Four years and a day ago, I was on the threshold of what may be the biggest Before and After of my life. The different realities on either side of this transition are too disparate, too personal to even begin to explain what I mean. But still, le Petit's birthday feels almost (this sounds selfish) like my own.
So I was giddy yesterday, even before the feast that was planned for the evening approached. (Only in France are four-year-olds' birthdays celebrated with foie gras and Champagne.)
Le Petit is a bit of a Paris monument geek, obsessed in the cute way preschoolers approach their favorite subjects. He can spot the Tour Saint Jacques above the Hôtel de Ville, and tell the Invalides from the Panthéon at a glance, which is more than some Parisians can do. My mother-in-law and I took him on a Paris river cruise on one of the ubiquitous Seine tour boats that leaves from the foot of the Eiffel Tower. The program was a special one adapted for children, however, and the foreign tourists were replaced by pint-sized Parisians and their beaming parents and grandparents. I hoped this would be the first birthday experience le Petit would remember his entire life, but I'm not sure. He liked it, and was wide-eyed the whole time, but didn't talk much about it afterward. I think the new bicycle he got from Grandpa and Grandma may take center stage this year. When we left the boat, he said goodbye to the guide and added proudly, "I made the Eiffel Tower out of Legos."
Yes, my kid, the one his preschool teacher described all year long as "reserved," had plenty to say to anyone and everyone yesterday.
"Today is my birthday! I'm four years old," he announced to each shopkeeper he met when he was out buying provisions for his birthday feast with Grandma. Then he counted on his hand: un, deux, trois, quatre. It was his birthday, and he wanted his cake, his foie gras -- his face fell when the store clerk jokingly told him they were out of it -- and back home, wanted his candles and his presents.
The scene yesterday evening was chaotic, as I tried to bake a chicken, cook up risotto and mushrooms, iron a tablecloth and wrap presents more or less simultaneously. My in-laws provided babysitting, foie gras and the cake, and my husband dealt with the details I frantically threw at him. I was stressed, and if I weren't breastfeeding, a bit more wine might have done me some good. We're leaving for vacation tomorrow, and a day of packing and organizing today loomed, the kids wouldn't be in bed until bedtime in some American timezone. At one point, when I discovered I had to pop the undercooked chicken back in the oven, I lost it and started to yell. I even threw an oven mitt across the kitchen. Le Petit thankfully didn't notice. A Champagne glass got knocked off the table and I stepped on a shard, and Mademoiselle started to cry.
But then, through little intervention of my own, the pieces were picked up and the dishes mostly cleared and before I knew it le Petit was in his bath, busy fishing for plastic fish with Grandpa using the new magnetic fishing poles he'd just gotten as a present. The laughter didn't even wake up Mademoiselle in the next room. After the bath, I dressed le Petit in his pajamas and hung around hoping I'd be chosen to read the bedtime story, and to spend the last few minutes of his fourth birthday with him, telling him a little about the first few minutes of the night he was born. (Also just a little bit selfishly, to avoid cleaning the kitchen.)
We chose to read his favorite book about Paris.
"We'll look at the monuments," I suggested, "and you tell me which ones we saw today from the boat. What's that?"
"Hôtel de Cluny," he answered quickly, with a sly smile.
"Did we see that today?"
"Noooooooo!" He giggled.
"And this, what bridge is it?"
"Le pont... le pont de l'Alma!"
"Did we see that?"
"Did we go under that?"
After we closed the book I sat on the edge of his bed as he snuggled into his pillows and animals and made a little mound out of his comforter, to sleep on top. I started to tell him about the night he was born and how very special it was, because it was when I got to meet him. I went on to list his major accomplishments in chronological order.
"First you could only cry and drink 'lolo'. But then you learned to smile. Then, hold things. Then crawl... and then walk... and then talk."
He listened attentively, his head against my thigh.
"You stared to talk, and your first words were 'dada' and 'coco'."
"Coco, yeah, coco because... because... because there was the crocodile song!"
"It was that, or maybe the chickens on the farm where we spent our vacation, and the roosters who went 'cocorico'."
"What did I learn next?"
He listened as I went on to list things like Legos and potty and Paris monuments. I don't know if he heard what I was trying to say: You're special. You've changed my life. You've learned so much already, and you will learn so much more, and just being here to watch you learn is enough for me.
I got up to leave, said goodnight, and bent down to kiss his hair. I think that when I closed the door to his room he was already asleep.