Saffron’s Stories: Four Years

Your Dad and I crept on silent feet into the quiet, dim cave of your room. I reached out to cup a warm hand on your shoulder. Waking you up is always a daunting prospect. You wake up a bit like I imagine a bear would, groggy and reluctant at first and then fiercely antagonistic at being roused. Your body was huddled beneath the comforter at the foot of your bed, surrounded by stuffed animals and piles of books. I find it amusing that you insist on sleeping this way, upside down in your bed, despite the fact that you often bang your head on the railing when you throw yourself there in a fury of bedtime defiance. You find a thousand little ways of rebelling against every expectation, each and every convention you encounter. This time you woke softly, rubbing your eyes and pushing masses of tangled hair from your face.

“It’s your birthday, little bug,” I murmured. “Happy Birthday. You’re 4!”

You stood unsteadily in the bed, swaying on your feet. I’d just raised the shades and the glow of morning sun was warming up the room. You stood there, staring down at your pale legs in the light.

“I’m taller, mama. Look. I’m taller now.”

Saffy Birthday Breakfast

You’d celebrated your birthday with a dog themed party the weekend previously. It took us weeks to whittle you down to a consistent choice. It began with rainbows and balloons, bridged into mermaids and art and then finally landed on dogs. You insisted on inviting only girls for your party and then relented when you realized that would mean a party without your brother or your best friend, Gavin. In honor of the occasion, I’d fashioned you a confetti cake in the shape of a husky dog. I really hope you appreciate that damn cake someday. It took me nearly two hours of cursing and a double recipe of buttercream frosting to hide all the sins I’d committed against that cake. We painted doggie faces on you and your guests, crafted doggie collars and played several rounds of Doggie, Doggie Where’s My Bone until I gave up and let you all wallow in sugar and presents until the adults came to rescue us.

This past year began with an epic battle. You, me, and a lot of poop. While I initially won the first skirmish and got you to consent to peeing on the potty, you held out resolutely on bowel movements. So resolutely that nearly a week later, I was up in the middle of the night with you while you sweated, near vomiting, desperately constipated. I now know which Walgreens is still open at 3 am on Sunday and exactly where they keep the children’s suppositories. It took months and a lot of Miralax to coax you past your fear but by springtime, when you’d managed to wring every last ounce of desperation and bribery from me, you decided to give in as gracefully as if you’d never considered any other alternative.

Late in the spring, plague descended upon our household. Your brother brought it home first and then kindly shared it with us all. Every last one. It was a serious bought of influenza with a raging fever and I ended up rushing you to Instacare, buckled in the front seat with a temperature of 104, flushed and wide eyed at the novelty. It took weeks for us all to be well again and by then the earth had warmed and summer was spreading out before us. In the wake of sickness, you developed chronic eczema that has continued to flare up occasionally, throwing patches of angry red skin across the backs of your knees and in the crooks of your little arms. I’ve had to battle your stubborn reluctance daily to encourage you to take care of your skin, biting back cliches about taking care of your body so it takes care of you. You’ve heard me say it a hundred times and it makes not one iota of difference in your little brain. Sitting still for two seconds and submitting to inspection and application is a torture you flatly refuse to succumb to without a fight.

Saffy swings

We bought a play set for the background to satisfy your insatiably active body and you spent happy hours there, swinging high enough to pop off the seat and turning tricks on the bars. This past summer you took your first swim lessons, clinging to the edge hesitantly, big eyes engulfed in panic. It took a few weeks before you learned to trust the teachers, to accept their offered hands that held you afloat. Your legs finally grew long enough to push the wooden blocks that we rigged to Owen’s old Red Flyer tricycle and you struggled to learn to ride, throwing yourself in a furious huff off the seat at every initial difficulty. And yet you always went back, no matter how frustrated or upset you were.

I’m pretty sure you don’t have even a glimmer of my metabolism because you’ve stayed slim and tall, despite ingesting enormous amounts of food every hour of the day. You eat sporadically and never at meals, preferring to decide to have a sit down picnic of ten different finger foods half an hour before bedtime. It’s hard to complain when you choose to scarf down apples, carrots, pastrami and oatmeal. I never wage battle with you at the dinner table, preferring to let you eat dessert first if you request it because I know in half an hour I’ll find you in the pantry, climbing onto the first shelf so you can fill your fists with shelled pistachios or dried cherries.

This summer we took an insanely long camping trip in rural Idaho. Ten days of pit toilets, copious amounts of hand sanitizer and a great deal of dirt. Whoever came up with this idea ought to be committed. But you and your brother loved it, reveling in sticky marshmallows by the campfire and whispered stories and giggles until long after bedtime. We visited Arco, toured a nuclear plant and watched fireworks from the window of our tent. At Redfish Lake we took out a motor boat on the cool dappled waves and let you and Owen drive it briefly. Owen was terrified as the hull slapped the water noisily and threw us against the sides, but you squealed in delight. When Dad, who was driving, slowed down, you screamed “Fast! Faster!” That driving fire of your intensity still blazes through everything that you do. So much passion and stubborn strength shooting through every fiber of your little being.

Saffy Lake

Owen remains your closest companion and your fiercest enemy. I’ve spent most of the last year playing referee and trying not to lose my shit. It’s obvious you are a born manipulator and sometimes, it’s hard not to appreciate the kind of talent you wield as you attempt to cajole and threaten him in an effort to exert control. I turn my head away often, smiling into my shoulder as I scold and coach you towards compromise and kindness. But I’m aware that you often get your way just because you exhaust us all into compliance. Owen, formerly so patient and benevolent with you, has become taciturn and weary. I’m guessing you’ve got maybe two more years before he just starts locking his bedroom door and hiding out until college.

Earlier this year, you decided to finally cut your hair. You sport bangs now that frame your face and auburn lengths that skim your shoulders and glisten gold in the light. And you’ve become obsessed with your clothing. Whether or not it matches or meets your standard of “pretty,” which when asked you are unable to define. It appears that you think pretty has something to do with pink, masses of glitter, and bright flowers or ornate lace and bows. Can I tell you how very frustrating this is? I’m a feminist for Christ’s sake. And I’ve made every effort to encourage you to make different choices and to thumb your nose at gender conformity. And yet, here we are. You told me the other day you wished I looked more like Snow White. Snow White?! God damn it. I guess I could understand if it was Ariel or Belle. But Snow White? The princess who sings in that gross falsetto voice to birds? I have utterly failed this parenting thing.

Saffy First day of School

This fall you began attending preschool in the morning at a local Montessori school just around the corner from our house. It’d like to say it’s going smoothly but that would be less an exaggeration than an outright lie. You remind me every morning, with your firm voice and kicking feet that strike out against the front seat, that you hate school. I’m not sure exactly why this is. You seem to have a fundamental misunderstanding about how to make friends. You are convinced you can have only one at a time. And so each day you slip into the car with the news that so and so is no longer a “friend”. Your teachers report that at school you are sweet and affectionate, hard working and compliant. I am not sure who this girl is they are describing. But I can tell how hard it is for you to hold it together during those hours. When you get into the car at lunchtime, you are a ball of frazzled emotions, ready to unfurl and lash out at any provocation.

For the last year you’ve been recognizing alphabet letters and identifying them rather easily as sounds. When you started school, I knew it was time to begin the work of building phonics into reading. And for the past few weeks, you’ve begun to do just that. Reading first one, then two and now three little readers. I’ve been struck though to observe your behavior when you struggle, to watch you dissolve into tears and run away at the first unrecognizable word. When you began to write your name and you inevitably turned the “S” in your name backwards, you railed against anyone who praised your efforts. If you are hard and difficult to please with others, you are certainly more so with yourself. You have an innate sense of perfectionism that refuses to allow mistakes and despises failure. I’m afraid that somehow, I may have given this piece of myself to you. That inner voice so relentless with criticism that it will never let you rest. I hope you grow to see your strength and your abilities as the wondrous talents they are, but also that you learn to appreciate the gifts your failures can bring you. It took me so many years to learn that lesson. We’ll have to keep working on it together, sounding out the meaning of it one kind, forgiving word at a time.

Saffy and Mom

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Letters to the O: Nine Years

Wow. So this is embarrassing. While I have made some halfassed effort to journal your sister’s growth in yearly increments, it appears that I have not written your yearly letter in four years. FOUR YEARS. What the hell have I been doing that kept me so busy that I could not sit down once a year and chronicle the amazing kid you have become? The answer is nothing. There is no excuse. I can only say I’m sorry. And that I was distracted. And for a good half of that time either pregnant, hormonal, sleep deprived or all three. And yet, inexcusable. Sorry, O man. I promise to do better. And here I am. Doing better.

The most monumental change in your life has been school. And your hellion of a sister. I guess it’s probably a toss up which has inflicted the most havoc these past few years in your life. You began your academic career in a brilliant blaze of glory, testing right out of kindergarten and into first grade. This was encouraging and devastating all at once. It was a bit like being thrown into the deep end of the pool. Sink or swim. I was confident you could swim, but it took you some time to find your rhythm. I had your sister soon after that, which complicated things emotionally for you. You had night terrors, frequent accidents at school and emotional meltdowns at the drop of a hat. And then we sold our house, the only home you had known since you were born, and moved across town into a huge rental home. After living there for about nine months, we transitioned again to a rental closer to Salt Lake City. In order to minimize the chaos of all this change, I made the decision to teach you second grade at home through an online charter school. This was a fabulous fit for you academically and as a natural hermit, I loved the flexibility and privacy. But it was a disaster in pretty much every other way. I spent a lot of time feeling like a drill sergeant with unreasonable expectations, half a foot in the schoolroom and the other in the kitchen, trying to make sure your sister didn’t consume anything poisonous. I remember once you told me tearfully that even if you had a birthday party, you didn’t have any friends to invite. It made my heart stick in my throat, literally sick with grief for you. So the following year, you tested into the gifted program at our local school district and I began transporting you there. You had a teacher that was a perfect cliche- a difficult, crabby older woman with an aversion to technology and a penchant for focusing on ridiculous details. All the kids already knew each other from previous classes. It was a struggle at first. But you stuck with it.

This year you are in fourth grade at the same school, in the same program with some of the same kids. And all that consistency has been like a miracle cure. When I pick you up, you are smiling. You finally have a group of four or five close friends. You started a comic book club and have talked about coding a website to support it. For Christmas, you and your best friend drew each other comic books complete with Play-Doh models of the main characters. It was adorable. Your teacher this year has been more relaxed and all that anxiety I used to see in your body language at the end of the day has simply melted away. Academically, you always excel. It’s rare to see you struggle with anything. And although you sometimes express boredom with the material presented at school, you are excited to study science this year. Your favorite subjects are recess, lunch, science, art and library. You hate group projects because they require you to work with other kids and to perhaps accept work that is not up to your standards. Your handwriting is still sloppy and you are obnoxiously lazy about it, but I’ve given up worrying about it. In the world you will inhabit, I’m pretty confident it’ll be a moot point. The last standardized testing you received placed your reading and comprehension levels at the middle school level.

You consume mysteries and graphic novels at a breathtaking rate. We spent the last year reading Harry Potter aloud and you became obsessed with the intricacies of the story. I still read to you a chapter from a classic novel every night. I’m reluctant to give it up because I enjoy it so much and as long as you’re willing to continue, we’ll keep at it. While you are an avid reader, you are perhaps a more avid gamer. After watching you finish MarioKart on Wii twice before the age of six, I kind of figured this would happen. You’ve moved onto Playstation now and have been playing Gran Turismo with Dad often since Christmas. And while you are still very much interested in playing matchbox cars and racing, you’ve really embraced building with Legos and essentially anything Star Wars in the last year. I am positive the thing you will remember the most about these years is how often we begged you to please stop already with the light saber noises. Enough already with the Star Wars noises. Please, God make the Star Wars noises stop.

In addition to video games, you are still really into board games. To the point that if no one else can be convinced to play, you’ll simply play yourself. I’m not sure where all the competitiveness comes from. It seems mostly innate. You are certainly not above throwing a tantrum if you lose. At anything. That frustration just oozes out of you in the form of moaning, snorting, tearful tantrums that end with you a blubbering puddle of child on the floor. Yep. All that has remained mostly unchanged despite our best efforts in the last few years. You are quick to get frustrated, impatient when challenged and defensive when criticized. I think it’s called being human. You just got an extra large dose of it genetically. You’re welcome.

And yet, you are still a very sweet kid. And very, very articulate and considerate. Goodness knows we don’t deserve it, but most of the time you can be trusted to be kind and polite. Especially to younger kids. When we take you to the park, you often end up watching the preschoolers and toddlers, organizing group games and helping them toddle about. You have a natural instinct as a caregiver that I hope we’ve encouraged. Your sister has certainly benefited from it. It has only been recently in the past year that you have decided her aggressive manipulations are no longer acceptable. Up until that point, that little girl had you wrapped right around her possessive little finger. You are still extremely close, but you bicker over toys and food frequently. Rarely does it devolve into physical altercations, but there sure is a lot of whining. And yelling, And grabbing. I knew this day would come, when I would feel like my primary role as parent was to referee. And I hope it goes. Really, really soon.

You’re in your fourth or fifth year of playing soccer. Just this past season I saw it finally click. All those practices, camps, games and hours coaching tumbled into place and you excelled on the field. Not the star of the team necessarily. But engaged, skilled and enthusiastic. It was a thing of beauty to watch. We’ve dabbled in other things- dance and swimming. But soccer seems to be the thing that has become a passion. And we’ll continue to encourage it as long as you’re interested. This year your coach is very, very serious and has you all doing pushups and laps and drills for an hour and a half twice a week in addition to games. You have never rejoiced about exercised. The mere suggestion of a walk can send you into apoplectic fits of despondency. So I was surprised when you began to look forward to all those vigorous practices, coming back to the car dripping with sweat and bare chested.

This year for your birthday I offered to throw you a party for you and your group of friends. I said you could invite as many people as you wanted. That I would do a Star Wars theme. That I would do anything you wanted. You turned me down flat and insisted all you wanted to do was take a road trip to Vegas to visit Grandma. You and I had done this last year on our way to a surprise trip to Disneyland, so I checked to ensure you understood there was no journey to Anaheim in your future. But you confirmed all you really wanted was to spend an inordinate amount of time in a close confined space with us and then a few days at Grandma’s house, basking in her cookies and penchant for spoiling you with new toys. Dad and I left Saffy with Grandma and took you to the strip one evening and stayed at a hotel, watching the Bellagio water show, eating sushi, and going to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I think you might be the only nine year old who requested to do Vegas for his ninth birthday. So kudos to you. Although I did not enjoy having to answer your questions about the cards with the naked women on them. Let’s spend less time watching where we’re walking next time. It’ll save us all from embarrassment.

As you’ve grown, I’ve become increasingly aware that I have very few years left if any when you’ll still consent to holding my hand in public. So every morning when Dad gets in the shower for work during the week, I slip next door into your bed and snuggle you for a few minutes. We’re both drowsy and warm and for a few moments, I’m reminded that you’re still my little boy. That you still need my approval and affection and the warm circle of my arms as much as you ever did. I hope that never changes. Happy Birthday, Owen. Here’s to hoping it won’t be another four years before I remember to chronicle the brilliant kid you have become. Owen6closeup

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