We’ve had some work done on the house recently, including repairing the living-room ceiling, which has been a mess for just about as long as you have been alive. I remember sitting on the couch, nursing you as a tiny infant, when the brown, water-stained mark on the drywall just above us opened in a slow-motion horror show and released a stream of dirty, icy liquid onto the floor.
I was alone with you. You were new. I was a new parent, a new homeowner, in a new city where I knew practically no one. I had lost my own mother eight months earlier. It was the coldest winter on record and I hadn’t slept in weeks AND THEN THE CEILING WAS CAVING IN.
And I knew I was totally fucked.
I was, shall we say, a little unstable for a while after you were born, convinced that we would make one wrong move and break you. You might look okay, but I knew that the cumulative effect of all my individual parental imperfections would out eventually, a series of drops running together into a stream of ruin that would demolish you, taking me out in the process. And it would be all my fault.
Thankfully, that feeling didn’t last.
Our neighbours came over and climbed up onto the roof with hatchets and shovels and cleared away the ice dam (now there’s a Thunder Bay term) that had forced the water underneath the shingles. The next summer, we got a new roof. And now, just as you turn six years old, we have finally managed to insulate the attic and, for good measure, clear away the peeling, stuccoed mess of the ceiling, plastering over it with white. It looks good.
And so do you, kid, even with that blank spot where your first tooth used to be.
How is it that six years have passed between then and now? I’m no longer new to this parenting gig, no longer new to this city with its wonderful, generous people. I’m no longer a new homeowner. And yet I don’t feel like I’ve changed all that much, not counting the exponential increase in grey hairs and the lines around my eyes, clichés though they may be.
But then there’s you, almost too heavy to lift, nothing all like that big-headed baby who knew nothing of his own — or his mother’s, or his mothers’ — newness. And you still don’t, you still — mercifully — have so little idea of how often I feel like I am just making this up as I go along, the way I make up silly songs and bedtime stories about a magic boy and his magic little brother and their magic backpack full of coloured Cheerios (Eat a red one and sprout wings! A green one will make you invisible!). At least now I have enough perspective, and just barely enough sleep, to understand that that’s just what parents do: the best we can, with what we have.
Last year I wrote about how parenting you as a four-year-old felt, much of the time, as though someone had cut off my thumbs and I barely had a grip. Over the past year, they’ve started to grow back, those thumbs — paradoxically, just as I’m learning to let go a little more, to let you make your own way in the world. You started first grade in September, and it was a battle those first few weeks to make sure you were awake in enough time to get there. "I want my own alarm clock," you finally told me, and once you were in charge of your own wake-up time, the issue faded. At first, we set your clock for 7:30 AM, and then you decided 7:15 would be better, because then we’d have some dedicated time for cuddling. And then, after one too many fight about getting dressed, I came up with a new strategy: I would get my own self dressed, and you would be in charge of you. It’s working. Most of the time.
I put on skates for the first time in 15 years this past weekend and went out with you on the ice, where I, happily, remembered how to propel myself forward, if somewhat shakily. Rachel and Rob and I took turns guiding you and your brother, new to this icy medium, around the rink, and I got to marvel at you learning to walk all over again, at how game you were to keep trying. "It’s so much fun to learn how to do this with you," I kept saying, and you nodded, grinning. "I don’t know how, and you don’t know how," you said, "and we’re doing it together."
Yes, we are.
Six years in, the ice doesn’t feel so treacherous. You move forward, you fall, and you get up, and you don’t break. And neither do I.
Happy birthday, Rowan.