The kids have discovered this holly tree that stands guard at the corner of our yard leaning haphazardly over the swing set. It was at one time part of a pair, but its match was cut down a few years ago, both to make room for the swing set and to open up some sunlight into this patch of yard and house. The holly tree is nothing special, and indeed is quite lopsided. It was the less healthy of the two trees, but it had better placement, so we left it alone. At one time we thought maybe all it needed was to be shaded less by its braggy, taller older sister, but years later it still uneven and a bit awkward, as though one big push for the kids might just knock it to the ground.
This may be why I’m a bit wary of this recent discovery. The trees branches are sparse around the base on one side, allowing for a bit of a gateway into this hidden world under the shade of the rest of the branches as they wrap their way up and around the trunk. My memories of similar forts seem not that long ago under arching branches in the backyard of my childhood, so this was not the part that worried me. It was once they were in this hideaway that the kids noticed that the arms of the tree were low to the ground and close together, an invitation to climb.
My kids are not inexperienced climbers. There is another tree, a stronger, sturdier tree, on the other side of the yard. The kids know how to muscle themselves up into the crooks of its branches, nestling in, following the way of the birds. That tree, though, is much closer to the road than I like them playing on their own, and is quite separate from the rest of our play area. This holly tree, instead, fits like an extension of the swing set, a jungle gym of Mother Nature’s providing. At first, I was fine with their ambitious climbing, watching as they tested out the strength of their own legs, the length of their bravery. Then a branch cracked. There is a scene in Winnie-the-Pooh when Pooh bear, ever on the hunt for honey, is climbing up a tree chasing after the bees that live there. But his branch breaks and he bump-de-bump-de-dumps on down the tree hitting every third branch or so. Being a stuffed bear, he is no worse for the wear. This, however, is how I envisioned Renee’s topple from her perch on the branch that snapped. Tough girl that she is, and being only a few feet off the ground, she popped herself back up, only pausing a moment to take inventory of her war wounds before leaning into the tree to hoist herself back up again.
“Mama, look at me!”
“Do you see me? Look how high I am!”
You know how it is, because your kids do it, too, no doubt. They want to be seen. They are eager to show me how high they climb, how strong they are, how brave. They want me to affirm them, share in their victory. And I do. And that’s when I see how high they really are, now. Grinning ear to ear, standing precariously above my head on those same, rickety, thin branches of this gnarly developed holly tree that snapped only moments before. I holler one last, “Great job! Look at you go!” into the thick green, and I turn my back and walk away. I walk away.
I walk away because I don’t want my fear, my sense of caution, to interfere with their sense of accomplishment. Renee was, after all, the one who fell and here she is, still climbing. She knows the risk. Grant, too, bounced on a lower branch, goofing around, only to hear the crack of the branch breaking from the trunk, landing only inches lower on solid ground with a thud.
They keep climbing. Higher than I thought they could, higher than I thought they would want to. They keep reaching for the next rickety branch, posting against the trunk, tiptoes stretched and pressing off of lower branches. It only takes moments for Griffin, only two years old, not yet even two and a half, to watch his brother and sister and simply follow suit.
Sometimes I think being a mother, a good one, is covering my face with my hands and watching through the tiny slits covering my eyes. Sometimes I think there is no other way.
I feel this tension, sometimes, most times, of holding tight and letting go. There is a strong pull to be present, too see each moment, to witness it and hold it. But sometimes what needs to happen most is for me to not be so present, so staunchly standing guard. Sometimes, I need to have blurry vision, back out of the picture a bit, and give over the kids’ minds and bodies to live their own life, be their own kind of witness.
Watching, now, I want to pluck Griffin from that tree, tell him that he is too little. My mind is racing with all sorts of scenarios, almost all of them involving broken bones (my dad is an orthopedic surgeon, and these exact scenarios are his bread and butter, after all). Lucky for us all, Griffin is fast, faster than my mind or my mouth, and before I can decide what to do, he is five feet in the air already, having cleared at least a dozen branches. Grant shouts out to me, makes sure that I can see this: “Mom! Look at Griffin! He’s climbing the tree!”
All on his own, this two year old has watched, and learned, and tried it for himself. He has no grown up propping him up, placing his hands at a good grip. There are no arms under him, spotting him for that fall that may never happen. He is strong, and he is brave, and he is climbing a tree, fearlessly, perhaps recklessly, but all by himself.
Half of me wants to shout his praise, high five him (once he’s safely on the ground) and kiss him full on the mouth. The other half of me wants to vomit.
Because I try to be that good mom, I know that what I’m supposed to do here. I will be his biggest cheerleader, no matter how scared I am for him. I will let him reach for the next branch. I will hold my breath, say a prayer, and walk away if I need to.
A moment later, his feet can’t quite make the step and he slips off of the lower branch. He untwists his body a bit to wiggle out from under a pinching branch, then hangs for a moment, his two-year old lithe body suspended from a branch. He could be hanging from a trapeze for as absurd as he looks. I watch a flash of insecurity cross his face, but it only lasts a second. He’s strong, and though it takes him a moment to realize it, his grasp is tight. He sizes up his options before letting go of one hand, taking hold of a lower branch with it, and dropping safely to the ground.
“Griffin! You are so strong. And so brave!” Grant, too, always the older brother, is Griffin’s cheerleader. In that instant, Griffin goes from being a baby in his brother’s eyes to being his equal. Later Grant tells me: “Mom, now Griffin is just like us.”
The kids are all back on the ground with only a few new blisters and scratches as a reminder of their adventures. No broken bones today. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be any in the future. Maybe the hard work of good mothering is being present through the worry and straight into the raw moments of hurt. I may not be able to protect them from that broken arm, a failing grade or a crushed heart, but I will certainly be the one to drive them to the hospital with a bag of ice and a hug. Always a hug. I will hurt, too, because my child hurts. Maybe motherhood is an exercise in opposites. I’m learning that the worry and the brave, the pain and the beauty, the holding tight and letting go, aren’t competing energies in a force field, but more like a circle of a yin-yang, swirling in and around each other, each beautiful against the stark contrast of the other.
Griffin, like his brother and sister, can and will climb that tree, higher than I consider safe, and on branches that are too rickety. And I will watch, from a distance, with my hands over my eyes when I need to, but always with enough space for me to see them.
“Look, mom! Can you see me? Look how high I am!”
Yes, I see you. I see you.