you bounce, of course.

you always bounce, legs like Tigger and a spirit to match. but when we are forty feet off the floor and you are hanging partway out the viewing window cut into the cinderblocks of this old gym, i get nervous. my hand seeks purchase on your wiggling person: i grip the back of your Elmo panties as if they were a harness. my tightrope walker.

we are watching Oscar. your birthday coincided with the opening day of gymnastics, this year. you and i went to the kindergym. you climbed nimbly and walked the balance beam all on your own, and you sat on your mat this year, which surprised me most. on the rings you let me flip you upside and over and you laughed like sparkles and shouted AGAIN!

but Oscar, he is in the Big Gym with the big trampoline and the big beams and bars and we are in the gallery and you want DOWN. NOW.

i want to go THERE, Mama! you lean as far as the Elmo panties clutched in my deathgrip will allow and point down, at the marvels spread below us, the little groups of gymnasts hopping and swinging.

i smile. you will, love. next year, when you’re bigger.

that was the wrong thing to say.

i feel your outrage before i see and hear it. your body, sprung to bounce, tightens for the explosion. your face turns to me, wounded, plaintive, offended to your core.

i am the most bovine and unfair creature you have ever encountered.

I BIGGER! BIGGER!

you puff up like an indignant turkey and glare at me, daring me to contradict this Fact. as you should, really. your impending Bigger-ness has been impressed upon you for weeks now. you are proud of your Big. you look to me for reassurance that you are Doing It Right.

i have betrayed your faith in this bounteous inevitable.

the force with which you feel things always stuns me. someday this child will curse me, i think, a beat too late every time. then you forgive just as quickly, wholeheartedly, and i am again your sun and stars. i bask, and i pull back to breathe, all at once.

it will not be long, now. three years ago, on the day you were born, three seemed remarkably far in the distance for all of us. Oscar was just past two. toddlers and babies were all i knew. close, immediate, intimate. so needy. so sweet-smelling. and i thought i will get the hang of this eventually, find a balance, find ENOUGH of me for both of you.

suddenly he is in kindergarten, striding and stretching away from me into the world of cool and peers and independence, and you are hot on his tail and i look around me at this hectic maul where i cannot even pee by myself and i feel it slip like sand and i see, oh. there is no balance. there is too much. then not enough. you will bounce away, leap by leap and i will blink and find myself clutching a pair of ancient Elmo panties and waving, thinking how the hell did this happen?

it is as it should be.

yet…i see now why people have third, or fourth, or seventh babies. the promise of one more shot at balance. the realization that all those little old biddies were right, and it really does go So Fast. one more chance to do it better, because not one of us will ever get it perfect.

you are my last baby, Josephine.

i bend down to meet you, eye to eye. you ARE bigger, i say, and i beam at you. you’re SO bigger. but all those kids are four or five, sweetheart. when you are four, you can go to the big gym. you are three. Three. TODAY!

the chirp in my voice does not convince you, and your eyes well up. you are embarrassed. you were so sure.

next year, i promise. next year. but you don’t need to rush to be four, honey. three is GOOD. three is the bounciest, best thing in the world, okay? believe me. and don’t lean out the window like that.

i feel your small hand snake around my thigh. you lean in, and we stand together and watch the big kids below, my hand in your hair. the whole while i hear you whisper BIGGER, BIGGER, BIGGER under your breath. the eternal prayer of the younger child.

i pull you close to me and i try not to whisper, take your time.

happy birthday, my Big Girl, my love.