by Polly Hollar Pauley
On my son’s seventh birthday this summer, we breakfasted out, per his request, and then spent five hours at a local vineyard enjoying music, feasting, and visiting while we celebrated our dear friends’ wedding anniversary. We were surprised when the entire crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to our son. I watched him in wonder during the song; as the huge chorus of voices rose and everyone smiled at him and sang, he seemed to enjoy it in his shy, half-smiling way. Tears stood in my eyes.
Only a few short years ago he never would have been able to handle that situation. From his earliest colicky days he seemed like an unusual baby, but even after his colic faded he was intense. He reserved his sweet, gummy smiles for a select few, and everyone else got what we dubbed “the serious face.” Sudden laughter or loud noises resulted in meltdowns, even in the middle of a church sermon.
I grew used to removing him from social situations; he and I would hang out in an empty room, reading books. I remember sitting on the floor of a Sunday School room at church one Sunday, puzzling over why my child seemed to flip out so readily at the innocuous sound of laughter, and praying that God would teach me to parent him for who he was. My husband and I honored his obsession with flags or basketball goals, his panicked fear of balloons. We tried to be gentle with his temperament.
My son changed me. He made me a better person, which I desperately needed—without knowing I needed it, of course. I was humbled by the fact that he was out-of-the-box; I was forced to give up on what I thought he might do and what the parenting books said he should do, and I instead became a student of this particular child. When he was two years old we were told he may never communicate properly; the deliverer of this news was grim, not encouraging. We decided to use the “label” as a tool to help us help our son live in the world, but we never have defined him by it.
Our son has changed. His communication skills have exploded. His interests are still intense and consuming, but he can transition from one interest or activity to another without a problem. (For the record, at the age of seven, his top three interests are limousines, jellyfish, and confetti, with Andre Rieu’s orchestra, drawing, and building orchestra and theatre sets trailing closely behind.) I view his laser-focus as a gift; it helps him see something and then re-create it in multi-dimensional form. His artwork is lovely. Social situations take navigation and guidance, but he is becoming more natural at spontaneous social interactions. He is coming into his own.
All this is simply to say: a child is a gift. And, this child is my gift. Twenty-four hours of labor, urgent surgery for me the week after his birth, countless sleepless nights (years of sleepless nights), colic, unusual diets, inexplicable tantrums, late-blooming language—none of it can possibly hold a candle to the thousands of moments of joy and happiness and beauty that these seven years have brought to us. I would do it all over again, many times, to see him splashing in the cold Appalachian creek in slanting sunlight or running in the ocean surf at dusk, to watch him dashing ahead of me down our dusty country lane or jumping in the good mud puddles that form after a heavy rain.
I keenly feel the passage of time, because there are only 11 more years before he begins his own life as an adult. There’s an urgency to the flipping of the calendar; there are so many things we wish to impart to him, to show him, to enjoy with him, before he is grown, from how to bait a fishing rod to how to roll out cinnamon rolls, how to iron a shirt and how to stop everything and just gape at the sunset, and how to love someone for who they are, not who you think they should be.
Seven years ago I had no idea who I was holding in my arms—who was this person, and who would he become? I was overwhelmed with the responsibility of taking care of a baby, so overwhelmed that I couldn’t even bathe him myself the first few weeks of his life. I was terrified that I would drop him. Seven years later I am overwhelmed with radical gratitude because I was given this artistic, loquacious, witty, shy, clever, creative boy—and the gift of spending my days with him.
Polly Hollar Pauley’s poetry has been published in The Hollins Critic, Cider Press Review, Artemis, and The Allegheny Review. She lives in the Appalachian Mountains with her husband and children.
Photo from Amanda Reardon photography.