On the morning of his birthday, Tariku woke me up saying, “Your baby is six today!”
I immediately teared up. He put his arms around me and said, “It’s okay, Mama. Everyone has to grow up sometime.”
I am not even making this up. He writes the best dialogue, that kid.
He was eleven months old when we brought him home from Africa. His legs were like skinny, limp noodles. When I tried to look into his eyes, he often looked away. We were worried about his motor development. We were worried about his lungs. All I wanted to do was hold him to my chest. All I wanted to do was feed him and fatten him up.
For three months, he was no more than five feet from my body at any given time. I pretty much just fed him and walked around with him; that was the shape of our days. I held him and wandered in circles around the neighborhood, the house, the mall. And slowly, slowly, I felt him relax into my body. Slowly his eye contact improved. Slowly, his muscles caught up and in no time he was zooming around the house. It was the hardest and scariest and most tender time in my life, those initial months with T.
When I say he relaxed into me slowly, I mean it took years. It has only been the last six months that I feel something big has shifted in him. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly. Certainly, many of his trauma-based behaviors have subsided. There is something even sparklier and more alive behind his eyes. He is less afraid. I feel like I’m just getting to know my son.
We held his birthday at HIS spot: Proud Bird Restaurant. Proud Bird is one of those historic Los Angeles hidden gems. It’s right across the street from LAX and the airplanes pass directly overhead. He likes to sit on their patio for hours every Saturday, never losing his wonder at those marvelous beasts taking to the air.
It was a special thing for him to be able to share it. T was friendly and sweet and, as always, exploding with that wild joy of his. Not that long ago, being around crowds used to pitch him into a panic. His party was a huge success. A triumph, really.
His birthday happened to coincide with the hatching of our last butterfly. We raised five of them from caterpillars and the late bloomer was a real holdout. I was starting to get worried for the other ones in there, waiting around.
We got the Butterfly Garden as a Christmas present and I was a little bit resentful, initially. I thought, Really? You’re going to make me order worms in the mail? It turned out to actually be fascinating and fun for all of us. I’m not sure who was more excited when they started to emerge.
Here’s the thing I didn’t expect: it was cool but it was also gruesome. I had a jar full of caterpillars and food and poop pretty much on my dining room table for a week. Then they turned into cocoons straight out of the movie Alien, in which they turned to goo. When they hatched, I sat watching them, mesmerized by metaphor and miracle, and then out of the blue one of them started bleeding. I almost had a heart attack. I looked it up and found that it’s normal for them to bleed- they expel the last vestiges of the caterpillar they once were. Seriously, real life butterflies are not a Hallmark card.
When it was finally time to let them go, Tariku cried and got mad at me because he was going to miss them. It took him about fifteen minutes to come out of his room. Resolute and silent, with a tear-streaked face, he took the habitat outside, gently laid his hand on the top of it and said goodbye. Then he set them free. We laughed and ran after them until we finally gave up and just practiced our cartwheels for a while.
It is impossible to raise butterflies and not meditate on growth and transformation- the bloody complicated mess it all is.
It is also impossible not to marvel at the prize: wings.