on the eve of the very first day of first grade, twelve long years ago–august 28, 2007–a boy i love had a bumper crop of butterflies flopping about his belly. so did his mama, truth be told. all these years later, as the old red wagon pulls out of the garage (any minute now), loaded down with college essentials, those butterflies are once again on the loose. a little red heart won’t be the solution this time. but, as we drive off into the distance, it seemed more than apt to let this one unspool once again. from the way-back files of the chair, a forever one titled “heart to heart”:
The little red heart is the size of a button. So is its twin, the other half of its whole.
When the sun peeks in my little one’s room, when he bounds out of bed and into his school clothes, he’ll slip his into his pocket. As his mama will too, with the one of her own. I promised I would.
A heart in your pocket is a very good thing. Especially on the very first day, the very first long day of the very first grade, when the time between the morning’s good-bye at the schoolhouse door and the zigzag home from the bus stop is wholly untrodden and feels like forever, way past lunch in a lunchroom, and scrambling all over at recess, way past standing in lines and marching through halls, past sitting in chairs and reaching in desks. Way past finding your name on all sorts of supplies, and even a locker you barely know how to begin to use. Way, way past anything you’ve ever imagined.
A heart in your pocket is a very good thing.
You give it a squeeze when you need to. You give it a squeeze when you’re sad. Or wobbly. Or lonesome. You give it a squeeze when you’re certain its powers will work like a cell phone, connect you in magical ways, without even dialing. And the heart on the other end of the line will be there, will know that you’re calling, really she will.
Because hearts in the pocket are like that.
They connect you.
When you are six and going off in the world, for the very first time really. For the very first time when the lumps in your tummy and the ones in your throat are so very big you think they might choke you. Or send you flying to the faraway boys’ room, way, way, way down the hall, before it’s too late.
The need for a heart, the need for a something, became wholly apparent last night in the dark.
That’s when hearts are bared. That’s when all that is hiding comes out of the shadows. That’s when your room and your bed get overly crowded. That’s when the things that behave all through the day come haunting. They decide in the night that they want some airtime. They want to romp in your head, stir up a rumpus.
And that’s when the feet came. Tiptoeing down the stairs, around the corner, right to my side, that’s when the words came too: “Mama, I need to talk to you about something really serious about school.”
So, of course, I stopped what I’d thought was important, scooped him onto my lap, and listened.
“I think I’ll be homesick.”
That was round 1. Before it was ended, we’d talked, reclimbed the stairs, retucked boy into bed, rekissed that curly-haired head.
Then came round 2.
Again, feet shuffling.
This time I was not far from his room. This time the words came in whispers, barely audible whispers there at the top of the stairs, where I promptly sat down.
“I’m nervous about tomorrow. I’m afraid I might vomit.”
The child goes straight for the heart. Cuts no corners. Softens no blows. In a word, he took me right back. Took me back to the weeks, there were two of them, one in kindergarten, one in first grade, when I, too, got so sick, so dehydrated, they twice tossed me in the hospital. I remember it vividly. Remember the little pink puppet they sent me home with. But I remember other things, too, that weren’t quite so nice. Things that still give me shudders.
I know what it is to be so afraid, so rumbly inside that you can’t hear a word, and the room feels as though it’s swirling.
I took my boy by the hand. We had some digging to do.
“We need a heart,” I informed him as I led him. As if I knew just how to fix this. As if I were a sorcerer and I held the potion that would cure whatever ailed him. Sometimes even parents play pretend. Because they have to. Because sitting there falling apart would not help. Would not do a thing.
So we pretend that we’ve all sorts of lotions and potions and balms. We dab cream on a cut, make it feel better. Whip up concoctions to take out the sting. We do voodoo and rain dances, for crying out loud. Whatever it takes to get over the bumps.
The bump last night called for a little red heart. Or a little wee something. Something he could slip in his pocket and know I was there. Right there. Not down the street, around the corner, and four blocks south.
So we dug through my top drawer, the one where I stash all my treasures. There was a rock shaped like a heart, a tarnished old ring, a bunny the size of a quarter. And the two red see-through hearts.
We sifted and sorted. I let him decide. I told him how his big brother, too, used to go off in the world “with me in his pocket.” Explained how it worked. How you give it a squeeze and you know that I’m there. That I’m thinking. And loving. And waiting. For the end of the day when he’ll be home again.
I told him I, too, would have him in my pocket. I, too, would carry a heart. Give it a squeeze. Send a signal. All day, back and forth, little hearts would be flying. Would be defying all logic and sense, and even some science.
But they’d not ever quit. Would not break. Nor run out of batteries. They are forever.
Good thing when you’re six, you know things by heart. And you believe, most of all, the things your mama tells you.
Especially at night, especially past bedtime, when all of your insides come burbling right out. When the house has no noise and the moon guides your way down the stairs.
That is the hour that’s blessed. That is the hour that mamas and papas and all the people who love you pull out their needles and thread, and even their little red buttons, whatever it takes to stitch you and your heart back together again.
Now go to sleep, sweetheart, and when the day comes, just give me a squeeze. and I’ll do the same. We’re as close as two hearts in a pocket.
That’s a promise I’ll keep. I promise.
and button or not, all these years later, it’s a promise i’ll keep. all these years later, my sweet grown-up sweetheart, we’re as close as two hearts in a pocket….
how do you get through the bumps and the butterflies that get in the way of your days? and blessings to all who are scattering every which way in these days of off-to-college, back-to-school, and whatever disperses your flocks….