We somehow manage to stuff it in there. Among all his other stuff. The snack bag, the homework folder, the stack of books he’s forever reading, the endless pages of comics he’s forever writing.
It fits. Just barely. He’s excited. He brought it yesterday, the old somewhat deflated soccer ball. They all played at recess. Him and the other boys. It was fun, he told me. One of them kicked it over the fence on purpose at one point but a teacher went to retrieve it.
“I think we’re friends now, mom.”
I’m happy. It’s been a tough year. That was clear when the questions started.
“Am I a weirdo, mom?”
“Do you think I’m normal?
“He pushed me down. Why did he do that?”
“Mom, did you ever feel like you didn’t fit in?”
Last night before bed, his dad got out the ball pump and made the soccer ball like new again. I drop him off at school, waving and watching him run to line up with his class. He won’t let me hug him anymore when we say goodbye but it’s nothing personal, he assures me.
“How was your day?” I ask, all smiles, when I pick him up. “Did you play soccer again?”
No. One of the other boys brought a soccer ball today. They told him he couldn’t play with them. He says it so matter-of-factly. Then he runs off ahead, like he always does.
As we walk home, I can feel my brain ripping itself apart trying to listen to his little sister, who is chittering away beside me all about her day, while it’s also screaming at me not to cry. Don’t you dare let them see you cry.
He’s far ahead of us now. He looks so small from that far away, lost in his own little world.
I hope it’s a happy place.
At one point he turns around and runs back to us.
“Mom, having the soccer ball in here makes it really hard to carry on my back.”
“Do you want me to carry it for a while?”
His eyes light up.
“Yes! Thank you.”
He throws it off. He runs ahead again.
I pick it up and put it on my back. He’s right. It is hard to carry. It’s heavy and awkward and uncomfortable.
I can’t do much. I know that. He’s growing up. But I can carry this burden for him for a bit.
For as long as he needs.
That night I finally let myself cry.
The next morning, he wants a donut. We compromise. A donut and a banana. Later, as he’s brushing his teeth, I go to put his snack bag into his backpack. It won’t fit. I move the endless papers around and there it is.
The soccer ball.
I feel my heart flutter. Hope, as another misunderstood soul once wrote, is the thing with feathers. I hold lightly onto it with one hand and grab his sister’s hand in the other.
“Everybody ready?” I ask.
I open the door and the wintry air hits our faces. We head out into the cold morning, him running ahead, forever ahead, despite the weight on his thin shoulders.