As I sang “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine …” and turned the page of the board book my grandson had handed to me, his lower lip quivered, the corners of his upper lip turned downward and a single tear slipped down his cheek. I stopped. A glance at his mama, my daughter Emily, revealed her surprise to be as great as mine. At first, we were each stifling a chuckle, sure that his reaction was due to my terrible singing. In all fairness, no one else in this family can carry a tune either.
He pointed to the book and said, “More.”
“You make me happy, when skies are grey…” I sang, this time nearer a whisper than sotto voce.
Again, his blue eyes widened, his chubby cheeks reddened, his little mouth puckered. Emily and I smiled, sharing a feeling of intense love for this tiny human who was so obviously feeling a really big feeling, one that wasn’t about my singing, but about a deep, passionate experience. What was it? At seventeen months, Vince couldn’t tell us.
I put the book down. He picked it up. Whatever the feeling was, however sad or afraid or confused it made him feel, he wanted more of it.
It was nearly unbearable to see this always happy (unless of course he is angry or frustrated) little fellow seeming to suffer in a manner we had never observed before. We diverted his attention. Emily hid the book under my couch. He looked for it, spied it under the couch and crawled under. Then he handed it to his mama to read. Maybe it was my voice, after all.
Emily started to sing, “You’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take …”
Again, the downturned mouth, the watery eyes. It wasn’t my voice. It was something about the song, the picture book, being at nana’s house.
I used to sing this song to my babies every night at bedtime. What I didn’t know was that Emily is now carrying on the tradition, singing to Vince every evening after his bath and story time, the final ritual before he and his bunny, just like the one in the book, retire for the night.
Did he think we were going to put him down for a nap? Not likely, as that would have elicited tears of frustration or anger, not this expression of desolation. And anyway, he knew that his portable crib wasn’t set up in the bedroom.
Perhaps a special song shared with his mama was now revealed to be out there in the wider world, in a book, accessible to other people? Could it be that he was understanding that he was in a big, big world that had other little boys and girls with other mamas and nanas who knew this song? That’s it, we thought. It’s about loss. Maybe loss of innocence.
Seeing my grandson’s despondent face raised a feeling in me that I do not have words for. I felt an ache, not just for Vince, but somehow for myself as well. My mother died when I was 25 months old. I did not have words to express whatever it might have been that I was feeling at that age. Perhaps I was recapturing the feeling of losing that special bond with my own mama, the dejection of realizing that others might sing a lullaby to me, but it would never be the same.
Emily and I both had the same maternal instinct to shield Vince from his pain by removing its source, pretending the book didn’t exist. He would have none of that. Whatever was going on his head and heart, he was fully present. He did not want to deny it or flee from its intensity until in his own way he had made sense of it.
His embrace of his feelings and refusal to be coddled teaches a powerful lesson. For him, for the man he will one day become and for the rest of us who have learned to turn away, finding words for our feelings is often difficult. Growth is hard no matter our age; accepting one’s place in the world can be painful. But avoiding complicated emotions is never the answer. Thank you Vince, for reminding me that being present no matter what is not just necessary, it’s worthy.