Third place isn’t so bad

044Today is my #3 son’s birthday. In his honor I’m posting the column I wrote for his 14th birthday, which seems like it must have just been yesterday.

When your mother is a writer, your life can be an open book. Just ask my sons. Their names regularly appear in this space as well as in books that are sold all over the world. And readers often ask if the boys are embarrassed to have their lives discussed so publicly. I get a kick out of that.

The fact is they love to see their names in print. “Am I in this column?” they’ll ask, and if I say no, they don’t bother to read it. I often run stories by them to make sure they’re OK with the content, and not once have I heard, “Please don’t share that.”

However, when I look through my files and clippings, I see that one name doesn’t appear quite as often as the others. That would be Zachary. He’s a middle child. As I type this I can almost feel the collective sighs of middle children all over the world. They can relate.

Our firstborn gets lots of print because even at 18, everything we experience with him is still new. He’s the first to do just about everything – including being the cause of my first gray hairs.

The second-born is the family athlete. He’s a bit on the wild side and accumulates adventures like other kids add Matchbox cars to their toy collections. He’s got the scars to prove it.

Then there’s the baby – everything he does has added poignancy because he’s my last glimpse into the world of childhood.

But Zachary was the third child added to our family in a five-year span. His brothers expressed mild interest in his arrival. And though I remember every excruciating detail of his birth, the months and years that followed seemed to whirl and blend together in a kaleidoscope of bustling boys and sleepless nights.

Thank God for video cameras. The magic of Zack’s first bite of solid food, first giggle and first steps are preserved on tape. His birth is also on tape, but as Zack would say, “It’s best not to talk about that.”

This middle child has always had a way with words, though his vocabulary got off to a shaky start. His first word was uttered from his high chair as he watched his two older brothers attempt to communicate entirely through belching. Frustrated that he’d not mastered that skill, he hollered, “Burp”

That provoked gales of gleeful laughter from his siblings and only encouraged the now verbal tot. “Burp!” he yelled. “Burp, burp.”

Fortunately, he’s continued to sharpen his wit. A few weeks ago, after his younger brother’s birthday party, we waited in the car for Zack, who was still somewhere in the bowels of Chuck E. Cheese.

Finally, the van door slid open and Zack announced with great disgust, “They didn’t want me to leave without a parent!” He slammed the door shut and added, “However, negotiations were brief.”

He’s always been full of surprises. When asked to share what he learned on his first day of kindergarten he was momentarily stumped. He pondered the question deeply and finally had an answer. “I learned this,” he said, and jumping up from the table he inserted his hand under his shirt and began flapping his arm wildly. He’d mastered the art of armpit flatulence.

“He’s gifted,” his oldest brother opined.

But for all his words and talents, what I most appreciate about this middle son is his affectionate nature. Our firstborn was reserved, and we could never catch the second-born long enough to cuddle. But Zachary’s warm and loving heart spills over into hugs, kisses and spontaneous bursts of affection.

Last week I was driving the kids home after school. Traffic was heavy and my temper was short. “I love you, Mom.” Zack said. “I love you, too,” I replied distractedly.

We were quiet for a few blocks and then Zack said, “I want my last words to you to be ‘I love you,’ because you never know how long we have.”

He has a knack for reminding me what really matters.

His Sunday school teacher once said that Zack has the soul of a poet, and I agree. I’ve worried about his tender heart, watching the way unkind words can wound him. I’m torn between hoping that he’ll toughen up so he won’t get hurt so often, and praying that his heart stays soft. The world could use a little more tenderness.

A couple of years ago he asked for a guitar for Christmas. With wonder, I’ve watched the way he’s made a place for himself through music. He plays beautifully. Each afternoon, strains of Marley’s “Redemption Song,” or Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” wail through the house as our son unwinds from an arduous day of middle school.

Today is Zachary’s 14th birthday, and this column is for him. Zack, every home needs music, and I’m so grateful that you are the song in ours.

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