In the dim living room, a portion of the tree is still unlit. This evening I’ve been painstakingly testing all the lights, but I’m not adept at this process, keep losing track of where I was and having to start over, the tiny bulbs shuttled in and out of their holders impatiently. By the time the boy’s bedtime comes I’ve yet to find the broken bulb. There’s still a swath of dark through the middle of the tree, matching the dark outside–a long line of unbroken sky–and somewhere farther out, the moon.
The lights are technically less important than the broken outer pane of the upstairs window, the one I can’t afford to fix, where the wind circles and cold occasionally invades, less important than the tire that keeps leaking air, less important than yet another pair of shoes wearing through. Technically. But the boy spends the last part of his evening crying, not about the lights, but about the general unfairness of life, as though he were thirteen instead of barely five, and I just want this day’s last image of him to be a smile in their soft, white glow.
Instead it is tear-streaked and red, as he throws himself sobbing across my lap, then stomps off to sit on the stairs, clad in underwear only. “Because I’m mad at you,” he says, crossing his arms over his chest, the edges of his ribs sticking out each time he breathes, “I’m so mad at you right now.”
“You can be mad. I love you even when you’re mad. But it’s still bedtime and I’m still not saying yes,” I say.
“I love you, even when I’m saying no.”
They are the evening’s last words to the five-year old, but as I sit in the half-dark living room near the half-dark tree, I know they may as well have been my final words to a man, and, just like with the five-year old, they were as poorly understood.
Defining a boundary. Choosing to not enable poor behavior or bad choices. Wanting, not just what will help them be happy, but what will help them be good. Sometimes, you love someone best by telling them no.
I love you, even when you’re mad. I love you, even when I’m saying no.
I love you, even then.