I’m not even really listening to what he’s saying. He’s 8 years old, nearing 9, and his favorite topics include video game strategies and convoluted math calculations. But I’m laying here on the couch, next to the Christmas tree, fire crackling, fighting off a sore throat, and he comes over and nestles into the crook of my body and starts talking.
I’m in three, four, five moments at once. As he speaks, his prominent row of pearlescent lower teeth flash repeatedly as his lower lip drops into a valley from which J’s and F’s and ch’s emerge. And so I’m also there with him as a toddler, learning new words like four and five, watching his little lower teeth pop outward and upward, forming those sounds with tooth to the wrong lip. “Four, five,” he would say like a little caveman.
Watching his mannerisms, the specific way he pinches all his fingertips together into an emphatic claw, for instance, or the way he touches a crooked finger to his lips as he says “…I believe,” staring into the middle distance as he works out the truth of what he’s trying to say, and there is his father manifest all over again.
And so I’m also a teenager, in my bed in a Chicagoland suburb late at night, the dim Pleiades of my glow-in-the-dark ceiling constellations witness to my silent prayers for the health, safety and happiness of babies I might have one day. I’m a teenager, and I’m also a lonely college sophomore serendipitously running into a classmate on the porch of my dormitory. “So…Dracula…” he says conspiratorially (we’re supposed to be reading this for a Gothic fiction class). As I feel the cool brass of the dormitory door handle slip from my fingers, I walk toward him (the boy who will become the man I’ll marry) and together we walk straight into this future where our son leans against me next to a crackling fire, his very being proof that time travel exists.
We’re all shadows and layers of who we were and will be. We’re all shadows and layers of one another.
My son is now 8, nearing 9, and he was with me when I was 15. The dimple of his chin is simultaneously an echo of his father and a bellwether of his own future self. Sometimes when he’s in repose his face is just the way it was when he was a baby—or was his baby face just like this one? Because there are moments—when he’s concentrating, doing the hard work of stretching his mind—when I see a flash of the teenager he’ll be. He is a wonder. He is finally here. I reach into memory and comfort my 15-year-old self: your prayers are heard.