To My Oldest Son: You Were The First

by Rachel Toalson
Originally Published: 
oldest son
Victoria Shapiro / Shutterstock

“I’m halfway to being an adult,” you said just this morning, and I nearly collapsed with the grief of it, because it feels like just yesterday, because you are my precious boy, because you were the first. And you saw, because your face changed completely, and you followed it up with, “It’s OK. I’ll take my time.”

But you won’t, my boy, because it’s what all children do: long to be adults, and I will watch the next nine years fly by just as fast as these last nine have, and then you will be grown and gone. There is an exhilaration and a sadness to this, as there is to every stage of child-raising, but especially with the child who first wrapped a tiny cry around our hearts.

Because you know what? It was not just you who was born nine years ago. It was me, too. You and I, we share a birthday—yours a coming into the world, mine a coming into a whole new world made more alive and colorful and lovely because of you.

I know it’s not easy being the first, the oldest son. You were, after all, our grand experiment. Your daddy and I had no idea what we were doing when you slid into the world, and sometimes we still don’t. You are heart and spirit and muscle and feet and sun and tornado, ripping away everything we thought we knew about how to do this raising-a-child thing and planting yourself right in the middle of a wilderness that would test us and beat us and tear us apart but, in the end, put us back together with all the right pieces, like a puzzle we’d forgotten we had until you let loose your wild wind and uncovered all the years. It’s you who has shown us just the right boundaries to set, and it’s you who has shown us what it means to love a child, and it’s you who has shown us more surely who we are.

That’s not to say that your brothers haven’t. It’s just that you were the first. The first one we lay in a crib and worried about all night until we couldn’t stand it anymore and went in to watch you breathing. The first one whose smile climbed down to the deepest places and said, “adored,” so loud we could believe it. The first one who one minute made us feel so incredibly glad to be your parent and the next minute made us feel so angry we thought we’d burn right up in flames and smoke and haze.

You tested boundaries to see if they held strong. You shook the foundations of our philosophies. You let loose your whirlwind, and we were caught in chaos and fear, but mostly adoration and love. Because you were remaking us, piece by piece, limb by limb, in all the ways that mattered. And so it is that we have learned how to navigate stormy waters of doubt and hope. So it is that we have learned to pry our hands loose from what happens in all the can’t-be-there places of your life. So it is that we have learned to parent in a way that feels and understands and loves in all the littlest ways.

We have made some mistakes—of course we have. For those, we’re sorry.

But there is one, my sweet boy, that I cannot just slap a sorry on. Because I think it deserves more. So bear with me.

I spent my pregnancy with you laughing about your spirited kicks while sifting through parenting books so I might be at least just a little bit prepared maybe for what was to come. Still, we started out as authoritarians, because that’s how we were raised. It’s all we knew. When you know better, you do better. But we wouldn’t know better until four years later. So, for the meantime, we ignored emotions and hit while we told you not to hit and yelled while we told you not to yell. Do better than we do—that’s what we said in our actions. Be better than us. Choose the higher road, and you were just a boy.

How could a heart not be traumatized by inconsistencies like that?

And then I opened a Paul Ekman book on reading emotions in the eyes, and I saw your eyes on the page. They were darker than yours and smaller, with bushier eyebrows. But they were yours. Do you know what the caption said? Despair.

A little boy in a little body, crying out for help. Crying out for understanding. Crying out for someone to fight for his heart and help him back to a steady plane, because he was in danger of losing his step and his breath and who he was made to be.

I still remember that day. I don’t want to. But I need to, because that was the day I fell to my knees and said, for the first time, “We need a better way.” That was the day that launched us into years of study, years of research, years of grasping for something that was right and true and good, and we found it. And even though we weren’t perfect at it, you no longer wore those despair eyes. Sometimes you wore angry eyes, when you had to put away a drawing pad and you weren’t quite ready to. Sometimes you wore sad eyes, when the book was supposed to be waiting on the hold shelf of the library and it wasn’t there. But mostly you wore happy ones.

We talked more. We accepted all the emotions, not just the convenient ones. We held your body when it flew out of control, whispering the only words you really need to hear: This is hard. I am here. You are safe.

And now here we are. Your 9th birthday. You are leaning closer to young man than little boy now, and I am so proud of and enthralled with and captivated by who you are. I am still just as wrecked by your eyes and your smile and your voice as I was the day you slipped into the world five days early, smelling of eucalyptus and mint, because that’s the lotion that softened my hands and touched every part of your silken face. You are my beloved one. My spirited one. My firstborn son.

You are deeply and wholly loved, just because you’re you.

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