My husband and I started dating in 1996, but our first baby was born a year earlier.
On February 3, 1995, my husband’s nephew, Matthew, was born. He lived with his mother, my future husband, and his grandparents when I met the family right around his first birthday. In fact, on one of our first dates, J. and I took a trip to the toy store to pick out a birthday present for the little guy.
As years went on, we spent a lot of time with Matthew. We took him places and bought him things. We played with him and followed him when he toddled around creating chaos and leaving trails of toys. He was a happy, crazy baby who loved Thomas the Tank Engine and his stuffed dog collection. He taught me the difference between various construction vehicles and introduced me to the world of kid’s television. He never stopped moving, running lap after lap around his living room. Like me, he loved his sweets but otherwise, he was a picky eater. He even went through a phase where he wouldn’t eat unless he was standing at the sink, playing with water. I can still picture him in his pajamas standing on a chair in front of the sink, distracted by his makeshift water toys, while his mother shoveled food into his mouth.
I loved watching him grow up, mostly because we loved each other so much. I was pretty high up on his favorite people list- even higher than my husband. When I would visit he would immediately climb onto my lap, demanding my full attention. When I wasn’t there, sometimes he would point to a picture of me and say, “Ca.”
Soon “Ca,” became “Ca-ca,” and eventually “Dessica.” Time moved on and my husband and I moved in together. Matt would come visit for sleepovers. During one of his visits, he and I ventured to Sesame Place and the movies. We ate ice cream and Wendy’s together. We laughed over Catdog and Rugrats and Dexter’s Laboratory. I loved having him around because he brought so much fun to our usual adult world.
But he kept getting older (funny how that happens!) and I became “Jessica” instead of “Dessica.” As he grew, we worried about him. Motivated by love we wondered if we were all doing our best. Shouldn’t he be doing this? Why isn’t he doing that? Can’t we make him do x, y, z? Somehow all those worries dissipated as Matthew grew from Crazy Baby into Sweet Big Boy. He preferred video games to sports, and television to books, and that was fine. He was becoming himself. He made friends and started going to birthday parties. He didn’t demand my attention anymore, but was always there for a hug and a smile and a laugh when I saw him.
Then he became a teenager, found a girlfriend, and started driving and we were lucky to see him at all. Again, that was fine. We let him go so he could become himself even more. When he went through difficult times that no kid should ever have to endure, we worried again, but then marveled at his bravery and maturity and strength.
Now, within a flash of time, that Sweet Big Boy is turning 18. My first baby! How can that be? How did he go from four years old to eighteen while I blinked my eyes?
My husband and I owe a lot to Matt and his mom. He was our practice baby. He taught us that kids are exhausting and require patience. That they don’t always act like you need them to act and don’t always want to do what you prefer to do. But he also taught us that love for a child is unconditional, and that their hugs can touch your heart, which makes all the hard stuff worth it.
When I look at some of the things my kids do, I immediately think of a young Matthew. M.’s love of Thomas and trains and dogs, JC’s picky eating habits and love of video games. The way Matt argued with my husband is similar to how JC argues with him. Little expressions that M. makes look exactly like his cousin Matthew’s expressions from years ago. As the memories flip through my head as I look at my kids, I remember that little Matt is big now and I worry that my kids will grow up just as quickly, in a flash of time.
Matthew wasn’t raised in a fairy tale traditional household, but it never mattered. He was always surrounded by people who loved him to pieces– he made it impossible not to– and we all did our best, his mom especially. Something went right because he turned into a damn good kid. Oops. I mean “Young Man.” In my head, he’s four years old, and he’s making me sit on the floor and put a train track together. I will do my best to remember that he’s an adult now.
Happy Birthday, Crazy Baby, Young Man! Thank you for loving us and teaching us and being our first baby. We can’t wait to see what the future holds for you. We wish you fun and happiness and love and life. No matter what, we will always be here for you.