I want my little boy back. It’s not that I’ve lost Isaac as such. But there is no escaping the fact that he is no longer the innocent little toddler which, in some way, he will always be in my mind’s eye. In his place is an increasingly aware boy who is fast discovering the reality of the world he lives in, with all that is good and bad about it. It is a double-edged sword, a bitter-sweet moment, and although I know I have to let go of his hand at some point, I am finding it one of the hardest things I have had to do as a parent so far.
Once a child starts to lose his innocence, you cannot put the genie back into the lamp. I know it has to happen eventually – but did it have to be so soon?
Over the past couple of weeks, I have watched Zac take two huge strides forward on the path to adulthood. The two events have been very different, but both are equally saddening.
Not so pretty in pink
The first has been the sudden and dramatic ending of his love affair with all things pink. For the past 18 months, his obsession with the colour has known no bounds, and it has been a defining part of his individuality and personality. He wanted a car like the pink Smart at the end of our road. His favourite item of clothing was his pink jumper. He decorated his own Christmas tree with pink – and only pink – baubles. (Indeed he and I bought a pink Christmas tree together only three weeks ago, which he has now disowned.) He even once dragged me into La Senza, picked up a pink bra off the rack and said to me, “Daddy, can I buy this one?”
As I said at the time it was an endearing trait, and one which Heather and I neither encouraged nor discouraged – it was just part of who he was. Indeed, a part of me was immensely proud of him for not conforming to convention. But my fear always was that he would eventually be forced by peer pressure to abandon his preference for something more ‘normal’ or, worse still, bullied about it.
I thought that change might happen when he moves up to primary school next September. Instead it happened last week. I can only assume that he has realised, whether through observation or interaction with his male mates at pre-school, that pink is more usually associated with girls. Almost overnight, pink became distinctly uncool. Pink clothing is now definitely out. He no longer wants to drink out of his pink cup. Instead, blue is the colour for him now.
It’s not so much the change in Zac which has surprised me as both Heather’s and my reaction to it. We are both genuinely sad. It is as if a key component of our two to three-year old Zac died overnight. In the blink of an eye, he no longer wishes to be pretty in pink. I guess the words of the old Psychedelic Furs song really are true:
You’re really free like individuality
You are what you want to be
Pretty in Pink – The Psychedelic Furs
I’d really miss you, Dad
I have a vivid memory of the first time I confronted the spectre of death as a child first-hand. I was nearly seven. My paternal grandfather in Malaysia fell gravely ill. I can remember my parents’ anxiety as they hastily arranged for us to fly out at the first possible opportunity. While my parents visited his bedside in hospital, I was kept outside and my various aunts and uncles sat with me. The first time I saw him on that trip was when I paid my respects to his lifeless body laid out in his coffin at the family home before the funeral.
I can remember details of the burial itself better than I can recall what I did last weekend: the stickiness of a hot and humid early summer’s day, the stifled grief of my dad’s family, the grittiness of the handful of earth I was asked to throw onto the coffin. Most of all I know that I was by then old enough to understand the gravity of death, and feel genuine sorrow for a relative I could barely remember. It was the first time I had stared death in the face. I will never forget it.
Isaac was barely half the age I was then (he does not turn four for a couple of weeks) when Heather’s stepfather – his ‘Gramps’ – passed away on the afternoon of Remembrance Day: 11/11/11. In the same way that my initial encounter with mortality left an indelible mark on me, so too Zac’s first brush with death has had a significant impact on him.
Zac already understood the concept of death, at least as it relates to plants and bugs. When I explained to him that Gramps was very ill in hospital and might not come home, he was emotionally developed enough to comprehend that this was a cause for great concern. We never took Zac to see him before he passed away but we did explain to him before the funeral that he had died – and Zac was genuinely sad. He immediately grasped the idea that he would never see Gramps again, and commented that “it doesn’t feel like Nana and Gramps’ house any more”. Out of the mouths of babes.
Over the past few days, we have introduced him to Always and Forever, a children’s book which gently broaches the subject of death, mourning and remembrance. It has quickly become compulsory reading every night. What has amazed me is the way he has completely grasped the subject matter. Where he normally bombards me with questions whenever we read a new book, he instead sits quietly and reflectively. Unprompted he told me the story made him sad, and when I asked him if he understood what it was about he immediately replied, complete with a wobbly bottom lip, “Fox died, just like Gramps did.” I don’t think I have ever wanted to just hold my boy in my arms, hug him and never let him go as much as I did at that moment.
Last night I read the book with him, the fourth time we have done so between us. We talked about how he would never see Gramps again. He asked me about where he had gone, to which I responded with a suitably neutral, agnostic answer about being in a faraway place which we couldn’t visit. He then asked me if this was because it was on a different planet, not in England, and how Gramps had managed to get all the way there in his wheelchair. (With logic like that, I can see that I’m going to have to come up with a suitably convincing mathematical proof to rationalise Santa Claus in the not so distant future.)
And then he popped the killer questions: “Why did Gramps die?”, which was followed by “Will I die?” as tears started welling up in his eyes. There have been only a few times in my life when I have really wanted the earth to open up and swallow me. This was one of them.
I explained to him about Gramps being very old and very ill and that he himself would be fine for a long time yet. The cogs whirled rapidly in his brain for a brief moment and then, with tears now rolling freely down his cheeks, he uttered eight simple words which broke my heart:
Daddy, I’d really miss you if I died.
I don’t know whether Zac is ahead of the curve in terms of his rational and emotional understanding of death. Actually, it really doesn’t matter. All I know is that I am simultaneously impressed and saddened that this not quite four-year old child already knows so much.
We reached a watershed moment last night. The genie is out of the lamp. The cork is out of the bottle. There is no turning back. That, even more than the thought of his Gramps’ death, is what saddens me the most. There is no escaping the fact that our little boy is growing up. Zac has reached the end of the innocence.