lens of years passed. Like a painter, you have an idea what your child might become, but it’s easy to get lost in the brushstrokes.
I watch my son float gracefully through the acceptance that this year, he won’t have a big party with his friends, the tooth fairy won’t come on his actual birthday, and the faces of old friends will fade into new ones.
I see how much he’s changed, and I’m thankful there isn’t one marker or day to distinguish him as six instead of five. If a year of changes happened all at once, we’d crush under the weight of it. Losing your teeth one by one is divine poetry.
I don’t know how my son will remember this birthday. Maybe he’ll remember it as the year he had his first wobbly tooth, a hot and humid summer, and a big move.
I look back on that snowy October 8th marking my fifth year, and I see a girl, not sad for the friends who never showed, but happy that those who loved her most made it a special day. And I worry: Have I made my son feel special? Have I conveyed just how much his place in this world is significant and meaningful? Have I helped him to understand just how remarkable he is?
But these, too, can’t be answered overnight or on one single birthday. Metamorphosis is a process.
Today, his tooth came out. (Rather, his tooth was swallowed unceremoniously with his dinner.) When he learned it had been lost, he was equally pleased and upset – a quick smile followed by teary eyes.
“Why are you upset?” He didn’t have the words. Maybe it was an intuitive sense of big changes ahead. Maybe it was the loss of a physical marker of his growth. More likely, it was fear regarding tooth fairy procedures.
I didn’t really need an answer. Instead, I hugged him tightly, cocooning him just a little bit longer.