Even eating a brownie, across the table from me, he’s not OK.
“Do you want to tell me?” I ask.
“I can’t say,” he says.
“How’s the brownie?”
“I like it,” he says.
“Do you know about reputation?”
He shakes his head. “What is it?”
“It’s this story that some people believe about you. Like in Harry Potter when some people believe that he wants to be a hero so badly that he makes up Voldemort returning and killing Cedric Diggory.”
“So it’s a lie.”
“Sometimes. Or half truths. Harry is a hero, but he’d rather just be a regular kid, like Ron. He’d rather have parents and play quidditch and be ordinary. He doesn’t want some lunatic trying to kill him.”
“Maybe you’ve heard family doesn’t matter to me. Maybe you worry that you can do something, that you can be unkind, and I’ll be angry and never want to see you again. Maybe you worry that something will happen and I won’t love you anymore.”
He is crying now. The tears down his face and into his brownie. What if we lose our mothers? If there is a monster in the dark, that is what it eats, it eats our mothers.
“That cannot happen,” I tell him. “Who do I love more than planets?”
He points to his chest, and keeps crying.
“Who do I love above all things?”
“Me.” His voice breaks on the small word.
“You’re having a hard time.”
“Yes,” he says, “I am.”
“I love you more than pie. More than chocolate with walnuts and caramel. More than water.”
“More than peanuts.”
“Peanuts are gross. I don’t want to talk about peanuts.”
“You love me more than them. Say that.”
“I love you more than peanuts. I love everything more than peanuts.”
“Or squirrels. No, you’re right. But I love you a lot more than peanuts.”
“I’m having a hard time,” he says.
“It’s OK to have a hard time. It’s OK to cry and be sad. Crying is just what happens sometimes.”
“I love you more than Lady Gaga,” he says.
“Yeah. Yeah, totally.”
“I love you more than you love me.”
“Not a chance, punk.”
He has the same worries I have, which is probably why I recognize them. Family. You can lose your family. You really can. Out of meanness and disease and accident. From habit. From neglect. You can lose them while you’re hanging on. You can lose them while you’re letting go. There is that hungry monster in the dark. Waiting until you’re not looking. Until you’re tired. Until you’re certain that you’ve never been quite this happy before.