5 years old.
That point in life where there are dimples where his knuckles will grow. His walk is still half-toddle, just a bit off kilter, and words are starting to appear on pages as something more significant than a series of meaningless letters. He comes down the stairs with catch-up steps, unable to tackle the next downward movement before his left foot catches his right.
Bleary eyed every morning, his little fists are always rubbing both eyes at once when he stumbles into the kitchen, making me wonder how he can keep such a straight walking line at all. He only removes them to pet the wagging bundle of yellow labrador wading towards him with eager morning kisses.
He wants to be acknowledged when he enters the room. A good morning greeting with his name is the only thing that will do. His brows will furrow otherwise, with a simple comment “You haven't said good morning to me yet.” I beat him to his reprimand this morning, welcoming him into the day, and strangely into a new spot in my heart.
That spot opened as suddenly as I fell in love with his father, and once it opened in even a small way, this small child leapt right through. Used those sweet little arms to part the way and make my heart that much bigger. Like he belonged there all along.
It happened at the kitchen sink; he couldn't quite reach.
"How about a stool?" I asked. "Your stool is here now."
His eyes lit up with questioning joy. Unbelieving. The joy of belonging. His running toddle reaching the nook made just for the stool, he bent down to lift this plastic piece which is a third of his height. He hugs it to his chest moving back towards his dishes at the sink, mounting with tiny feet one by one, and now on tip-toes he reaches the faucet. Water trickling, dishes now rinsed, his is the joy of a child who has found his place. He is where he belongs, he's welcomed here, a place he can always be his true, silly, sensitive self. This building, this clan, has been host to that sweet soul in increasing increments the past two years.
When we first met he would run and hide every time I stopped by to visit. Peeking from behind curtains, or sneaking behind a hallway corner with flirting eyes-- half begging play, half unsure if he wanted me there at all. Neither of us were quite sure what we were to be to one another then. We've been playmates on the floor and road trip companions. I've been the adamant Miss Manners and he's been the morning whiner. He's been the silly jokester interrupting a far-too serious moment with his charm, and I the crazy mini-van driving mom begging them all into mobile dance parties.
This dance of ours has been precarious and thrilling, intimidating and love-full. We simply didn't know how long this love song wold last. None of us knew if I was parent or friend, or something in between.
Truth be told, I was a little scared of these two little ones-- just 3 and 5 when we met. I fell for their father nearly two years ago. Its taken me that long to realize he's not going anywhere; that this love that feels like it's been with me my whole life, will probably grace me for the rest of my days.
When I finally admitted their dad was staying, I knew they were too. I could unpack that dark room in my soul-- the one with an escape route or a plan B for every relationship. When I closed the door to that room, I suddenly built a castle of a new place. I swung the shutters wide open, let the refreshing breezes rush through my soul, and fill my lungs with the fresh new spring of love-- of real, lasting love. Finally giving myself fully to this love of mine meant I didn't have to guard his children or mine from the chance that it might all end. And immediately his children became mine as well. It is more than changing pronouns of his and mine and becoming ours. Those seem to be meaningless word changes-- they symbolize something much deeper--the leap in my heart when I see them coming in the mudroom door, hanging up backpacks like they've belonged since forever. It is the empty space they leave when they return to their mother each week.
It is this space of joy that Aubtin has built-- he takes my hand now as we cross the street, those little fingers not even able to reach across my whole palm. His eyes on mine, trusting. Smiling at one another knowing we are safe together. We will most certainly find ourselves in times when we step on one another, that's what family really is-- treading lightly, loving one another through our missteps, and holding each other closely through this wild roller coaster of life.
“My stool is HERE??!!” The exclamation carried the weight of a child's discovery, like he had received that one long-desired toy at Christmas. It is the declaration of knowing that while he has been a guest in my home, he is no longer. He is home.
We've each received a better dream than we could've imagined on our own: bonus family to love. Worthy of every ounce of that wee-one's exclamation.
**This piece was written nearly 2 years ago, when redefining our family was new. This exchange was my first sign that my heart would grow immeasurably through the loving of two children I parent but didn't birth. Now nearly 7 and 9, they each keep expanding my love.