All children, except one, grow up.
I remember the first time I realized I would grow up, on vacation with my extended family somewhere in England, the location one that childhood doesn’t allow me to remember. The house was big and smelled like magic, heavy duvets, hidden rooms, hard plank floors and winding banisters. I must have been eight, maybe nine, and my mind was consumed not with the beautiful English countryside but with the play my siblings, cousins and I were going to perform for the adults, with the pool, with memorizing the songs to the latest STEPS album. That’s the blessing and curse of childhood—you’re carted around to some of the world’s most beautiful places but you really remember the belly flop contest you had in the pool, the croissants you had for breakfast, how funny it was to order seventeen baguettes to feed the whole crew every time you went anywhere.
A passing comment was woven into these conversations, so hidden in the fabric that I can’t remember who said it. But it was about growing up and getting older; about becoming independent.
And it was in relation to these things happening to me.
I think I woke my parents up a few times that night, worried about death and growing old, about one day facing life on my own. Tell me it won’t really happen, I said. Tell me all this growing up and growing old won’t happen to us. My parents didn’t tell me that. Instead, they told me it wouldn’t happen for a long, very long time. And at the age of eight, tucked away in a hill on the other side of the world, a long time sounded just enough like forever to lull me back to sleep.
Those were the Neverland years.
There’s a playground behind our house that June and I frequent, and from the top of the slide we overlook the slope down to the track and field, where yesterday the field hockey team smacked those smooth, white, hard balls with their sticks so that they echoed right up the hill where my ten month old raised up her hands to catch the sound. The smell of fall and the sound of sticks are like small pieces of magic, and just like that, I am seventeen again, smacking around balls on an uneven grass field with my best friends, suspended in the safety net of beginning— the beginning of the school year, the fall colors, homecoming, when college and moving away was on the other side of a glass door I couldn’t yet see through.
Ten years ago, and now my ten-month-old waves her hands and kicks her feet, and I know the next ten years will be impossibly short on this side of parenthood.
June doesn’t realize yet that she’s growing. She doesn’t know yet that I switch out her onesies when they no longer stretch enough to snap, that holding up her toothbrush to scrub all four of her teeth is a new developmental stage, that her crawling will lead to walking, running, to roads away from home—the home I built away from my own, the one my mother built away from hers, and on and on.
She doesn’t know yet that all this growing will grow her up.
One of the gifts of parenthood I did not see coming was the whimsy in it all. June lives in the dawn of her Neverland years, and every day is filled with discovery. She blossoms into herself— she learns to dance, she starts to feed us, she laughs hysterically in the bath tub, she hears us talking in another room and scurries over with her uneven crawl to join us. She will give so much of her time to studying a blade of grass, to turning over the pages of a book. She causes us look again at these objects that have become so dull and ordinary to us.
I thought the Neverland Years were behind Andrew and me. June doesn’t know that, just by existing, she’s opened up the door for us to glimpse our own Neverlands again.
In a thunderstorm the lightning flashes, and she jumps and scurries at the sound of thunder, and I remember doing this with my own siblings—allowing the lightning and the thunder to become a giant game of hide and seek: we’d run at the lightning and hide by the thunder.
My college roommates came to visit at the weekend, and June laughed in mimic of our laugh— free and uninhibited, made light by years of walking each other through the ups and downs of daily life.
The other day, June sat on my lap by the fire outside, watching the flames like if she looked hard enough she would fall into them. Andrew and I roasted hot dogs and marshmallows over the heat, tucked in with blankets and Patagonia fleeces. He held my hand and said something that made me laugh, and again, we were eighteen, sitting again by a fire and dreaming of all that would come for us.
Maybe somewhere in there is the true magic of childhood and of parenthood. As a child, we are deep in the throws of our lives, where imagination and reality are still fused together. In parenthood, we watch it again, and realize the ties to our own Neverlands are not as severed as we thought— they are only a noise, a smell, a sound away.
Maybe it takes watching childhood unfold again to realize how much magic was in yours. And maybe the only way to really know it was magic is to watch it as a grown up.
Everyone says, hold onto this time. Don’t let it slip through your fingers like sand, because before you know it, it will be gone, and all you will have are the grainy pieces that stuck to your skin to remember it by. But I look at my parents and Andrew’s parents, and I wonder if maybe the next thing isn’t to be feared as much as I think. Maybe the Neverland Years have even more magic in them as a grandparent. Maybe, when I watch June’s babies, and see their childhoods unfold yet again, I’ll discover that there are more secrets and mysteries that I did not catch because I of the times I was busy catching runny noses and cleaning dishes.
What I am saying is this: maybe Neverland isn’t so much for the child as it is for the parent and the grandparent. Maybe it isn’t so much for the experience as it is for the memory. Maybe it really isn’t so far away.
Maybe the child that never grows up lives inside us all.