Today the smallest sad thing happened. And I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s like a thorn, but one under my fingernail, right there where I can see it, but can’t quite make it go away.
It was bedtime, and I was straightening up another bedroom, picking up another pair of pajamas to put in the wash. I opened an old cigar box we decorated at the local farm stand’s craft hour to throw in some pennies or Squinkys or Chapsticks. Tucked away for no one to find in that little cigar box, I saw it.
It was just one of those little things like a pair of outlandish shoelaces, or a barrette, or a pile of cord bracelets, or a headband. One of those things that belongs to a kid, that is marked by their dirt and sweat, because they wore it every single day, no matter where they went, for over a year. It went to the beach and to the restaurants, out on bike rides and to school every day. It was a statement. It was a little piece of style, a thing you’d automatically identify as theirs.
And now it was hidden away.
I’d noticed its absence a couple weeks ago. And my child had said they’d removed it because it gave them a bruise or a rash or they’d outgrown it or something that I accepted because I was probably too busy at the sink or in the mudroom or heading out to the minivan to question.
But tucked away in this closed off little treasure box, I saw that it had done none of those things, or at least not literally so. It had never been discarded because it no longer had value. It had been hidden away, because it was valued, but shameful.
And so I turned out the light and crawled into bed, and in the safety of the dark, dark room, I asked.
“How’d that thing get put away in your treasure box, huh?”
I didn’t need the light to see the small body next to me turn over, for the shoulders to start to heave.
“Was it something you were ready to take off and give up? Or did something or someone make it happen sooner?”
We lay in bed, shoulder to shoulder, but somehow more than thirty-six years apart.
Someone had said something. Everyone thought it was dumb.
I wanted to get to the heart of this thing, pull away the layers and get to the inside where the biggest hurt lay, where the bad lessons had been learned. But even as I probed I knew better. It doesn’t matter who said it or why, it just was.
There was once something worn every day, in the bathtub or in the snow, a thing of pride with a story. And now it was in a box.
I said how people say mean things because they feel bad inside themselves.
“I’m not saying they’re bad people,” I said, “I’m just saying that they’re sad or jealous or they feel less inside so they judge. Know that those words came from someone who felt like less even if they seemed like more.”
I said that even butterflies needed to go through stages, to be a caterpillar and then a chrysalis and then a butterfly, and it meant growing, shedding things, uncertainty.
I said my child could choose to go back and be the kid who wore that thing or not. That it was fine either way.
“I just want it to be a decision you made for yourself, not one someone else made for you.”
My big kid sniffled and rolled away from me.
“Are you sad because you let it go or are you sad because those words hurt your feelings?”
A shrugging of shoulders was my only reply.
I maybe should have made it into a joke, something light and funny. I think my husband could have brought laughter. I mean, it wasn't that big a deal. But I just couldn’t.
“I just want you to know, what is true about you is that you are strong. You may not be cool all the time, or strong about every little thing, but I see you. I see you and all that you do, and I see the strength inside you.”
“You don’t know,” was the reply.
It wasn’t a broken heart or a grave loss, a death or an injury or an illness. It was just this tiny thing, a way of marching through the world with your own tiny freak flag flying. And now it was gone, tucked away in a box with nothing but this little sad conversation to mark its passing. And in its place lay a mark where someone else’s judgement crushed something small, a smear where a small fabulous celebration used to be.
I found that sweet face in the dark and kissed the wet cheeks.
“I love you. You are strong,” I said. “Sleep tight,” I added.
Then I walked out the door, down the stairs, and I started to cry.
There will be so many of these tiny moments, of things breaking away and being discarded, cicadas screaming in the summer heat only to leave a shell of themselves as they somehow fly off.
And maybe this is what growing up is about, a multitude of small painful moments we gratefully forget so that we can move forward, a pile of forgotten treasures hidden in a cigar box, the precious things we discard so that we can eventually take flight.
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