Posted by jdg | Friday, February 18, 2011

She turned six years old a couple weeks ago. The baby she was is all gone now, all gone from her cheeks and arms. She is so skinny. I find a pair of cotton pants I bought her in San Francisco five years ago and they re-enter her wardrobe as leggings. I can pick her up one-handed by her ankle and lift her till we're eye-to-eye. The marks on the closet door say she is getting taller, but it is a slow, spurtless growth. She is the smallest child in her class. Strangers have confused her for her brother's twin three times now.

She is concerned that some of her friends don't believe in the magical things she is still so certain are real. Her classmates spend schooldays thumbwrestling loose teeth; they appear the next morning without them. "Why does the tooth fairy want teeth?' she wonders, and I tell her that baby teeth are filled with imagination, and fairies need it to survive. "What about adult teeth? Do they have imagination?" Not as much, I say. I know the awkward days are coming, when her face will try to find space for the teeth that will chew her into old age, but for now she hasn't lost a single tooth. I suddenly recognize the trap I've set: but you won't lose your imagination when you lose your teeth. That happens other ways.

A boy in her class tells her girls don't have muscles. I tell her to show him her tongue.

I just saw her face in the sunlight, noticing freckles on her cheeks for the first time. This summer I know they'll arrive in earnest, and then she will look even more like her mother. For years we've been convinced she could not roll her tongue, that I'd cursed her with the flat-tongue gene while her mother rolled hers at both of us. But yesterday she came home from school all excited with a rolled tongue between her teeth. See, I said. Sometimes you just need to keep practicing to get something right.

She can turn any word into a whine. She takes forever to put on her shoes. Her teacher says this age is like a portal to adolescence: this is a glimpse of our future. Whenever we disagree, she says, "You don't know because you're not me." And she's right. Every day I see the strengthening influence of her peers, and yet also find more faith in what I've instilled in her. I am her father. The steady compass leg. And she believes in magic still.

* * * * *

He turns three today. The weather here is the same as the day he was born, with the full, grim glory of a winter warm spell: all the wet, lonely mittens lost along sidewalks and thawed dogshit sunk back to the ground.

I remember the day my wife went back to work and I was first left alone with him all day, a 3-month-old and a father with nothing but his meager wits and a freezer full of frozen milk. We got through those terrifying days somehow, or rather we survived each one in turn, and so on and so on until somehow years had passed. The baby is not gone yet from his cheeks, or his needs. He still needs hugs, and a hand to hold when we're walking. He needs to be close during scary parts in books even though he frequently tells me how powerful he is: he is, after all, a superhero. A superhero who sometimes needs his mama.

He is as honest as a founding father. He has no guile. A few days before his birthday a box came from the toy store where I order all their plastic horses and cowboys and Romans and such. I briefly left the box unattended and at some point in the afternoon one of his superhero toys fell inside, so (he tells me) he had to go looking for him. He couldn't help it. Wide-eyed, he tells me what he saw inside the box, and though he knows he should not have looked and I know I should be angry, I let it go.

My whiskers leave his neck red and irritated, but I can't help it: you should hear how he giggles when I nuzzle him. He grits his teeth and talks almost silently through a clenched jaw when he feels shy or nervous. He growls at strangers and authority figures. Though he has been a painless sleeper, the other night he woke up well before dawn and called out to us. My wife crawled into his bed and he told her about a nightmare. She stayed in there cuddling him, hoping soft fingertip caresses across his temple would lead him to gentler dreams. At some point he turned over, reached out to touch her nose with his fingertip, and whispered: "I want you to get out of my bed."