Friday, June 13, 2008

Baby Tiger

On Tuesday I went through the piles of schoolwork that came home with the children on their last day of school. I sat alone at the kitchen table dividing their work into those destined for the circular file and those worthy of saving. I came across Aidan’s first-grade writing journal and began flipping through the pages. As I perused the drawings and pored over the words, in their awkward and misspelled script, I was amazed at the proportion of them devoted to my illness and me. On page after page, he wrote about his sick mother and how sad he was, the words surrounded by unhappy faces with tears falling from their eyes. On one of the last pages, he drew a family picture. My figure included my feeding tube attached to the pump and IV pole. He had taken pains to draw the pump and pole in great detail, right down to the four wheels at the base of the pole. My heart ached for this poor child who is clearly so consumed with worry about my illness that his mind returns to this drama time and time again when he needs fodder for a writing assignment.

That same night we went through our usual nighttime ritual: he read to me and I sang his songs. While I was singing he rolled onto his back with his head hanging just slightly off the bed. His eyes closed, a contented grin eased across his face. When I finished singing I observed, “you look like a kitty cat.” He rolled over on to all fours and pretended to purr and snuggle against my arm.

When Aidan was younger, he had a host of animal personas, each with a unique little personality. Often, when I was on my toes, I would invoke one of his animal personas to cooperate with an order when Aidan didn’t want to play along. Of all the personas, Baby Tiger, was his very favorite.

Last night my comment about his contented Cheshire cat grin must have touched off the memory. It has been nearly two years since we last played Baby Tiger. “Can we play Baby Tiger?” he asked excitedly. I went along and we played it just as we always had. In the game he is a baby tiger all alone in the jungle and I am a ferocious tigress. When I first come upon him he is hiding and I pounce upon him, harming him albeit slightly. As I pull him from the foliage I realize that he is just a cub. “Where is your mother?” I ask according to Aidan’s strict script. “I don’t know,” he whimpers his part, “she went into the jungle and hasn’t come back.” “Oh,” my furious tigress melts into a gentle mother, “You are all alone. Do you want me to take care of you?” In our game he returns with me to my den where I feed him paw to mouth. He opens his mouth and smacks his lips together, pretending to take in much needed sustenance. Then I wrap him in blankets and bid him good night, “I am sorry I hurt you Baby Tiger; I promise to take care of you now.”

I suppose Baby Tiger started when Aidan was about 4 years old, long before my illness had wreacked havoc with our lives. We must have played this game over 100 times since then and last night it hit me like a ton of bricks. “He knows,” I thought to myself, “He’s always known that I am going to leave him. He really is Baby Tiger.” How did I never see it before now? And I left his room feeling guilty for my oversight and desperately sad for my poor little boy.

Someone told me our souls chose their destinies before coming to earth. This notion appeals to the control freak in me and, today, I gave this idea a lot of thought. The comedienne in me pictured a line of souls in a room not unlike the unemployment office. I pictured my soul getting to the window and being told my options by some overworked individual in their version of purgatory, “Today I can offer you a happy existence complicated by scleroderma or starving in Malawi.” Naturally I imagined myself trying to negotiate a better deal to no avail and ultimately settling on the former. But then I tried to picture my children’s souls opting for life without a mother and all the babies in Africa sentenced with the same fate but far fewer resources with which to recover. Why chose such a fate?

And another thing occurred to me. When does our soul forget the chosen path? Aidan was born five weeks early, maybe he missed the crucial window for forgetting the fate he had chosen for himself. Maybe that is why Aidan always seems to view the glass as “half-empty.” Maybe that is why he is so easily upset and angered. Maybe he has always known he got a raw deal.

Or maybe Aidan is just intuitive and emotional.

When we lived in Paris I befriended a woman named Fabienne. One day we were sitting in the courtyard of our building watching the children play. Aidan ricochoted from one emotion to the next, as per his usual. “You know,” Fabienne observed knowing nothing of my heritage, “Aidan is very Italian.” And he is. He feels everything, all the way. His anger is volcanic, his laughter unbridled, his joy uncontainable, his curiosity insatiable. He can be so infuriating one minute and so loveable the next. He is exhausting. But his senses are so fine-tuned that he overlooks nothing. Perhaps he just picked up easily on all the subtle clues before the rest of us did.

He knows he is going to lose me and he copes by engaging me in a dance in which he pulls me close only to resist me. He wants so much to have me near but cannot bear to need me that much knowing I will someday be gone. So he pushes me away, sometimes physically with angry feet and hands and sometimes with vicious words. What can I do? When he pulls me close, I hold on for dear life, “My boy. I love you so much.” And when he pushes me away I try not to take it personally because I know his heartache. Sometimes I cannot bear to look at my kids; it hurts too much. And I wonder if sometimes he looks at me and wonders, “How can you leave me? I need you.”

What a burden to bear on such small shoulders. So I keep asking God or the fates or whoever is in charge, “Please I need more time. Just let his shoulders grow broad enough to bear the burden and then I can go. He is not ready yet.”

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