"Bye, Mom," my son says suddenly, because he is 8 and doesn't yet know that you don't just end a phone call so abruptly. You ease into it. Let me down gently, little boy.
"Wait," I say before he can hang up. "Last night I found one of your hippos in my bed."
"I know," he says matter-of-factly. "I left it there for you."
"For me?" I'm touched.
"Yeah," he says. "I don't need it anymore."
"Oh," I say.
* * * * *
Originally, there was only one hippo. It sat in the corner of his crib, unnoticed, until the middle of one night when I stood outside of his room debating going in and just FINDING THE DAMN PACIFIER FOR HIM so that we could all sleep. But after a few minutes, he grew quiet. The next morning, he was holding the hippo close and chewing on its ear. The pacifier had been replaced by something he could find HIMSELF in the middle of the night.
However, even as his first birthday came and went, my son had terrible reflux, which meant there was not a single item belonging to either him or me that had not, at one time, been bathed in spit up.
So I ordered a back-up hippo. For when the primary hippo needed to be washed.
The second hippo was stashed in my closet, and the rule was that the primary hippo stayed in the crib (with an exception made for getting shots because everyone knows that rules don't count when you're getting shots).
This worked out well until I took a job working weekends. My very first day of work, I came home to find my son sitting on the living room floor with both hippos next to him.
"Buppos!" he giggled, holding them both out to me as if to say, "Can you even believe how much MORE awesome life is with TWO hippos, Mama?"
My husband shrugged. "He saw the other hippo in the closet."
So I ordered a third hippo.
"Buppos," my son would grin, stuffing the ear of one into his mouth and tucking the other under his arm while I gagged at the thought of chewing on cloth.
"Buppos," he would say quietly, settling onto my lap and into the crook of my arm in his warm, fuzzy footed pajamas as I read him bedtime stories and sang to him.
"Buppos," he would cry, his cheeks flush with fever as I tried to explain that we had only one hippo right now, that the other two were in the wash because he had thrown up all over them.
They were his buppos until, one day, they weren't. He called them hippos.
"Oh," I thought.
* * * * *
A few days after leaving his hippo for me, he pulls me upstairs and climbs onto my bed, this big boy who is 8 and now has opinions about his hair and his clothes, who plays sports and asks me if it's true that grown ups use their tongues when they kiss. It's a beautiful thing, watching him get big, watching him become himself.
But it's a painful thing, too. I'm rarely Mama anymore. One day, when I wasn't even paying attention, I morphed into Mom.
How long before he stops wanting to sleep in my bed when he's scared?
How long before he stops letting me pull him onto my lap?
How long before he stops kissing me goodnight?
He has scooted over to the far side of the bed, the side I don't sleep on. He looks up at me.
"Mom," he says. "Can you get my hippos?"
I get him the hippos and climb onto the bed. He snuggles in, quiet for a bit, and I lie there smelling his sweet head.
Finally, he says, "I missed you in the summer. And I was sad because I didn't have my hippos that first night."
What this means, what he doesn't know how to say because he is only 8, but what I hear because I am 38 and because I know him like no one else on this earth does, is:
One day you were supposed to pick me up from school and you didn't. And then you were gone and nothing's been the same since. Tell me you'll be here when I come home from school. Tell me you won't go again.
I pull him close. I tell him that I was sad when I couldn't come home the night I found out about the brain tumor. I tell him that I talked to his dad first thing the next morning and we made our plan to get him the hippos. I tell him that I missed him every day, but that I knew things would be normal again eventually. Or, almost normal.
The grown ups are in charge. And I was never really gone because nothing could keep me away.
"Okay," he says, and he hops off the bed and goes back downstairs to play with his brother.
He takes the hippos with him.
Because he is 8 and doesn't yet know that you don't just get big so abruptly.
You ease into it.
Let me down gently, little boy.