And then one day.
You are in an unfamiliar city. Everything has "blank slate" inscribed on it. There it is on the face of the museum, "blank slate," engraved in stone along with the names Durer and da Vinci. You breathe, for the first time in weeks. Novelty is energizing. In the large entry hall your family forms a huddle, each player mapping a strategy for seeing the most of what he wants and the least of what he doesn't. Divide and conquer, your husband advises, and instinctively you move toward your younger son, because that's been the way of things for a long time now. But when your husband turns toward your older son and prompts, "Mom or Dad?," your firstborn gazes at you. You meet his gaze, and the two of you are trained on each other for longer than is comfortable. Something meaningful is in his eyes; you're not quite sure what it is, but you recognize its import. "Mom," he decides, finally, and you try not to look surprised, you act as if you are taking his choice lightly, contrary both to your instinct and your habit.
You go off with your older son, tell him that you are happy to let him navigate and see what he wants to see. And you really are. Whatever you had thought you'd wanted to see has flown off, a flock of birds that's wheeled away and scattered. Your son is a bit confused by the museum map. You vow not to intervene unless or until he asks for your help. With his head held high, he directs you towards his favorite classes of objects, which are not your favorites, not at all, but somehow that's better than fine. When you ask to see a painting in a particular room, he obliges with warmth and even comments on your selection. Your time together - one hour before you are to meet up with the other two members of your family - is companionable. You joke; you tell stories; you marvel at the age of this or that artifact. He teaches you - about celadon, a ceramic he's studied in World History class.
Throughout your visit to the museum, throughout your visit to this city, your firstborn treats you with unwavering kindness and affection. At one meal he defends you against a sarcastic throw-off comment your husband has issued. Now it is your and your husband's turn to lock eyes on one another, pleased (your husband) and delighted (you) by your fifteen-year-old's newfound chivalry.
Other mothers have told you that your teenaged boy returns, Odysseus after his long and arduous travels. At them you have nodded, not exactly disbelieving but still a tad skeptical. And then one day... And then one day you find that you can stop reaching far back to the memory of a bright-eyed, sweet, sunny four-year-old boy, because suddenly there he is, towering over you, to be sure, but otherwise none the worse for wear.