You see that cake? It’s made with about 10 cups of sugar and triple the amount of guilt.
That’s what happens after your three-now-four year old spends a whole year without Dad and then sweetly asks for a “dragon cake wiff some sort of wittwe fing on the top of it” for his birthday. As this was the first time Mike was home on our son’s birthday since his birth, well, we went a little crazy in the cake department.
And on his fourth birthday, as he gleefully played with his buddies and begged for his cake to come before dinner, I got to thinking about what the last year was like while Mike was deployed, and how very strong our son was. Man, did he handle that year beautifully. He’s all but forgotten about that deployment, and here I am feeling like I’m still getting over it, still shuddering at the word and the residual stress that creeps like ivy around my memories.
It’s amazing how someone so small can teach you something so big. Of all the “teachable moments” I’ve had with my son, this past year was one great big lesson where my son was the one on the teaching side of the moment.
He wasn’t even three when Mike deployed, but he understood that Dad was going to work in another country for a while, and that it would be just him and Mom. Although he didn’t become upset when Mike left, his stress manifested itself in occasional phases of difficult behavior. Some phases involved disobedience, some involved back-talking, some involved restless sleeps, others involved hitting. They were sudden but passing rashes of odd behavior interrupting blissful periods of normalcy. They were temporary. Sometimes I forgot to remember that.
I, on the other hand, felt plagued by impatience, letting the exhaustion from one phase bleed into the period of normalcy, when I should have let it go and enjoyed the relative peace.
But even when I was over the edge of my patience, fatigued from the 24/7 solo job, failing him in attitude and understanding, my son would still greet me every morning – usually before dawn, standing in the darkness next to my bed, his cute bedheaded noggin silhouetted by the dim hallway light – with one sweet, innocent request:
“Mommy, can I cuddle with you?”
In those mornings, when he found me most vulnerable, he’d snuggle next to me. I’d rest my cheek on his head and drowsily answer questions about anything under the sun or listen to him sing quiet songs about ordinary things. I remember breathing deeply during those pre-dawn cuddles, as if trying to inhale the sweet intoxication of the tender moment, hoping it would last me all day.
Patient, be patient today.
Sometimes I wondered how he could be so loving toward me, after dealing with my impatience the day before. I was pregnant at the time, and as I got bigger and bigger, my energy and desire to play waned. Sometimes I let the stress affect my attitude at home, and I’d lose my patience with innocuous actions or requests. But my son would still crawl into bed with me, snuggle close, and then tell me repeatedly all day long that he loved me. And that sure filled me up.
I have no doubt that every parent reading this and every parent not reading this can think back on super stressful times when they wish they’d have had more patience with their kids, when they wish they’d had a better attitude. This past year, I had a lot of them. But my son loved me anyway, and that’s probably the biggest lesson he taught me this year. Keep loving. Not just in your heart – in your actions, too.
Every day, no matter what the day before had been like, my son dumped bucketfuls of goopy, drippy, cover-you-all-over love on me with his belly laughs and darling from-the-mouths-of-babes remarks, with his warm hugs and melt-your-heart smiles. Every day was a new day, a new opportunity to show me he loved me, no matter what.
Being a pseudo-single parent last year happened to be the thing that both fatigued me and saved me. I had someone to wear me out and someone to hug. I had someone to keep me on my toes and someone to laugh with. I had someone to run me ragged and someone to snuggle close to.
And now that year is all a blur. Mike has been home for months, and the two of them are back in their pod, building forts, rumpling the guest bed with wrestling matches, and bringing back sticks and rocks from adventures in the woods. Giggling and squealing, whooping and hollering. And in the early morning hours, I’m still awakened by my groggy, sweet little boy, asking to cuddle with me.
How did my son manage to make it through that year without packing up his bags, heading out the door, and saying something like, “This BS is for the birds. You people are nuts. I’m out.”? When you really think about it, how did any of us manage it?
I guess the answer isn’t too complex. We relied on love. I suppose that’s the only thing you can do when you’re really tested… we love each other all the more deeply, completely without condition. We show our love with much more vibrance, without hesitation. We write letters, we give tokens, we talk as long as we can. We hug. We overlook annoyances or other transgressions, because darn it all, it’s not even worth it. And really it never is.
Next time I find myself in the thick of deployment – because I know there will be a next time (shudder) – I’ll try to remember what my boy taught me. Take each day with a renewed outlook, and take each moment with a deep breath and a gentle touch.
It truly is as simple as that, isn’t it? Leave it to a child to remind you of that. All you need is love.
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