When daylight peeks through the curtains, my nine-year-old likes to bolt out of bed. His footsteps, which sound like sonic booms in the stillness of our raised foundation home, are purposeful and exuberantly directed towards his daily destination. It’s not my room that he is so excited to get to, at least not anymore. That went away with fleece pajamas with padded feet. For months now, my big little kid has run down the hallway to greet someone closer to his heart — his little sister.
Theirs is a relationship that has always been bonded. She is almost four years younger, far apart enough in age to not be a threat to his identity, but close enough to effortlessly fall into his stride. They spend hours in the backyard battling monsters or creating extravagant dream houses with blocks and Hatchimals.
In the mornings, he rushes into her room to splay on the floor with a “Bad Guys” book to read while she draws pictures of ballerinas. Sometimes their quiet co-existence is pierced with spontaneous banter or interrupted with raised voices and tears, but mostly it’s a celebration of the start of another day — together.
The pandemic has made them closer, and it has delayed the inevitable — the silent mornings when his door will decidedly remain shut in favor of solitude. The day will soon arrive when he will find it difficult to conjure a worthy adversary to battle with his sister by his side.
My nine-year-old is standing on the brink of early adolescence — an uncharted world in our home — which will require him to shed well-loved habits, identities and even little playmates.
The glimpses of his diminishing littleness make me savor the mornings when they choose to be together. I lay in bed and listen to their giggles, their expository conversation and their content silence and just wish for a pause button. Can I just freeze time right here?
And then time froze.
The pandemic has, for the most part, kept us at home. We work, play, eat, and learn in our little blue house. Our isolation has kept us healthy, but it has also made days melt together like a surreal Salvador Dali painting. In the absence of in-person school, sporting events and playdates, my little son’s metamorphosis into a big kid has slowed down, too.
Before the pandemic, I saw glimpses of his little kid identity slowly shedding. While he used to be lockstep with me during our daily walks to and from school, he started walking five steps ahead. One day, prompted by his friends that Pokémon cards were no longer cool, he gifted his little sister with his entire cherished collection. Where he used to tear through play structures with glee, he preferred to walk and talk with his friends away from the clamor of little bodies on slides.
To most people, my son is the same fun-loving, football-obsessed kid as years past, but a mom can see all the micro shifts in development.
I was also nine years old once. On the first day of fourth grade, I packed all of my Sanrio school supplies — which were all the rage just a few short summer months ago — only to find that they have fallen out of favor among my friends. In place of the talk about cute frog shaped erasers and pencil cases were excited hushed whispers about boys. The most talked about television shows went from after school cartoons to “Beverly Hills 90210.” I watched each episode like an anthropological study into who I should be.
That summer before fourth grade, I built a stronghold in the corner of our backyard using scraps from my dad’s woodpile. In reality, it was a lopsided teepee with questionable structural soundness. I spent hours there. It was my Terabithia. I tied a rope to a tree to swing across the river of my imagination.
When I was nine years old, I felt like the world was spinning at a dizzying pace. This is the peril of straddling both the little and big kid worlds at the same time — the ground below you can shift in different directions. I wanted to push the pause button, so I could spend one more weekend in my stronghold.
I imagined my son felt the same way when he suddenly became old enough for relatives to ask him questions about girls in his class or when a classmate questioned why he was still wearing shoes with velcro straps.
Sometimes, the isolation of the pandemic makes our little house feel like a gilded cage. But on most days, I am thankful that the pandemic has given my little big kid some breathing room. It has taken away the pressure to keep up with his friends. With his little sister as the guide, I see the little boy in him re-emerge.
Every spare moment from learning on Zoom school, he plays an imaginary game of football that requires him to throw and catch the ball himself. He designs his own plays and runs the routes religiously. Often, he lingers by the table where his five-year-old sister is usually playing with a Frozen dollhouse. She asks him to join, but propelled by his big kid inner voice, he runs away with the football.
Eventually, I see them together, sitting side-by-side in front of Elsa’s palace, laughing uproariously because his Olaf character keeps farting snowballs.
She gives him space to soften. She gives him permission to be a little kid again.
From the kitchen window, I drink up scenes like these with my eyes.
The virus is horrible. The magnitude of loss and grief is unbearable. When my mind wanders to the dark interstices of our reality, I think about these moments to help lift me out. I think about a brother and a little sister who get a little more time to swing on a rope across the river of their imagination.