“John’s Real Problem,” Friend, Sept. 1991, 2
Even though John’s eyes were still closed, he knew by the feel of the sun’s sudden warmth on his face that someone had opened his bedroom curtains. Squinting, he saw his mother cranking open the window to let a pine-scented breeze fill his room. Looking to the bed across from his, John saw that Rob had been up for a long time. His bed was already made, and the clothes, laid out the night before, were gone.
John’s attention shifted back to his mother. Standing sideways and looking at the huge blue spruce near the window, Mama looked different. She was wearing a shirt that John had not seen her wear for a long time. But what was really different about her was that she was bigger.
“Good morning, sleepyhead,” she said with a smile.
John did not jump up and ask about breakfast as he usually did. Instead, he lay there very still and serious. Although pretty certain that he knew the answer already, John asked, “Mama, are you going to have another baby?”
Mama smiled again and walked over to John’s bed. Sitting down beside him, she ran her fingers through his curly hair. “Yes, Johnny. You will get a new little baby brother or sister sometime in October. Won’t that be fun?”
John did not think that it would be fun. He looked at his brother’s bed. He thought of his sisters’ two beds down the hall. He was not going to give up his bed for a new baby. There was not enough room. “Where is he going to sleep?” he asked.
“Oh, he or she will sleep in Mama and Daddy’s room for a little while,” his mother answered. “And Daddy has been talking about making a new bedroom for you and Rob in the basement. Would you like that?”
John answered, “Maybe.” But the bed was not the real problem.
While John dressed, his mother fixed breakfast. When he arrived at the table, she had spread out six plates and was spooning fluffy yellow scrambled eggs onto them. Daddy’s and Mama’s plates held the most. Then Mama dished up the rest of the eggs equally. As John watched her, he said, “If we have a new baby, there won’t be enough breakfast for everybody.”
“Sure there will,” laughed his mother. “I’ll just add another egg. Of course, by that time, I’ll have to add extra eggs because you and Rob are getting so big.”
“I’m big today,” said John. So his mother put some jam on an extra piece of toast for him. John ate his toast and jam, but he knew that a big-enough breakfast was not the real problem.
After breakfast, John said, “I need you to read me a story.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t read to you now,” said Mama. “It’s time to give the baby her bath. Maybe I can read to you after lunch.”
While Mama was dressing Rebekah, John said, “I need you to get my blocks out of the top of my closet.”
“I’m still taking care of the baby,” said Mama. “Can you find something else to do?”
“There’s nothing to do,” mumbled John. “You spend all of your time with Rebekah. When we get a new baby, it will be even worse.”
Mama said, “It seems like that sometimes, doesn’t it, Johnny. But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. As soon as I’ve washed the breakfast dishes, I’ll take you all to the park.”
An hour later, John, Mama, Rob, Jenny, and Rebekah were all at the park. John and Rob went exploring in the trees and rocks that were on one side of the park. Jenny played in the sand with Rebekah. Mama read her book for a little while.
Then Jenny and Rebekah wanted to swing. Mama strapped Rebekah inside a little baby’s swing and pushed her with little baby pushes. Mama pushed Jenny in a big swing with big pushes. From the branch of the tree he had climbed, John listened to their laughter, then climbed down and ran to the swings. Soon Rob followed him, and for a while Mama went down the row of swings, pushing Rob, then John, then Jenny, then Rebekah.
Finally Mama laughed and said, “I’m sorry, kids, but I’m just too tired to push anymore.” She took Rebekah out of the baby swing and put her back in the sandbox. Rob and Jenny went to play on the slippery slide.
After John’s swing had come to a stop, he trudged over to where his mother was sitting on their picnic quilt, reading her book. “If you have another baby, I guess you’ll be too tired to swing me anymore, won’t you?”
“Well,” said his mother, “I might get tired faster, but I will always swing you, if you want me to. Of course, you’re six now and know how to pump yourself as high as I can push you. But if you want me to, I will push you until I’m ninety-six and you’re seventy-two, and then I’ll just be too old and you’ll have to get one of your grandchildren to do it.”
Mama went back to reading her book, and John laughed as he thought about Mama being ninety-six and himself seventy-two and sitting in a swing. But even though he laughed, he knew that he still hadn’t solved the real problem.
After lunch, Mama passed out candy bars for them to eat as they walked home. John noticed that there were six candy bars in a box, and he figured that that was just right for a mama and a daddy and two boys and two girls. If a new baby came, he wondered, who would not get a candy bar? Maybe they would have to buy a whole new box for just one silly little baby. But John didn’t say anything because he knew that even candy bars were not the real problem.
After Mama put Rebekah down for her nap, she read Where the Wild Things Are to the bigger children. It was John’s favorite book, but today he hardly listened to the story. He was noticing that Jenny was sitting on Mama’s lap and that he and Rob were on either side of her. That way everyone could see the pictures. When Rebekah was old enough to go without naps and wanted to hear stories, where was she going to sit? There were already too many babies in John’s family. Why did his mother need another one? But again John did not ask the question—there was a bigger question that needed to be answered.
After story time, Jenny and Mama lay on Mama’s bed for a nap. Rob went to a friend’s house. John sat on the top step of the front porch and thought.
A little while later, John heard his mother moving around in the house. She usually got up and did some housework after Jenny fell asleep. But this afternoon Mama came outside and sat by him and put her arm around him. John didn’t look at her because he didn’t want her to see that there were drops of water on his face.
“John,” Mama asked quietly, “is something bothering you?”
“No,” he said. But he knew that Mama would notice that his voice sounded funny.
Mama scooped John up onto her lap. “Are you worried about the new baby, Johnny?”
“No,” he said again. “Not exactly. It’s just that everything is even now. We have three boys, counting Dad, and three girls, counting you, and it’s all even. Another baby will make more boys or more girls.” But John knew that he still had not told Mama the real problem.
“Well,” said Mama, “maybe we will have another baby in a couple of years to make things even. Or maybe you’ll decide when the new baby gets here that it doesn’t really matter if things are even.”
John thought for a minute, then decided to tell Mama the real problem. “You know,” he began, “I bet Rebekah will miss being the one you love the most.”
“Whatever do you mean by that, Johnny?” Mama asked. She looked as serious as John was.
“Well, when Rob was born, you loved him the best. Then I came along, and you loved me the best. When Jenny was born, you loved her best and me second best. And now that you have Rebekah, you love her the best, Jenny second best, me third best, and Rob fourth best. When you have another baby, you won’t love Rebekah the best anymore.” Then a lot of tears came into John’s eyes at once. “But, Mama, Jenny came to our family so fast that I don’t even remember when you loved me the best. I was too little to notice. And now I won’t ever get that chance again!”
John’s mother rocked him on her lap a little until he had settled down. Then she put her hand on his cheek, very gently, and wiped away some tears. She said, “Oh, my little Johnny, you haven’t really been worried about scrambled eggs and swing rides and candy bars at all, have you? You’ve been worried about love.”
John nodded, and Mama gave him a big hug. She said, “You know, honey, love isn’t like scrambled eggs that you dish out and when they’re gone, they’re gone. Love grows and gets bigger the more people there are inside it, like”—she thought a second—“like a special balloon that never pops but just gets bigger and bigger the more air you put into it.”
That night Mama told the children to get their pajamas on but not go to bed yet, because they were all going to do something later. Then, when it got very dark out, Mama and Daddy led them to the treehouse. It wasn’t in a tree anymore, but they still called it that.
When everyone was inside, Mama opened a box and gave everyone a big white candle. John could barely see the outline of Mama’s face as she handed him his candle.
Suddenly John could see Mama’s face very well. Daddy had struck a match and was lighting his candle. He said, “In the beginning, I got my light—my love—from my mama and daddy. Then I met your mama, who had her own light. And when we put them together, we had more light and more love than either of us ever had separately.” Daddy had touched his candle to Mama’s, and the treehouse looked much brighter.
“And then,” Daddy continued, “we shared our love with Rob and John and Jenny and Rebekah. And each time we shared our love, our world grew brighter and happier.” Each time Daddy said a name, he or Mama lit that child’s candle. “Do you see how bright this room is now?”
Then Mama said, “Johnny, look at my candle. Is my flame any smaller because I helped you and Jenny light yours?”
John understood and smiled all over his face—and inside too. “No, it sure isn’t.”
“Then,” said Mama, “what is a new baby going to do for our family?”
“Make it even brighter and happier,” laughed John.
“That’s right,” said Mama. “There will be times when we have to share more of our time and our room, and even more of our scrambled eggs and candy bars than we might want to. But when we share our love, it only gets better.”