Nothing is more intoxicating than the smell of a new baby. It’s more than Johnson’s powder or scented Huggies or Ivory Snow. This almost unearthly fragrance is something the fresh-from-heaven child brings with him into the world. While it may be imperceptible to most, even a hint of the baby’s essence pulls his mother’s heartstrings nearly through her throat with a forceful tug that rivals that of the umbilical cord.
Whether my son was still wrinkled from the bathtub or just off the playground, that celestial scent was there. My breathing it in, unbeknownst to him, drew us close.
After he started preschool and all though his early school-age years, I would go into his room to make his bed. Always at the foot of the bed were his rumpled-up pajamas. I got my daily fix by deeply inhaling the PJs and, be they speckled with barnyard animals or Dallas Cowboy emblems, that intoxicating smell brought him close.
With each year of age, little by little, that boy who ran to me with scraped knees or cuddled up to me during a Disney video, has pulled away.
“I can do it myself.”
“Don’t kiss me on the skin; you can kiss me on the clothes or hair, but not on the skin.”
“Walk ahead of me in case I see someone I know.”
“You’re so annoying.”
Over time, the wide-open soul of my innocent child has rendered a demand for privacy, a harbor for secrecy, and occasionally, a habit of telling lies. Our world together is shrinking while his world is expanding.
Friends and teachers, instant messaging and cell phones, MTV and WHFS have all provided him highways out of our world, allowing him to speed off to regions of his world where I am welcome only on his terms, if at all.
My little boy has become increasingly aware of the universe and his place in it. He has studied science, history, and literature. He has begun to form his own political views while deepening his spirituality and faith. He has learned difficult lessons about social justice while grappling with issues of man-made and natural disaster. He has become romantically involved. He has become an adult.
Recently, I prepared for what I knew would be our family’s last Valentine’s Day party for three. As I set out our traditional decorations, the flowers, the candles, the cards, the sweets, and the gag gifts, the last-ness of the event loomed over our party table. Just as I got ready to turn on Charlie Brown and the Little Red-haired Girl, my boy was out the door to take a valentine to his own red-haired girl. With each candle I blew out, my heart grew more swollen. As I blew out the last red candle, out with my breath came a hundred tears.
While it is painful to feel my boy pulling away, I am overwhelmingly proud of his brilliant sense of humor, his loyalty to his friends, his outrage at injustice. I will always remember a time, as he studied the Holocaust in the sixth grade, when he recounted to me what he had learned about Jewish prisoners being led into what they had been told was a shower. While I had to this point worked to filter out the tragic and disturbing, I saw a fragility that I knew would inch him a little more toward a realistic, even cynical view of the world. I witnessed that day a loss of innocence but a gain of wonder and compassion.
Each day, something different strikes me about my son, whether it is his perceptive comments while watching the State of the Union address or his ability to understand people at an unusually deep level. I watch in awe as he struggles to resist popular temptations to remain true to himself.
I still go into his room now and then. Beneath the dirty gym clothes, muddy sneakers, and teenager hormones, the smell of my baby is there—just as it was so many years ago.
This year my only child will go away to college. His world and his mind will continue to expand. I will be an even smaller part of his life. I won’t hear his thumping footsteps, like a stampede of elephants, coming down the stairs at 6:10 every morning, or his thunderous laughter while he teases the cats. His stereo won’t pump out the punk-band-of-the-day at piercing decibels as I try to work at my desk in the next room.
His room will sit empty. How long will it be before his essence fades?
If you’ll excuse me, I need to go next door for a fix.
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