Wednesday, November 12, 2014

This is Adolescence: 14



This is fourteen.

Fourteen stands in the bathroom doorway with a smear of foam above his lip and a razor in his hand, chatting into your bedroom. You remind yourself to pay attention. In four years he will be gone. You put a finger in your book to keep your spot while your manchild fills the doorway with his tall, talking self. You remind yourself to listen to what he's actually saying, not just to the fact of his little lemon-drop voice getting buried in gravel. Fourteen is confessing how he kind of still wants to have a job like in Richard Scarry’s Busytown. He wants to work in a paper factory or a fabric mill or inside the enormous cross-sected engine room of a ship. “I mean,” he says, “Believe me. I know those are all totally crushing jobs in real life. But still.”

Fourteen watches The Possession, The Shining, The Birds with buoyant delight, but looks on with frank, exaggerated horror when you pluck your chin hairs in the bathroom mirror. You can tell from his expression that every revolting thing in the world has been concentrated in the lower part of your face. When you catch his disgusted eye in the mirror, he reshapes his mouth into an apologetic smile. You stick up your middle finger and he laughs, leaves the room noisily beat-boxing.

Fourteen picks up a banjo to accompany his sister on guitar. He bends over her math homework, his long hair hanging into the long-division problem he is patiently explaining. He says to her, in the cat’s cranky voice, “Great. Now I have to wash all over again because you pet me.” When she snatches her hand back from the cat’s damp fur, you remind her that it wasn’t really the cat complaining, and Fourteen says, in the cat’s cranky voice, “Yes it was.”

Fourteen is full of sudden domestic judgments. “Does the kitchen sponge have to be so gross?” (Yes.) “The recycling smells.” (Indeed.) “Didn’t our floors used to be nice and shiny?” (They did!) Coming in from his monthly lawn mowing, Fourteen manages to communicate more overheatedness than a supernova. He flops on the couch, conspicuously fanning himself, and asks, breathless and, it would appear, having a small stroke, if you wouldn’t mind getting him a glass of ice water. You bring him the water, then can’t help yourself. “Fourteen,” you say, “it’s, like, ten square feet of mowing. I think you’ll be okay.” “You’re welcome,” Fourteen says. You’d love to stay and argue, but you have to rush out and buy him pants, pants, and more pants. The getting of pants is your new full-time job. If you listen hard in the night, you can hear his legs growing.

Speaking of the night: Fourteen no longer looks like a baby while he sleeps. For years, even as his limbs stretched and dangled, his dreaming face regressed to the contours of infancy: downy cheeks, pearl of nose, the pink, pouched lips of a nursling. But now that it’s been kiln-fired, the face has taken this opportunity to chisel out its jutting new edges: brow and jaw, nose and chin. Like a Neanderthal crossed with a peach.

Fourteen sits on a stool with a wooden spoon in one hand and a fork in the other, eating buttered noodles right from the pot. Fourteen and three friends eat two pounds of bacon in four minutes. Fourteen is a bottomless pit, and you secretly love this, although you don’t know why. Probably because feeding him is your idiom for loving. As is grabbing his face in your two hands and kissing his reluctant cheeks, breathing in his fleeting scalp.

Fourteen is lazy in the best possible way. One day you and he lure the cat into bed with treats, then spend the glorious start of the weekend in leisurely conversation about Friskies Party Mix. “If they were human treats, which flavor would you pick?” He shows you the package and you pick Meow Luau. He picks Mixed Grill, then asks which you would pick if they were still cat treats but you had to eat them. You both pick Cheezy Craze. The cat snores softly, draped over your four shins. An hour passes. “This,” Fourteen sighs happily, “is a classic Friday afternoon.”

Also in the worst possible way. You have been arguing for fourteen years about his teeth and whether they really need so much brushing. “Fine,” you say evenly, one night. “Don’t brush them. They’re your teeth.” Oh god!” Fourteen says, his indignant voice like a deep-dug hole. “Mama! Jesus. That’s brutal! You still have to make me.”

Fourteen scrambles into his enormous boots to take a walk when you invite him. The oak leaves on the ground are thick as leather, and they fill you with joy and sadness. In four years he’ll be gone. These are the same oak leaves that Fourteen crunched through when he was a chubby, staggering toddler, proud in his brown lace-up shoes and knee-deep in autumn. “I feel like we’re just walking through the leaves, and the calendar pages are flying off, and we’re already walking through the leaves again,” you say, and Fourteen says, “I know, right? Even I’m starting to feel like that.” He bolts away to look at something, then smiles at you from a patch of sunlight. And it’s not so different from when he was two: all you can do is be there, open-armed and always, in case he turns. In case he runs back. 



This is the fourth episode of This is Adolescence, an essay series conceived by Lindsey Mead and Allison Slater Tate, and which I'm just completely thrilled to be a part of. Please read the lovely first trio of installments, each of which made me remember a detail of my recent past so acutely that I had to write it in my journal: 11 here, 12 here, and 13 here. And coming up: 15, 16, 17, and 18, god help us.

69 comments:

  1. Julie W.7:56 AM

    Wow. That was beautiful. And also heartbreaking, and just perfect. I'm crying at 7:55 in the morning. But in a good way. Thank you, Catherine. xo

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  2. Weeping. As I knew I would be. Neanderthal crossed with a peach, oh yes. I dread the day my son, almost 10, loses that baby-sleep look. I still creep in to watch him, to remember. xox

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  3. Carolyn8:16 AM

    My oldest (a boy) is 14 and your italicized sentences are gut-dropping reminders to treasure the time we have together.

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  4. First, tell me you did watch Boyhood [see, I italicized it! it's the literature phd in me], I'll kill you if you didn't! ;-D

    OMG you're the best writer of motherhood nostalgia & angst EVER!! Seriously! This has to be in a book someday. Seriously again!! My oldest (as I always remind you, born in the same hospital as your kids, as was his younger bro) will turn thirteen next March. He's still baby-looking and not only on his sleep, sometimes awake too, but his face is changing rapidly. The pediatrician said in the last visit that at 13-14 they should have only ONE pair of pants and ONE pair of shoes because they'll outgrow those items in a heartbeat. Sigh...

    THANK YOU SO MUCH for your writing, for sharing these poignant moments with us. It's SO AMAZING!!! Because of the blogging (baby center column writer) you & your family ARE & have been the much more detailed, vivid, literary, writerly embodiment of Boyhood.

    Come on, say that's not one of the best compliments ever written!! Hahaha... just joking. Sometimes I get inspired by other people's writing. Especially yours! ;-)

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  5. This is incredibly beautiful and spot on. It sounds like you have a very similar relationship to your son that I have to my 15 year old son. It only keeps getting better. My pants buying has even slowed, which I suppose is good and sad all at the same time.

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  6. Crying! My daughter is 12 and I have been feeling some of those same things. The calendar pages are flying aren't they? I peeked at my kids sleeping the other night and then wept to my husband that I can't even see their baby faces anymore!

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  7. Oh my, that sums it up doesn't it...and so beautifully. Thank you, always, thank you for having the words.

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  8. Teresa C9:40 AM

    That was do beautiful. I have 2 Fourteens of my own, twins, and have been loving your writing since before Birdyy. Thank you!

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  9. So, so beautiful....I am touched beyond words - a wonderful, honest, searing description of it all - inspired to cherish my darlings infinitely...thank you for your gorgeous writing Catherine...with gratitude and love, Kathleen

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  10. The endless buying of the pants, the buttered noodles, the flipping him off. I am in it with you. I read this with tears in my eyes at the dentist, where 13 was told he needs to floss more. It's still such an endearing age. Still good stuff. Beautifully done.

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  11. Oh, this just slayed me. I have a Twelve and Eight of my own and I'm feeling so incredibly nostalgic for the days they thought we (parents) hung the moon. They aren't even gone and I miss them already. Beautiful writing, as always.

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  12. Oh the tears. I'm having a particularly sentimental morning already and then, your essay. Oh god. It's scrumptious and heart-breaking. Neanderthal crossed with a peach--such perfection in this phrase. I paused and watched Eight sleep last night. The bridge to his infant sleeping face is still there and I felt such....glee. Fleeting, temporary glee. I crossed the bridge, knowing that soon, it will flash away in a spill of months and years. Thank you for your glorious words.

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  13. We completed the latest installment of the Buying of Pants yesterday. My own 14 grumbled endlessly about the whole process ("Mom, YOU are the one who buys me the light color jeans, and I hate them!") He's grown a pencil width in the last 2 weeks, and the same the 2 weeks before. He is gleefully taller than I am, even when I tell him it means he has to get down the paper towels.

    Then we went out for lunch and the orange soda he was drinking got stuck in his blonde proto-mustache LOL

    How did they get so big?

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  14. Thank you for this. I'm teary-eyed at the office again and sending to all my friends with a son. You've managed to epitomize this age - Neanderthal crossed with a peach - so true! And the pants, the pants, the pants....I can't keep up (6 weeks for the last pair I bought)!

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  15. Oh, this made me cry... because my Fourteen is now my Twenty, and how I miss these days. You captured it perfectly, from the bottomless pit to the exhausted flop on the couch. This was the first thing I read this morning, and it will stick with me all day as I think of my Twenty and wonder how he's doing so very far away at school.

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  16. Beautiful!

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  17. Anonymous11:36 AM

    Love.

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  18. Oh, this made me tear up! So lovely and poignant. I'm off to read the rest!

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  19. Anonymous3:34 PM

    Oooooo... this lies ahead! Nine already looks less like a baby when he sleeps, the first faint hint of fuzzy hair over the corner of his lips, and a jaw somehow _squarer_ than it was... he still lets me breathe in the scent of his hair, and I hope he will still let me, when he is Fourteen! I didn't mourn the passing of babyhood, nor toddlerhood, but this now, this all feels so fleeting...

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  20. I don't have boys or teens, but every words you write I feel as if written in my own hand. This was exquisite in its plainness about the futility and hope wrapped up in 14 and all the years on either side.

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  21. Dale in Denver4:39 PM

    My Thirteen sounds a lot like your Fourteen. I took him on a business trip with me to NYC a couple of weeks ago. What a treasure! Excited to do the same with Eleven and Eight when the time comes. Eight cuddled up in my lap last night - just being silly talking baby talk - but I got to rock and snuggle him for 10 blissful minutes for probably the last time ever. It was such a GIFT because I thought I already had my last time, and I didn't even remember it.

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  22. Phew, reading what other people have to say makes me not so embarrassed about weeping when I read this piece. I mean, I know I have PMS and could cry over anything, but this? Sniff.
    I have a almost-12 year old son, and a ten year old, and then the little one who just turned five. FIVE! Okay, I have to go cry some more now.

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  23. I love this. Thank you.

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  24. miryboo7:03 PM

    Very moving. Soaking up today.

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  25. "...the way Ben peered into a seashell and screamed in delight over the sudden, complicated face of a hermit crab; the way his bare, sandy self gleamed in the sunset like a ripe peach; the way he squashed an incinerated marshmallow flat between his palms."

    I've known him since then. And I remember hoping that you would let us keep knowing him through his teen years, but didn't think for a minute that would happen. Lucky me!

    Lucky you...

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    1. Oh, man, Kira. Thank you for this, for keeping track. xo

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    2. Anonymous6:26 PM

      Yes lucky us! To have little glimpses into the teen years ahead as well, for those of us following behind. Such a privilege that you share with us, Catherine. Thank you.

      And, oh, oh, oh how I hope that my Six will be like this when he is Fourteen, that "the worst" of it will be about tooth brushing! Can I possibly be so lucky? You are so lucky. I know you know that. You really are.

      (And so are we, to have you writing us through this, to come full circle again.

      ~k

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  26. Jennifer7:22 PM

    Just wonderful.
    I have to mark my spot in my book almost every night while my 14 stands in my bedroom talking to me. I remind myself to listen carefully. In four years he will be gone. This kills me.

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  27. YES, precisely what Kira said. From that quote to this post, We are very very lucky to have been in this journey with you, your family and your writing, which is what brings us together. It's truly amazing that the internet allows this magical "following people through the years" experience! Internet-based personal writing rocks big time!

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  28. Carrie M11:06 PM

    I have been following you and Ben (and Birdy and Michael) since my Jack was a wee one. Ben is a just few years older than Jack, so I feel like I learn what's in the future for us through your columns. And I love it, I appreciate it, and I get teary learning about what's coming next. It's so close, I can picture everything you describe, happening to us. You write so vividly and beautifully, thank you!! The parts about the bottomless pit and "breathing in his fleeting scalp" hit SO close to home!!

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  29. am crying, too, in faraway berlin, where my 14 has just left for school. First BOYHOOD on dvd last weekend and now this, oh dear... thanks for putting the heartache into words. hugs, anja

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  30. Allyson1:44 AM

    I, too, have "known" you and Ben since your trip to the Cape back in 2002, when you were pregnant with Birdy and I was pregnant with my son. And now my baby girl is turning 14 today, and I'm crying so hard. Thank you, Catherine, for this beautiful piece.

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  31. This is absolutely moving and gorgeous and sweet. The pants - buying, the bottomless pit -so evocative.Made me look forward to my 6 y/old sons adolescence.

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  32. annette8:13 AM

    oh my. thank you for this gift of reminding. i have a 14 and a 16 (and 2 younglings on their way there) and the bittersweet is never-ending.

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  33. Oh wow! I've known Ben since the crab story too. When Ben gave up naps and you commented, "That's a whole lotta Ben". I always remember that comment. The "He'll be gone in 4 yrs" is like a quick stabbing - isn't it? R has made that comment about our 13 yr old too and I always reprimand him as to why he has to go "there". Hugs Catherine - hugs to you for giving him the middle finger, for this beautiful account. Just hugs.... now go attack Birdy and breathe her in too - real deep.

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  34. Kristy B12:53 PM

    Why oh why do I read your words at work? After what... 11-12 years? I should know better by now. Once again, I'm sitting at my desk with tears running down my cheeks, holding back a sob. Hoping that no one comes up behind me to ask a question. I love and hate how you can manage to do that with your words. Thank you! My sweet son just turned 14 in September. I feel this...to the core. So bittersweet. :sigh: I need a pause button.

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  35. I love this story and can totally relate. My youngest is 15 and I can work myself up to tears, just thinking about him going off to college in less than 3 years.....I love your comment about plucking the chin hairs and the emotions on his face.....you are so everydayish, yet you make it seem so much more so....life is definitely better with YOU in it<3 xoxoxoxoxo

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  36. As yet another reader since the beginning of the column, I have to say that, ever since my own baby was born (2007) it's comforted me to read about how fiercely you still love and adore your babies as they've gotten older. There was always a little worried part of me that thought "what if I don't feel this way when she's ___?" And you've always reminded me that I will. 14!!! how did it happen?

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  37. Anonymous3:37 PM

    We are there, at 18 and senior year, and I constantly think, "I remember when you couldn't hold up your own head, how are you so wonderful and ready to take one the world?" It's tough.

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  38. Oh my, Catherine - you made me smile and tear up. This essay is tremendous! I have two girls nearing this transformative age, and I also have a 10 month old. Reading this, I can't help but struggle to imagine what it will be like when my little chubster starts looking like a tall string bean and will no longer be a little boy. You have captured the joy and poignancy of motherhood perfectly with this. Thank you! (I have been reading your blog since it was on Babycenter & I was pregnant with my first child)

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  39. You are a gift. This is so precious and raw and honest. As always. Thank you.

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  40. Anonymous1:58 PM

    This is awesome.

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  41. Anonymous5:40 PM

    This totally made me well up and go and peek at my just turned 4 year old sleeping & get teary again. And as I count the days to the arrival of my number 3 I've been idling away the reflux nights re-reading your baby centre blogs and am just up to the one where Ben wants to be wearing fancy clothes all the time :) it makes me want to be better at documenting every sweet stage of their babyhood so I can look back and remember. And no-one is as good a writer as you about the highs, lows & overall joy of being a parent! Though you have cost me a lot of money - we now own a huge Richard Scarry collection, buy all new babies a copy of Snow Goose & I recently shrieked with delight to find Amos & Boris in our local library and we loved it so much it's now on the Christmas list. Please don't stop writing about parenting & your delightful children until mine are at least that old :) oh and write another book!!!! Verity

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  42. Jennifer LB7:40 PM

    While I enjoy reading your recipes and advice columns...this is the writing of yours that I LOVE. Perfect in every way. And as the parent of an 11 year old who outgrew his pants in between when we bought them at the end of August and his 1st attempt at wearing them at the end of September, I totally get the growth spurt thing.

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  43. He is not 14. Nope. No way. I'm going back to read about when he was 3 and had strep throat when Birdy was born and was afraid of the bathtub drain. Ummm, pass the tissues.

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  44. Upon reading the title to this post, I saved it for nearly four days so that I could read it quietly on a Saturday morning with a cup of coffee and savor it. I did just that and had a lovely cry in the process. Thank you for pausing and reflecting for us and sharing these wonderful scenes. I have my sweet baby for another 10 years but sometimes I just want to freeze time and savor it before it flashes away to the future.

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  45. So, so, so beautiful. Thank you, again.

    -Loren

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  46. Anonymous7:24 AM

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful! My soon-to-be 12-year-old boy and my freshly-minted 8-year-old boy are not too far behind your sweet Ben. Thank you for this, Catherine.

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  47. Anonymous11:41 AM

    don't quit your day job - this is a boring, rambling mess

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  48. I am COVERED - top to bottom - in goosebumps. Heart aching and swelling, for you, for me.... xoxo

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  49. So beautiful, thank you for sharing this love letter to 14.

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  50. I'm having trouble following the links to 15 and beyond. Now that they're published, can you re-link?

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  51. This is only 3.5 years away for me, with my oldest. I cannot fathom my baby putting a razor to his face to actually shave his face. Time is a friggin' thief. BEAUTIFUL writing. Just gorgeous.

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  52. Dale in Denver6:55 PM

    Ok, that comment from anonymous absolutely slays me. SLAYS me! Well played internet troll - whom I sure is just one of your snarky friends who doesn't want to admit how touching this post is. Friends like that are to be treasured.

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  53. My own son is 16 now, and he told me a few days ago that he is not ready to be 18, and that he is stunned by how fast the past couple of years have gone by. I told him that I am not ready for him to be 18 either.

    Like several others said, this piece made me cry.

    I have been with you since the beginning, over on Baby Center, and I am grateful for our time together.

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    1. Mendel Schmirtz! It's you! xo

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  54. The title alone pump a lump in my throat as I am right there with you - and have been since way back when on Baby Center. Thank you so much for continuing to share your joyful melancholy and your family. It helps.

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    1. Oh, God. I also have a Fourteen and have been reading since Two and you had me in tears after word 40 and then I cried all the way through. I can't bear it.

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  56. Nellie5:54 PM

    I love this so much. I have a 14 too and this captures so much of our recent days.

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  57. I love this, and I have been reading from the beginning too (my daughter will be 14 in January '15). I check in from time to time, and I am so thankful that you continue to write. I feel like we are fellow traveler on this parenting journey and the community you have created with your writing is beautiful, and helps us all mark our own journeys as we follow yours.

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  58. Thank you, Catherine. Your writing is always so lovely. My oldest son is only 11, but we'll get here soon enough. I'm going to go check out the other adolescence essays!

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  59. Thanks so much. He is Eleven going on Twelve and I could not help the tears reading this piece and the one corresponding to his age.

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  61. I am going to need you to publish more essays. I am not trying to be bossy or anything, but reading you helps me slow down to savor the every day mess. Helps me be a better parent.

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