Today I stood with a camera in hand as my six-year-old son accepted his kindergarten diploma. He turned around to face the world, laminated certificate in hand, and his smile nearly broke me.
An hour earlier, I had dropped him off at school, late. We walked into school together, him carrying a card for his teacher which he'd signed in "fancy writing," and me toting a dripping flower pot filled with, well, I don't know what they were. Pretty flowers. Plants are not my thing. The teacher greeted me at the classroom door, bringing Noah in for a tight hug as he puffed up and presented her with his card.
"Thank you," she said in her kind, soft voice when I handed her the flowers.
"No," I said, horrified by the severe earnestness in my voice. But I couldn't keep myself from rushing on. "Thank you. So much. For everything." I was further embarrassed by my clipped sentence fragments. I swallowed, realizing my nose was burning and my eyes had filled. I had to get out of there before I caused a scene. "We appreciate it all more than you could know."
Luckily, I think she understood what I meant. I think that, despite my ridiculously earnest remark to the contrary, she did know. The thing was, my sudden onset of overpowering emotion was something I myself had not expected. In that moment, I found the whole school year flying through my mind, a whizzing reel of events and trials and so much learning and love, and I was overcome.
I turned then and walked briskly down the hall and out to my car, being a bit too early for the actual graduation ceremony. I climbed in, feeling the hot sun beating in through the windshield, flicked on the air conditioner, and gripped the steering wheel.
Noah is not my baby anymore. Probably, we all look at our graduating kindergarteners and feel some onslaught of emotion about that. But...Noah was my baby, and then also, Noah was what I believed to be my last baby. If anything in my life had gone according to plan, this would have been my last kindergarten graduation. But because God saw fit to give me something else, something more, yet another wonderful little boy, I'll get one more kindergartener. That should be a relief, right? But when I look at Noah, it just makes me want to hang on to him even harder. Make today last and last so none of them will get any older.
And then, too, there has always been something about Noah that has made him seem so much more a baby to me than Joey, my oldest, ever did. With Joey, it was all about the next thing. Learning to sit up, then to crawl, then walking and talking and singing and dancing and doing science and...it's always been something. With Joey, he hasn't even had his birthday yet and I already tell people he's nine. With Noah, I still sometimes slip up and say he's five, even though his birthday came and went at Easter time. Why is that? I often wonder.
But more than any of that, I sat in my car today, not quite ready to push it into Drive, and realized that Noah is also aware of all of this. His whole entire life, he knew with certainty his role in our family, and in my life. He was my baby. He was our littlest one. When I told stories (tragic trauma-filled ones) about being the youngest in my own family growing up, it was for him to learn from and relate to. And while he loves, adores, is thrilled with (and really, I'm not even being the slightest bit facetious) his new baby brother, this year has been a very, very hard adjustment for him. And that was why I had to overtly thank his teacher, and why a lump filled my throat when I had to do it. Because she, too, saw the struggle Noah went through. Frustration when things got just a little too hard, a few too many times. Confusion when his mom forgot to check his homework folder. Again. Anger when something went awry with a classmate.
At bedtime, Noah huddles under a blanket on the couch while I put the baby to bed. While I clean up Cheerios and Gerber Puffs off the floor, while I grab everyone's pajamas and rush Joey into the shower and rinse out bottles. All the while, he's waiting. For his moment. For his turn. For his chance. And when it comes, when I finally set my eyes on him and reach out my hand for him to come along to start our routine, it doesn't matter what else happened that day--and it's always something. Getting too wild and falling over something. Crash. It breaks. Boom, he's hurt. Thud, he's wailing. "Oh, NOAH!" I always groan. But in that moment when I reach my hand out to him, all at once the blanket slides from his head and his eyes shine and he smiles his great big smile, the one that has earned him the title of Sunshine in our house, and says, "I love you, Mama." Not Mom, like when he's trying to be as big as Joey. Not MAWM, like when he's rolling his eyes at what a marvelous idiot I am. Not mother, like when he's declaring he needs a new one. "Mama."
I finally was able to get my car moving and go meet my husband and while away the time until the graduation began. My heart was heavy and I wondered if I could possibly put what I was feeling into words that anyone could understand. My baby, who isn't my baby anymore, is growing up, but...he is still my baby. My Noah. My boy who, though he'd be damned to admit it, needs his Mama.
And I do so love my unexpected little angel. Having Max is magical. It's another beginning, but it's a heart-clenching collection of endings, too. To have to pack away infant clothes for the last time, again, is awfully hard. But to prop up a chubby, slippery body in the bathtub while gently rinsing suds from tufty baby hair, my husband beside me and both of us with wet, soapy elbows and big excited smiles, it's wonderful. It's a gift.
But that's the odd thing about having children. Each one is so different, I never expected to appreciate them so individually. I thought it would be a collective thing: I love my children. But it isn't like that at all. I love Joey. I love Noah. I love Max. And for each one I feel like I have to be a totally different mother, a totally different kind of person. There's no formula, no one right way that I can carry from person to person. It's exhausting.
But one look at this smile today...
...and I know that even though I'm very, very tired, I also have a fat, full heart. And I am crazy lucky.