I summoned Gabe to the top of the stairs yesterday morning in order to wish him a happy birthday before I left for work. He is now nine and is not a morning person, nor does he happily submit to parental scrutiny, discipline, or full frontal affection. So he ascends the stairs with a look of vague trepidation.
I sit on the edge of the coffee table and beckon with both hands. He comes a step closer, then two, then stops. I smile and beckon again. He takes a step, the anxiousness now solidifying in his face.
“Gabe, come here!” I laugh, lean forward, grip his skinny body on either side, right at the ticklish spot below the ribs, so he nearly crumbles to the floor, helplessly squirming. I hug him close and say, “Happy Birthday, son!” He mumbles a sheepish thanks, and on my back I feel the flutter of his hands, patting my back quickly to ward off awkwardness.
Gabe is not generally a head-on hugger. He prefers to sidle under an arm and slip his own around your waist, or back himself into a soft lap and warm embrace. A kiss is an instantly blush-worthy event, and a kiss in the generally vicinity of the lips (cheek, nose, etc.) will turn him inside-out with embarrassment. He simply isn’t an aggressive type, in anger, affection, or otherwise.
But something is changing in Gabe. It started this spring, when we traveled to Michigan to see my cousin Al before he deployed to Iraq. Brendan and a group of Thorp cousins we seldom get to see decided to play baseball, and Gabe, who plays soccer in the spring and rarely puts on a mitt, decided to play, too. Not only that, but to pitch.
After only 10 minutes or so of play, my cousin Mel tossed a pitch back to Gabe, and it sailed just above his mitt and smacked him solidly in the forehead. Gabe fell to the lawn holding his head, his eye welling with tears. I went to him, but as I approached, he got to his feet, hissing air in and out through his teeth, still holding his forehead, walking in rough circles near where he had fallen.
“Are you okay?” I asked. He nodded, eyes wet, jaw set.
“You wanna sit out a minute?”
He shook his head, picked up the ball, and returned to the scuff in the grass from which he had been pitching.
I quietly expressed my amazement to my sister. This was not like Gabriel.
A short while later, he took another baseball to the forehead, this one off a bat, I think. Oh no! I thought, running back out to him. His eyes were glassy again, but he rubbed his head with the heel of his hand and smiled. I moved his hand. You could see the stitches from the baseball imprinted in deep red on his skin. I told him so, and his eyes flashed panic, but only for a second. He went back to pitching.
He talked about both injuries throughout the day, both as points of pride and of sympathy, but never complained and never quit playing.
Fast forward to our trip to South Dakota over the Fourth of July. Gabe has an inexplicable affection for a large goat that perennially appears in the Piedmont (SD) Fourth of July Parade and could not wait to see Jacob this summer. Jodi took him to Jacob’s keeper’s farm a day or so early to visit, and Gabe was invited to march in the parade with the family and the goat.
This should have been a no-brainer, except that Gabe isn’t the most social of our children, especially around people he doesn’t know well, and wouldn’t offer any immediate response about whether he intended to do it.
Ultimately he agreed to do walk with them, and Jodi took him over before the parade to get dressed and ready. He would have to line up with the family, of course, so for the next couple hours he would be without familiar faces, except, of course, Jacob’s.
The results of the parade you can see in the photo above — a joy-filled kid and an alter-ego that still makes frequent appearances at our house: Mr. Patriotic. But the change seems to have gone deeper. Immediately following the parade, Gabe was verbally sparring with his siblings and cousins, keeping pace with their jabs and meeting them with wit and outright hilarity. He was more outspoken about his opinions. And at Brendan’s baseball picnic last weekend, he played pickup baseball with Bren’s team, mostly older boys and strangers, and although he started swimming lessons this year as though last year’s lessons had never happened, he ran into the water at the lake and played and splashed with Bren and his teammates until finally I had to (quietly) remind him that he doesn’t really swim.
How does one do that: admire and encourage the newfound confidence of his son and still protect him from the dunking natures of boys twice his size who don’t know that three months ago, he would barely jump into the water?
I went to soccer practice with him last night. He took a hard-kicked ball right between the eyes; his head jerked backward, and the coach’s wife seated next to me gasped. The coach asked several times if Gabe was okay. He shook his head to clear out the stars, laughed, and said yes.
Then he looked at his coach, smiled wryly, and said, “I got hit in the face … on my BIRTHDAY!” And he laughed again.
Happy birthday, Gabe — we are so proud of you!