First, close the door as carefully as possible. Now, let’s survey the aftermath.
There is a dinosaur sticker clinging to the hardwood floor near the entry hallway, torn, folded in half, but sticking nonetheless. A single, royal purple crayon perches alone and forlorn, probably hiding for its life, between a couple of couch cushions. Light switches I forgot existed are thrust into the on position, illuminating normally unused corners of the house. One half of my pajamas (I can’t tell which half, but who cares?) is strewn across a kitchen chair, far across the house from where pajamas are routinely exchanged for street clothes on the average day. Glassy-eyed, wary, and immobile from exhaustion, the dog is prostrate on the carpet. She declines to shift as I step over her.
The children have been here. Overnight. Both of them, with just the dog and me.
It was a first, so let me quickly confirm that everyone survived intact. Or maybe just the children did. I think I might have. Right now, the dog is a close call. We’re not as young as we were, the dog and I.
And let’s be clear about a few other things, in fairness and up front. First, I asked for this opportunity. Are you ready for the kids to stay overnight, both of them? I asked my daughter chirpily. “I am if you are,” she responded, so quickly I should perhaps have taken note. (About halfway through the previous evening, a good friend texted, ‘How’s it going over there?’ To which I responded: There is a reason this task was originally divined as the responsibility of two people. But I am one, plus dog, and so we do what we can.)
Second, Buddy and Sis are relatively well-behaved kids, as kids their age (five and three) go. Their parents diligently coach good behavior, require them to clean up after themselves, to employ good manners, all of it. They’re just active, REALLY active, and inquisitive, and quick…and exhausting. My LORD, they are exhausting.
While surveying the aftermath, providing asylum to the desperate purple crayon and otherwise tidying up, I begin pondering the sleepover experience from the children’s perspective. And I quickly fear their view will not equate to the stuff of Hallmark cards and treasured future family lore. Did they have a good time? Or was every word I uttered a reprimand, a correction? We ate a good dinner, we read books, watched a cartoon, they colored, we sang. Is that what they’ll talk about? Tomorrow, and 30 years from now, when I may be only a memory in their hearts?
Or will this litany, from me, come to mind instead: No, back away from the wall with that crayon. No, don’t take the top off that pottery bowl, there’s nothing in there for you. PLEASE don’t give the dog any more pot roast. She’ll vomit. Wipe your hands before you leave the table, they’re covered in sauce. No, you can’t have another cookie. No, you can’t watch the show a third time, you have to go to bed. Stop screaming; you’ll frighten the neighbors. Stop pushing all those buttons; better yet, hand over the TV remote, RIGHT NOW. I’m not kidding! Did you spill that, again? I just wiped it up!
I once heard a wise and impressive grandmother, a Harvard-educated college professor, state boldly that her only job is to keep her grandson safe. If safety is assured, whatever else he wants, in her house, he gets. Such a beguiling idea, that, with its alluring quantities of flexibility and openness. And good luck to her, and the child. It’s not how this G-ma is wired. One longs to provide that Hallmark card experience, the gentle touch, the calm and kind word, the fresh cookie, the twinkle in the eye. But how to balance that with the powerful instinct to protect property and animals, even one’s own sanity, at least, a little bit?
To explore my darkest lingering fears, I ring up their mother a day or so later. Did they have a good time, I inquire, trying not to sound desperate. “Of course, they did,” she assures me, “they loved it.” Really? I repost. I feel like I hardly said a kind word…had to get after them time and again.
“Mom, I promise,” comes the matter-of-fact answer. “I doubt they thought too much about any of that. They’re used to it, you know.” Aha. Well, there’s that, of course.
“Do you know how lucky you are?” This is a question I hear often from friends and family, always in reference to the magical concept of two beautiful, intelligent, healthy grandchildren, living just 20 minutes away. How they wish their kids lived closer, they say. Or: I can’t wait until I have grandchildren. Or: I bet you love every minute you spend with them, don’t you? You lucky dog.
In the core of my heart, I know this: Of course, I am lucky. These children, with their bizarre questions and oddly precocious wit and pale blue eyes and boisterous attitudes and non-stop, simultaneous talking are gifts from almighty, gifts of a lifetime, ones I never earned. Of course, I know that. I want more than anything to be a source of love and happy times, new experiences for them. Good memories. It’s not always clear how to do that, not as obvious as the fairy tales would have us think. They were not delivered with a handbook.
And treasure every moment with them? EVERY moment? I’ll come up with a snappy answer for that one. If I ever get up off this couch again.