It’s 5:00am. He’s made the coffee and brushed his teeth. I am only sleep walking, eyes closed to tend to the Littlest before his cries rally the rest of the house. It’s one of his favorite parts of the day, Mark tells me. I pick my head up, make bleary eye-contact, completely surprised by this admission. (There is not much he can surprise me with anymore. Not for as long and as wide and as deep as we’ve been each other’s). But there it is: this barely-awake, body-check-like hug of mine, in which I throw my head into his chest. It has become routine enough. And Mark, he knows to expect this.
My eyes blink to clear the sleep. I’ve done my job with the Littlest, am on the worn path back to my own bed. I tip my head, asking for more. “It’s so rare that you let me hold you” he says, mouth pressed up against my ear, his face lost in my tangled hair. His arms wrap hard around my shoulders and my tired body can offer no resistance. His words sink deep into my half awake brain, bounce around till they find a shelf to land on. I’ll retrieve them later, acknowledge what I already know as truth. When did it get so hard to be held? He sends me back into my dim bedroom and I slide under the cool sheets, thankful for the promise of another hour of sleep. But his day has begun, and moments later the click of the front door sends him out into the world to do his work.
I know what he means. At the end of the day I carry the slumbering Middlest from my bed into her own, the weight of her head pressing into my shoulder, her legs further down my body than they were the night before. Her hair is matted with sweat to her forehead and around her ears; she makes tiny squeaks of recognition when I kiss her cheek. This, too, if often a moment when I want to remember. I pause to breath her in. She let’s me hold her. I am thankful for her surrender, aware of the trust that she offers. But it’s easier, isn’t it – child to mother? When did it get so hard to be held? I think I know: when I became the holder.
I still wear his old baseball shirt, the one from 1991. He was 13. It is gray with red lettering, number 3. We didn’t know each other then (there was a time?). He was still small, not yet growing like some others on his team. He didn’t know it at the time – probably wished he was bigger, taller, stronger (though none were faster) — but he was the perfect size: that shirt was perfect for him. Is perfect for me, now. Had he been more of something else, this shirt would not be so right now. It hits my shoulders in just the right spots, falls to the right length at my hips. Soft and broken in in ways that only time truly can. I sleep in this shirt more nights than not, and often it is my uniform for summer days. In the earlier years of our relationship, I was proud to wear his name stretched between my shoulder blades. As the years have bled into each other, the letters have fallen off. Our name can only be read in contrast to the rest of the aged shirt. The shirt, though, has far fewer rips than others that have come in between. It is made well. Somehow, I can’t help but think this says something about us.
I swear now: I will barrel my head into his chest today, fully awake, and let him hold me. But I know that when he comes home, I will be making dinner. Most likely someone will be crying. He’ll hand me a stack of mail; I’ll be annoyed that he didn’t take care of the junk or sort out the bills. He’ll look for a clean shirt when he gets out of the shower, and I’ll shout out orders to any who will listen. The Littlest has a new tooth, the Middlest a new band-aid, and the Eldest a new word to spell. But at the end of it all I know this: there are enough arms to go around. Enough holding and being held to last this family’s lifetime. I’ll trade in the clothes of the day for the little gray t-shirt with red lettering. I’ll be his, and he’ll be mine. And we’ll hold each other for a while.