Getting through the Caterpillar Years: My Son and Eric Carle

The Little Literati / Monday, June 16th, 2014
My son Atticus is three years old. I call him a “young three” sometimes when I attempt to explain him and his ways.
I saw the wall clings while shopping for nursery decor once the ultrasound forecast a blue future. I saw the definition of boy: noise with dirt on it. I thought maybe, but maybe not. I’d had his sister Daina for a solid ten years already, and my home had been impervious to even her worst tantrums.
Daina’s messes were largely contained to my bedroom, consisting mostly of blankets, books, and Barbie shoes, lined up in perfect pairs and predictable gradations, moving from pinks to greens. Even her falls were predictable. She liked to run on the long couch and would fall in the same spot every week or so, knocking her head on the black lacquer coffee table edge. For a solid year, her pictures reveal bruises in still predictable gradations, moving from purples to yellows.
My son, however, is, well, unpredictable.
I have never apologized so much in my life as I do for Atticus’s transgressions in public spaces.
This shall be all that I say about it, as he may well be a writer someday, and these private and bizarre moments should be reserved for his own safekeeping and/or exploitation.
I will say this: His ascent into Northern Aggression has become so steep a climb that before he exits the car, he lists his own promises, as though rehearsed: “I not hit. I not push people. I not spit.” This list, sadly, goes on.
As a measure of comfort, a dear friend sent me to this article, which made me realize Atticus and I were not alone. There were others living our days.
But all at once and without much warning, my son caught me by surprise in the most beautiful of ways on Sunday. I had set him on the bed and was putting on his shoes while he grabbed for The Very Hungry Caterpillar book we’d read dozens and dozens of times, nearly all of which he’d sat silent through from start to finish.
The most peculiar thing happened.
He read it to me.
Now, of course, I know he wasn’t reading-reading. He knows a few letters, can spot an A and say it’s for Atticus, and he understands we move from left to right on a page and front to back in a book. But he can’t read. He can’t.
But he did. For him, I suspended all reality of his illiteracy and just fell in love with his voice all over again, his smallish teeth, his bold, wide eyes. I believed with him that he was reading-reading. Together, we pushed aside the impossibility of it all.
I stopped everything. I even tried to silence the cheering inside my own head. I might have teared up a little.
Page by page, his little voice said, “BUT, he was still hungry.” Every day in the book was Monday. Every number was three.
I didn’t care. It was the finest version I’d ever heard.
It’s incredible with these little people how much drinking in they do, how much they watch and listen, how much they absorb from just sharing space with us. It’s such an incredible responsibility I try to forget most days; it’s overwhelming. But it’s an honor I love to remember.
When Daina was little, I read her Stinky Face every day. It became a ritual, and it became one of those memories that you pack just beneath your skin so that wherever you go and whatever you do, it’s just there, hovering in the space just above your soul with you.
By the end of the book, the small caterpillar becomes a big, fat caterpillar then a beautiful butterfly. My son says beautiful with the longest U sound I’ve ever heard. It’s a little like a stretched out song, kind of full-bellied with hope and joy all mixed together. It sounds like the feeling I get when I watch him, dwelling and learning among us.
Our home is a cocoon of gentleman standards and a very lax dress code. I think his wings are itching some days. When the space seems tighter, it’s just because he’s getting bigger. Because the world is full of chocolate cake, salami, pickles, and too many hungers to count, I pray that, like the caterpillar, he finds some leaves and rest.
Because one soon day, I know he’ll fly away.


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