I run the washcloth over my son’s back, noticing that his shoulder blades jut out just like wings. His skin has the same almost-translucent skim milk paleness that mine does. Over and over again I splash the washcloth into the water and then pick it up, hold it at the back of his neck, squeeze the water so that it cascades over his narrow shoulders. Each time his neck arches forward, his wings poke out, and I can sense, as viscerally as if it were my own back, the sluice of warm water over skin. I know the planes and angles of this back as well as I know my own face. My son’s vertebrae stands out in profile like a string of pearls, slightly curved over as he looks down into the water.
A vivid memory blooms in my mind, of the first ultrasound I ever had, 18 weeks into my totally unexpected pregnancy with his older sister Grace. As the technician swirled the wand, covered in slimy clear goop, over my just-beginning-to-dome stomach, the screen burst into a cloud of images. I was confused, unable to figure out how the grainy black and white shapes assembled into a baby. The only things I remember seeing clearly were the bright beating heart—oh sweet relief—and the arced string of round knobs that I assumed, correctly, was the spine.
I run my hand up this arc now, feeling the hardness of the bony knobs under his skin. They seem taut and soft at the same time and their geometry at once ordinary, regular and a marvel of extraordinary uniqueness. He is almost four.
I notice a new freckle on his back. To the right of center, towards his shoulder blade, there is an unmistakable, dark brown freckle. Instinctively I wipe at it with the washcloth, as though at a splotch of chocolate on his cheek. When did this happen? His pristine white skin, beginning to show the marks of life lived. I glance at my own forearm, mottled with freckles. I feel a surge of guilt, knowing that I’ve been too casual with sunscreen, and that this is the result.How long has that freckle been there, and I didn’t notice?
Whit turns to look at me, wondering, I think, at my silence. I smile at him, saying, silently, everything is okay. I return my attention to the landscape of his back. The dripping of water from the washcloth into the tub is the only sound in the white-tiled bathroom. I trace my finger up Whit’s knobby spine again, the way I do every evening when I kiss him goodnight. His room is always my last stop before I go to bed myself. He sleeps curled on his robot sheets like a comma, his knees drawn up to his chest, the worn stuffed monkey that he calls Beloved tucked up by his chin. I often climb into bed and curl around him, whispering that I love him, smelling his still-little-boy smell. Every night I wonder how long he will be little enough to cup with my body, how long he will smell like this, how long he will cuddle Beloved: these questions are stitched through every moment of every day.
Studying his back in the tub, I can squint and see Whit’s baby body cradled in the pale blue bath seat, his fleshy legs kicking against the sling of starfish-patterned mesh, his sister dumping water over his head and giggling gleefully even as I yelp at her to stop.
And in between those days and now there yawns an enormous gulf, an eternity of bathtimes, so many of which, if I’m honest, felt like a chore that I had to suffer through, a final slog before the relief of bedtime. How did I not value every single one? Splashing in the water, tickling Whit’s neck, I want them all back. The truth that I can’t—the basic fact of time’s swift passage—stands between me and the sun. My whole life is lived in its shadow. I blink back tears.
It is slippery, this life.
Whit is so funny that people assume I named him because the name sounds like “wit.” Not so. In fact, his middle name is Whitman, a family name on my side. Still, since he was very young, my son has been a full-blown comic. He plays close attention, remembers every single tiny thing, and showed an early affinity for puns. His humor is the first thing about his personality that everybody notices, the first topic in every parent-teacher conference, and such a defining feature of his personality that I worry about it.
Once, sitting outside his pre-K classroom in the morning, he earnestly said to me: “Mummy, I want to talk about our feelings.” Surprised, I agreed. Silently patting myself on the back for raising such an empathetic boy, I started to prod him to tell me more. In response, oddly, he began swinging his legs, kicking my foot with his boot. Thump, thump, thump. It kind of hurt. Finally, annoyed, I snapped, “Whit, why are you doing that?” He turned to me, blue eyes swelling with artificial sincerity. “What do you feel, Mummy? Do you feel pain?” I had to look away because I was laughing so hard.
Hours after the bath, as I’m heading to bed myself, I tiptoe into Whit’s room. I climb in next to him and lie on my side, curving my front along his back. Lying in the nightlight shadow, listening to the lullabye CD Whit has listened to since birth, I think of the last days of my pregnancy, when the baby felt so tight in my drum-hard belly that I felt its every movement with an exquisite awareness that bordered on pain. My emotions are that big inside me now, and I wonder, as I did about the baby then, if I can contain them. For long moments we lie there. I feel Whit’s back inhaling and exhaling against my chest. Then I sit up and lean over him, preparing to go. I’m surprised when looks back up at me silently. I thought he had fallen asleep. My gaze moves slowly down his face, his features unfurling again to me as if brand new: his blue eyes, whose color was such a surprise, a genetic long shot, his eyelashes, casting shadows on his pale skin, and his defined cleft chin, one of the very few tangible things he has inherited from me.
He reaches up a hand and clasps me behind the neck, smiling. Startled, I smile back. “I love you, my little man,” I murmur under my breath. Tears run down my face and I see puzzlement wash into his eyes. I smile again, trying to reassure him that nothing is wrong, and feel relieved when his face softens. “I love you too, Mummy.” He pulls my face down so it is right next to his. I feel his soft cheek against my wet one, and turn to press my lips against it. His other hand snakes up, weaving behind my neck, and he holds me to him. “I love you as much as the sky,” I hear him whisper.