"When I grow up, I'll be a man," you shout, a smile beaming from your sweet face. I tickle your belly, barely covered these days by your favorite, faded Superman tee. "Yes," I say, trying to smile, "one day you'll be a man."
I continue to smile, but I grow quiet, filled with thoughts I can't express to you. With bittersweet emotions I hold inside.
When you're a man, these tiny fingers that grasp mine will slip away. I'll no longer feel the soft skin of your palm against mine, as we walk down the street, looking for squirrels, who are clearly hiding from our clever pursuit. Your hand will belong to another, who will reach out for the rough, strong hands of a man. And these moments of quiet, trusting connection between us will fade in your mind... but will forever inhabit mine.
When you're a man, you won't ask my permission. All those hopeful refrains of "Can I, Mommy?" -- your eyes growing wide as you try to overpower my protectiveness with your curiosity and fire -- will be silenced. Eager pleas will be replaced by bold decisiveness, as you forge your own path. And I'll be watching from the sidelines, always your biggest fan.
When you're a man, you won't ask me to tuck you in, desperate for mine to be the last face you see before you surrender to sleep. You won't beg for one more verse of "Wheels on the Bus," or demand a final hug before letting me turn off the lights. You'll have your own home, and, if you're lucky, someone else to gaze upon lovingly before drifting off to sleep. But I'll never stop longing for one more verse of our favorite lullaby, one more whisper of "Goodnight, mama" before I turn off the lights.
When you're a man, you won't drag your blanket onto the couch, climb into my lap, and declare "I want to snuggle." You won't jump in puddles or call yellow "yeh-yoh." You won't run into my arms when I enter a room, or write me love letters (red squiggles on paper you translate as "I love you"). You won't climb onto the kitchen counter and proudly declare you're taller than me, and then throw your little arms around my neck while I halfheartedly chastise you for climbing on the furniture (because secretly I love grabbing you and swinging you around the kitchen, while you squeal with surprised glee).
No, when you're a man, you'll be restrained and responsible, and all the other things grown-ups are expected to be. Although I secretly hope you'll still splash in puddles now and then, and, when I'm the only one listening, mispronounce "yellow" one last time.
When you're a man, you'll be strong, and funny, and kind. I like to think you'll still write love letters -- but they'll be filled with actual words, pouring your heart out to the love of your life. You may still sing along to "Wheels on the Bus" -- but at the bedside of your own child, who clamors for just a few moments more with Daddy, one last snuggle before turning off the lights...
When you're a man, you'll still be my son. You'll still be my joy, my laughter, my bright, beautiful light. But you'll no longer be all mine.
And so, watching you beam with pride at the thought of your inevitable adulthood, I do my best to share your enthusiasm. "Yes, when you grow up, you'll be a man," I agree.
But not today. Today you're still my baby boy. And I'm holding on tight.