When our boys were toddlers, one of their favorite toys was a doctor's kit. A white plastic case with easy latches, it contained a stethoscope, a syringe, tweezers and several other medical gadgets all oversized and made of brightly colored plastic. They loved to make me lie of the rug and pretend to be sick. They would minister to me with their instruments, checking my heart, my eyes, my ears in turn.
At two or three, because they were beginning to distinguish between reality and fantasy, they needed to check in with me every few minutes.
"You just pretending, Mama?" Marty might ask. I would open my eyes.
"You okay?" Colin would look alarmed as the possibility that we had shifted into some other reality occurred to him.
Two huge heads on either side would loom over me, tools at the ready.
"I'm fine," I would say, sitting up and gathering them in my arms.
In their state of coming to know the world around them and their place in it, my wellness and ability to care for them was an elemental fact. In playing doctor, I saw on their faces the first inkling of understanding that what they do might matter.
A few weekends ago, Maine experienced its first taste of summer. The black flies, making up for lost time, were ravenous and plentiful. We've lived in this house for seven years but I've never really tackled the small flower beds that lie among the big granite outcrops that rise from the ground near the pond. The boys were in and out of the water all day, whooping it up and splashing. While I lugged wheelbarrows full of soil and compost down to the beds, Scott carried the little outboard from the garage and mounted it on Marty's old inflatable dingy. After fueling the motor, a father and son seamanship refresher course ensued and was sweet to watch from the rocks.
When we finally came inside at the end of the day, I took a good look at Marty, my fair child. Around his eyes were a half dozen bright red welts and many more at the back of his neck and on the tender skin behind his ears. I gave the back of my own neck an empathetic rub and my hand came away wet with a smear of blood and a squashed black fly. "You little sucker," I muttered.
"Let me see," said Marty, standing on his toes to look at the back of my neck. "Ouch, that must be itchy, Mom."
"Yeah. Oh well," I said. "C'mere and let me put some Cortaid on the bites so you don't scratch and make them worse."
By bedtime, the temptation to scratch the back of my own neck was fierce. I found myself puttering around in the upstairs bathroom with Colin. His complexion is swarthier and the black flies seem to pass over him for the choicer morsels like Marty and me.
"Let me see," said Colin after listening to my whining. I bent over and held my hair back with my hand.
"Dang," he said and started counting. "Fourteen. You want me to put some medicine on them for you?"
"Would you?" I asked from under my hair.
The sensation of Colin gently dabbing each of the welts with a bit of cortisone ointment was new to me. He wasn't pretending as he would when he was a toddler. He was really caring for me. And suddenly standing with my head upside down in the middle of the bathroom, I felt the balance of my life begin to swing.
One midnight a few years ago, while waiting for a red eye flight at LAX, I ventured into one of the airport newsstands to buy some cheesy souvenirs for Scott and the boys. One that caught my eye was a long, narrow block of acrylic filled with two liquids, a fixed palm tree and two free floating windsurfers. The heavier liquid at the bottom was a deep blue. The lighter liquid was clear. By swinging it back and forth in my hands, I could get a wave motion going. Sometimes there was more blue liquid on the left, sometimes more on the right, and the two intrepid windsurfers bobbed along the surface right behind California printed in scripty letters on the outside.
The last 11 years of parenting have demanded so much unselfishness from us, so much putting aside of our own preferences (uninterrupted sleep in the early years, for example) on behalf of our children. With Colin's gentle ministrations, I saw that the tide might just begin to turn. Over the next decades, God willing, we will care for each other until such time, as I'm beginning to see with my own aging mother, the care will shift more and more often with me on the receiving end. As I think of this continuum of caring, I see it in all of my close relationships. When we were in college and everyone's financial stability was constantly shifting, we had a phrase among our friends: "It will all even out in the end." You buy the pizza tonight, and I'll get it next time. You put up with my little tantrum today, and I'll put up with yours next week. And it worked, except for one three week period in the Soviet Union when we were short of hard currency and our friend Richard had to pay for drinks in the hotel bar night after night.
When Colin was finished treating me, I walked into his bedroom and picked the California paperweight from his bedside table. The heavy blue liquid spilled fluidly from one side to the other, first engulfing the palm tree on one side and then, on the other, surrounding the indentation where you could stick a pen or pencil. The two windsurfers gimbaled across the top, constantly tossed but maintaining their equilibrium.
"What are you doing?" asked Colin as he walked past me to pick up his Herodotus from the floor and flop into bed.
"I'm messing with this thingee here," I said, hoping to cement the power of my recent epiphany by watching the waves.
"It doesn't make you look too smart, Mrs. Brilliance."
"No?" I turned to gaze at this smartass child I had spawned.
"You're a grown-up playing with a cheap airport souvenir for no particular reason while I'm trying to read ancient Greek history." I acknowledged that this was true but I must have looked sad because he changed his expression.
"What's wrong?" he said, looking alarmed that he might have taken the joke too far. "Are you okay?" I put the paperweight back on his nightstand and sat down beside him on the bed.
"I'm fine," I said and gathered him in my arms.
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