Six years old is a strange age, an age that straddles a line between early and middle childhood. Six can be by turns timid and cuddly, or brashly bold and confident. It’s difficult to predict which Six you’ll get at any given moment. Six is the perfect age for trying on various selves and then tossing them aside as carelessly as you would a heap of ill-fitting clothes.
As my own six-year-old finishes up his first full week in first grade, I am seeing one Six by day and another by night. In the morning, he can’t stop chattering about what his school day will hold. “There’s art today, and oh, I can’t wait to try the macaroni and cheese for lunch!,” he burbles. “Let’s have breakfast now so I can start walking to school sooner!” In the morning life is easy, rich, and something worthy of the most devoted anticipation.
The same is true in the afternoon, when I pick my newly minted first-grader from school. “Today Lauren got to take mascot home!,” he exclaims. “I don’t have any homework, but I have some important papers for you to sign, Mommy. Mrs. S. said so. Oh, and art was fun! My art teacher is really nice. She’s a famous artist, you know. She has a painting hanging – well, I can’t remember where, but somewhere. And guess what? We even saw a movie today!”
At three o’clock I have little reason to remember that my son has just started a new school, that there are twenty-three other children in his class, only one of whom had he met before this past Tuesday. It’s all good, down to the most esoteric details. “The soap dispenser in the school bathroom is SO COOL!,” says Six.
The soap dispenser?
But as the dinner hour approaches, my child is no longer viewing his world through rose-colored glasses. He becomes anxious. “How will I know how to find the music room tomorrow?,” he wonders, and his voice trembles ever so slightly. And, later, he confides to me that his homeroom teacher is just a little bit nicer than the librarian, who’s nice, he reassures me, just not as nice.
After his bath, Six’s thoughts head south. He sits up in bed, hair still damp, pajamas fresh and clean. Yet his eyes aren’t sleepy. Not even close. They’re round with worry.
“Mama,” he says, calling me by a moniker left over from his toddler years, “I don’t want to die.” And then one fat tear escapes out of his left eye and wends its way down his newly scrubbed, rosy cheek.
“Oh, baby,” I answer. “You won’t die for such a long time. For years and years, in fact. Maybe even ninety-five years. After all, your great-grandmother lived to be a hundred and one years old, right?”
He considers this for a moment before shaking his head against my words. In a small and tight voice, he confesses, “I’m scared of closing my eyes and seeing only black. Seeing nothing at all.”
I try multiple strategies in an effort to reassure him. Each one ultimately fails. He meets every new offering of mine with hope but ends up dismissing it with skeptical, disappointed eyes. I understand. I can cuddle him and wipe away his tears, but I can’t take this particular fear away. Everyone dies. He knows it. I know it. And that is the crux of being six, I think. By six you’ve figured out that parents can console, but they can’t perform magic. They are only as human as you.
In the morning, I’ll see my daytime son again. He will leap out of bed and tell me about his dreams. He will impart information eagerly and authoritatively to whoever is available. “There’s gym today, Mommy. I’ll have to wear sneakers!,” he’ll say.
But at eight-thirty in the evening it seems a long way to morning. As I close the door to my boy’s bedroom, I sigh with frustration. I lament the fact that this time I can’t seem to make it better for him.
And then I remember. He’s six.
I wrote this four years ago for an online parenting magazine called GNMP, which is now defunct. I came upon the piece this morning and smiled at the memories it evoked. This same boy is headed for middle school in the fall. He’s come so far. Still, I miss Six.