What the Very Young and the Very Old Do for Us in the Middle

We need the verys – the very young and the very old. They are the emphases, the parentheses that bookend life.

“I love you very very very very very very much,” I say until the words run together into nonsense, until he’s laughing so hard in my ear he finally makes noise. I’ve hit the magic number with the huge and silent and then resounding belly laugh.
Very, verys have carried us in ambulances and hospital rooms, where monitor beeps have marked my verys like a metronome. Verys have carried us through tears and pain, when stretching gets too hard and ankles shake. Verys have carried him away from me and back again on stretchers. Pre-op to post-op, my verys march down the hall, persistent and unshakeable where I cannot go.
He is my son, but he often goes where I cannot follow.
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“I love you very very very very very very much,” she used to say to me before I fell asleep at night, holding her hand in case she tried to escape. She always tried – when it was time for the Chevy to roll back to Oklahoma and trace the highways to the red dirt to the mobile home made permanent on the lake.
I would explain, eight-year-old me would explain that grandmas aren’t supposed to leave. They are fixtures, like lamps, illuminating the dark corners of childhood that parents cannot, or do not have time, to see.
Grandmas chase the shadows away. Grandmas always wear sneakers and make salmon patties and let you pick all the flowers in their garden. Grandmas don’t care if you dig through their sewing drawers and glue every spare button onto construction paper. Grandmas hold your hand gently, without fear or impatience when you cross the street.
“Vvvvvvvv. Can you say it with me, son?” We practice together, him with his five-year-old mouth, a thirty-years-younger version of my own. “Vvvvvvvvvery good, my boy,” I say when he puts lip to teeth. I say it into his cheek, his neck, his belly. I let the “very much I love you” sink into his body, humming like a chant all the way through. He does not repeat it back, but I feel its acceptance in the muscles that relax.
“I love you very very very very very very much,” I tell her when she cannot speak. When she stands next to a teenage version of me, and her husband is lowered into the square bit of earth dug just that morning. Next to it is her spot, on reserve. I see her eyes roam over it. She does not know what to do with her hands, so I put a flower in them, and together we toss them down back to their origins in the red dirt.
Fifteen years later, and I have no words as she takes the place my grandfather saved for her. I wonder, under the hot sun, where her shoes have gone, the sneakers she always wore with pantyhose. I have not seen her in years, the boy in the wheelchair at my side keeping me home, keeping me close, because he is an extension of me just as I was of her.
The lifeline trails at one end now, waiting for me to pick up the tail like a lost balloon. I cannot look anymore, cannot bear the crank of the machine at the end as she’s lowered into place. So we walk and roll down the tree-lined paths between other lifelines, other bylines than our own, and I lean down and whisper the words he knows to expect, “I love you very very very very very very much.”
He reaches up a hand, pats my cheek, like a little old man.
We need the verys – the very young and the very old. They are the emphases, the parentheses that bookend life. The “very” years are our cocooning out and back again. We parents are a middling group, the most unsure of the crowd. We run the show, but the ones below and above have the better perspective.
That is why they always hear the ice cream truck and do not hold too loose or too tight when crossing the street.