"What's wrong with your hand?" he asks in his 3-year-old lilt, his tone one of concern mixed with curiosity.
I stretch my dry fingers out, dotted with shiny spots where I've painted the multiple cuts and tears with the medical-grade super-glue that's marketed as liquid bandage. As I age, my skin loses its resilience. This extended weather has turned my right hand into bleeding tissue paper.
Shrugging, I tell him, "My skin gets dry and the skin cracks. I put some liquid bandage on it, which makes it shiny." I don't mention the part about aging, don't tell him how I worry about the myriad ways my body may begin to fail me. Then, as he gently grabs my hand to examine it closer, I weakly add, "It's OK."
The familiar wending and winding. Up, ever up. And soon -- always -- my way becomes fractured with the threat of falling. The stairway, whipping back on itself in sick turns, drops out from underneath. I face a precipitous gap, venture onward anyway. Always.
In the midst of playing, he freezes suddenly, his body rigid. "I think I have to pee," he says, his voice a cross of wonder and desperation.
I usher him over to the little plastic toddler potty, but he wants to go to the "big-boy potty" upstairs. Carrying him up the steps, I make a siren noise: "Wee-oh, wee-oh, pee emergency! Make way for the pee emergency!" He giggles.
We have just enough time to place the step stool and pull down his pants before he sits and sighs in relief. We made it! I cheer for him afterward, give him a high five and reward him with a sticker for his sticker chart. I don't tell him how I worry if he'll be able to make it through the half-day in preschool tomorrow, his first day moving up to the older class, where underwear is required.
Sometimes the stairs are sunk in darkness, a starry sky outside a tower of gold-flecked stone. Other people may begin the journey with me, but I always wind up alone, pondering how to bridge that terrifying gap, to continue my climb. The way up, though challenging, is too important to turn back. I never look down. I never stop. But still, I am afraid.
Much as I love him, he is driving me crazy. I am blogging at the author and book sites I've been neglecting, promoting the video contest that, if I won the audience prize, could fund his preschool tuition for the rest of the year. Curled up next to my left arm, declaring himself a "hamster baby," he plays a color game on his LeapPad, which was a Christmas gift from his grandfather. The scene, from a step away, is cozy: two dark-blonde figures with the same nose, the same chin, one 40 years younger and a third the size of the other, both intent on their "work." From my perspective, though, it feels cramped, as he kicks me absent-mindedly with his perpetually moving foot.
I ask him to please slide over a bit, knowing that even if he moves, he will soon be mashed up against me again. "You're just a cuddle bear today," I tell him. I don't tell him there are times I just want to push him away, and times when I can't bear to imagine a future with him as a teenager who no longer wants to hug, or a grown man who's moved across the country.
This time, it is different. My son -- who sails unbidden into my lotus lands these days -- accompanies me. He bounces along, unmindful of the danger. I scoop him up and ford the gap with newfound bravery. Courage burns into my limbs. I will not fall. I cannot fall, for he needs me.
ETA: KFP's home-game entry is now up, The Crab Thief. It's short and fun, so check it out. Just don't go in the closet!