Waiting for whispers

When I was a tiny boy and it was time for me to go to bed, my dad would hoist me over his shoulder and lug me through the house from room to room, pausing along the way so I could bid a good night to various things affixed to the walls and ceiling. We’d first stop at a painting in the living room where, facing backwards in the air, I would say, “Night, night picture of kitty,” then we would move on to, in order, a light fixture, a thermostat, a mirror, and some brass decorative doohickey by the front door. I’d finish my nocturnal fare-the-wells by wishing sweet dreams to the smoke detector over the hall closet.

Our whole expedition would travel barely 40 feet and take no more than a minute, but I still recall that bouncy ride into my bedroom with such clarity and fondness that it can sometimes make me a little weepy. If I think back hard enough, I can still feel my dad’s 12-hour beard scratching against my pajamas (sniff).

We had similar little bedtime rituals with our own children: Winnie-the-Pooh stories (sometimes under the covers with flashlights), pillow fights and tickle-fests (neither conducive to drifting off to sleep), crackers and milk, prayers, and the inevitable snuggling deep down under the blankets. If I had a dollar for every night that I had to extricate myself out from under the sprawled limbs of some just-asleep child, I’d be rich. Actually, I’m rich without the money.

My son, in particular, required intensive snuggling. Late each evening, he’d wander around the house looking for me, yawning, rubbing his eyes, and dragging some distressed stuffed animal by one dislocated leg. “Daddy, come and cuddle,” he’d say in his little sing-song voice, and then he’d find me and grab one of my fingers in his tiny fist and drag me off to his room.

We did this every night. For years. Precious years. Then, one night, my boy grew up.

I was flopped on the couch with a good book when I heard the familiar scuffle of small feet in one-piece pajamas. Around the corner came my sleepy little boy, yawning and skidding a dismembered giraffe behind him. I started to close my book and get up, but the boy, without even glancing my way, simply said, “Night, night, Daddy,” and trailed off toward his room. When he got there, he reached up, turned the knob, opened the door, stepped into the darkness, and then very slowly closed the door behind him. I can still hear the click of the latch.

I just sat on the couch holding my half-closed book and stared at that closed door. The world paused as my mind tried to wrap itself around what had just happened. I was sad and happy and scared and proud and confused, all at once. Amazed and startled that a milestone could pass so quickly, so peacefully, and with no warning. Already missing the boy and anticipating the man. And, I realized just then that I was not ready for this. That for some foolish reason I had imagined that boyhood would never end. That I would always hear my son’s little sing-song voice each evening at bedtime. That we would always cuddle. That Winnie-the-Pooh would never give way to calculus.

Then, as the weight of time pressed harder and the tears began to well, the knob on my son’s door slowly began to turn again. And then the latch clicked lightly and the door opened. Just a crack. And I held my breath, waiting for him to whisper my name.

My boy is full grown now, and he no longer wears pajamas with feet. As I write this, he is somewhere near 23.6261 degrees south and 43.2922 degrees west, off the southeast coast of Brazil, dashing around the churning Atlantic, prospecting for offshore oil. I miss him terribly, but am so proud.

I’m still here on the couch, son, and if you whisper, I’ll hear you. But if you’re in a helicopter, for goodness sake, keep the door closed.

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