“Want to help me?” H asks his grandma.

She has just announced to the house that it’s time to get rid of the cottonwood seeds that have been drifting about on the dining room table for the past week. The white, fluffy puffs had been dancing through the sky gently, like angels, for days, dusting the lawn, catching in our sunflowers starts, stowing away beneath the thick growth of hostas and irises and cleaver.  H has clambered onto the chair at the head of the table in order to save his cottonwood seeds from certain composting.

“No,” his grandma says.

“Why not?”

“I’m busy eating.”

Her tone is fairly short, almost brusque.

“I know you’ll help later. A different time,” he says evenly, his voice filled with total and complete confidence that it will be so. I hear not even a hint of irritation, frustration, or anger. He sounds as if he were simply making a plain-as-day statement of fact.

Here he is again: My teacher. The words he’s using are mine, yes, but the spirit is all him and one I’m not sure I’ve been entirely successful at invoking every time I’ve come to those same words. So many of my invitations to help clean up, to put away, to clear the space for our next activity, to tidy up out of respect for our space and our belongings and the people living here – so many of these invitations have been declined, surely as many if not more than have been accepted. And I know, more often than I would like to admit, that the words have been buoyed up by a roiling undercurrent of frustration, one that is liable to break the surface and spill into the space between us. The words, when I attempt to use them as space holders, called forth as part of an effort not to say something damaging that I will later regret, fall short of what they could be, of what H has shown me they can be.

Here I am again: H’s student. I’m taking notes on how to pour peace, love, and trust into the words I place between us.

“I know you’ll help later. A different time.” Said without resentment, because I truly mean it, because I truly trust in him, in me, and in us. That’s the way I intend to say it next time and the time after that and until those words are no longer necessary. I’ll let them be words of peace.

“H, you have a beautiful heart.”

It is bedtime, and he is drifting in and out of sleep, telling me how beautiful and satisfying the world is, how wonderful it is that I am the mama, that grandma is the grandma, that papi is the papi. The world is like a rose, he tells me. No, the world IS a rose. Even one grain of pollen is so beautiful. If there were only one grain of pollen, it would contain beauty and satisfaction enough for him.

“How do you know my heart is beautiful when you can’t see it?”

“Because I can hear the words that come out of your mouth,” I tell him, gently touching his lips.

“The words do not come from my heart.”

“Where do the words come from?”

“Well, partly they come from my lungs.”

He rubs his torso, showing me.

“You have beautiful lungs then.”

This he seems to accept. I rub his back until he is asleep, letting each caress wrap me ever more warmly in the beautiful way he sees the world.

We are playing with puppets, acting out shows. Characters that H has named Old Grandma, New Grandma, Mama, Jack, Gretel, and Mathilda (a cow) make up The Family. The Family is the cast of the current show.

“It’s Grandma,” H says, directing Mama to the center of the stage.

“Is she a grandma now?” I ask. The instruction I had been given earlier was that the show starts with only Mama and everyone else in Mama’s uterus, so I guess that perhaps there has been a script change or a series of unannounced births.

“No, it’s Mama. She’s a witch!”

“A WITCH!”

“A witch! She eats little people,” H tells me.

“She does!” My eyes go wide.

“Except she doesn’t eat hands. She spits them out.”

“And eats the rest,” I supply.

“Yes!”

The show goes on.

***

H is in a season of wanting to hear and act out stories that get worse and worse. Terrible tragedies befall every protagonist, and seldom is any delivered from ruin or harm. The scenes are bleak, the unfortunate events unrelenting, the universe unforgiving.

I see him exploring the dark side of human nature and all those things we relegate to our shadows: fear, anger, confusion, resentment, despair, depression. It is as if he is asking, “What happens when everyone is angry?” And “How do I understand a world where there is so much pain?” And “What if people simply do unkind things much of the time? How would that be?” And “Is it okay to give voice to these things? Will I still be loved?”

It can be hard to wrap one’s mind around the shadow in a culture like ours that has turned away from it, where such a narrow range of expressed emotion is considered acceptable, where we repress things and then turn against each other with violent explosiveness.

He has been working on understanding it for months.

***

“You are not even— You are not— You are not even ANYWHERE!” H is furious, his small body wound tight with the indignity of the limit I had just set. He can hardly spit the words at me.

“Sweets, you sound upset.”

“You are NOT my friend. You are NOT good. You are NOT— You are NOT EVEN ALIVE.”

“You wish I were dead,” I reflect back to him. I am calm. Steady. I want him to know that he is seen and heard and that I can handle it.

“Yes! I wish you were dead and I had a stepmother!”

***

Folktales and fairy tales have been in heavy rotation during our reading time as of late. In a version of Hansel and Gretel we’ve read, the children’s mother has died, leaving them with a father so weak in spirit and character that he is unable to provide for the family and a stepmother who wants to be rid of the children because she has prioritized her need to eat over theirs. The children are repeatedly left in the forest by their father and stepmother before they find their way to a witch who imprisons them to fatten them up for later roasting and feasting. It is not a cheery story. H loves it.

We were several readings into Hansel and Gretel before he asked me to define stepmother. I explained in general terms, not calling on the specifics of our current family structure to help illustrate the concept, although that was fore in my mind as I carefully chose the words I used to describe the relationship between child and stepparent. He asked if he might someday have a stepmother. I said it was possible and left it at that.

***

Now he is angry.

It is not the first time that he has called me not good, disowned me, or wished me dead. These are age-appropriate expressions of real, deeply felt emotions that I do not take personally. I am not usually triggered by them, but this time I felt a pang of sadness, not for the expression of his anger and frustration, but for how close he came to my tender, wounded spots. How will I feel if one day H does have a stepmother? Will I be able to wish her well? Will I be able to embrace, truly and fully, her relationship with my son? What old feelings related to the dissolution of my marriage will be dredged up? Will I catch myself in moments overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy, shame, regret? Will I be able to embrace my shadow?

Whatever may come with regard to my co-parent’s marital status, what comes up for me will be my own personal work. H’s work now is to have all of his feelings, every single one, including those some would have him push into the shadows. His expression of those feelings is not about me. My work now, as his parent, is to make space for them all, to breathe into them, and to accept him just as he is. My work is to embrace his shadow so that he can embrace it, too.

It is hard to wrap one’s mind around the shadow in a culture like ours. I have been working on it for years, and here is another opportunity to practice.

He is angry, and I do not turn him away. I do not shame him. I do not shut him down. I sit with him.

We sit in the shadow together and breathe until we are embraced by light.

“What would you like?” he asks me. “How about you hold two jewels?”

“Well, I was going to ask for world peace, but yes, I will hold two jewels,” I reply.

He hands me two of the many flat glass marbles used for loose parts play that are scattered throughout the house.

“What is world peace?” he asks.

“That is a very good question, sweets.”

“How do we get it?”

“We could start by being kind to other people,” I suggest.

Somehow this does not sit right with him. “But that’s not world peace!” he protests.

“No,” I acknowledge, “but it’s a start.”

He turns his attention back to banging a stick on the floor, distracted entirely from the idea of world peace when the play dough he had wrapped around the top of the stick falls off. Does he know intuitively that our current lack of world peace is a complex problem not easily solved through short conversations in walk in closets?

I don’t know. I can tell, though, that he is leading me back to play, an area in which he is expert, and I go willingly with him.

We will revisit the idea of world peace another day.

H is holding up a roll of orange tape to his ear. I can hear only his side of the conversation.

“I’m with mama,” he says.

There’s a long pause.

“Yeah. It’s not so entirely sane.”

He pauses again.

“Yeah.”

And that pretty much sums things up in our house.

“Are you the butcher?” H asks me, a mischievous happiness spreading across his face. His crinkled eyes sparkle.

He has nestled himself between two open cabinet doors, closing them as far as his little body will allow. This is a game we play, the doors a stand in for the squeeze chute he knows cows go through before they are stunned and slaughtered.

“Are you Mathilda?” I smile at him.

Our eyes meet, and for a second we are silent. I do not know what he needs or gets from this play, but the frequency with which he initiates it signals its importance. I trust he knows what he needs, and although it is not a game I would choose, I play along.

“I’m the butcher,” I tell him, picking up the beat.

“Yeah, but I’m not a butchering cow. I’m an information cow.”

I smile. I’m spared, at least this time, from playing at butchering my child in the guise of Mathilda the cow. And I am amused at how much a child of his times he is. An information cow, indeed.

 

“I’m going to fight, fight, fight.”

He’s sitting in a cooler waving a roasting fork at me.

“You are?” I ask.

“Yes. Fight, fight, fight. I’m fighting you.”

“I’m a lover, not a fighter,” I tell him.

“What does that mean?”

“It means I love people, I don’t fight them.”

“Well, I’m a fighter. I fight people. And animals. I fight all animals.”

He keeps waving the roasting fork.

This isn’t the first time my 80s pop culture references have been lost on him.

H and I are nestled in the box seat at one end of a teeter totter. In front of us is a wide, rectangular platform sitting over a fulcrum of large metal coils and opposite is the mirror image of our seat. The Puget Sound laps placidly at the beach below us. The Olympic Mountains are out in all their glory. H and I chat about the various colors on the teeter totter and how they are similar and different from side to side.

Two kids run over and ask to join us. The boy, 7 or so years old, climbs into the open box seat, while his sister, 9 or 10 or maybe even 11, hops atop the rectangular platform and starts rocking. She’s strong and her balance is good and soon H and I are bouncing out of our seats. H is shrieking in delight. We laugh and pretend that we are being bounced into outer space.

At a pause in the rocking and bouncing, our young friends announce that they slept in a park last night. “Actually, we get to sleep in a park every night,” the girl says. “Yeah, but not this one. This one closes at night. I’m not sure which one we sleep in,” her brother adds. It seems apropos of nothing, but perhaps there was some lead up I missed.

I list various of the city parks, but none ring a bell with either of them and before long, they run off to play on the climbing structure nearby. I look out over the water to the mountains to anchor myself. I cannot think of a city park that stays open past 11 pm. Perhaps they mean they have been sleeping at a campground, but I know of none, besides homeless encampments, in the city, nor do I know why they would have used the word park to describe a campground.

The day is clear, the sky an unblemished deep blue. Seattle has unfurled its summer best on this still spring day. I reapply sunscreen on both me and H to keep the hot afternoon sun from burning us.

The boy calls over from the play structure. “We come here every day to cook. We probably need to get a motel soon.”

“Yeah?” I say and nod in acknowledgement. I wonder about their story. They have given me just enough to make one up, but not near enough to know their truth.

They both come back to bounce us on the teeter totter, then run off to chase each other with sticks. The girl takes her brother’s hat and another vigorous chase ensues. I notice things about them I hadn’t before, like how their clothes appear dingy; how the girl’s shoes seem too big; how I can catch the scent of stale laundry when she sits next to me on the teeter totter; how the boy’s hair is neatly trimmed; how their blond hair shines in the sun; how sensitive the girl is to the social and emotional needs of the younger kids around her; how they run wild and carefree.

There is a white van with a small U-Haul trailer parked near the picnic shelters behind us. Three adults – I imagine them to be the kids’ parents and a grandparent –  are sitting at a picnic table with food and drink spread before them. There is a dog. The adults offer pouches of juice to the kids. They are 100 or more meters from the playground, but they seem to keep a mindful eye on the whereabouts of the children.

H requests a round of pushes on the swing before we go, so we leave the teeter totter and walk closer to the beach to the swing set. H picks the yellow chair swing. It feels like the tips of his toes might graze the mountain tops in front of us with each forward push. I swing him higher and higher every time without him having to tell me, then it is time to head home.

H and I pass our young friends and their adults on our way down the hill. I wonder if they have just moved to the area. I wonder where they will sleep tonight. I wonder if we will see them at the park again sometime soon.

We stop for a nature pee under the protective canopy of an evergreen with long, weepy branches. H is sun soaked and tired. I help him remove his shoes and pants, then return his shoes to his feet so he does not have to stand with socks in dirt. I think about the deaths, health crises, divorce, and other separations and losses I have experienced in life. None of us gets through unscathed, and still I have so much. I redress H, pull him close, and whisper a prayer of gratitude and something extra for those kids to whomever might be listening. There but for the grace of God go I.

We go home.

“You know mama, I have to tell you,” he said, and I braced myself to hear how he never wants to brush teeth not ever and least of all right now, because we were at that point in our program and resistance is de rigueur, but instead he continued, “ I lost my job so I need your job, but we can share.”

And we were back on track. Sometimes all it takes is a non sequitur to lighten the mood during teeth brushing, and a lightened mood can make all the difference.

“H, you are a really, really wonderful person,” I told him.

I make it a point to say things like this, apropos of nothing, at least once a day, usually as we are lying in bed together at night. “You are important to me.” Or, “I am really glad I get to be your mama.” Or, “I am so glad to know you.” Or, “I enjoyed spending time with you today.” Things like that.

“Oh, yes,” he said, “And I matter.”

He’s been listening.