Around the time that Joey turned two, I was enjoying all the cool new things he was doing and, especially, saying. Joey was an early talker, and by the time we hit the tremendous twos (he didn't become terrible until he was three and had a baby brother), everything out of his mouth was hilarious and clever and wonderful, of course. I frequently shared "Joey Stories" at work, so much so that when I run into former students out in the world, they say things like, "I don't remember your name, but I remember you had a son named Joey."
One particular time, a colleague was listening with appropriate interest, smiling, chuckling, and nodding at all the right moments (FYI, if you don't like my Joey stories, don't feed me with feigned interest like that). When I finished the story, he shared some of the wisdom he'd gained from raising his own children, grown already by that point. He said, "This is the time that's really the best. From two to about eight."
It was meant to be light-hearted advice, I know, but it stuck in my head ever since. That number, that age, "Eight," like a looming threshold to doom or something. I've loved Joey through each milestone, always marveling, again, like any mother, at how special and unique and amazing my child is. I do like to bolster my opinion with little bits of what seems like sound proof to me, like I'm a teacher and have been exposed to hundreds of kids in my career. Or that I babysat a lot growing up, or that I'm just so naturally right about most things. But in the end, it comes to down to this. Joey is my first experience with all things mom. Even now that I have Noah and baby Max on the way, everything that happens as Joey grows is unchartered territory. And now we are venturing into what I've imagined to be scary, stormy waters until, I'm told, he's pretty much a grownup.
Now that I've arrived here at the Big 8, I find it's like most things I've approached with dread. Childbirth, kidney surgery, failure...the thing about it all is that once it's happening, you're just sort of thrust into it without any other option, so...you just do it. It's not even like failing is an option, it's more just this inherent push to move ahead and get through it. So you do. And with Joey being this child who's leaving behind his babyhood completely, entering this phase in his life where he's become too old for a lot of the things in the toy aisle but too young for much else...I find that more than anything, he's still, well, himself. And that plastering an age or a number on that doesn't really change the person I've known for a small lifetime.
There are things. There is an awkwardness to him that never existed when he was "too little to know better." Things that were once funny or cute aren't anymore. Things that Noah gets attention for don't work for Joey, and he struggles with how to fit into various situations. I think that's keenest difference: the appearance of struggle in his life. And perhaps this is what my friend meant all those years ago. Not that turning eight marked a period that would render my life as a horror film, but that this is where life's real challenges will begin to show themselves.
School will become more about studying, preparation, and work. Friends will start making choices that are unfathomable, or merely different, to Joey. He will have to make choices that will have consequences. Not big ones like he'll have as an adult, but things that will definitely impact him tomorrow, or in a week.
Every day when he leaves for school, I tell him the same thing. "Try your hardest and be nice to everyone." It sounds generic, but it's come down to what I myself value the most in other people. Do you strive to make things a little better every day? Do you give every situation your best effort? And, to me, the most important thing of all, do you treat others, regardless of their situation, with the utmost kindness and respect? That is what I want for my children. To work at success, because it's not a gift, and to be kind, loving people.
There have already been days where Joey has met small challenges with these things, which seem so straightforward and easy. He comes home and says, "But Mom, I did say all the right things, I was nice, but so-and-so still...." and then he shakily recounts an event that occurred outside our script for how other people should be and act based on our own choices.
I can't tell Joey, or my other kids for that matter, that these moments hurt me, too. That the advice that I give them, the things that I teach them, won't always work and that it kills me when some little shit on the baseball team or on the bus messes with the system, with the business of just being nice. Because kids are kids, and that means that for a percentage of time (some greater than others), they really are little shits. It makes me, as a mother, want to pummel them, but I can't. Even if it were morally acceptable and not illegal, it still wouldn't be okay.
Because by this time, it's no longer my job to fight all their battles.
I can't save the day every time. I can't make it better with Band-Aids or popsicles or a hug and a kiss. I'm not the only opinion, the only person who matters to them anymore. I may be able to help. I may able to remind Joey that sometimes the world sucks, but he'll always have one crazy, overzealous fan in his corner, cheering her head off and chanting his name. Even when he messes up. Even when no one else gets it.
But it won't always be enough. I think that's what my friend meant about turning eight. And it doesn't even happen over night...it's slow. It's unexpected. There'll be one bad day, and then things will be fine for awhile. But it will always come up again, and as he grows up, it will be harder and more complicated, because that's what life is. I can only hope that the things I do and say on the sidelines will be enough to help him figure it all out, and hopefully, if I'm any good at it, with a little less pain than I had when I went through it. Because that's another thing we mothers want. We want to just keep that pain as far from our children as we can, and every tiny victory matters, no matter the outcome of the previous or the next situation.
When I look at Joey now, I'm reminded of a book I've always loved teaching to my eighth grade classes. In SE Hinton's The Outsiders, we see kids with problems and issues and interactions we all pray our own children will never encounter, but they probably will, on some or every level. At the end of the story, without giving too much away (because if you haven't read it, you should), one character, Johnny, has met repeated challenges and now faces the world with the eyes of someone a little too broken by it all. His friend Ponyboy cites a Robert Frost poem, quoting the line, "Nothing gold can stay." But Johnny sees Ponyboy as a person who still believes there is good, a person who is still a little bit shiny despite the muck and mire of the world. Johnny urges him, "Stay gold, Ponyboy."
This, in the end, is what I want for Joey. For despite his weirdness, his craziness, his faults...his heart is so unfailingly good. I don't think we can say that about many people, not even all children. So to Joey, on his eighth birthday, I say, I love you, my baby. And stay gold. Always, no matter what...I want you to just stay gold.
No matter how big you grow, you will always look like this to me. <3 p="">3>