You are so small, I think. Do you know how small you are?
I am holding Callie's leash, because you aren't yet big enough to make sure she won't bolt off. Even though she's just a corgi (and an old, fat dog, at that), the scent of the beach in springtime has her choking and straining at the harness.
I measure my steps so you can keep up with me. You are sturdier than you were even a few months ago - you've grown like kudzu over the winter - but your legs still sport a snug layer of baby fat. On asphalt or concrete you are more than a match for me, but as we step off the boardwalk onto the loose sand your tread slows as your Keds sink deep into the morning-cool dunes. You stop frequently to peruse the morning glories that are still dewy and wide open to what promises to be a killingly hot sun.
You don't talk much. It's apparent even at your tender age that you will be a mostly silent witness to much of what life shows you. When I started this job, I made the mistake of attempting to "draw you out" with mindless chatter. "Mitchell, what does the kitty say?" "Hey Boo-boy, do you see the squirrel in the birdfeeder?" But you were stubbornly quiet, watchful, almost wary. Once I learned to back off, you began to offer up bits and pieces of your world like shards of stained glass. I grew to look forward to your rare but surprisingly insightful observations, and our days together took on an almost wordless rhythm. I learned to appreciate stillness from watching you watch the spring rain as you meditatively chewed animal crackers and pointed to the softball-sized camellias that were just beginning to bloom.
This morning, I arrived at my usual six o'clock to deal with your moody, pregnant mother, who has a love/hate relationship with me. She's grateful that I care for you as much as I do, but she's obviously jealous of the deepening affection you have for me. You never cry anymore when she leaves; as a matter of fact, these days you cling to me when she comes home at night. Privately, I don't blame you. Her lap is shrinking, she has little time to cuddle these days, and all your meals and outings are shared with me. I shrug off her growing coldness - her choices are her own. Being a doctor could have waited until her child was old enough to know her from his nanny, but I can understand how twelve years of medical school would be difficult to put on hold for something as trivial as child rearing. I realize that more than any child I've ever worked with, you are your very own person. I see so little of your mother in you that she may as well be the nanny.
After she leaves in a flurry of activity and guilt-ridden kisses, you trot to the hall closet where Callie's leash is hanging on the knob. You look up at me hopefully. "Beach?" you ask plaintively. I ruffle your fine golden hair. "After breakfast, Boo," I reply.
I still call you Boo, even though your mom and nearly transparent father had a solemn conference with me a couple of weeks ago about the evils of nicknames. Carrie and Jeff sat across their antique-strewn living room on the overstuffed couch, facing me like a low-rent parental Supreme Court. "Please call him Mitchell," Jeff mumbled, obviously discomfited. "We just feel that calling him Boo fosters a sense of familial dependency on you." (Subtext: You are the help. Know your place. Do not try to take ours.) "Sure," I shot back, "And as long as I'm not demeaning him by calling him by a nickname that makes him giggle, should I discontinue feeding him, changing his diapers, and taking him to the park every day as well?" (No subtext there.) Carrie stiffened; Jeff squirmed and shuffled his feet; I prepared to be fired. But Carrie quickly recovered and bared her teeth at me in a sorry approximation of a smile. "Now, Ashley..." she began in an infuriatingly patronizing tone, "we're just trying to set up some boundaries. We feel that calling him by a nickname undermines the intimacy we have with our son." After a few moments of awkward silence I asked to be excused from that kangaroo court and went out to my car to blare Nine Inch Nails and scream along with Trent Reznor for a while.
After a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs and Vienna sausage (your newest food obsession), we haul out your car seat, diaper bag, and assorted sunscreens for a morning trip to the beach. Between yawns and cups of coffee, I keep hoping you'll forget to want Callie to come along. I'm not a dog person, and I know from past experience that corgi stench is nigh impossible to remove from car upholstery. As usual, though, you forget nothing, and as I'm gathering up all the beach sundries you grab Callie's leash and toddle over to her. I'm amused as I watch your clumsy little fingers try to navigate the hook on her collar, and oddly touched that she stands so still for you. "OK, Mitch," I sigh. "Gimme that, child." I clamp the leash on, thump Callie once or twice on her flabby flanks, and pile all of us into my Honda Accord. You are beside yourself with that brand of delight that is peculiar to preschool-aged children. "Keep your diapers on, Boo," I say fondly, and with typical literalism you reach down to hold on to the waistband of your pull-ups. I smile at you in the rear view mirror, and you smile back.
The beach is only about a five minute drive from the house, and we can smell the surf well before we reach the parking area. Though it's still too chilly to swim - it's only April - the air is warm, and I immediately remove your jacket and shirt so I can slather your tiny torso with sunscreen. Callie is making little growly sounds of excitement in her throat, her stub of a tail a blur on her fat behind, and it's all I can do to keep her from tearing the leash out of my hand. I grin in spite of myself, in spite of your parents' stern admonitions to go about my job joylessly, in spite of the fact that I am 25 and in a dead-end job. I grin even though I know my days with you are numbered.
We're a motley crew, the three of us, as we trudge toward the harder packed sand that will be easier on your pink feet and yield a better harvest of shells to add to your treasure trove on your bedroom windowsill. At present, the sill displays a blue butterfly wing (I told you that a fairy shed it when she grew), a bluejay skull that we found in the park one day (which prompted a child-sized discussion of death, a concept you received silently, in stride), and a peacock feather we picked up during a visit to a local plantation. The feather's gorgeous on its own, but to you it's simply a souvenir of the glorious, arrogant birds that roamed the grounds, screeching like prehistoric monsters. You are very particular about what you keep; in the ten months we've known one another, these are the only artifacts that seem part of the permanent collection of the Mitchell Museum of Natural History. I'm hoping we find a whole, perfect sand dollar today so I can tell you that King Neptune uses them as currency. I plan on stuffing you with as many beautiful lies as possible before I go.
After a minute or two, we reach the packed sand. The tide is out, and tiny periwinkle shells crunch under our feet like popcorn. You giggle at the sound. "Shoes!" you demand, pointing at your little red Keds. "Sure, Boo. The beach is no place for shoes. Don't ever let them tell you differently." I take off your shoes and socks and you stand there taking it all in - the briny breeze on your pudgy tummy, the sand between your toes, the impossible azure sky that ends abruptly at the green horizon. You toddle around cautiously, careful to keep me close by, stopping often to inspect dead crabs, interesting shells, clumps of seaweed. Suddenly I feel bad for Callie - it seems so unfair to keep her on the leash. No one else is in sight, and she is always obedient when I call her at home, so I bend down and gently unclasp the leash from her collar. For a second she can hardly believe her luck. She stands stock still, gazing at me as if asking for permission. "Go on," I urge her, "run!" And she does.
Damned if I'm not amazed. I'd only seen her leashed or confined to the house. I'd thought waddling her only means of locomotion, her only medium, and I am joyously repentant as I watch her run. Her absurd, tiny legs pump furiously, her stomach scrapes the sand, and something like grace uncoils in her wake, sweeping over us like a banner. Callie unfolds, becoming a puppy again, a white gold scrap on the lip of the ocean.
I look down at you.
(Do you know how small you are?)
You are watching me watch Callie.
(Do you know how beautiful you are? How much my heart breaks when I consider becoming a hazy memory to you? How sometimes when you are sleeping I pretend I am your mommy? How sometimes when you are still glazed with sleep after naptime you actually call me "Mommy"? That these are some of the reasons I have to leave?)
As you watch me, I realize this: that I want someone to remember me the way I'm remembering you...sun-gilded, wind-burnished, golden and brown as Harvest, and there
(I see it, even if they don't)
barely submerged in your laughably new eyes: the guileless blue gaze of a prophet.