The conversation started at bedtime as Stump, my five-year-old, was climbing into bed.
“I don’t want Smoke to be a teenager,” he told me, “because then he’ll be almost a grown-up.”
This was the first time he had told me this, and I didn’t know what to say. Stump tells me often that he doesn’t want to grow up. He wants to be a child forever. He wants to keep his life. And now, apparently, he was connecting the dots to his brother. If he was going to always be a child, then Smoke would need to always be a child too.
“Well,” I said, testing the waters, “he won’t really be a grown-up until he’s eighteen, and that’s nine whole years away.” This felt insincere, and I sensed that Stump was onto me. Smoke has already been alive in this world for nine whole years and then some. And while that feels like an eternity (who was I before him?), it also feels like barely any time at all. An eyeblink. Just one more eyeblink and he’ll be a man.
Stump sighed, exasperated. He knows his brother’s transformation is inevitable.
“Why don’t you want to be a grown-up?” I asked him.
“I don’t want to go to work,” he groaned.
I listed many jobs for him, but he wasn’t interested in any of them. “Do you want to be a builder?” I asked.
“No, I don’t want to build things.”
“You could design buildings.”
“No, I don’t want to design things.”
“You could sell toys.”
He rolled his eyes like I’d insulted him. “I don’t want to sell things. Ugh.” Mommy was full of bullshit tonight.
“I guess you’ll just have to be rich somehow.”
He perked up at the thought. “Yeah, I’m gonna be rich.”
“Will you take care of me then?”
“Will you buy me food and make me dinner? Because I’ll be an old lady.”
“What?” he asked. He looked startled.
I laughed. “Yeah, honey, I’ll be like a grandma.” I pictured myself with loose skin and gray hair. I pictured myself frail, tucked into bed, like the grandmas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which we had been reading the week before. Stump must have pictured that too.
“No.” Stump cried, and buried himself beneath the covers. I gave him a moment. “Hey,” I said. When I pulled the covers from his face, his eyes were red and tear-lined.
I was so sorry I had said that. I’ll be an old lady. He had started the conversation by telling me he didn’t want his brother to change, and now here I was requiring him to picture me transformed. It occurs to me now that he had never once imagined me changing. In the five years he’s known me I’ve gained wrinkles and pounds, but the process is gradual—invisible to him. I don’t compare to his brother who outgrows two pairs of shoes in a season.
Stump looked up at me. “I never want you to die,” he said.
“I’m not going to die,” I lied. And then I opened our bedtime book. Stump was asleep by page fourteen.
Later that night, when I went to check on Smoke, my nine-year-old, he had already fallen asleep in his bed, mouth agape, book half-open where he’d dropped it. I brushed the hair from his forehead as I always do and this time it was damp at the hairline. He’d been sweating in his sleep. He squirmed a little, farted twice, and settled. I felt like maybe I had a teenager already.
The bathroom, for me, has lately become a place where I reckon with my aging, a place where I squeeze and examine the new stubborn pounds I’ve put on over the last three years, a place where I assess the bags under my eyes and the lines around my mouth, a place where I apply various lotions and pray for the best. This week, alone in the bathroom while my children sleep soundly, I keep thinking of what Stump said to me–I never want you to die–and for brief moments I see aging through his eyes. Somehow, when I’ve thought about my own aging, I’ve forgotten the most important thing: Death. Instead, I’ve seen aging as a cruel test to my vanity. I constantly wonder why, as I get older and more sure of who I am I have to be distracted by these details of my appearance that I’ve pretended not to care about.
But to Stump, the thought of me growing older doesn’t fill him with contempt. His fear is kinder than mine, grounded not in vanity, but in love. When I picture myself aging through Stump’s eyes, there is sweetness there. In Stump’s eyes, me getting older means this: I head towards the light, and then I disappear.
When I locate death as the end point of my aging, everything changes. I think of my family and not my appearance. I think not about fighting my body, but about wanting to hold close to the things I most love.