I am watching John sleep. He is restless, legs thrashing, his sprawled little body bathed in the colors from the string of Italian Christmas lights that surround his bedroom window. He is dreaming, no doubt, of tomorrow morning: his long-awaited first day of school.
I sit in the rocking chair next to his bed, the same chair in which the two of us rocked away so many sleepless hours in his infancy, with a sense of sadness creeping into my reverie. John is my youngest. Tomorrow will be my last, first day of kindergarten. How did this happen so fast?
John’s new school clothes - blue and white soccer shirt, khaki shorts and “Space Jam” underwear - are laid out at the foot of his bed. A pair of red leather sandals sits on a bookshelf next to a grinning, watercolor self-portrait. A denim backpack bulges from beneath his pillow, stuffed with back-to-school necessities of his own choosing: toy dinosaurs, an empty water bottle, and a plastic bag filled to breaking with foreign coins - John’s “special money” - that he wants to take to his first show-and-tell session, which he is certain will be tomorrow.
John is ready and eager for kindergarten, as reflected in tonight’s gymnastic sleeping style. He’s been ready since his sister Claire’s first day of kindergarten or, to be more precise, from the moment it dawned on him that he was not going to be starting school right along with her.
He pitched an out-of-body fit on the way back home that morning, purple-faced, howling, straining at the stroller straps that imprisoned him. He eventually recovered his composure and served two years of pre-school exile, but he never forgot the injustice of it all and never missed the chance to remind me, as we picked up his sister each day, that once preschool was over and he went on to kindergarten, “then it won’t be just ‘Claire’s school’ anymore, Dad.”
My slumbering son is about to enter a new stage of childhood, though of course he doesn’t know this.
His bed is still filled with the tattered remnants of his early years: an unraveling Barney doll, a half-bald Free Willy and a tailless tiger that still growls when hugged. Mixed in among the stuffed animals, though, are the tell-tale signs of the boy to come: a rock ‘n’ roll tape, a Michael Jordan trading card, a black leather baseball mitt, and crammed between the mattress and the wall, a child-sized guitar with three unbroken strings.
It’s not that I want him to stay a baby forever. I like what I see of the boy that he’s becoming and, frankly, he’s a lot more fun to hang around with now than when he was a raving 3-year-old. But it’s impossible for me to let this milestone slip past unnoticed and unmourned; I came to fatherhood relatively late in life, and after tonight I can never again pretend that I have a small child in my home. There are no more babies coming along after him.
I rise from the chair and unplug the Christmas lights. I kiss his cheek and John stirs, mutters something I don’t quite catch and then pulls the blankets over his head with a loud snort. Rosie, our poofy little bichon frise, jumps on the bed and snuggles in next to him as I pull the door closed.
In a few hours the familiar frenzied rush will begin: breakfast, toothbrushing, shoe-finding and the myriad morning tasks we can never seem to complete ahead of time. We’ll scramble out the front door and down the sidewalk on our well-traveled, six-block path: their mama Elisabeth, me, Claire and now John, marching off to school just like any one of a hundred other mornings.
I’ll watch John scoot on ahead, backpack bouncing, his muscular little legs needing three strides to match his long-limbed sister’s two. We’ll pass the familiar sights: Urby’s house. Holly’s garden, the cottage where John’s best friends used to live and the street corner where we once watched “worker guys” cut a storm-toppled fir tree into planks right before our eyes. (“Oh, so that’s how wood is born?”, John had marvelled.)
I will remember John as a toddler and a preschooler, stopping every few feet to collect leaves or search under rocks for bugs, screaming to be let out of (or put back into) his stroller. I’ll remember how we had to carry, cajole and sometimes drag with us the boy who now runs a half a block ahead, waving his arms and calling to his parents to catch up to him. I’ll pretend, for the last time, that this is just another walk to school and not the inevitable next step along a path that will someday lead him away from me.
On arrival at the small kindergarten playground, we’ll mill around with the other children and parents, feeling the electric mixture of apprehension and excitement generated by two dozen 4- and 5-year-olds on their first day of school. When Mrs. White opens the classroom door on a new school year, we’ll enter, snap a few pictures, kiss our embarrassed boy on the head and then allow ourselves to be gently herded back outside so that school, and the next phase of John’s life, can begin.
Elisabeth and I will then retrace our steps, heading home to our everyday world of jobs and deadlines. We’ll talk as we walk, review the day’s schedule - who picks up who, and when - and I’ll try to keep the catch out of my voice. I’ll hold her hand and pretend that this late summer morning is just like any other. But for the first time, we’ll be walking home alone.
MEMO: Mark Sloan is a free-lance writer who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif.
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