By the second baseball game this season, I was feeling like a pretty rotten parent. Austin was striking out every single time he got up to bat, and though it was only third-grade baseball, I knew he was athletic enough to do better. It’s just that he hadn’t had any practice last summer.
I should have helped him practice batting every once in a while. I should have thrown the ball with him. I read lots to Tommy over the summer, and I helped Claire improve both her gymnastics and running techniques. But I didn’t help Austin with anything, really.
Austin is my middle kid, and in stereotypical fashion, he is an easy kid who doesn’t demand much from me. So when he never asked me to throw the ball with him this summer, I didn’t do it. I’ve got so much else on my plate, especially in the summers, so sometimes I only do what my kids ask me to do. Claire asks for plenty of things, and as the oldest child, she also tries to see what new things she can get away with. Tommy, as the baby, knows he can whine to a degree that his older siblings cannot. But Austin isn’t like Claire and Tommy.
He’s in the middle.
Shawn and I used to joke that the reason Austin said little at family dinners was because he was sandwiched in-between the two big personalities of his siblings. “How can he get a word in edgewise?” Shawn quipped one day, laughing. I also think it’s just part of Austin’s personality. He’s a super easy-going kid – something that reminds me of his father. He doesn’t anger easily, and seems to accept life’s hardship as fact, rather than something to be fought. Last week, at yet another baseball game, I heard Austin’s friends discussing one kid’s grandfather who had died from cancer. “My dad died from cancer too,” Austin said, simply. Most of the other kids already knew this, but one of them asked me if it was true, and I confirmed it. Later, when I asked Austin how he felt about the conversation, he said he felt fine. Yes, he knew that it was uncommon that his dad had died from cancer, but he told me that he didn’t feel the need to hide it.
I worried a lot about Austin in the year after Shawn died. He was so quiet in his grief over his father. He was only six at the time, an age at which kids can just start to understand what death really means. But he said little, and asked almost nothing of me. At night, he’d crawl into my bed and wrap his arm around my body, but that was my only indication that things were off for him.
Slowly, I started to worry about him less. He was an adaptive kid, finding comfort and friends wherever he could, and more than once last summer I’d have to call around to the neighbors to try and find him when he’d wandered off to find dinner somewhere else. He asked me for so little, and thus, I focused my energy elsewhere.
I didn’t even really notice that he might need some attention until baseball started back up.
After that second game of 100% strikeouts, I told my dad, and he started asking Austin to come outside after dinner to throw the ball around. After a while, it became routine, with Austin going to get the ball and throwing it in the air, patiently waiting each night for his grandfather to finish loading the dishwasher.
I felt glad that Austin was getting better with his ball skills, and by October wasn’t striking out much at all. But as I watched him with my dad out in the yard, I thought about how much he loved throwing the ball – and how he hadn’t ever bugged me to do it with him. I had seen him stand in the kitchen a few nights last summer, as I scrubbed pots and pans, waiting for something. Maybe he was waiting for me to offer to throw the ball?
I always talk about Claire and Tommy’s abilities to read other people’s emotions. They are both quite aware of the social atmosphere around them. Sometimes, Austin seems to float above it all.
But lately, I’ve been noticing how he reacts to me. How he’s always watching, worried if I rub my eyes or running to help me if I’m struggling to move something. At bedtime, he never complains when I spend all my time talking to Claire about the dramas of 5th grade and helping Tommy fall asleep by holding his hand. He simply opens a book and reads it on his bottom bunk.
A few nights ago, I was really tired. I talked with Claire for a long time and then sat with Tommy until he was asleep. Austin was laying down in bed, his eyes wide open. I gave him a kiss and he smiled, searching my eyes for something.
I laid down next to him, and as I did, he closed his eyes. His breathing slowed, and I thought about my oldest boy, the one who is always watching me.
The next morning was busy, and everyone rushed to get out the door. It was a writing day for me, so I stayed back at the house, shutting the door as everyone left. I didn’t get a chance to hug and kiss them goodbye, but I did shout, “I love you!” as they left.
I was walking back to the kitchen as the front door opened. “Mom!” Austin shouted.
I turned to him. “What do you need?” I asked.
“I didn’t give you a hug,” he said.
Then he came over, wrapped his arms around me, and with no other words, went back out the front door.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.