The morning of the kindergarten open house, my son starts throwing up. He stumbles out of his room, sheet-white, and collapses on the couch.
“Go away,” he mumbles as his little brother runs to him with action figures in each hand. He vomits constantly, shoulders hunched, lips cracked and bleeding, until only bile comes up.
By noon, he has huddled into the corner of the couch and fallen asleep, body curled around the mixing bowl. He stopped napping years ago, and now I’m struck by his vulnerability. He’s so tall and talkative lately, sprinkling words like “astounding” and “adorable” into conversations and counting to 187 during hide-and-seek, just because he can. I expect him to pour his own cereal, put away his own laundry. His baby sister and little brother’s needs are urgent, demanding immediate attention. Usually, I lose my patience when he wants to be coddled, too—I only have so much to give. I’ve been eagerly awaiting the start of kindergarten, when I will have one less body to feed and entertain for a few hours each day.
I’ve experienced the most stress with him, my first baby. From his fraught birth, his struggle to breastfeed, and my worries about his development, I was always perplexed and worried, doubting my ability to meet his needs. As a toddler he was highly sensitive, brought quickly to tantrums and more quickly still to ecstatic leaps around the room, hands flapping in glee. He doesn’t cry with overwhelm in a crowded room anymore, but his capacity for joy and rage is intense and often exhausting for me.
Sometimes I wonder if the depression and uncertainty I felt when he was a baby has affected him emotionally, if the burden of being first is unfair when he’s always needed extra encouragement to bloom. Seeing him nestled in blankets, fragile in his misery, worry twists in my gut. Have I been too eager to send him out the door?
My husband leaves work early to stay home with the kids so I can go to the open house. I feel light and unencumbered, carrying my purse instead of a diaper bag, listening to podcasts on the drive to the elementary school instead of Moana.
I thought I was ready for kindergarten to start. As an introvert, I long for spaces of uninterrupted solitude in my day. I love my kids, but I think I’ll have the chance to like them more if I miss them a little bit. I would be lying if I said a few hours with one less need dragging at me doesn’t sound easier. I don’t anticipate crying on the first day of school.
I walk into the classroom alone. I’m confronted by chaos: voices of kids investigating the centers, parents hurling questions at the bewildered young teacher. Stacks of paperwork sprawl across the low tables, forms printed on brightly hued paper.
It hits me. My little boy with his long legs and ocean eyes and freckles dusted across his face will be here every day. Here in this classroom, with these children he’s never met, with this teacher who doesn’t know him.
Suddenly, I remember him as a baby, memories that have slipped behind those of his younger siblings. I remember his hair was golden bright, curling around his face like a halo. I remember when it was just us, sitting on a blanket under a palm tree, blowing bubbles. Watching his hand stretch out for a toy with intention for the first time. Pushing him in the bucket swing three times a day, just to get out of our apartment. Seeing his face light up when we watched airplanes take off at the Santa Monica airport. Cataloguing every new gesture and word, treasuring up the wonder of a person becoming himself for the first time.
It’s hard to reconcile these images with the gangly boy with dirty fingernails who loves catching bugs and tells me to go away when I ask him too many questions. Today, seeing his sweet face sleeping, lashes resting against his cheek, that baby feels closer than usual, and my heart seizes at the thought of leaving him in this classroom.
I want to show him to his teacher.
My heart stops at the thought of entrusting a stranger with most of my son’s daylight hours. I want to tell her his heart rate dropped in labor and I thought I lost him. They shot epinephrine in my IV and it burned through my veins to his heart and I heard it on the monitor, and that was when I knew my life would never be the same. I pushed for four hours only to have my body cut open, and I was muddled and confused and shaking but he stopped crying when I sang his first lullaby. I want to paint those confused, early days, clinging to him, both of us crying, unsure how to inhabit our new lives. Those days in the hospital watching oxygen flow into him after three days of holding him upright, afraid he would stop breathing if I put him down. All the hours driving to speech and occupational therapy, reading books about trains and bugs and dinosaurs. The innumerable times I’ve cleaned vomit from clothes or car seat or floor. The agony of leaving him behind to work, missing him while the babysitter sent pictures to my phone. The beauty of love blooming in his face in the first moments when he met his siblings. The spark of light in his eyes when he discovers something new. The scope of his creativity, making up stories and building rainbow worlds from LEGO bricks.
This is my baby, I want to tell his teacher. He is infuriating and brilliant and beautiful. My whole soul is poured into him, and on Monday I will walk him to your classroom. I will stand in the doorway, my other two children clamoring for my attention, and I’ll probably block people from coming in. My two-year-old will wipe the sad off my cheeks and the baby will suck on my face, hoping to nurse. The hours will rush past, and I’ll have my bright-haired boy home again, full of new stories and experiences, but I’ll only have them secondhand, no longer the primary witness.
I leave the school with my stack of bus schedules and cafeteria menus and a mental picture of the room where my son will spend most of his waking hours. I come in through the garage door and see my little boy lying whitefaced on the couch, sipping blue Gatorade from a straw. I sit next to him, and he wriggles into me, curly head in my lap, fingers finding mine. These snuggly moments are more and more rare these days, his body no longer soft with baby fat but angular and lean.
“Do you want to hear about your class, Cal?” I ask him. He nods, taking another sip of the Gatorade through blue-stained lips.
I tell him about the tables and the nametags, the pictures and signs on the walls. As I describe the hallways and the playground, his eyelashes flutter. He’s exhausted by his day of throwing up, and I feel his head getting heavier against my shoulder. I tap his shoulder gently. “Buddy, let’s get you to bed,” I say.
Since becoming a mother, I’ve been stopped countless times in grocery stores and tourist attractions and church hallways. “It goes fast,” they tell me. Not fast enough, I sometimes answer in my head, exhausted and drained from the little grasping hands asking for more, more, more of me. I wanted to sleep through the night. I wanted time to myself. I wanted to complete a task without interruption. I still do.
For the first few months of his life, he napped, swaddled, in my arms. Nearly every waking moment, his skin was against mine, our breathing in rhythm with the rocking of the recliner. Next week, most of his time will be spent a few miles down the road, lining up with children whose faces I don’t know, listening to stories I’ve never read. The geography of his days will be foreign, translated only by monosyllabic answers to my questions about school. I picture my little boy, dwarfed by his Spiderman backpack, and suddenly, it seems to have gone awfully fast.
Guest post written by Lorren Lemmons. Lorren is a mother of three, a military spouse, a pediatric nurse, and a lover of words. She lives in Georgia with her family. Her work has previously been featured on Coffee + Crumbs and other websites, including Military Moms Blog, where she is a regular contributor. You can connect with Lorren on her website or Instagram.