We are a little late getting to bed. Bug has just returned from a long New Year’s winter family camp weekend at the Frost Valley YMCA in the Catskills. His dad reported that Bug actually sang a Justin Bieber song at Karaoke in the dining hall in front of everyone. This, in addition to rocket-making and going down the tubing hill 13 or so times.
When my kid returns from these camp weekends, he has adopted funny new mannerisms. Tonight, he makes a little tchk with his cheek and cocks his head while he chatters at me. While he builds legos, he sings, “We are never, ever, ever, getting back together” under his breath. Also, his face is smeared with blue, his hands are purple, and he smells. Hygiene is not a top priority at camp.
After bath and jammies, we settle into his bed together. I finish the last book and set it on the floor. Bug is deep into his drawing of some complex set of ladders and pulleys again. I rub his back and start to sing. I don’t get one line into “Baby Beluga” before Bug stops me.
“Don’t sing, please.”
I stop rubbing. This is new. “Do you want a different one?”
“No.” He is coloring hard with dark blue marker. The work of our bath is quickly being reversed. “No songs. Just cuddles.”
I stoke his back again with a little more care. He colors in silence.
Is that it? Did it just happen? Did my little boy cross over? Someone once said that you will never know when read your child Goodnight Moon for the last time. We step blindly over milestones as if they are just cracks in the sidewalk.
I think back to our Christmas week together in Texas. On the first evening there, we sang from our caroling songbook. The second night, Bug asked me not to sing. I thought this was some combination of the laryngitis making me sound like a geriatric goose and the general overstimulation of our lodgings. The final three nights of our visit, he asked me not to sing. This was fine with me because even speaking had become a burden.
Are we finished with bedtime songs? Was it over the night before Christmas? Surely, it can’t happen like this. Boom, a kid enters a new stage and there is no looking back? Doesn’t he understand how momentous and heartbreaking this is?
“No songs at all?” I venture. “Not even ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’?”
“No, thanks,” he says.
I watch him add an extra ladder. Adapt or die, as they say.
“What are you drawing?”
“Guess,” he says.
If I can’t sing, I can at least have a conversation with him. In the split second it takes him to enter adolescence, he may well become more irritated by my existence than indulgent of it. I suppose I better get with the program. I look at his drawing more closely. He inks a line from the ladder to a platform where a smiling person stands.
“Yep,” he says. “It’s a high ropes course.”
We talk about this for a few moments. He points out what is what. Our exchange is pretty spotty because he is still focused on his composition. The side of his hand and the wristband of his new digger-truck jammies are smeared gray-blue.
“Alright, Bud. I’m going to get everything ready for school tomorrow. Finish up the picture and lights out in just a minute, okay?”
“Mmm-hmm.” He starts on the higher element at the top of the page. The Flying Squirrel? The Postman’s Walk? He doesn’t give. I kiss his head and go downstairs to finish the dishes. I have almost finished loading the dishwasher when I hear the plaintive cry from the landing. “Mommy? Mo-o-o-mmy?”
“You forgot to put the cool water by my bed.”
I grin and come upstairs. “We are out of practice after a few days away, huh? I filled it up when you were brushing your teeth but we both forgot to take it to your room. Here.” I help him find the cup. He has not stayed in this house for eleven nights. I have to remember that these transitions take some adjustment. He gulps deeply and crawls back into bed, picking up an orange marker on the way. I stroke his head. “You need to finish up so you can get some sleep for tomorrow.”
I lumber back downstairs to finish packing snack and putting away laundry.
I walk to the landing with a sigh. “Yes, buddy?”
“I need to go potty.”
“So, go potty.” He smiles big, wrapping his arm around my shoulder as I climb the stairs. “Let me guess. You took a nap in the car on the way home from camp today, didn’t you?”
He bounces into the bathroom. “What do you think I’m going to say?”
“I think you’re going to say, ‘yes’.”
He makes a silly face then nods. We goof with our faces going from stern to giggles. “Do you want to come in and see what I drew after I go potty?”
“Sure, baby. Then it’s bedtime.”
He digs out a pile of sketches that he has produced in the few minutes I was downstairs. This one shows an elaborate series of ladders and several emergency vehicles including two medi-vac helicopters. “It’s an underground hospital,” he tells me. “That’s blood. All full of blood. And that’s the thing with the wheels they take the people out of the helicopter on.”
“Yep. And this is an ambulance. And here is the X-Ray machine.”
“Baby, it is so far past your bedtime, it’s not even funny.”
I go downstairs to make copies of his paperwork to start the new before-school program.
I take a deep breath, round the foyer, and mount the stairs. “Bedtime,” I say quietly. “No more coloring.”
“But why aren’t you in bed?”
“Because I can’t finish my chores with someone calling me upstairs every seventeen seconds. Here. Hop into bed. We’re done.” I take away the clipboard and set it on the floor and put the sack of markers in the drawer. He pulls the blanket up.
Gently, gently, I make the offer. “How about a song to help you get to sleep?”
He nods and wiggles down under the blanket. “Okay. Will you lay down with me?”
“And maybe do all three songs?”
“Sure thing, buddy.”
He smiles his dozy, droop-eyed smile and presses up against me. As the tune leaves my lips, I hear every word of every verse much more clearly than I have in years.
Tonight is probably not the last page of this chapter, but how could I know if it were? We just never know how close we are to the end. There is no way to flip ahead to see. I sing him the whole of each song well past his bedtime and deep into slumber. I add a free fourth tune for good measure just to make up for all the ones I will never hum into his drowsy neck again once he says goodbye to the lullaby for good.
Let’s not talk about fare-the-wells now
The night is a starry dome.
As long as this moment lasts, I sing my boy to sleep.
From Joni Mitchell’s “Carey” off the forever twilight album, Blue.