Yesterday, my sister took a quick picture of my sons, Luke, 4, and Paul, 1. The boys were walking away from Erin in my parents’ driveway. Luke’s hand rested gently on Paul’s back.
The picture reminded me instantly of another photo from three years ago. In that picture, Luke is walking down my in-laws’ street, reaching for my father-in-law’s hand.
My husband, Roberto, is a photographer, and when he posted that second photo to Instagram, he called it a “decisive moment,” a reference to Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Taken together, the two photos feel decisive, important, to me, too.
For all the mistakes I’ve already made in my short time as a parent — Luke’s vocabulary includes curse words; he watches too much TV; my temper is too short; and, on days I’m on deadline, I don’t so much play with Paul as throw toys in his general direction — this feels like something that’s going right.
Why did Luke put his hand on his brother’s back? Where did he learn that gesture?
From us, of course. From Roberto. From me. Our parents, siblings. Friends. Teachers. It’s that old cliché about child-rearing, and how it takes a village.
I remember driving down one of the main streets in our city shortly after Luke was born. It was one of my first solo trips out of the house. The sun was out. The weather was good. I had a son.
I kept repeating that over in my head, “My son, my son, I have a son,” until it felt like a prayer.
Looking out on the people walking along the sidewalks I had a sudden, embarrassingly obvious realization. Everyone has a mom.
The thought overwhelmed me. I pulled the car over to collect myself. Everyone has a mom, I thought, clutching the steering wheel and looking out at strangers.
Since then, I’ve laughed about that story with friends, blaming the influence of hormones for the image of me, alone, weeping in the car, thinking about — well, the world, man.
Everyone has a mom. How obvious. How silly.
(How untrue. Everyone has a mom in the biological sense, fine, but love isn’t such a simple thing. Some people are broken. Some places, too.)
Watching news coverage of an injured five-year-old child in Aleppo, I think how lucky I am, how lucky my boys are, and how so many of our struggles (a pressing deadline, a meltdown at a restaurant, a bit of sleep deprivation) aren’t struggles at all. Just choices.
Almost every day, I want to tell my children: We are so fortunate. We are so, so, so lucky.
But they are very young still and explaining our good fortune to them would require explaining harder concepts, like sorrow, anger, vengeance and hate.
(Luke caught a glimpse of the boy in Aleppo on the TV screen and asked, “What’s that stuff on his shirt?” Panicked, I said, “It’s paint. It’s paint. It’s just red paint,” and tried to imagine an alternate universe where it was paint, and the boy was safe.)
So instead I remind myself, almost every day: I am so fortunate. I am so, so, so lucky.
Lucky to have two healthy kids (my sons, my sons, I have two sons) and a good place to live and family and friends. Lucky to have choices, including the choice to preserve my boys’ innocence for as long as possible (it’s paint, it’s paint, it’s just red paint). Not everyone does.
Maybe that’s why Luke’s hand on Paul’s back moves me. When the world feels too much, I love my boys harder. It’s my protest against cynicism, this love I feel for them, this love I want to shape and guide them.
It isn’t enough, I tell myself. It’s something, I argue right back. (“Are you talking to yourself again, Mama?” Luke shouts from the back row of the minivan. “Yes, Luke, I am,” I say and return to my discussion.)
Luke can’t ever know how many people have put a hand on his back, or held his hand, or comforted him. I can’t know how many people have done the same for me.
We benefit from the gestures though. We learn from them. We pass them on.