He watched YouTube videos of "The Most Amazing Goals" while I pulled his socks over his shin guards and made sure the toe seam was in just the right place. I filled his water bottle and said things like, "This will be fun!" (one of many parental lies in a long line of parental lies).
We listen to his favorite music on the way, and I steal glances at him in the rearview mirror. He stares out the window. He's nervous. Me too. But he's being brave. Me too. I remember his little face on the way to daycare years ago. He'd say with a quivering lip, "It will be a good day. It will be OK." He was brave even then.
Now he's 8 and on the way to a soccer tryout with stop watches and skill drills and sprawling fields with numbered pinnies and strangers at registration tables.
The night before, I found myself saying to my husband, "He's not really a skill player, yet." He's 8. Wasn't he going down the stairs on his bottom just yesterday? Wasn't I watching him practice his pincher to pick up Cheerios from his high chair a few days ago? A skill player? I want to punch myself and anyone who created these tryouts directly in the face.
It's 46 degrees outside with an occasional mist to make it special. I have the three girls with us, too, so a friend sits with them in the car while I register my boy. He can feel the formality of it all, and so can I. I flashback to my own tryouts and even college orientation-the forced smiles and smell of ink from the pens parents use to sign their lives away, a cocktail of old and new sweat, random clusters of people who laugh loudly and know everyone.
"Hey, Gallo," says a boy in passing. I smile. Noah kind of does.
When I talk, my voice is light to convince us both that this is no big deal.
On the ice at his hockey games, he moves with grace and speed and a quiet confidence I admire in a boy so young. I know it wasn't always that way. Soccer is newer to him, though some of his teammates seem to have played this sport in utero. Part of me wants to say, "You know what? Let's leave. Let's not do this now or maybe ever." He'd stay, though I won't lie and pretend he wouldn't be tempted by my offer. He knows he's not going to be the best one out there. He won't be at the top this time. He knows it. I know it. He's doing this anyway.
I have to leave him with our friends and their son because the baby can't be out in this cold dreariness on these fields that feel like the Arctic Tundra when the wind whips through. Not for two hours. And maybe I can't be out there either for other reasons.
I drive away. Like I've done so many times before: daycare, preschool, kindergarten. Like I'll do countless times. Even when I know he'll be fine -- better than fine -- my chest will likely tighten and I'll busy myself so I don't vomit. I have four children; if all goes well, I'll endure roughly an eternity of gut-wrenching emotional trauma.
I want to stomp my feet and vent about putting young kids through this kind of high-pressure situation. I want to rant about standardized tests. "Let kids be kids," I'll say. "Stop judging and measuring them already! Can't you see they're just right?! Practically perfect!"
Except I know the sometimes-painful truth: they won't be "just right" for everything. They're definitely not perfect. I know that, but I don't want anyone to tell them yet. I want to protect them from that information. I don't want them to feel the sting of that when they can still be invincible heroes and legends in the playing fields of their own minds.
But I'm driving away, leaving him to muscle through, to see if having heart is enough this time. Here we are, teaching each other how to be brave.