My ten-year-old son spent the afternoon with six friends imagining a parallel dimension while I looped our dog at the edges of the park. They splashed through the creek with walkie-talkies to escape from Russian soldiers, chased a Demogorgon along the ravine, hid behind tree stumps, all the while over-and-outing about the Upside-Down: a dimension felt but unseen. They were emulating characters from a television adventure set in 1985. It was a Sunday in suburban Philadelphia in January 2020, and the air was unseasonably warm.
I watched them band together like a troop of kangaroos bounding down hills with leaves cradled in their T-shirts. For them, it was a simple adventure to access another world layered on the now. It was the fantasy, the science fiction, that lit up their minds with creative impulses. Their giddiness evoked a nostalgia for my own childhood.
I spent Sunday afternoons in 1985 in this very park. With my brother, now also a parent. With friends, now grown and outgrown. Always I was moving in circles. Up slides, down ramps, round bases, hand in hand through shadows and streams, twirling down around poles. Swinging to launch shoes, bodies into weightless flight. I remember lying on rusting, round platforms where child pushing child made grooves for future feet, dizzy as the metal moved circles beneath our backs. We pushed each other faster and higher while the merry-go-round and swings kept us tethered to the ground. Anchored.
I combed that ground for four-leaf clovers to wish for illusions: rainbows, moonbeams, princesses in pink crinoline who could jump rope. It took decades before I stopped spinning long enough to set my sights on a future where I had two sons and a husband who could hold my whole self. I did not know then, as I coiled and curled, that comfort would come with a linear rhythm of marriage and motherhood, dinners and dog nuzzles.
My younger son stopped my walk with a fit of need. We sat together on a bench, his toes barely scraping dirt below us. Pouty lip, teary eyes. He unloaded a pure and simple sadness, excluded by these big boys. You can’t play, his brother told him. I folded him between my arm and my chest and for just a moment I was his every answer. For just a moment, the only dimension was the one we could see. For that simple moment, I could turn time off and our melty embrace was everything, it was enough. Until his best friend appeared, and they ran off to build a stick fort.
As he ran off, I felt raw. Not at his fickle needs but at memories of the crevice between inclusion and exclusion. I remember hanging there. Triumph in shirt tucked, both hands letting go to dangle from the crooks of knees off the high bar. Agony because I was the only one who kept hanging, who could not mount the courage to drop. Penny drop, girls called it. Friends to my left and right flipped and landed. Two feet, heads high. But I did not trust myself to upright my own fall. Hanging there while the others dangled themselves again. Until they tired of falling and flipping and we were all off, pulled together in motion by cartwheels browning hands and bare feet.
The dog tugged after black squirrels scampering up the stone wall that ringed the park, wanting creatures she could not catch. As I reeled her in, I could all but see my six-year-old self, plucking honeysuckles from that very wall. Another little girl, now living in Portland with her wife, taught me to harvest nectar drops with one pulled calyx at a time.
When I moved back here as an adult, after almost two decades away, memories of my childhood would catch me daily, reel me in as they floated to the surface of my consciousness. I felt the joy of young adventures held in the walls and rituals of the township. I would walk by houses and think of sleepovers spent watching Pretty in Pink in my purple cabbage-patch sleeping bag. I could hear my friends singing folk songs while we pitched stones into the stream behind the park. I would drive by Wawa and stop myself mid-phrase from telling my children the story about sneaking away from tennis practice to climb graveyard fences en route to that Wawa for Chipwiches and Zippo lighters. Not that I ever dared smoke.
I eased the dog from trail to sidewalk. Instead of pining for the past, I drew in the now. My eyes traced the bend of willow branches, less romantic without their curtain of leaves. I absorbed the muted heat of winter sunshine on that cloudless afternoon. I felt the pain of my neighbors masked by the stone facades of their houses. Breast cancer. Layoff. Affair. Divorce.
I watched my older son and his friends through the peeling green chain link fence. They climbed the tube slide, perched atop the monkey bars. They squealed with unfiltered delight, their voices like sunlight on an open ocean. Once closer, I heard them talking about a girl, a classmate, who was not there. A girl they wished could be the character with the super powers. A girl to save the world, to be the one. I saw my son shift in that moment, right there with muddy knees atop a plastic dome meant to contain crawling toddlers. From thirty feet away, I felt his shift. A jolt, not unlike the lurch of the typewriter shifting capital letters into line beneath my fingertips for my elementary book reports. Full force from little boy to something more.
And I remembered that same shift in myself. Gradually, much after 1985 but still in this park. With fondness, I opened myself to the refocusing, the longing, the setting of sight. I remembered that first boy and how we said all. On logs, on park benches. In the crisp twilight nestled in the orange leaves and brown acorns of fall. I remembered plunging into each other head-first, lips and fingers stumbling through the newness of mutual embrace.
These ten-year-old boys were not quite longing; their shifting sight was just beginning to find its new horizon. Their collective imagination was still mostly fantastical. That day alone, they killed the monster, turned the keys, closed the gate, beat the Russians. Got the girl. None of this was real. There were never any Russians threatening their daily existence just as there was no gate to another dimension, no upside-down present. What they could not see, could not find then as children, were the dimensions of past layered on the present.
That night, my older son and I played cards and listened to music in our kitchen. This time spent counting and sorting and singing was our anchor. Together, we moved in circles as I taught him to waltz to Kermit’s The Rainbow Connection, a song he slipped in between dabbing and flossing to Imagine Dragons. It’s just so heartwarming, Mommy. I taught him to put his hand on my hip, or around a partner’s waist if he’s feeling romantic. I taught him how to lift his arm to let his partner twirl as he himself slowed without standing still.
That Sunday I was moored by memories. Reliving all the years I spent living for the future, living to grow up, to do more. Back then, the future was 2015 and it meant time travel and hoverboards and flying cars. Back then, I did not know that elation would find me in the twirl of my son’s wrists, in the trusting pout of a lip. Back then, I did not know that the stars were never as far away as they seemed when I was playing, spinning, arms out, head raised. Simply fighting not to fall.
Rachel Fleishman, MD, is a neonatologist who writes creative nonfiction about her journey as a mother and as a doctor-mom. She is the mother of two busy school-age boys who are thrilled that their evening tradition of sleepy tea and card games is now in print. She has been honored to have her essays appear in such publications as The Philadelphia Inquirer, Hippocampus, and several medical humanities publications. Her essay in Literary Mama was nominated for Best of the Net 2020. To review her publications, you may visit her website at www.rachelfleishman.com or find her on twitter @rafleishman.