By Kristen Berry
Web Exclusive, November 6, 2006
It was a cold but sunny day, with Thanksgiving right around the corner. My family was busier than usual, because we were in the process of filling out paperwork for adopting a baby girl from China. We were all excited, and had already picked out her name—it would be Chloe. Joe, our eleven-year-old son, was more excited than we ever thought he would be, referring to "Chloe" on a daily basis as if she were already here.
Today was going to be my day to clean the house and play "catch up," since golden retriever hair seemed to be everywhere, and I couldn't stand the mess of it for one more minute. But before I could get started, I accepted Joe's invitation to finish our Monopoly game. It was one of those five-day games that just wouldn't end. I had even sold my yellow properties to him for a mere five hundred dollars to speed things along. But still it continued on, and on—and since we were playing it on the floor, I felt like we were inhaling dog hair between every turn. After another hour or so, and much to my relief, Joe finally won the game. When his friend Brett called and wanted to come over for the day, I was sure I saw the light at the end of the tunnel: my boy would be happily occupied and I could get on with my cleaning chores.
I asked Joe to clean his closet before Brett came over. My request was received with respectful irritation, at best. I soon found myself sitting on Joe's closet floor with him, as we have done many times before. As the mother of one eleven-year-old, it had become a habit to do just about everything with him. The small quiet voice in my head still told me never to let him feel like an only child. It made me smile inside to think that all this would be changing. Joe would have his own baby sister, to share in making messes and cleaning up his closet. But still, I stayed in there with him, in part because I wanted it clean, but also because of my old habit of being at the ready, to compensate for the void that only a sibling could fill.
I could tell that Joe was annoyed when I asked him to get a small plastic bag to fill with a particular group of Legos. He got the bag, and as we sat in the mess in his closet he said, "I remember when you got me this Lego."
"When did I get you those Legos?" I inquired.
"A while ago," he replied glumly. Then, as if to make himself feel even worse, he added, "I didn't like them much." We both knew better, but it tripped a wire for me—I just couldn't handle this comment with my usual understanding. I had the whole house to clean, but I was sitting here helping my son clean his closet—and he was purposefully saying hurtful things. My patience had run out. Joe's eyes were already welling up with tears as I got up to leave the closet. When he came after me, all I could think of to say was, "I don't understand why you'd say something so spiteful. And since you said it, should I give your Legos to another little boy who would like them?" (A pretty typical parental retort, I thought to myself.) "Furthermore, how would you feel if I told you I didn't like something that you gave me?"
With a cautious determination to keep our fight going, he said, "I wouldn't care." I began to leave his room, deciding I would not utter one more word. I would stop there before I said something even dumber than I already had. But my anger got the best of me and I somehow found myself saying just one more thing. "So, you wouldn't care, huh? Well, then I guess you don't have a heart."
As I went downstairs he slammed his door behind me, and said something I couldn't quite make out. I flopped down on the couch, feeling horrible about our exchange. I also wondered when he learned how to slam that door. My husband and I had spent eleven years avoiding doing things like that, in order to set a good example. And yet, sad as I was about our fight, I wasn't angry—I knew his outburst had a bit to do with adolescence coming on, and the changes looming. I just wished it hadn't happened at all. But at least his friend would be here soon, and I would finally be able to shift full focus to cleaning the house.
I was relieved when I heard his little footsteps coming down the stairs. I was sure that, like me, he had realized that our argument was silly. He probably also felt bad for slamming his door. I couldn't wait to hug him and hold him. But when he got to the bottom of the steps, he looked at me and said, "I'm running away." In his green army coat and dirty sneakers, he definitely looked the part of an urchin-to-be. With an awkward feeling of wanting to laugh, mixed with the grave need to take him seriously, I said, "You should leave Brett a note then, since he will be here soon to play." Joe dismissed my suggestion, and looking me right in the eye with an air of deepest sadness, he said "Goodbye."
I followed him out the front door and stopped to watch him go up the sidewalk. I was beginning to think of the horrible things that could happen if he really were to run away. I suppose that is exactly what he wanted me to do. And I was right on cue—although I knew I'd never let him out of my sight around the corner. I walked after him slowly, calling softly to him, "Joe?" He was several yards off. Time stood still when he turned around and looked at me, one foot kicking at a small rock on the sidewalk. The cold, bright day was shining all over him. He stood with gravity, waiting for what I'd say next.
I sheepishly motioned to him to come to me. He walked to me and I held him. He said, "I love you," and I said it back. I could feel his little chest heaving with the suppressed but powerful emotions of a boy trying to keep his cool. With his arms still around my waist, he looked up at me and asked, "What's a boy without a heart?" He was crying now, and I remembered what I had said earlier. I'd hurt him with that one, not realizing he had even given it a second thought. I wrapped my arms around his head and chest, and said all the things I could to make it right again, including "I'm sorry." I told him that I wouldn't know what to do or where to turn if he ran away.
He said softly, "You'd have Chloe."
This caught me off guard. At first, I didn't know what to say. So I tried the absolute truth: "You know, if you ran away, Joe, that would be really sad for Chloe because I'd never be home since I'd spend the rest of my days trying to find you." Finally, I'd done it—I said the one right thing to make him understand how much he meant to me. And I knew it, by the way he buried his head into my arms and squeezed my waist tightly. So there we were on the sidewalk, hugging closely, not moving. A neighbor saw, but I didn't care. This was serious. This was everything. This was all eleven years of my boy and me, summed up into the most meaningful hug I have ever received from anyone. For that moment, he was entirely mine.
Without words, we began to walk home. As we approached the steps, I realized with much excitement that the moment called for some hot chocolate. With marshmallows. I made it as fast as I could. Joe brought out some Chex Mix, and we sat together in a blanket on the front porch. I told Joe how this reminded me of one cold fall day when his uncle Jimmy and I ran away, until Mac and Papa found us sitting on the front steps of our elementary school. Joe finished his hot chocolate, then he finished mine. All the marshmallows were gone except one. Joe kept looking at it at the bottom of the mug, and I knew he wanted it.
Everything was so quiet through all of this—calm, even—and it carried much meaning for both of us. We stared at the lone marshmallow in the bottom of my mug. I broke into a silly, whispered song. It went something like this: "One little marshmallow all alone and sad, he ran away from the others and he felt so bad." The song went on to describe how the mother continued searching until she found her missing marshmallow. As I finished the song, I stuck my finger into the sticky lone marshmallow and put it to my boy's lips. Instinctively he took it. Now all the marshmallows were together again. And although we laughed at our song, we both knew it was also more than that.
We stayed on the steps together for a long time, and time obliged me again by keeping still for us. But I wanted it to last forever. I wanted to never let go of this little boy who I somehow got lucky enough to deserve. We huddled close in the blanket. I looked at his hair, his eyes, the tenderness of his face, wondering what it must be like to be him. Then suddenly he scrambled away. His friend, whose anticipated arrival had been forgotten, was here. They went inside to play, but I stayed outside for a moment on the steps. I looked at our empty mugs sitting there. I thought of all the times to come, as he kept growing up, when he would tell me goodbye. More empty mugs in my future.
Cleaning the house, which I'd previously expected to be the big event of the day, now awaited me in its mundane triviality, totally eclipsed by the rich enormity of my experience with Joe. I gathered up our things and went in, leaving the cold, crisp, golden day outside—but I kept the memory and always will.
Kristen Berry is a freelance writer in Atlanta where she lives with her husband, son and dog. She majored in Comparative Literature at the University Of Georgia. The Berry family will travel to China this summer to pick up the newest member of their family.