Every afternoon, it is the same cycle of emotions. I stand at the bus stop, eagerly awaiting the return of my kindergartener and his bright smile. I am antsy with anticipation and picture our reunion – the two of us holding hands back to the house, and sharing stories about our day over cookies and milk. Sometimes, this does happen. But most days, I watch passively as my son steps off the bus and toward me, slightly unrecognizable than the Aidan I know. He appears to be my son, yet there is something unfamiliar about the boy that stands in front of me, as if aliens kidnapped him for the day and returned him to the same spot mostly unbothered. He is dressed in the same clothes he put on in the morning, but they are slightly disheveled, like a businessman who has already rolled up his sleeves and undone his tie. Crumbs around his mouth serve as evidence of some classmate’s birthday celebration. His jacket is strung around his torso, as if he was rushing to pack up for the day, unlike the meticulous way my husband and I make sure he is dressed in the morning. A shoe is untied. He smells of school supplies and cafeteria cleaning products. There is a patch of crusty glue in his hair. His fingers are dirty with marker residue. He looks mildly happy to see me, but not overly enthusiastic about it, and I lead him into the house, picking up the strewn shoes, backpack, and crumpled note from his friend as I order Aidan to wash his hands. I sit at the kitchen table as he devours a snack, drilling him with what seems like a thousand questions about his day. “I don’t remember,” Aidan mutters in between mouthfuls of pretzels.
He lets me look through his wrinkled pile of worksheets and journal entries before running off into his playroom. “I gotta go, bye!” he echoes down the hallway. Aidan’s obsession is drawing, and I can tell that he has had “withdrawal” all day, so I let him sketch and draw at his desk while I tidy up his backpack litterings and unload the dirty Tupperware from his lunchbag. I go in a few times to admire his latest sketches of pirates or Disney characters and steal a kiss, but I try to respect his need for this personal downtime before it’s time to start the homework-cooking-dinner-bath-bed marathon of each evening. While I load the dishwasher and wipe the countertops clean after dinner, I happily let my son and husband play and talk together. They’ve missed each other as much as I’ve missed them, and I dare not intrude on the small snippet of time they have together during the week. Trudging up the stairs later at night when it’s time for my own bedtime, I linger in Aidan’s room for my last check-in. His books and flashlight have been tossed at the foot of the bed, and he finally has fallen asleep. Here is the place where I finally feel unrushed to spend time with my little boy, even if he may not know it. I kiss his warm cheeks and brush his hair and kiss him some more. Up close, he still looks like my newborn baby – all soft puffy cheek and milky-colored thin skin. But as I step away, I realize how big he’s gotten. His limbs sprawl all over the twin-sized bed, covering the majority of the mattress. I stand over him like a shadow and the awareness of his metamorphosis into being a middle-aged child hits me hard. We are on the cusp, teetering delicately between the innocence and simplicity of youth and something larger, bigger, and much more complicated. I enjoy having an older child, but there is something about elementary school – the institution and routine of it, that has hardened the innocent edges of my little boy. There is something a little more jaded in him, a little more street-wise. Things are just different. It’s both kind of cool and terrifying. I feel like we are inching up to the peak of a roller coaster precipice, unable to get off. I kiss Aidan one more time and head to bed.
Yesterday, during our regular walk back from the bus stop, Aidan’s weariness quickly fades into tears. His huge brown eyes well with water and his tiny face crumbles into an infant-like cry. Thankfully, he shares the reason with me. A boy on his bus, angry that Aidan would not share a toy, told Aidan that when he grows up, he will use a gun on him and that his policeman Daddy has a gun and he’s going to arrest Aidan and shoot him. Mature and babylike at the same time, Aidan cries out, “and I just can’t get that image out of my head. I’m scared!” he wails. Trying my best to control my own primal emotions, I comfort Aidan and try to ease his imagination. For awhile, my baby has returned to me. He sits on my lap and nibbles Goldfish as he sniffles up his tears. Feeling better, he gets through the rest of the day, but is haunted by his busmate’s threat at bedtime. I absolutely hate that my small son had to experience such a terrible image. I feel nauseous thinking that my baby now has knowledge of such a violent and scary scene, however irrational it may be. I crawl into bed with him and help him fall asleep. I must admit that there is a tiny piece of me that is grateful for feeling so needed, and for having my little boy restored. Having an empty nest during school hours, my role as a mother has been redefined, and often feels blurry – a constant cycle of feeling certain about what I’m supposed to be doing and wondering if there’s something else I should be doing. But at this moment, it is more clear than ever. No matter how old my child is getting, I’m simply just supposed to be there. There. Not teaching, disciplining, monitoring. Just being there. Continuing to be the soft spot for him to fall, the steady reassurance in an increasing world of ambiguity.
At night, my husband and I discuss what to do about the situation. My impulse is to tell the principal or at least the bus driver; his impulse is to remind me that these things are going to happen, and that we have to simply let them happen. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but I know it’s true. There are going to be fights, threats, disagreements, embarrassments, failures, and lots more scary things. And part of our job now is to help Aidan figure out how to deal with them, and perhaps not come to his rescue as we would have when he was younger. I hesitantly agree to keep quiet about the incident but inform someone if it happens again. But mostly, I try to calm my queasiness over my child having to be so upset about something. It feels like a raw, bloody wound atop his youthfulness.
This morning, Aidan happily gets ready for school. I am nervous if he may be a bit hesitant to ride the bus or interface with this other boy, but luckily he dons his Star Wars backpack and asks for help with his shoes, as always. “Ugh, you’ve got to start doing this yourself!” we mutter to him about his laziness about putting his own shoes on. Secretly, it feels selfishly good. I cusp his little socked feet and lead them into his Buzz Lightyear light-up sneakers. I wish I could cover his entire body, heart, and soul with a maternal shield as I send him out into the world everyday. But I can’t. Lacing up his sneakers, holding his hand to cross the street, and keeping hope in my heart for his safety and happiness is all I can do. It has to be enough for both of us. We trail to the bus stop.
“I wonder if Captain Hook got my letter!” Aidan wonders excitedly aloud the way he has every day lately. One week ago, we took him to Disney World for the first time. As mature he has gotten lately, it was refreshingly joyous to see him sitting atop his Daddy’s shoulders waving to each and every character dancing down the parade routes and eagerly announcing who was coming next. There is still innocence, I remember thinking about my big boy. There is still hope for it to last awhile longer. I wave to Aidan and watch the yellow bus travel down the road. I walk back to the house. The feeling of being apart from your child never seems to get any easier. No matter how many times I will wave good-bye to him as he leaves me each morning and as I head back up the driveway, alone with my thoughts, it will always feel like a tender, thumping piece of heart has still been ripped away from me. I go inside and take out some red construction paper and a black pen, trying my best to disguise my handwriting for Captain Hook’s. I tear the edges of the paper, roll the letter and tie it with twine, and put it in the mailbox to await my son’s return. I hope that today was a better day for Aidan. I hope that no one scares him, hurts him, or chips away at his happiness. I hope that he will innocently skip to the mailbox when he gets home and beam that Captain Hook has indeed written back to him, and save the letter forever. I hope.