Reservoir Mum and I have spent all of Sunday afternoon dismantling beds and traversing the hall with dressers and clothes and boxes of toys – s-bending and u-turning our way around kids while meeting their eating and entertainment demands, reprimanding here and there and patching over a few falls and mishaps – as we rearranged the boys rooms for what is a momentous and emotional occasion centred around the dismantling of the cot for the very last time.
It was five hours of pure effort but finally the dust has settled and the bastard Allen keys are out of my hands and back inside Reservoir Mum’s toolbox where they belong.
Maki and Tyson are settling into a room together and its 7.35pm when I finally tire of the resultant kerfuffle and it’s after I place one of our 1970s style kitchen chairs between their beds and sit down to silence the new night-time dynamic that my centre opens up to a sense of the familiar and draws in two significant moments from the busy day.
Three hours ago, after we’d finished positioning the cupboards and the bookshelf I was helping seven year old Lewis to hang his Minecraft posters on the wall and said, ‘I really like your new room, Lewy.’
‘Me too!’ he said.
‘You know, you’ll probably be sleeping right here until you move out, when you’re twenty or maybe even twenty five!’
‘I’m not moving out until I’m forty,’ he said, and then after a pause to consider one particular thought. ‘Will you be dead by then, Dad?’
‘I’ll be…’ I said, counting as I pressed the corner of a poster against a blob of blutak. ‘Seventy-three, I think, so... I should still be around, hopefully.’
Only thirty minutes ago as I encouraged Archie under his doona covers for fifteen minutes of reading and Pokemon card sorting I was shocked enough by the length of his nine year old body to stand back and say, ‘Wow, soon your feet will be hanging off the bed, Arch!’
Archie replied with his contemplative squint and shrug-smile – an expression he’s used for most of his life – and I don’t know if it was the sudden loss of cot in our lives but I was drawn to the framing of his typical expression. The child is still there in his face, yes, but there’s been some subtle shift in the heaviness of his jaw or in the definition in his cheeks or brow or… something.
And now, I’m sitting between five year old Tyson’s bed and two year old Maki’s bed – as they make yelping and squeaking noises to giggle and incite each other against the swell of tiredness – watching the clock tick past 8pm, schrispering ‘not another word!’ and ‘roll over, face the wall!’ and just as my temples are beginning to pulse and steam I hear myself say ‘I’ll move you to separate rooms if you can’t be quiet!’ and suddenly the muffled laughter and thrashing of bed covers either side of me are lost to the soft shock of Déjà vu.
Only four years ago we were in our old home, in this very spot and the nightly ritual was just the same: a Dad on a chair using slogan-like repetitives to muzzle the joyous rebellion of two little boys.
The slump in my shoulders comes when I turn to my right to see Tyson’s face, shadowed by the dull light of the lamp. Four years ago it was Archie smiling there. To my left I find Maki relinquishing his cot for the first night ever. Four years ago it was a cheeky young Lewis, with his head raised defiantly, in the very same bed.
Back then I’d wait for the sure signs of sleep and tiptoe from the room after the usual nightly battle, start on the cleaning of the kitchen and say to Reservoir Mum, ‘God, I can’t wait till they’re old enough to sleep in their own rooms,’ but as I sit here reflecting in the dark – Tyson and Maki’s breathing drawing out towards slumber – I’m remembering how Archie, Lewis and I would pack in between the wooden guards of Maki’s bed to read a book, of the crazy conversations that set off a chain of laughter, of Lewis’s slobbery gap-toothed grin and husky chuckle, of Archie’s wide-eyed sleep-stalling tactic of asking a flurry of unrelated questions. I can remember groaning from my own bed after midnight and climbing in to the bed of a moaning Lewis, to be woken early the next morning by the nudging of a warm hand and a voice saying, ‘I wanna get up now’, and carrying their wriggling bodies in my arms, or slung over my shoulders, as I stumbled into the chill air of the morning kitchen, elbowing the light switch, steadying for breakfast.
Those two boys who couldn’t sleep apart are now contemplating life and loss and metamorphosing towards manhood in their very own rooms and if I could have even one of those dread-nights back again, complete with the steaming temples of frustration, I’d take it like a win.
After I pull the doona over Tyson’s shoulders I hover by Maki who’s slumbering for the first time in a big bed and it hits me that our cot days are behind us, yes, but that Tyson and Maki are giving us another chance at an experience that made such an impact on me but that I’d almost, already, forgotten.
Before Reservoir Mum left for work she woke me up in Maki’s bed and now two hours have flown by and I’ve just about prepped Archie and Lewis for school. The bags are packed and almost everyone is dressed and ready to go but despite being on my feet and active for so long there is still the tingling in the fingers of my left arm and a stiff and stubborn pain in my neck.
‘Who slept in your big bed last night?’ I say to Maki, as I kneel down and help him step into his pants.
‘Daddy,’ he says, reaching out to whack me on the beanie.
‘Yep,’ I say, as I sit him down for the sock-and-shoeing. ‘And, hey, how about you Tyson and me go see the ducks today? Do you wanna do that?’
He nods and jumps to his feet and grits his teeth for a wrestling match he has no real hope of winning and after he swings from my neck and stomps all over my legs and torso he wraps his arms around my head and presses his cheek into mine, like he’s trying to crack a giant walnut, and for a moment I have my eyes closed and can only feel and smell one thing: Maki.
A minute later, after he takes his battle to his brothers on the six foot ottoman my iPhone barks a text message from RM which reads, Love you a lot. Brought back memories seeing you squashed in that bed this morning! and if I felt any more sweet and sad and sugary right now I’d be a bottle of Golden Syrup.
I feel like I can take a breath and steady myself for the next two years with the smile and shrug of a veteran.
Here comes the frustration and the repetitive slogans and the sore backs and the dead arms and the nights where rebellion holds firm and nothing gets done but it’s okay, because it’s the laughter that will last, the pure boy in the faces whispering past me in the semi-dark, the intuitive bonding that comes in the exchange of touch and smell, and this privilege I have for just a little while longer: to open my arms to my children, so they can fall asleep with a man who loves them and wake up to find him still there.