bittersweet milestone: the duck not rescued

Chicken is standing up now.

2 weeks ago I walked into his nursery and there he was, holding onto the top rail of his crib, grinning like a fool.

Anytime Chicken learns something new, he practices it compulsively. He lived in that crib for the next few days, crawling from front to back, side to side, pulling up to standing and then standing there, leaning hard, his knees buckling and locking as he tried to negotiate simply standing still.

I hovered, clutching my neck and holding my shoulders so high and tight you'd think I was listening to nails on a chalkboard in Dolby Surround Sound. 

I'd seen him topple a few times. He'd buck too hard to one side or lose his grip with one hand, go down on a knee and roll toward the center of the crib, grazing a temple on the wall of the crib as he went down. He'd cry out, more out of frustration or surprise than pain, and then he'd remember that he had important work to do and boom, he'd be off toward the next crib wall to pull up again.

I'd also seen him well-and-truly smack his head.  Oh, the horrible thin static sound of a baby getting ready to scream, face twisted and purple, body rigid as a plank. I rushed to him, picked him up, cupped the back of his head in my hand as I tried to soothe him. A red blotch glowed at the point of impact on his skull like a burn. Long story short, he calmed down in 2 minutes but all of a sudden I knew the sound of a bone on hard wood and I didn't need a repeat.

He's a tough Chicken. But I was one nervous Hen.

I thought, "won't it be wonderful when he starts to get a little more control? When he realizes the consequences of diving to the unyielding floor? I won't have to worry so much."

But then a week later I saw him standing against a leather storage cube in the living room, chewing on a rubber duck. He dropped the duck next to his foot. He looked at it. I held my breath. He slowly leaned down, reaching with all his might, but when he started to lose his balance he straightened up and clung to the edge of the cube, leaving the duck on the floor.

Chicken hadn't fallen! He'd recognized what was about to happen, and aborted the approach so he could take another pass. Well done, Chicken! No bump on the head, no frozen moment-before-the-scream with mom saying "breathe, Chicken, breathe." This milestone should have been a win.

It took me a couple of hours to discover why it felt so deeply like a loss.

I'd hated watching him topple in the crib, worrying about whether he would one day land in such a way that would snap his spine or bruise his brain, stunt him or damage him beyond what kisses and cool-packs can repair.

But there was also this breathtaking fearlessness that I can only describe as heroic. Sure, his heroism was born as much from a still-developing short-term memory function as much as courage, but still, my Chicken was a tremendous cannonball of a baby, nurturing the seeds of a come-what-may, damn-the-manual, let's-jump-in-without-dipping-a-toe kind of man.

When he abandoned the duck I saw that part of his fearlessness had fled, in the way a gunshot scatters birds from the trees.

Now that he fears hurts, he'll do more than I ever could to keep himself from hurting. His self-preservation instinct is natural and crucial. I should be pleased, right? I'm not. I hate that he can remember his hurts. I hate he feels fear. I'll try for pleased tomorrow.

There's no way around letting him grow, letting him fall. When he gets teeth I will miss his pink gummy grin. When he starts to run I will miss the sight of his round diaper-wrapped butt as he crawls full-tilt toward an electrical socket. But what am I going to do? I could never not cheer, not clap, not squeal with glee when I see his shining face so full of "I DID IT!!!"

Oh, Joni Mitchell, you wise old owl, you were so right when you wrote "There's something lost and something gained in living every day."
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