A Child’s Tender Heart

Sometimes I think of Theo as one of those funhouse rooms covered in mirrors, so that everywhere you look there is a reflection of a person, but they’re all skewed at slightly different angles. There are just so many facets to Theo—he is the most complicated person I’ve ever met. Which sounds silly to say about a seven-year-old, but if you really know Theo, you know what I mean.

At age seven, Theo can have a real attitude—he can be downright rude. And I’m not sure if he means to be or he just hasn’t mastered social niceties yet, but the fact is, he can be downright rude. Usually to me and Chris; he seems to be unfailingly polite to other adults. And I know that part of why we get the brunt of it is that he’s most comfortable with us, and so we’re the ones he can really express frustration at (and, of course, we’re also the ones who make the rules, which he really hates). I do keep that in mind when he is rude to me, but at the same time, it’s rather infuriating. If I were a corporal punishment type, let’s just say there would’ve been some spanking by now. But I’m not, so there hasn’t been. Though one time he was such a twit that I flicked my pointer finger on his head, causing him to yell, “OUCH! What did you do that for?!” Well, my son, you were being a total twit, and your long-suffering mama just couldn’t take it anymore.

But at the same time, that mouthy little seven-year-old has the most tender heart I’ve ever seen. But it’s a complicated tender heart—just like everything about Theo tends toward the complicated.

A while back, I headed out of town for a retreat. For the several days leading up to my departure, Theo kept throwing out snotty little barbs like, “I hope the hotel you stay at is gross and disgusting!” and “I hope you just sit around and do boring things!” Because, you know, you can’t just tell mom you’ll miss her—instead, you have to wish her a lousy time so that she won’t leave you again.

The same held true when Chris left for a business trip a month later. For the week or so leading up to Chris’s departure, Theo kept telling me that he “couldn’t wait for that strange old hermit Daddy to leave!” (The “strange old hermit” bit comes from Star Wars; Chris isn’t really a hermit at all.) And I would normally think that Theo was just excited for the novelty of being single-parented for a week (I used to look forward to that when my parents left town, because whichever parent stayed home usually didn’t cook as much, and we got to do fun things like go out to dinner!), but the truth is that when I’m the single parent, life is much more boring than usual. When I leave town, Chris takes the boys out to dinner pretty much every night. When Chris leaves town, we stay home every night because I find taking both boys to a restaurant on my own just about as much fun as having a root canal without Novocain. And I’m very firm on bedtime. When I’m out of town, Chris lets the boys stay up late. When Chris is out of town, I’m a total taskmistress who has them in bed exactly on time, not a moment later, because I am tired and ready for a break!

Suffice it to say, I am not the fun parent. And yet still, Theo proclaimed that he was glad Daddy was going away, and he couldn’t wait for it!

But then we got to the airport to drop Chris off. And Chris opened the back door of the van to say goodbye to the boys and give them a hug. And Theo was sitting there with silent tears streaming down his face.

“Buddy…” Chris said gently. “It’s okay…”

“I am FINE!” Theo snapped. “I am NOT CRYING!”

“Theo, it’s okay to cry…” I offered.

“I’M NOT!” he roared, furiously wiping away tears with his sleeve.

Chris tried to say goodbye, and Theo just brushed him off and stoically looked away. Where does a seven-year-old learn to be stoic? I don’t know, because we’re certainly not the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps; boys don’t cry!” type of family. Not in the least. Witness Chris crying when our dog passed away earlier this week…

And speaking of the dog, when we realized Tuesday night that we had to put our sweet Luna to sleep, I scheduled the appointment for two hours later, to give Theo time to say goodbye to her. I’ve been preparing him for a couple of months that she probably wasn’t going to be around too much longer, but I knew it would still be hard for him. I didn’t realize how hard, however. In typical Theo fashion, he refused to acknowledge that he was crying, but tears kept slipping down his cheeks as he pet Luna. And then he began making plans to go to heaven himself so that he could be with her, which broke my heart. I know he’s seven and doesn’t understand the implications of that, but it just broke my heart that he was so hurt about losing her that he wanted to join her.

As children do, he bounced back the next day and was okay. But for that Tuesday night, he had a rough time, and I realized once again how deeply he feels things. Even when his way of coping with grief or upset is to push people away, it’s clear that he feels very, very deeply.

Even when Theo doesn’t understand how to make sense of his emotions, his tender heart shows through. His best friend from preschool, Gavin, has a very serious, progressive, degenerative form of muscular dystrophy, and it is worsening quickly. Because of that, we’ve had to tell Theo a little bit about it. It’s a fine line to walk, because we don’t want him to be the one to tell Gavin what’s happening to his body. It won’t be terribly long before Gavin is in a wheelchair, for example, but we don’t want Theo being the one to tell him that. So we’ve had to let Theo know that Gavin isn’t able to do as much physically as he once could…but without telling him too much.

The boys are getting together after Thanksgiving, and I was afraid Theo might try to play his favorite game—chase—with Gavin, so I sat down and explained to him that Gavin probably can’t play chase with him anymore because it’s getting harder for Gavin to work his muscles. I suggested there are plenty of other things they can do together, but chase probably isn’t one of them. “That’s okay, Mom,” Theo said. “Everybody has things they’re good at and things they’re not. Gavin has much better handwriting than I do. Not everyone can do everything as well as other people.”

He is a wise and tender child, that son of ours. I am proud to be his mother and proud of his tender heart.

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