The Bonus Baby

It’s birthday time again. Each year, the full trip around the sun seems to get shorter. The passage of time is marked by my wrinkles, as distinct as tree rings. The same me, but . . . older. My children, however, turn into completely different creatures. I am still stunned by the evolution of infant to adult, the development of a tiny, helpless bundle of humanity into a fully functioning, if not fully matured, individual of “grown-up” status.

Spreading my four offspring out over 18 years was not what I envisioned. In sequence, their ages roll like numbers on a tote board from even to odd and 2022 sees my kiddos turn 37, 35, 23, and 19. I may not have planned this configuration, but each was a deliberate choice. Still, the truth might be that before we’d actually decided on a fourth child, while on birth control, said child decided for us. Initially making an appearance as a blighted ovum, imagine our surprise when the miscarriage our doctor told us to prepare for turned out to be a fully viable pregnancy.

The first time around, I was a very young mother. In the second chance, second act of my role, I was a little more, ahem, mature. By the time our little blighted ovum was born–two days after his dad’s birthday and three days before mine–I was granted “geriatric” status.

He will always know my age because he just adds 40 to his own. Today, Xander, aka the bonus baby, is 19 (you did the math, didn’t you?). It’s startling to see him, in the blink of my mind’s eye, transform from precious imp to precocious tot to “grown-ass man,” as he refers to himself now. Regardless, he is, and will always be, my baby.

Xander asked me once, “Who’s your favorite kid?” When I answered, “I don’t have a favorite,” he replied with, “Oh, come on. Don’t you love me best?” I said, “I love you all the same. Really!”

I maintain that the love I have for all four of my children is equal in fervor and devotion. At the same time, I celebrate their uniqueness and individuality. I cherish each for the gifts they alone bring to our family. But the baby is the caboose when the train has left the station for good.

The last childbirth.

The last colic.

The last sleepless nights.

The last time in diapers.

The last time for cribs.

The last first steps.

The last first day of kindergarten.

The last first lost tooth and bike-rider and piano player tap dancing on my brain on a Sunday morning.

The last report cards and sleepovers.

The last body odors and messy bedrooms.

The last draining of the checkbook.

The last first love.

The last surly attitude and adolescent broken heart and FaceTiming until 2:00 am.

The last driver and the last sleepless nights of a different sort.

The last applications and auditions and orientations. The last performances. The last graduations.

Recently he completed a rite of passage at church. That’s right, I said church. I never thought I’d go back to any sort of organized religion, but the UUs are a pretty unique and amazing crew. Their mission statement alone, “In the spirit of courageous love, we forge a community of radical welcome and deep connection that moves us together to heal the world” speaks volumes to the diverse, inclusive, beautiful people who congregate there.

Xander hung with with the YRUUs, the Young Religious Universalist Unitarians, a cadre of smart, funny, open-minded and open-hearted kids whose activities include social activism and leadership building among the movie nights and lock-ins. At the end of each school year, the rising class “graduates” and are no longer considered youth.

In recognition of their ascent into the adult world, a service is held celebrating their launch and individuality. Each honoree is lauded for being exactly who they are, surrounded by the unconditional love of community. Parents are asked to write letters to their youth, sharing thoughts on who they’ve been and who they are becoming, describing how they entered the family, the emergence of their personality and unique gifts, and concluding with words of advice and blessing.

Though the letters are anonymous, a portrait of each kid materializes as it is read. All who listen delight in pretending not to know exactly who is being referred to. In Xander’s case, anyone who knows him probably suspects his identity right from the get go. Read on and see what you think.

Dear Child,

You came into the world an irrepressible force, though the first two days of your life, you slept the sleep of the innocent. We gazed at your porcelain features in awe. “Could it be that this last baby, our late-in-life, sweet, surprise baby would be mild and calm and easy to raise? A comfort to his parents?”

A comfort? Yes. Easy? Well, let’s just say you have simultaneously kept us young and launched us into old age, an apt conundrum to describe the paradox that is you. With two gears: hyper-speed and out cold, you either rocket through life on a relentless stream of noise, your high-velocity intensity radiating outward in waves, leaving us to ponder the question, “What just happened?” Or you collapse, dead to the world in seconds, crashing out, capable of snoozing through any alarm, including a voice in your ear saying ever-so-gently, “Get. Up. Now!”

You were a chubby, precocious toddler who spoke in full sentences at eighteen months. “Mama, I you bonus baby,” you whispered one night at bedtime after overhearing me refer to you as such. I stand by this designation. You are the best kind of bonus.

That sharp intelligence was matched by creativity and imagination, and as you grew into a leggy, lanky school-age kid, a brilliant light with boundless curiosity, you blew our minds at every turn with questions like, “Who is God? What is God? Like, is he an animal? Or a monster?!”

“Well, we believe that God is in your heart,” I said. “And you are part of God.” Rather than telling you what you should believe, I thought the best strategy was to offer varying points of view. “And some people, Grandpa and your friends from Camp Barnabas, they believe God is a man, like . .  you know, Jesus.”

Without skipping a beat, you interjected emphatically, “But, Jesus is a girl!” And in case I didn’t believe it, you added with a vigorous head nod, “Uh-huh. She is!”

Seemingly overnight, you morphed into a saucy, brainy, artsy adolescent with the mouth of a sailor, a 10,000 watt smile, and talent oozing out of your pores. You wanted to go to church and so we found the UUs and the Coming of Age program and, much to your chagrin, Our Whole Life or O.W.L. for short, because even though you sing your own song, loudly, with gusto and panache, you are, at your very center, painfully shy.

That doesn’t stop you from waking up every day and asking with your signature joie de vivre, “What’s next!?” Life for you, beloved bonus baby, is an adventure best approached with an unquenchable appetite, to be lived with no-holds-barred, at full tilt.

The round-faced infant that bounced into our world 19 years ago is no more, though we will always hold those memories close. And now, the young man emerging into adulthood before our eyes, evolving into the person he was always meant to be, sits poised on the precipice of the biggest adventure yet. Proud parents, we cannot wait to see what comes next.

You already have the tools for life we think are most important, but here are some last words of wisdom to put in your pocket:

  • Don’t be afraid to talk to yourself–sometimes it’s the only way to have an intelligent conversation.
  • If you need to write an angry letter or tweet or text: Write it and put it away. Read it tomorrow and then decide if you really want to send it.
  • If you’re sad, play some music. If you’re mad, play some music. Happy? Music. Music is the spiritual guide that will take your hitchhiking brain wherever it wants to go.
  • Stay curious and wide-eyed with wonder.
  • Be kind. Always be kind.
  • And remember to love, because love is the most powerful force in the universe. And in the end, it’s all that really matters.

Wherever you go in the world, you’ll always be ours and we will always be yours. You said it best yourself when you were only five.  After you’d screamed, “I hate you!” and stomped off, probably because we cut your peanut butter sandwich in squares instead of triangles, I gave you time to mellow and by bedtime, you were ready to make up.

“Mommy, I love you.” Your voice was tired and the heavy pull of sleep dragged at your eyelids. “I love you after I hate you.” Fighting to keep your eyes open, you continued. “And I love you forever because I’ll hate you again.” As you sunk back onto your pillow, your eyes drifted closed. Your little body surrendered into the bed and you whispered, “But I’ll always love you.”

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