Jackson is almost 4 — that age at which he understands his separateness from other people but does not yet understand the separateness of his emotions. His will is clear and distinct, but his heart is still one with the world. Whatever is happening to him, be it highest joy or deepest sorrow, is happening to the world. That thing — the filter, the wall, the individuation of identity that will eventually teach him that this is not so, that his feelings are uniquely his and that not everyone can be trusted with them — has yet to take hold.
I am sitting on the curb, watching him and his cousins jockey for position along the edge of the road as the St. Patrick’s Day parade flows by. As soon as a float-rider’s arm cocks back to toss a handful of Jolly Ranchers into the street, the three of them dash forward to scoop up the treasure. Other children converge from different angles, and the result of the looting and pillaging is not always an equitable division of loot. As the youngest and smallest among the group camped on that section of sidewalk, Jackson does not always return triumphant.
When he does, the plastic-wrapped corn syrup confection clutched in his little fist, he is ecstatic. When he does not, his hands empty, his shoulders drooping surprisingly low for a 4-year-old, he is morose. The speed with which he moves from one expression to the other corresponds exactly with the speed at which the next float or tractor or pamphlet-distributing politician appears.
Driving home at the end of the day, my arms still holding the heat of the sunshine and my head the image of my sweet boy waving his arms to get the attention of the candy-throwers, the parade turns into parable. I realize that, for Jackson, the candy has been the object. Each time he had been successful in gathering up a piece or two, he quickly brought it to the curb and handed it over to either me or his mother. Once or twice, he’d actually opened the package, only to stick his tongue to whatever was inside and decide against it. But he kept going back, kept hurrying hard into the scrum of children. His prize, though he couldn’t know it yet, was the participation.
People whose business it is to know these things — teachers and preachers, psychologists and seers — tell us that the need to belong is a fundamental human motivation and influences a wide range of behavioral and emotional responses. On Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is right there near the top. It is the impulse behind every dare ever accepted and the impetus for many a Las Vegas wedding and ill-advised tattoo. And Jackson has just reminded me that that craving, that insatiable hunger to be a part of something, doesn’t suddenly appear in middle school. It is there from the very beginning.
It is also there to the very end.
My fingers are curved around the steering wheel and my eyes are fixed on the flat, straight road before me. Miles ahead, the white lines on either side converge into a single point, and the road disappears: the vanishing point. I am headed toward the vanishing point. For a moment, I am acutely aware of Jackson’s youth and my age, painfully alert to the fact that I may not be around to see his tattoos or hear the stories of the dares he takes or — please, God! — doesn’t.
I take a breath. And with the breath the realization comes: This is what it means to be family — belonging from the very beginning, belonging to the very end, by blood or by happy accident; without having to earn your way in, without concern that you’ll spend your way out; with the freedom to run into the street to grab whatever you can and the absolute assurance that there’s a place to return, even with empty hands.