Last night my son woke up around 11 p.m.. He was talking loudly and stumbling a bit, and we raced up the stairs to see what was the matter. Fever? Stomach bug? Instead we found him in the bathroom, struggling to get his pajama bottoms off in time. He wasn’t quite awake, and after he’d finished and we were helping him wash his hands, he started, for no apparent reason, to laugh. And laugh and laugh and laugh. It was so infectious, so glee-filled, that when my husband and I looked at each other, we couldn’t help it — we started to laugh too. In the bathroom at 11 p.m. I was as happy, for no reason that I could tell, as I have been in days.
As a toddler, my son had the kind of laugh that made people feel good. One neighbor would tickle him on a regular basis just to hear it. My daughter, though always more reserved, could get strangers to belly laugh along with her. After I tucked him back into bed, I thought about the last time I heard either of them laugh like that. It’s been months, if not longer. Sure, they smile on a regular basis, they chuckle and cackle and giggle, but the kind of laugh that makes your cheeks hurt, that puts a cramp in your stomach, that you remember for days? Not so much.
Lately, my family is Peter Pan obsessed. We’re listening to Peter and the Starcatchers in the car (It’s fabulous and read by the inimitable Jim Dale), we watch this version of Peter Pan at least once a month (if you haven’t seen it, it is heartbreaking and beautiful and many of the catch phrases have worked their way into our daily life, so if my children tell you I am Old! Alone! and Done For! it’s not quite as terrible as you may think), and I’ve recently finished reading a biography of J.M. Barrie.
I never cared much for the original Peter Pan — I read it as a child, and then as a young adult, and both times found it somewhat cloying, but recently one line has returned to me: “When the first baby laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into a thousand pieces and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.”
It’s overly sentimental, but I get what Barrie was saying now. There’s something so magical, so awe-inspiring, about that early laughter. It comes so freely at first that even as we smile in response, we fail to see there may come a time when we won’t hear it every day. It gets pushed down, buried under the 7:30 a.m. alarm, the rush and hustle out the door, the worry over homework, over standardized tests and who is friends with whom and where to sit at lunch and what the coach thinks.
If there’s a reason not to grow up, it would be to preserve that laugh, that sense of joy that comes from just being alive and in the moment. I can’t give that feeling to my family on a CD or DVD, no matter how good it is. But I can try to find and preserve those moments whenever they come, even if it’s at 11 p.m. at night.