Today at work, a mom told a story about how her ten-year-old daughter deleted a video from her phone that the mom had surreptitiously taken of said daughter dancing. A colleague remarked, “Well I guess she had the right to decide what video she wants of herself.”
And my answer to that is no, no she does not. Because she doesn’t understand what she is doing any more than she – at the age of ten – could understand why getting a tattoo at that age is truly a horrific idea.
A ten-year-old girl cannot understand that in the space of a few short months she will cease to exist. She cannot understand that the girl that lived and danced on that video will be gone in a few brief turns of the earth. She cannot understand the imperative, the non-negotiable need, to capture the image of that girl, because in one season’s change that girl will vanish forever.
As a child, I remember times when my parents or grandparents made wistful comments about the pretty, engaging little girl I had been. And in my inability to understand the real message behind those remarks I concluded that they were disappointed in how I had grown. Because it seemed that I was not as good, or charming, or sweet, or adorable as I had been at some mysterious younger age. After all, I was still there, wasn’t I? How could they miss the same girl that was sitting right there? So clearly the older me was something less than I had been.
Only now do I understand. Only now as I look at my fourteen-year-old son and realize that my fourteen-year-old son isn’t the same creature that my four-month-old, four-year-old or thirteen-and-a-half year old son was, does the truth behind their remarks make itself known to me. Those children are gone – vanished. And I miss them so, so much. It is not a question of being disappointed in the person my son is now – he amazes me daily and my pride is a physical thing. But he is not those little boys. He is something entirely different. And his incredible presence in my life now does not preclude my missing the boy-who-was-but-is-no-more.
It is in the difficulty of bringing to my mind his smallness, his tender skin and the peach-flesh feel of his hands in mine that I can appreciate the bittersweet sound of the voices of the adults in my life as they recalled the Lori-that-used-to-be. It is in the amnesia I experience when I try to remember the feel of the weight of his body in my arms, and the feeling of his toddler-self melting against my chest as I woke him from naps that I realize that I have joined the elders of my tribe as they grieve the loss of their small children even as they welcome the young adults they have become.
I have only one child of my body. My stepchildren are parts of my heart, there is no denying. They have given me the gift of a variety of mothering that can only be known by people who have parented more than one child’s spirit. But they were not part of my life until they were 10 and 12. I did not have the small-child experience with them. And so those memories – those physical sensations of children small enough to wrap your arms around in protectiveness, of weight limp against your shoulder, those images of light bending, melting around a cheek of infinite softness – those were not mine to have with my beautiful step-children. Those moments were mine only once, and now…they are gone.
I look at the photos and videos and I wish I had more. A million times more. But I was busy – parenting, feeding, teaching, modeling, playing, laughing, building. And when my son was eight, I started over, ever watchful that the bitter, angry taste of I-did-this-once-already never flavored the world he lived in. There was only so much time – I could drag out the camera, or I could read him the book. I could film the Lego construction site, or I could help with the building.
And I did not understand, even then, how brief his time on this earth would be – the baby, the toddler, the child no taller than my hip, the little boy who still asked for cuddles. Maybe if I had understood I would have sacrificed just a little of the doing in favor of capturing his existence more thoroughly. So that now, as I realize that eye-to-eye means that I tilt my head up, as his voice descends into more manly registers and his interests evolve into wonderful constructs that do not include me, that the little boy will be just a little bit closer, and a little bit easier to see.
He has no idea. He cannot yet. He scowls when I break out the camera and tries to avoid it when I’m taking pictures. But I am much more determined, now that I understand what time will do. For as much as I miss the little boy when I look at the teenager, I know I will ache, in all my body, for the teenager, once he becomes a man.