I have always found shoe shopping with my two young boys to be a frazzling task, one that I put off and avoid until the last week before a new school year starts. I have to beg and negotiate with both of them to try shoes on, and once they do, they complain loudly that the shoes are too big, too small, too tight, and the tag is bothering them.
This past August was no different than the start to any other school year. Theodore, the oldest, wanted gray shoes, and Radcliffe, the youngest, wanted blue shoes that light up. When looking for the sizes, we realized that Theodore was no longer wearing youth sizes.
The matronly saleslady looked at me with pity and said, “Momma, I think he’s wearing the first size in men’s.”
Theodore beamed, while I fought tears and struggled to swallow the lump in my throat. That night as I covered him up with his favorite blanket while he slept, I stared intently, reflective of past painful shoe shopping experiences with him, yet furiously proud of how much easier today was with him.
Theodore didn’t speak until he was four, and our gut feeling that something was “off” was confirmed when he was diagnosed with autism. I spent our days chauffeuring him to therapy after therapy, consumed with desperation for a breakthrough. The improvements were tiny, like a grain of sand in comparison to the rest of the beach.
I was so determined to reach the next goal that “If I can just get him there” became my mantra. In the midst of the chaos, our second son was also diagnosed with autism. Double the therapy, double the worry, and double the goals. Suddenly, these granular developments were all we lived for.
Eventually, these small wins began to add up. Theodore began to communicate, and was placed in a gifted classroom at his elementary school. Once therapies and progress slowed, and I could take in my world around me, regret started to creep into my thoughts. I was so focused on getting him to the next milestone, I missed out on all of the magical moments in front of me for the last 10 years. It was as if we were sitting on a beach this entire time, building an entire sandcastle with only a handful of sand and unable to look up and see the miles of beach and water in front of us. I resolved to be a more mindful parent, to recognize the magic as it happens, to be less focused on the future, and to focus on more than just that handful of sand.
The weird thing about milestones is they quickly become routine. Once he could talk, I quickly forgot how many hours I spent in the car driving him to therapy, and replaced it with driving to tennis lessons and track practice. It became our new normal, our new routine, because that’s what life does, it discerningly flips the hourglass of our lives.
Eight months into this school year, Theodore came to me and told me his shoes were too small. I looked down at the gray shoes he had so fastidiously selected and saw tiny holes were beginning to wear into where his toes were.
A few nights later, I drove him to the shoe store, just the two of us this time. He pointed out a few that he liked, and I pulled the boxes off of the shelves in the next size up from what he was currently wearing.
He couldn’t get them on his feet. And then he couldn’t get the next size on his feet either. Suddenly, we were no longer dipping our toes into the men’s shoe sizes, but splashing into the middle of it, three sizes in.
Sitting on the bench in front of the Nikes, Asics, and Mizunos, I saw him for the first time. He was no longer my little boy who couldn’t speak, but an articulate young man with feet larger than mine.
We walked to the checkout, and Theodore was chatting the whole distance — about what, I have no idea — as the store around me began to swirl.
The woman behind the register says to me, ‘Oh! Big boy shoes!’
Again, Theodore beamed, while I fought tears and struggled to swallow the lump in my throat. The area around me began to whip into a gray frenzy and I couldn’t catch my breath as I felt a monumental shift below my feet, unable to stop and steady myself against the changes of time, as if the hourglass of his life had shattered below me.
It’s happening already and I don’t even know when it started. Was it last month? Last year? Or last August, when we were standing in the shoe store with just the one toe in the men’s aisle? Was it two months ago, when we applied to the middle school that would get him into the high school that would get him into the college of his choice? When did it happen?
All of us have heard “don’t blink.” I’ve read a million articles on mindful parenting. I tried to live intentionally, I’ve tried to breathe in every second, but the harder I try to make it slow down, the faster it seems to go. Every time I look up, as if to see them on the beach in a snapshot of our lives, the granular moments pull me back.
When did it happen? Was it when he got out of his crib? Or when he began to dress himself? I frantically play back the movie of his life in my head and see huge gaps of time I already cannot remember. The mundane day to day is what I want desperately to replay, but I can’t find it in my mind because it’s too overwhelmed searching with emotions its not prepared for.
This process is bittersweet, because there is no other way to package this experience than heartbreak. I look at him, with swelling pride, and feel as though my heart has shattered into the tiny pieces of sand — scattered so far that no matter how hard I try to chase after the invisible pieces sweeping out into the tide, becoming part of something much larger, I’ll never be able to quite put it back together again. The broken pieces are out there, reserving their spot in the universe, setting us up for the next lessons of love in our future.
Until that next lesson, though, I will go cover him up with his favorite blanket while he is fast asleep, and feel exhilarating gratitude that I still have a few more Augusts to hold tight to the fistfuls of sand, but know that we have an entire area of shore upon which to build.