Thursday, September 21, 2006

Fourteen and Counting

School pictures have arrived for high school students, and as I was switching out the old for the new in a frame I keep on the piano, a very old photo of Max fell out. Staring up at me was a blond, brown-eyed boy of 13 months. Next to that fallen photo was Max's most recent, taken just one month ago. Brown hair, green eyes covered by glasses, a retainer soon to be followed by many changes, yet the smile--the expression--was the same. He knows oh so much more than he's letting on.

Seeing these two versions of my eldest child side-by-side gave me pause. I sat down and studied the face I once felt I'd waited several lifetimes to see. And I remembered the very strong sense of familiarity I'd experienced the first time I laid eyes on Max. Although I had spent that pregnancy in great anticipation of meeting this baby, once I saw him, I realized it wasn't meeting him that excited me. It was seeing him again. I'd been missing that child and wasn't even aware of it until he was there, studying my face with wide-open eyes.

This knowing him is what allows the two of us to communicate without talking. I'll be in the middle of a thought, and Max will come into the room and finish it for me, out loud. In my head, I'll be singing a tune, and he'll start to sing it aloud. We often say the exact same thing at the same time, and sometimes, he answers a question I haven't yet given voice to. This is weird stuff, I know. Believe me, I know. We're both used to this sort of thing now, but it still gets kind of freaky sometimes when we see something on TV or in a movie and have the same response, word for word. More than any of my other kids, I have a connection with Max in terms of how we think and process information. We are two sides of the same coin. It is creepy and cool at the same time.

Some kids--most, I suppose--are born brand new. Or at least they seem that way. That wasn't the case with Max. He was a complete package the moment he arrived, and everyone who met him knew it. They expressed it differently, of course. "He seems like such an old soul," some would say. Others commented on the depth of his facial expression, or the feeling they'd get that this was no baby. I had those same gut feelings, but because he was my first, I had no other children against which to compare him. He wasn't unusual in any way at first. He was just Max.

As he grew, however, he began to share with me vivid memories of events and people from what he called "my life before." In hushed tones, he would speak to me, late at night as we watched the stars, of the future, and how he would die before I would. He instructed me not to be sad, because that was just the way God wanted it to be. Imagine hearing this from a two-year-old as he holds your hand and gently pats it, much as an adult pats a child's hand as a gesture of comfort.

Max turned 14 this past Monday. His memories of his "life before" have faded, but not entirely. And still he believes he will come to an early demise. It is not something he frets over or laments; he simply accepts this knowledge and expects me to do the same. Outwardly, I accept; I will not disrespect him by doing otherwise. Inwardly, I scream and rant, curse and weep. This is no stranger we're talking about; this is my son. My firstborn. Everything he has ever told me...every event he has ever predicted, has happened. It's another thing we share. Not that we're able to tell the future, per se...but we have both had quick blasts of images and scenes, and those images have always come to pass. I have seen events from the past--long before I was born--in much the same way. Again, creepy but cool.

So it is with unfathomable relief and gratitude that I celebrate each anniversary of Max's birth. In some ways, he is a typical teen: operates with finely honed selective hearing skills, talks back when he feels he's being made to do something totally outrageous (such as taking out the recycling), forgets what he's told 5 seconds after you've finished speaking to him. But in other ways, he's atypical: How many teens would be okay with having their moms write about them in a public forum? He's uncommonly secure in who he is; peer pressure and teen angst claim no space in this kid's life. He is very much marching to his own beat, with little regard and absolutely no need for the approval of others.

Often, children of a family "belong" to one parent or the other. Bella, for instance, is very much her daddy's girl. She is like him in most ways, both physical and behavioral. Max is mine. He's been mine from the moment he "found me again," as he was fond of saying as a little boy. What I have with that kid is valuable beyond any treasure. It is a love that we both know has superceded time, a devotion that needs no explanation or expression.

That Max is my son is a gift. That I am his mother, an honor. He's not perfect, but he's mine. And I'll take mine over perfect any day.