We've been working on clutter clearing at our house recently. I asked my son, Gobez, to go through his room and pull out anything he no longer wanted. He threw exactly two items into the hallway: a medieval toy castle and a fire truck. Seeing the truck on the junk pile made me gasp.
"Gobez, honey," I called. "Are you sure you want to give away your fire truck?"
"I don't like it any more," he said.
Gobez turned 9 in May. He hasn't played with the truck in years. Of course he wants to give it away.
I sat down on the hallway floor and began wiping dust off the truck with a damp rag, readying it for the donation box. Within seconds I was sniffling, and then I broke into a full-on sob, my son's discarded toy still in my lap.
Gobez poked his head out of his room. "Mom, what's wrong?"
"Nothing," I told him. "I'm just sad about the fire truck."
Gobez looked at me with confusion. "Do you want to play with it? Because you can have it. I don't care."
I laughed. "No, honey. I don't want to play with it. I'm sad because it was your very first birthday present from us. Do you remember?"
My son shook his head. "You're crazy," he said, and ducked back into his room.
Gobez was only 3 years old, and his little sister Lemlem just 2, the day they bravely followed my husband, John, and me onto an Ethiopian Airlines jet bound for the U.S. Three months later, it was already time to celebrate my new son's fourth birthday. At that point, communication in our household consisted of an incoherent mishmash of English, toddler Amharic, and emphatic gesturing. I wasn't even sure Gobez knew what a birthday was, and I had no way to explain the concept to him. Throwing a big party would be overwhelming for him and for me. Frankly, as the exhausted new mom of two rambunctious kids whom I barely knew, hosting a party for a pack of preschoolers sounded like torture.
We packed the kids in the car instead and met my sister, Heather, and her boyfriend, Clint, at the beach. The day was brisk and windy. Sand drifted into our sandwiches and dusted the birthday cake. The kids had never seen the ocean before, but it was too cold to even dip a toe in. We tried to stage a game of Wiffle Ball with the set Heather and Clint had brought as a gift, but the wind outplayed us. Then John and I gave our son his big present: a large fire truck, much like the one he enjoyed in Miss Sarah's room at preschool, and he laughed. All in all, it was a lovely day, except for the unspoken burden we all shared: We didn't quite feel like a family. Not yet. We were gingerly going through the motions and hoping for the best. We bought our son a fire truck because that is what you do when a boy turns 4, and honestly, we had no other ideas. Somehow, we fumbled our way through the first big family occasion and survived.
For years, I tripped over that fire truck, which became a fixture of our daily lives together. Gobez and his engine rescued dolls in peril for his sisters and rushed to the scene of elaborately staged bike accidents to care for the wounded toys. Every single day, I would hear my son wailing "Woooo, woooo, woooo!" as he pushed that truck down the hallway, until one day, the wailing stopped. Gobez had moved on. If a toy didn't have a remote control unit or a microprocessor, he wasn't interested. Relegated to a dusty corner of the bedroom, the truck hung around for old times' sake. Now it's gone.
Many birthdays have passed for our family since that first tentative celebration. Now I know that Gobez wants me to make Cincinnati Chili for his birthday dinner, that he wants to bring buttermilk cupcakes with chocolate cream cheese frosting for his classmates, and that he expects a chocolate cake decorated like a soccer field if we throw a big bash. For his ninth birthday, I knew he would love was the Team USA soccer jersey I got him, personalized with his name and team number.
We've come a long way together. We can let some things go.
This post was previously published at Be Bold or Go Home.