We move from the theater to the minivan in a happy little group, kicking loose rocks and giggling about the antics of Lego guys. I slide open the door and everyone scrambles in. Everyone but you, that is. As I look down on the top of your golden head, I can almost hear your tiny teeth clench. You flash me the look that sets my own teeth on edge and then stare at the ground, heels digging into the gravel.
“C’mon, let’s go get pizza! Yum!” I chirp.
“No,” you declare. “I don’t want to.”
“Everyone’s waiting. Get in the car. . . . Okay, I’m going to count to three and then I’m going to pick you up. One. Two . . .” You climb in with a growl and slump into your car seat. I move to fasten the chest clip.
“NOOO I WANT TO DO IT!” you shriek. I stand back to let you try, but you don’t. You fix me with your steely baby blues and move not one single muscle.
“That’s it,” I huff. I click your buckle and dive into the passenger seat before the maelstrom can begin. But begin it does.
“Noooooooooooo!” you shrill as your dad pulls the minivan out of the parking lot and I slowly close my eyes. My eardrums protest as you pause to refill your lungs. Your next blast puts the first to shame.
Your siblings, who have inconveniently low tolerance levels for sudden, distressing noise, react as I predict. Your brother immediately slams his palms against his ears and yells at you to stop. Your sister yells at him to stop making it worse. Soon we have three kids in tears, one of them under so much duress that he gives himself a nosebleed. And still you scream and flail, kicking the back of my seat, growing hoarser yet louder by the second. Your dad mutters something, eyes on the road, hands at ten and two, intent to reach the end of this happy family outing.
I make no effort to quell the rage. My voice would not be heard if I tried. I slouch in my seat, my powerlessness engulfing me, the walls of the minivan closing in as we move too slowly and sit too long at stoplights. I know this is just a tantrum. Because you’re three. But it feels like a warning siren, a harbinger of some dire future. If I can’t handle you now, what will become of us?
The second the engine turns off, your sister flies out of the van and takes off on her bike, as far and as fast as she can go. Your brother runs to his bedroom and slams the door. Your dad stomps into the house in frustration. As I hastily unbuckle your cursed straps, I spend one second thinking about that Internet article entitled “Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child,” the one that told me to remain calm, to sit with you and hug it out and give you a safe place to release your emotions. The very next second I flee, leaving you to wail and gasp in a soggy heap on the floor of the van.
It’s the next afternoon. Sunday. We’re sitting on the creaky old bench on our front porch, just the two of us. The hazy sunlight warms our skin and makes jewels of the nail polish bottles lined up at our feet. Just when I’m almost too hot, the late-spring breeze comes along, rustling the leaves that hide us from view of the street. The light seems thick and lazy, like a golden blanket muffling the sounds of distant children and lawnmowers.
You plop your grubby little feet with their flip-flop-shaped tan lines on my lap. “I want pink sparkles on my toenails, Mama.” (“Pink spock-ohs on my toe-nay-ohs.”) I apply said sparkles to your specks of nails, and while the breeze lifts the purple leaves and trails your long, wispy curls across my face, we converse. We talk about birds, and Elsa, and the sounds of trains and ice cream trucks. Your nose scrunches up as you scrutinize my work. When I’m finished, you rest that creamy cheek against my arm and announce with a sigh, “Well, actually, I wanted blue on my toes.”
Not again. “No, you can’t change your mind once I’m finished.” I brace for a meltdown. Wait a beat. Then—
“Okay. I will get blue next time.”
I look at you, this little creature I know intimately, who is in my face for half the day and at my feet the other half, this flesh of my flesh, this chocolate-mouthed monster with whom I have shared my oxygen, my minutes and years, and my last bite of everything, whose tears mingled with mine in the colic days, when we would pace the floor together, me trying every shushing technique in the book.
I gaze at you, this perfect little stranger.
And now you are on your feet, smudging your still-wet pedicure, performing a new dance that is all the rage in nursery. “You put your hand in, you put your hand out, that’s what it’s all about!” You hokey-pokey around, toenails sparkling in the sun, hair lit up in a halo of tangles, eyes alive with everything. You’re not three; you’re just you. Timeless. I flash forward to other years, other new songs, other Sunday afternoons of talking and nail polish and wonder.
This is the picture I’ll keep. The next time you’re straining against the belts that hold you in, curled up in ear-splitting anger as the walls threaten to bury us all, I’ll reach into my emergency reserve and call you back, this you in the sun, arms outstretched, eyes alight, turning yourself around as though the world isn’t big enough to contain you.