Monday, June 30, 2014


"Congratulations," an older acquaintance told me on the birth of the Grape. "Now you can worry until you die."

I smiled and nodded, and silently reassured myself that I wasn't going to turn into one of those hyper-vigilant, exceedingly annoying helicopter types.

After all, R. and I didn't chart feedings and diaper changes in those early days. The Grape slept in a separate room from the get-go. We never even purchased a baby monitor, since we had a smallish apartment, and while the Grape had digestive issues requiring surgery as an infant, his lungs were in top form from day one.

We're still pretty permissive parents. The Grape skis, and he skis fast. He rides his bike and scooter all over Boston, as do most of his little friends. We never call our babysitters "just to check on things."

So I was completely caught off guard when R. and his dad took the Grape camping in western Massachusetts this weekend, and instead of reveling in the silence and solitude, I spent most of Saturday fretting.

This makes no sense.

R. is an extremely capable dad. I've traveled solo on a few occasions, and I've never worried about how the boys were faring without me back in Boston.

But Saturday, while I took Lila the Dog for an extra long walk, worked half a day, watched a little World Cup, and had a lovely dinner with a girlfriend, I worried about silly things. Really silly things.

Were they checking for ticks? Would the Grape wake up at two in the morning in a panic? Were there poisonous snakes in the woods of New England? And if so, were was the nearest anti-venom? Why on earth did they need to choose a campsite with zero cell service? Did R. know the location of the nearest ER?

And while I squandered my precious alone time on idiotic concerns, I fully understood I was being ridiculous. R. didn't lose sleep when I took the Grape to Finland for two weeks without him. Even though Finland definitely has plenty of poisonous snakes, and we spend days on end in the woods while there. On the plus side, you'd be hard pressed to find a spot with less than five bars of cell service.

As I lay awake Saturday night, I decided that my worries about the first ever Dad and Lad to the Second Power Outing were about a false, completely imagined sense of loss of control.

I was being as silly as those people who fear flying, because they don't like the idea of someone else piloting the aircraft, even though they understand that they're much likelier to die in their own cars.

Bad things happen everywhere. Like all major metropolitan areas, Boston has its share of horrible vehicle versus pedestrian crashes. So I watch my kid on his bike or scooter like a hawk, and I teach him to look both ways, even on one-way streets, and never, ever to play chicken with speeding cabs. I teach him to watch out for broken glass, to give unknown dogs space, and never to touch junk he finds in parks, because you never know when the trash in question could be a used needle. (I've found two in the park across the street during our almost four-year tenure in this apartment.)

It doesn't take a genius to grasp that his little life is more imperiled while commuting to school than while roasting weenies with his father and grandfather in attendance. And yet, I didn't sleep well Saturday night.

While I catch myself holding my breath every time we negotiate a busy intersection, I don't fret about the school schlep when it's not happening, because it's such a familiar part of our routine. And because my physical presence gives me that entirely false sense of control.

The Grape had a great time on his camping adventure. He slept all night in the tent and roasted marshmallows and explored the woods. He's already asking when they can go again.

Maybe I won't fret as much next time. Maybe.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Can Four-Year-Olds Understand Forever?

This exchange happened the other day:

Me: Look! Your friend, W., has a new dog. Isn't she cute?

Grape (visibly alarmed): What happened to Maggie? W.'s old dog?

Me: She died.

Grape (big frown, face crumples): Oh, dear. Why?

Me: Well, Maggie was old and very sick.

Grape (looking as if he might burst into tears): Is that going to happen to Lila?

Me: Hopefully not for a very long time.

Grape: But she will die some day? (with greater urgency) Is Lila going to DIE, Mamma?

Me: Yes, but hopefully not for a very, very long time. Lila should have many good years ahead.

Grape (Pensive silence, sad face, followed by *long* pause, and sudden brightening): What should we name our next dog?

Me: [Face palm.]

I don't remember the moment I realized death was permanent; all I know is I definitely understood by age six. That was when my grandfather and our family dog died within three days of each other. I was certain of three things:

1. Neither grandfather nor dog was coming back.

2. I was very sad about both events, but far more viscerally upset about the dog.

3. I knew it was deeply shameful to be more distraught over the dog, so I did my six-year-old best to hide this fact.

I don't think the Grape gets the death thing yet, which is largely my fault. In my desire to let him be little, he's been sheltered from some of the more unpleasant facts of life and mortality. It's not like we live on a farm where these circle of life mysteries get cleared up easily.

We've also been lucky. (Yes, I'm knocking hard on my wooden desk as I type this). The Grape hasn't lost any immediate family members or close friends.

We've haven't had to cross the "death bridge," so I haven't gone there.

Some of his pals have lost grandparents, and on such occasions,  he's asked me why grown-ups are sad. When I explain that so-and-so's Mommy is sad because her mother died, he usually accepts that answer without follow up. If anything, he verifies that the deceased was very, very old.

So I'm pretty sure some connection between advanced age and not living anymore exists in his head.

We've happened upon the odd dead wild animal. I can't figure out if the Grape understands that these unfortunate critters aren't just down for a big sleep.  I've also watched him, many times, turn away from the glass-eyed snappers and mackerels packed in ice at the fish counter at the grocery store. His brain doesn't seem to want to go "there," and it seems cruel to force it.

Anyway, he's not invested in a dead squirrel, bird, or mackerel the way he's invested in Lila the Dog, Siren the Cat,  Lucy the (Perpetual) Kitten, and various human family members.

On the other hand, I have this nagging feeling that it's high time to level with the Grape.

Lately, I've heard kids on the playground shouting, sometimes gleefully, sometimes angrily, "I'm going to kill you!"

The Grape knows that in our household, such talk is completely unacceptable, and that such utterances on his part rain down severe consequences.

I am confident he knows it's not a nice thing to say.

I suspect the Grape thinks "to kill" means to cause some nonspecific kind of harm, and to assert dominance. When pressed, he says it means "to hurt."

This inability to process the permanence of death is a major reason I'm adamantly opposed to any kind of toy weapons. At four, they know not what they do. Young children's games that reinforce the insane idea that violence can exist without consequence do nothing to create good world citizens.

I doubt the Grape or his pals can wrap their four-year-old minds around the permanence of death, or of killing. When adult minds wrestle with the concept of infinity—if it's human nature to seek boundaries and borders—can a four-year-old understand forever?

The Grape is fast approaching five. If, based on experience, six-year-olds understand what it means to die, I suspect some kind of awakening to that fact will start to happen over the next twelve months.

So maybe this is one area where it's best to let him learn organically, to leave well enough alone, to avoid traumatizing the little guy by explaining unpleasant truths unless and until absolutely necessary.

And I'm starting to understand why some parents quietly replace dead goldfish or parakeets or hamsters. I'm queasy about the idea. I don't have a horse in that particular race, since we don't have any small, cage dwelling pets, but I kind of get the practice now. These parents are desperate to avoid going "there." I still find the replacement practice weird, but now I might just go out and buy some fish.

Because odds are good the fish won't live for years and years. Maybe the Grape should lose a few goldfish before wrangling with the greater bereavements of life.

(Aside: If we do get fish, we will do our best to keep them going as long as possible. Please do not write me hate mail, accusing me of plotting fish murders.)

Or maybe we don't need the fish. Maybe he can just be innocent of death a few months (a year? two?) more, until his brain catches up to the concept.

I want to let him be little as long as possible.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Weepy Goodbye to Preschool

One thing I've noticed about life with a little kid: The days often feel long, but the weeks and months rocket by.

Tomorrow the Grape will graduate from preschool—that wonderful place around which our weekdays have revolved since September, 2011.

Here he is, checking out the dramatic play corner of the two-year-old room on his very first day:

This photo was snapped before he realized I was about to leave him there for almost three hours. He was a newly minted two-year-old; he started school four weeks after his second birthday.

I never meant to send the Grape to school so young. I'd filled out a form to apply to the three-year-old room for the following school year. Admittedly, I'd done so very early, on the advice of friends with older kids.

Then our beloved sitter, M., told us she was moving out of Boston in August.

Serendipitously, the preschool director called to let us know she had a two-year-old spot, for three days a week, starting three weeks hence.

We'd interviewed a few replacement sitters, but hadn't found that perfect fit, and I was growing increasingly anxious and weepy as the date of M.'s departure drew near.

Did we want the spot for the Grape? asked the preschool director.

"Isn't he too young?" I asked.

"That's your decision," she said. "But yes, he would be the youngest in the school."

I asked the departing sitter what she thought. After all, she was the baby whisperer, the one who could get the Grape to eat and sleep when nobody else could stop him from howling. And she had a master's in social work and a long career working with children. We valued her opinion.

"He'd love it. He loves being with other children," she said without missing a beat.

She was so sure that she made me feel sure. I called the preschool. "We'll take it."

Best parenting decision we ever made. Hands down.

The little baby playing in the kitchen is a full fledged kid now, one who knows an era is ending and who feels angst and nerves about the unknown world of kindergarten—a hazy place in his head, albeit one reached by bus.

One who marches confidently around the city with his class, who builds long term group projects and creates elaborate imaginary play scenarios with his friends. He's made charts of the triumphs and defeats of the Red Sox. He's learned about the inner workings of the human body and about the ocean. He's built entire cities with blocks.

He's explored different kinds of art, he's been to parks I never knew existed, and he's gone from a little boy who ran from the stage shrieking in terror during his first holiday show, to one who proudly belts out songs with his classmates.

He's learned to be a good classroom citizen.

He can do basic arithmetic and write his terribly long name. He recognizes several written words.

All in a purely play-based, child-centered environment, where the teachers never threw a single ditto or flashcard at the kids.

And he's made real friends, many of whom will go their separate ways tomorrow afternoon. (One boy from the class will attend the same kindergarten as the Grape.)

I'm grateful he won't know to mourn those losses, that he won't truly process the permanence of graduation. That he'll have the summer to adjust to a necessary change, and to meet his old friends at the playground.

But his Mamma will probably cry when we walk out of that school for the last time.