06/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Fly Where I Can't Hold You

The other day I sat facing my younger son across a café table, lemonades in hand. He brushed hair from his earnest blue eyes and asked one of his poetic/scientific/vehicular questions. (Why did the wind stop blowing? Why are yolks yellow? Why don't motorcycles have windshield wipers? Why can't dogs drive cars?) Watching and listening, I half wondered, Who is this sweet pixie, anyway? Whereas I lived and breathed my first boy's early years, with my second I've been devoted but rarely transfixed. Too often he's been riding in a sidecar along a route mapped by his older brother's ins and outs, and I haven't been watching as intently as he comes into himself.

For him, however, I'm the one and only. Reunited after time apart, his questions come tumbling out, stored up for me, his confidante. For months he's been puzzling over the ways and worries of nursery school. "I don't know which is my chair," he'd say; "I'm too shy to talk." He observes it all, then asks me later. Why do some kids push him out of the jungle gym while others protect him? Why did one girl cry when another wouldn't hold her hand? Why did someone call him the Bad Guy?

At first I wished he could take on the rough-and-tumble by himself; the boys who already wield light sabers, the girls who already jockey for friendships. His self-sufficiency would have complemented my urge to take a discreet step away from my now-older children and back toward myself. But instead I'm needed, in a more fine-tuned way than for his baby years. (If only it were some kind of achievement, to be needed so fervently). There are meetings held, ideas exchanged about how to help him. At home, the supposedly shy boy is a tyrannical cherub, nervously aware that he is outgrowing his clinginess. Once after a rage I said soothingly, "It's okay--I love you," but he raged again: "I don't WANT you to love me!" He muffles my voice with his small hand when I put pedantic words--"you're frustrated"--to a bad feeling that's engulfed him.

The imbalance of young childhood must be infuriating. They are so engaged and single-minded, so wholly entwined with us grownups, while we are distracted by our separate lives in the wide world. I found with my older son that the fleshy, doting connection of youngest childhood evolves into the life-long complexity of growing away, returning, growing away. I remember skittishly taking refuge in my own amused mother's lap the night before I moved far from home for my first real job.

My boy's over-attachment concerns me sometimes but as we sit across the table, his curiosity, his tender confidences and conversation are reassuring. And lately his questions and worries about school are giving way to modest tales of moxie, of going head-first down the slide and of speaking up (Hey--that's mine! or I'm NOT the Bad Guy!). In a playground now strewn with spent cherry blossoms I watch from a bench as he and two small boys zip off on scooters through a half-chained gate into the vacant expanse of a Brooklyn basketball court. His little corduroyed backside clambers over another fence after them. What urban detritus lurks there? Broken glass? Scraggly rat-filled bushes? I hardly care--I love the Huck Finn mischief he wants to chase, barely looking back. I wait for news of the adventure, knowing that someday soon he won't be saving all his confidences just for me.

"Fly where I can't hold you" comes from the song "Follow," here sung by Richie Havens