I’m standing a little inside the doorway of my son’s room. It’s our first night in the new house, and I’ve just walked in to say goodnight to him.
The room is still unfamiliar enough to be a surprise; the final touches were barely done before this morning’s final installment of our multi-stage move. He has claimed it already, I’m happy to notice—comics are strewn on the floor along with the clothes that never do manage to find their way into the hamper, and his warm, slightly sour, almost-13-year-old-boy smell that I love has settled in along with the new paint smell and the scent of baking pavement that has always meant New York in the warm months to me.
I take in the spaciousness of the room—it’s big and open, high-ceilinged and front-facing, and the late June evening light from the street and sidewalk and sky glows grey beyond the two tall windows that are framed by the bright red curtains, hanging on either side like soft Greek columns, that I bought for him at IKEA. Red is his favorite color, so the rolling chair in front of the white draughtsman's table with a rolling chest tucked underneath is red, too.
I admire how the exposed brick walls turned out, how nice the white furniture looks against them. I smile at the floor-to-ceiling white-painted wood bookshelf I designed to hold the collection of books that had grown so overlarge for his smaller old room that they had overflowed and wound up as mounds, like dromedary’s humps, scattered along the floor. I spent all day yesterday unpacking his books and loading them in so that he would feel at home when he got here, taking care to put all the shiny black and color-splotched spines of the Marvel collections on one shelf, Rick Riordan and Suzanne Collins and their ilk on another, and to nestle the stalwart tchotchkes and art projects here and there.
Many other tasks in the house could have used my attention, but I wanted this room to feel complete and inviting; it’s been a hard move for him, even though it’s less than a mile from our old apartment—a new bus route, without the friends he’s been taking the bus with to and from school since first grade; new store owners who don’t know him yet, don’t smile and wave the way the guys at our corner bakery always did. It’s a lot to take in, I know, and he’s been pretty great about it—objecting, but not whining. I’ve furnished the room with an eye to making up for what he was losing. He’ll be happy to have this huge closet, with room for all his games and clothes, I thought, as I made drawings of the room for the contractor to follow.
He’ll be happy to have all this space. “You’ll need a new bed!” we said. His old bed was designed for a child; he’s been stretching out at an alarming rate—already taller than me half a year ago. When we took him to IKEA, we told him, “Whatever you want, within reason.”
“That one!” he said, and headed straight for it. He stood next to it, as proud as if he had designed and built it himself. “I want this bed in my new room.” It’s a loft bed, dark wood, with a long slat-ladder leading up. The height of a tree-house, practically. He would put a couch under it, he said, and it would be like he had his own apartment.
My husband and I assembled the whole thing last night, after I finished the bookshelves. We tucked a small futon under it, made up the upper-level mattress with white sheets and a bright red coverlet, and set a small reading light into the frame by where his head would be. The corner of the bed fit perfectly into the front left corner of the room; its length stretched along the windowed wall, so that he would be able to look down on the street, unseen, from a private viewing pavilion.
This morning, when we opened the door to his room with a “Tada!” he was as happy with it as we’d hoped he’d be.
“This is GREAT!” He scrambled up the ladder. “It’s huge up here! I can bring lots of books and read all night! Just kidding!”
We had no argument from him tonight when we said, “Time for bed.”
Now, as I look up at the bed, I can’t even see him, except for part of the back of his head, and the hand that’s half hanging over the side. The ceiling above him reflects a yellow glow light from the fixture we installed.
“Hi, love,” I say. My voice echoes weirdly in the new space. I walk further into the room.
“Hi, Mom,” I hear.
And then I realize with a start that I won’t be able to kiss him goodnight. The bed is too high. I can’t reach. I feel panic thrum in my chest. How could I have let him get this bed?
I am frozen like a rabbit who has just noticed a hawk has been circling. All the habits, the rituals, I’ve developed, we’ve developed, over the years—12 years!—can they be gone, just like that? Relegated to the realm of memory? Pfft?
In our old apartment, when he was little, we would snuggle as I read him his three bedtime books, the weight of his smallness leaning into me; then I would turn out the glowing light that we’d built into his headboard, and I’d sit next to him on the edge of the bed in the almost-dark and trace patterns on his back as I told him about the boat on the lake and the sweet warm wind rocking him to sleep. Even when he was old enough for me to just come in and say “Lights out!” and give him a kiss, he’d still ask, “Tell me about the boat?” and I’d stay, tracing patterns, until he fell asleep. I won’t be able to do that, now.
I won’t be able to sneak in and look at his sleeping face in the early morning, or in the middle of the night, a sure cure for my insomnia and nightmares.
I look at the hand resting on the dark frame above me, and, now that I see it independent of its owner, it’s not even a child’s hand anymore—the fingers taper; the dimples are gone. . . .
I find my voice, force a casual tone into it. “Hey, sweetie. I can’t kiss you goodnight from down here.”
“Oh, that’s OK, Mom. G’night.” He sounds fine with the new state of affairs. He makes a kiss sound: “Mwa!”
And just like that, I am redundant. And it’s my own fault. I have been duped into participating in a conspiracy that, bit by seemingly innocuous bit, altered the landscape irrevocably and rendered me obsolete.
I’m an only child with little extended family, so I had no frame of reference for babies as I was growing up. To my young-adult self, having a baby seemed like something only a dedicated masochist would consider: pour all your love into a person who will necessarily leave you. Your best friend would tell you to stay away, wouldn’t she?
But then I had my son, and experienced a conversion that I jokingly (or not) described as Stockholm Syndrome. My sweet baby had colic, and I became insomniac, depressed. I loved my innocent captor with a wild ferocity born of tenderness and despair. I realized that all other forms of love I’d experienced were pale foreshadowings of this one.
He was born with a full head of black hair, which fell out, and was replaced with white-blond ringlets. His eyes were huge and soft and light-filled, and his nose and mouth were . . . perfect. He looked just like a putti. He had a gleefully wide smile, and powerful lungs. I was besotted. I still am. Right now, at this moment, a breeze could knock me over, I love him so much. What could be more important than this being, than helping him grow strong and happy, showing him how to be a person on his own?
So this is how it happened: he was a baby, then a child, then was about to be 13, then he got a new bed and didn’t need a goodnight kiss, anymore. My job description changed, gradually and abruptly. And I stand here like Wile E. Coyote blinking in the Road Runner’s dust. When I look back, I can see that, over and over, I facilitated a more complete rout. I took my hands away from his waist so that he could feel how to balance on his own; I showed him how to use a fork and spoon and knife so that he could feed himself; I stopped arranging playdates so that he could learn to make his own plans; I saw how high the bed was, how far away from me it would put him, but I bought it for him anyway.
Which was, of course, the right thing to do. But still . . . .
“Hey, can I come up there?” I ask.
I climb the ladder, which leads me to the bottom part of the bed, where his feet are. The bed looks vast but cozy, piled high with the red comforter. He fills it easily, his toes almost touching the bottom of the frame. I think of the 1930s cartoon of Gulliver's Travels that we used to watch; he seems as big as Gulliver to me, suddenly. He’s reading a book, and from where I am the thickness of it and its red paperback cover makes me think that it must be Divergent or something like that—one of those books that are way too violent for me, but that he and his classmates all love. I think of the days when the smallest suggestion of a voice raised in anger on a TV show could send him running from the room—those same days when I would snuggle in next to him and all his stuffed animals to read him three books—or maybe even four—before we turned out the light.
“You OK up here?” I ask.
He picks his head up and looks down to where I am; he is grinning. “It’s great.”
I’m at a loss, so I grab the foot that’s closest to me and give it a little massage, which he always loves. “Yay!” he says.
I notice something brown and furry beneath his head.
“Is that Balou?” I ask. Balou was his favorite stuffed animal when he was little—a huge soft bear we got him for his fourth birthday that he named for the Jungle Book character. I had put all the bags of his stuffed animals in the closet when I was getting his room ready; he must have gone through them.
“Yeah. I found him and brought him up. He’s really comfortable for reading.” He leans his head back against the bear and focuses on his book again—“And, anyway,” he adds, “I just like having him here.” He settles in deeper.
I look at him with his stuffed animal and his inappropriate book. Maybe traces of earlier times will always adhere, binding him to his past selves. I hear people talking as they pass on the sidewalk below his window, cars going by. My bedroom when I was his age looked out over the street, too. I close my eyes; the sounds could be from that many years ago. I can still feel myself as that person, transport myself into her. I open my eyes; my son is there, and I am a mother.
Maybe nothing is lost. Or is that just me wishing against what I know is best, and inevitable?
I kiss the top of the foot I’m holding. “Good night, my love.”
“Goodnight, Mom. Love you.”
I walk back down the ladder and out of his room.Kate Neuman received her MFA from Hunter College, where she now teaches creative writing. A lifelong New Yorker, Kate is also an actor and has appeared On-, Off-, and Off-Off-Broadway, as well as in a couple of TV shows. She is currently working on a memoir about losing her own actor-mother to Alzheimer’s and the intersection of performance, memory, love, and identity. Kate lives in Harlem with her husband and son.
A fleck of light stung my eye, begged for attention as I walked past the mirror attached to the second-hand dresser in my bedroom. Sunlight had reached through the window and ignited the brilliance of the stone hanging from my ring finger. I paused the search for my earrings, focusing instead on my left hand's reflection. As I watched the mirror-hand move, I admired the weighty diamond bound to platinum alongside its matching wedding band.
I’d lost track of time as I puttered around my rental, sorting piles of little boy laundry, changing the sheet on the queen mattress they shared. There were still...