Play With Me
In the fall, Emily will head off to college, leaving our nest lopsided—and her only brother behind. Like Daniel, I was the youngest child of the family; I can understand how he’ll feel when she’s gone.
“Mom, I need you!”
I hadn’t heard these words from my almost 15-year-old son in what seemed like a decade. Calling for me from his end of the hallway was something he hadn’t done since a bout of bad dreams and restless sleeps a few years ago. “What’s up?” I said, resting the book I’d been reading on my chest, propping my glasses on top of my head. “I need you,” he repeated, this time a little firmer, a little louder. “Can you come here?”
He sat at the edge of his unmade bed as I entered his room; he was shirtless and wearing gym shorts, a baseball cap hung low over his hazel eyes, his foot crossed over his leg, resting on his other thigh. A quick scan of the room revealed a wet towel or two, inside out clothes, was that a fork and a plate with banana bread crumbs on the floor next to his bed? I cringed before refocusing my attention to the strange looking item sticking out of his size-12 foot. He was looking down at it, shaking his head, his hair still damp from his shower, sweat lingering at the nape of his neck.
“Can you pull this thing outta me?” he said, his man-like hands still gripping his foot. “I think I’m gonna pass out, ” he added, his wince coated with a thick layer of Daniel-like drama.
He’d been playing hockey in his room with the new stick we had just given him for Hanukkah. An accidental hit of the rubber ball somehow ricocheted off the bulletin board hanging on his wall, with a direct strike to a thumb tack, the one with a neon green clip and a white strip of paper still attached. A slight misstep and now the tack, clip and all, was lodged in his foot. But it wasn’t just the length of the tack and clip jutting out of his foot that had my attention—it was the strip of paper with “Play With Me Coupon” written in royal blue block letters.
It had been Daniel’s 7th birthday, and big sister Emily gave him a stack of her homemade coupons, all wrapped up in a shoebox filled with hues of blue tissue paper she’d found in the upstairs closet. Over the years, he had used them all, or so I thought, presenting strips of paper to her, like tickets to a show, whenever he wanted immediate access to join her fun.
Not many things had been pinned to Daniel’s bulletin board, only his most special and coveted trinkets—a New York Giants Super Bowl pennant, a Derek Jeter picture, and a homemade “Play With Me Coupon” his sister had given him for his 7th birthday. And he had kept it, all these years.
“I’m Mrs. Olin and you are my student,” Emily had said to Daniel, her lopsided pigtails bobbing as she pointed to the purple plastic chair for her younger brother to sit in. She had hung geography and math posters on the walls of the playroom, using a pointer to “teach” him. On a different day it was a game of library, she and her friends the librarians, setting up areas of different themed and labeled books, Matt Christopher in one corner, Junie B. Jones and Henry and Mudge in another, with a check out station, using bookplates and a stamp pad for Daniel to take out and return his selections. Over the years the games changed, made up worlds on the backyard swing set or on their bikes, drawing roads and stop signs with different colored chalk on the blacktop of our long driveway.
But then, one day, it stopped. “Mom, can you tell him to leave us alone,” Emily said, her bedroom door shutting, her make believe games now “for members only,” behind closed doors, with her friends. Her brother now stood on the outside, his head and gaze downward, his little shoulders slumped; he was no longer invited.
Growing up, my brother was my childhood playmate. We were superheroes running around the backyard, DJs choosing our radio station’s playlist from our selection of 45s and cassette tapes. What I didn’t know then but am certain of now is that besides our parents, our siblings are the only true witnesses to our childhood, the ones who share the kaleidoscope of family experiences both high and low. If we are lucky, like I have been, they are among the deepest and most meaningful relationships we will ever know. “I’m playing ball with my friends, go find something else to do,” he told me one Saturday afternoon, discarding me along with our days of head-to-head Coleco football, Battleship tournaments and Monopoly marathons.
He was the first to leave for college, my brother. The dinner table felt quiet without his sports talk and our inside jokes, his humor and our banter. Our family square quickly became a triangle and I hadn’t been ready for it. In the fall, Emily will head off to college, leaving our nest lopsided—and her only brother behind. Like Daniel, I was the youngest child of the family; I can understand how he’ll feel when she’s gone.
Had Daniel been holding on to the coupon these past eight years for the right moment to cash it in, or was the strip of paper a silent reminder of the passage of time?
“On the count of three, I’m going to pull it out,” I said, crouched down next to him. “OK, go for it,” he said closing his eyes. “One. Two. Three.” I pulled the tack out quickly, in one shot, and it was gone. Blood spurted, and Daniel re-opened his eyes as I held a bath towel firmly on his foot, putting pressure on the wound. “You’re going to be fine,” I said. “The pain will eventually stop.” Surprisingly, the white “Play With Me Coupon” was still intact, without a spot of blood, a crease or a tear. Without him noticing, I slipped the paper into my pocket, not wanting anything to happen to this remnant of my children’s bond. “It’s done,” I said, our eyes locking a half-second longer.
Without another word, he picked up his hockey stick and found the rubber ball, as if nothing had happened. And I headed back to my room to finish the chapter I had been reading, trying to pretend nothing had yet changed.
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