Benjamin sprung into the summer evening air, his 4-year-old legs boosting him close enough to the basketball hoop that he could swipe the bottom of the net on each propulsion. We bought a trampoline at the start of the pandemic (a panic buy ahead of homebound days with an exuberant child), and Benjamin was flying that night, free and wild, in only his Superman underpants, narrating a Wizards-Mavericks game he’d memorized. “And the Wizards take the lead, but there’s still time on the clock,” he reported, bounding about.
“The Wizards win it! What a win! The Wizards won, 119-118! …Mom, come up,” he said, breaking character to offer me his arm. I stopped recording, tossed the phone, and we jumped together in a spoon-ish embrace. That was a year ago.
Already his legs stretch impossibly longer, the pitch of his voice dramatically different, as I learn from watching the iPhone video of that night. And he no longer hangs out in underpants. In fact, he wants privacy when he changes.
Of all the firsts we’ve experienced together—the first haircut, the first toddler bed, the first big-boy bed, all of the steps away from me and into himself—the most painful are these, the steps out of Eden.
When the world began to lock down, I hoped that finally we could somehow pause or stretch time with him, to sustain the magic of our bubble.
And for a while, we did. Our daughter was born barely two months before work and school went virtual. With my husband, David, grounded from his usual travel, we relished time as a new family—the little ones plus my two stepkids, then 12 and 15. And life became slower, simpler and richer, if harder. When Zoom school proved preposterous for Benjamin, we opted for home school, each day chalking a schedule plucked from a menu of activities: baking, reading, foreign language with the grandparents, basketball, of course, and, one of our favorites, meditation. Benjamin would choose a guided program from an app on my phone, and I’d cradle him in my lap while we rested. Most times he’d ask for another, longer one, craving what I did—the excuse to cuddle (or maybe, because he loves numbers, to monitor the countdown of minutes on the screen).
Last summer, the night before Benjamin turned 4, we held a quasi-campout on the trampoline. We trotted out the whole family with pillows and blankets and snuggled together on a perfect evening, noticing the starlit sky dim in shades of blue and the mystical glow of the setting sun on the trees, lit like an overly obvious yet resplendent landscape. And in the quiet, we took in the idyllic scene of our backyard: a picturesque parcel just big enough for a decent game of tag or soccer; a hammock strung between two ancient oaks; and our bucolic screened-in porch, the one we hardly ever used, even though it sold us on the house with its beckoning vision of late-night toasts with family and friends.
David would break away from his infinite legal work at 5, and we’d head out on a walk that culminated in a father-and-son game of one-on-one at a hoop in our Bethesda neighborhood. Until then—and Benjamin counted the hours until then—Benjamin practiced his game, slamming shots against a jerry-rigged plastic hoop whiplashed from trauma. We played games that lasted all day and multiple days. He played against me and, while I was busy, for me—an achievement of his imagination to play against relatives over FaceTime, cartoon friends and villains, and even his baby sister, who could not yet sit. “78-78!” he announced of the nail-biter between them. “Who is gonna win?!” he asked, incredulous.
“You’re well matched,” I replied. He called out of bounds on her as he dunked, hustled and peppered the action with commentary:
“Crush-ah!” he yelled with a fierce victory face.
“Crushed it?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said, trying to nonchalantly cover his error, and I felt a stab of regret for piercing his world with a correction.
Every day that summer, Benjamin wore a basketball jersey a friend gave him for his birthday. And so it felt like the days were on repeat, with Benjamin in the same uniform (to be fair, he also wore a Juan Soto shirt daily during and beyond the Nats’ heroic 2019 season), on the same court (our playroom) and along the same neighborhood walk, even as he grew taller and in and out of phases. He’s no longer, for example, pulling up his shorts as high as anatomically possible, somewhere between his belly button and neck, requiring him to use one hand to hold them up while dribbling with the other. When his older brother explained that Bradley Beal doesn’t hike up his pants, Benjamin promptly readjusted. Now we’re in the wearing-clothes-backward phase.
Basketball may have saved Benjamin, but multiday games to 900 with his mother, whom he routinely called fouls on for kissing him, began to feel a little unnatural. He needed peers, even if from a social distance. So when fall rolled around and getting into a COVID learning pod was more elusive than a spot at the cool kids’ lunch table, we enrolled him in an in-person school, where he got swabbed each week, ostensibly kept a wide berth from other 4-year-olds, and understood COVID through the prism of gaming. Each morning, he and David would check the previous night’s sports scores along with the data on COVID’s peaks and valleys.
“Who is winning? Us or the coronavirus?” Benjamin asked one fall day.
“Right now, the coronavirus is winning,” I said.
“What’s the score?” he pressed.
“That’s harder to answer.”
“Whose team are we on? Trump’s or the coronavirus?”
“America’s,” I said, hoping to settle the queries.
“Oh, so same team as Trump.”
Sending him to school felt nearly as hard as the first time I took him to preschool, for a mere morning apart, at age 2. Only this time, I alone bore the heartache. As we adapted to his long, structured days, some of the simple joys of that early halcyon hunker-down period wore off. Over winter break, I asked Benjamin if he wanted to join me on an errand, an opportunity he relished early in the pandemic, leaping shoeless into the car for our curbside or drive-thru event. “Errands! I love errands!” he would say. And I agreed. I knew it was telling when I was excited to leave the house for a COVID test, when it was a reprieve to drive somewhere so someone in a hazmat suit could stick a Q-tip up my nasal canal.
“Who will be here if I stay home?” he said, weighing his options. “Can I play with Daddy?”
“No, Daddy’s working.”
“OK, I’ll stay here and watch my show.”
Santiago of the Seas. I lost to a show with only six episodes at the time, one of which was too scary, leaving five shows he’d memorized. To think, two years ago he said he wanted to grow up so he could marry Mommy. Those were the Oedipal days I long for.
Four COVID seasons have passed, and though it’s as if we watched them shift from our windows, feeling still inside, like a field packed with snow, quiet after the blizzard, we weren’t still at all. People were still dying and aging and being born. One president left and another began. Our baby turned 1. And no baby friends came to celebrate. Of course there’s no such thing as baby friends, but there have been few other babies for her to discover besides her reflection. And Benjamin, in some real but inchoate way, grew up this year. He no longer revels in asking what will happen when I reach an age of biblical proportions. “How old will I be when you’re 200? 300? 2,000?” he’d say, electrified by the prospect of grandiose calculations.
That’s the thing about wonder, isn’t it? It’s a thirst for knowledge that ends up in knowing. And now Benjamin knows better. “Mom, please be fine,” he said when I tucked him in recently.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“When older people get hurt, it’s harder for them.” My parents had just visited for the first time since the pandemic, and I wondered if seeing them spawned this.
“Oh, but I’m still young,” I said with a forced smile.
“No, you’re not,” he said, smiling back.
“Well, we are going to live a very long time,” I answered.
“Both of us?”
“How do you know?”
“I just do,” I said, lying.
What I couldn’t have known a year ago is that Benjamin would become greater than he was last summer. Even if we both try to hold on to where we were. Sometimes Benjamin will attempt to curl into me—in a feat of flexibility—to play Mommy Bear and Baby Bear until he tires of it and returns to shooting hoops.
I think of those parents carrying a kid who looks too big to be carried, the child’s long legs reaching too close to the floor, maybe only inches away, their bottoms somewhat secure if tipping over the ledge of the parent’s sure forearm. Maybe it’s an exception, you figure—the kid is having a moment. But maybe the parent is. I’ll scoop Benjamin out of the car and ferry him over to the garage door because I still can. Any sensible observer would chide me for straining my middle-aged back; he’s a robust boy, the biggest in his class, after all. But I’ll do it as long as I can, if it’s the private scoot from garage to home or swinging him into his bed, ticking off each lurch to reach his age: 1, 2, 3, 4, 4 and a half, 4 and three-quarters, and now, 5.
In a recent iteration of bedtime stalling, Benjamin asked why kids must sleep alone and grown-ups get each other.
“Is the night long?” he asked, considering how long he’ll have to bear our time apart.
“No,” I answered. “The nights are short. Just like the days.”
So we take pictures and videos for the same reason artists paint a scene—in this futile attempt to capture time or at least remember it. Because you can no more freeze time than you can bottle a firefly, marveling at its luminosity for just a moment before you must let it slip away. We can only enjoy the bittersweetness of perfect passing moments—the bliss of a shameless boy on a trampoline one summer evening—and strive to realize when heaven descends on earth. Our daughter’s naming was the last big gathering our family and friends remember before the lockdown. We named her Eden.
Rachel Pomerance Berl is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Bethesda. She’s currently working on a collection of essays about motherhood.