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Blink and You'll Miss It

Photograph by Getty Images

Eons ago—maybe three years in ordinary time—I had a little wobbly wisp of a boy, 13 or 14 months old. His newest skill was an exciting one, the big one known as walking. And so he did what most proud toddlers do: He awkwardly marched, knees high, victory arms flailing, from one end of the room to the other.

Now I’m not saying I’m proud of this, but I had a somewhat selfish urge to crouch down in corners and, just as I heard those impossibly tiny feet slapping against the hardwood floor, pop out with a "BOO!"

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I wasn’t maniacal about it, of course. Just enough oomph to surge a little jump through his body—and don’t give me that look; you get the appeal. It’s the same reason "The Sneezing Baby Panda" has more than a hundred million YouTube hits. We don’t continuously refresh that clip for the high-pitched sneeze from the baby, it’s the human-like startle reaction from the mom.

Adorable and inexplicably hilarious.

But then through a mixture of hindsight (remembering the heart-pounding anticipation of my sister jumping out during hide and seek, and secretly hating the anxiety) and foresight (imagining my phobia-plagued son sitting on a therapist’s couch), I quit my guilty pleasure.

I’d have to get my kicks elsewhere. Stupid parenting.

But the damage may have already been done, because his bigger 4-year-old self is all about the scare. Except, if I can be totally honest, he’s terrible at it. Like, really, really terrible. He gives himself away within seconds—a chirp, a laugh—from his typical hiding spots.

Hmm. That child-sized lump under the blanket is convulsing to the sound of giggles. Weird.

Life jumps out at you, man, and I felt it surge through my body.

But it’s sweet and he tries, and I’ll always play along with a good “come and find me” invitation.

“Ma,” he bellows, like a 32-year-old bachelor playing video games in his parent’s basement. “Maaaa!”

And suddenly it’s on.

There we are, ping-ponging our scare tactics—one of us trying harder than the other (ahem)—and somewhere along the way I get lost in time or memory or whatever that thing is that makes parents stop dead in their tracks, right there in the hallway, when a toddler clumsily waddles into a sun-soaked room and a lanky child reappears.

I can hear him laughing that gut-tumbling laugh that’s been echoing and vibrating through the house like a telegraphed message of love and life. Our life. The way it’s always been for a million fleeting blinks. Except each blink reveals a slightly changed child, like a stop-motion video set to the soundtrack of that time-defying laugh.

And then I realize how soon the soundtrack will change. A lanky little boy will run behind his rocking chair yelling “Come and find me,” spilling laughter like a trail of breadcrumbs, and a young man will stroll out; his voice, his laugh, his games all deeper and more serious.

Life jumps out at you, man, and I felt it surge through my body.

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As quick as the thought sprinted in and out, I snapped back into that hallway where two still-tiny arms wrapped around my knees.

“I got you, mom!” he said, looking up through his eyelashes.

I didn’t answer, just paused and looked and squeezed, enjoying this stop-motion frame.

“This is fun, mommy,” he said, cutting the silence with his tiny chipmunk voice. “I get scared sometimes, too, but it’s more fun than scary.”

“I was just thinking the same thing, bud.”

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