The storm broke just moments ago. Now the heavy air has lifted. Rain pounds on the roof but the pressure of waiting has been released. I sit in the north-facing window. The neighbor's light, my constant guide, shines into the darkness, waiting for dawn.
Last evening I dined with a client who has become a friend. After we had ordered, she excused herself and with her gone from the table my view to the back wall cleared. I saw a family: small child; attentive mother, tall and lean father. I briefly thought, That child is so small to be in this fancy restaurant! and I watched the father gently instructing his son while the mother studied her husband intently. And another small son's face raised itself before me, and I lost myself in the memory.
1996; Border's Bookstore coffee shop. I have a book propped open and a cup of coffee sitting idle. My son, four years old, sits across from me reading aloud from his own book which we have just purchased. I pay little heed, lost in the story of the novel which I have chosen. Patrick continues reading, his little voice clear, his small hands holding the edges of the book's cover, his cup of cocoa forgotten.
Suddenly a movement catches my attention and I raise my eyes. Two men and a woman stand behind my son. They seem astonished at something -- something I missed, perhaps; I am not sure. Guilt floods through me. Has Patrick done or said something wrong? What did I miss?
One of the men speaks. Is this your child, he asks. I feel my face scrunch with puzzlement. Whose child would he be, but mine? I nod. Do you know he's reading, the man continues. My mystification continues. I nod again.
The woman says, How old is he? and I reply, "Four. He'll be five in July." I am less and less certain that I know what is happening. Are these the truancy police? Have we bothered them? Did Patrick say something naughty? What is in that book??? Patrick's voice continues, lilting, eager. He has not noticed the conversation taking place over his head.
Finally I say to the first man who had spoken, Is something wrong? and he shakes his head. The second man speaks then, asking me if I realized that my son could read. My confusion deepens. I'm oblivious, I suppose; but this is my son and yes, I tell them, I know he can read. And he's only four, the woman remarks, as though perhaps I have forgotten. Five in July, I repeat.
At that point Patrick gets to the end of his book. He looks at me and then notices the people standing around him. Were you even listening, he asks me, in that voice that children use when they already know what your answer will be. We laugh then; and the three move on, away from me and my son, taking with them God knows what impression of a clever little boy and his mother who takes him for granted.
Twenty years later, that little boy will soon turn twenty-five and leave Evanston with an MFA in screenwriting from Northwestern University. I've been trying to recall what book he read aloud in that coffee shop, so many years ago, but I cannot. I wasn't really listening, it must be said. But I am listening now. I no longer take my son for granted. No mother should. Their lives might be fleeting; and they might leave us to our eternal sorrow.