"Leveling up" is my family's term for those periods in a child's natural maturation when they seem to make a huge leap from one developmental stage to the next, usually brought on by a catalyst of some kind.
For example, when our kid went to sleep-away camp for the first time, the six year old who returned was remarkably more self-sufficient. She could get hurt and administer her own first aid (I earned a badge for this, mom, I know what I'm doing, I swear). And when, on the second night home from camp, she got up from dinner, cleared her plate, and took a shower without any prompting, my husband turned to me and said "Holy crap, she leveled up."
It's a weird feeling when your kid levels up. You're proud because they're becoming more human, the savagery and weakness of childhood wears away and you start to see a capable, independent person emerging. It's simultaneously evidence of your success as parents and a reminder of the inevitable obsolescence of parenthood.
Last night I watched our eight year old (almost nine, mom, I'm nine in like three weeks) worry and wiggle and yank at a loose tooth. The tooth wasn't ready to come out but the kid wouldn't hear that. She's at that age where everything's an argument so I decided to let her win this one. At ten minutes before bedtime I found her in the bathroom, blood was smeared across her face and dripping down her neck, her fingers furiously yanking and flicking the tooth. I could tell she was in pain and told her to stop even though both of us knew she wouldn't. She couldn't.
It's bugging me! I can't sleep with it wiggling like this! She says this while leaning forward to spit a mouthful of blood and saliva into the sink. We both look away, reflex-gagging at the sight of blood-streaked saliva, while I blindly rinse the sink out.
It's not the blood that bothers us, it's the saliva. We both have severe gag reflexes to even the mention of certain things and we are both deeply affected by the sight of saliva with any kind of color in it. We know it's probably OCD tendencies but in our house we don't fight that shit, we embrace our weird.
The kid's in the process of losing what's left of her baby teeth and this particular tooth is absurdly small and chipped from an old fall. So when she tells me the string thing's not going to work because it's too [mumbling] small, I believe her and pretend to not hear her mumbled swearing. I let it slide because I am useless to her right now.
I'm in the hallway outside her bathroom, stuck in a horrible cycle. It starts with genuine concern, precedes to offers of help, immediately followed by freaking the fuck out brought on by going into the bathroom and seeing my only child covered in blood and trying to rip off a piece of her body. At that point, I flee for the relative safety of pacing and twitching in the hallway until, of course, my motherly concern returns and the cycle repeats. Unfortunately she's old enough to understand exactly what's happening. I can tell by the way she rolls her eyes every time I say "No, really, sweetheart, I'll help. Let me take a look at OH HOLY SHIT! I CAN'T HANDLE THIS!" So when she swears under her breath and our eyes meet in the mirror, we both know she's earned it.
It's not just the blood-streaked saliva that's making me useless. It's the piece of her body threatening to escape from the whole. A loose tooth, a split fingernail, a partially severed digit: all are equally repulsive because they are neither of the body nor away from the body. They are neither and both and terrible. The sight causes my nerves to sizzle and fire and I must flee. So she understands to a point but that doesn't help her irritation. One of her parents is present but useless and the other, having experienced both of our absurdly sensitive gag reflexes on many occasions, is (wisely) steering clear of the blast radius.
Mom, I can't even tell you how scared I am right now, spitting more blood.
Dude, you cannot be as scared as I am right now. You're my baby!
It's in my body!
I made you in my body! She rinses and spits, eyeing me in the mirror, skeptical. I ignore this. Boom! Maternal trump card! Wilkie out! I walk into my bedroom.
No way! No "Wilkie out!" I need you for moral support.
She's twisting the tooth in the socket now, a pale rivulet of blood arcing down her pale wrist. I am overcome, again, as I am throughout every day, at her loveliness. Even now. Even covered in an old tie-dyed t-shirt and pajamas bottoms, blood streaked, and sweaty with exertion. My child. My beautiful strange creature.
She leans forwards and spits something with substance into the sink. We look down, hopeful of seeing a small white pearl blooded on one side. Instead it's a blood clot floating in a jellyfish scrim of foamy saliva. In unison, our heads turn and the gagging comes. Her hands shoots out toward the hot tap, mine towards the cold. We splash wildly, our faces buried in the crooks of our elbows. I glance at the sink. All clear.
She looks in the mirror, wipes her face with a washcloth, takes a deep shaky breath, and with more bravery than I have ever seen in one small person, starts to shove the tooth up and away from her gums. The angle is approximately the same as removing a nail from hard wood with the business end of a hammer, if you don't care how fucked up the nail gets in the process. We both know this will work and I know that no matter how much my nerves fire, or how loudly my brain screams at me to leave, I will stay and witness this. There is no fear in her eyes anymore, just a pure angry stubborn determination.
As soon as I recognize this and think the teenage years are going to suck so bad, she's leaning forward, spitting again and reaching in to rinse off this impossibly small chunk of herself.
The tooth, now no longer attached, has lost its power over me. I hand the kid a cold washcloth and tell her to bite down. I take the tooth, rinse it off, brush it gently (You gotta wash it, the tooth fairy won't pay if it's all gross), and hand it back. I clean up while she runs down, washcloth crammed in her mouth, and yell/mumbles something like Dad, I did it and didn't hurl! I hear him laugh and say Good job, kid! You just leveled up again!
While she's hugging me goodnight, I tell her I'm proud of her. I tell her she's crazy-brave and my hero. I hold her close and breathe her in, eyes closed. I get the feeling I'm going down on an elevator of scent, floor to floor, seeking something... the sharp copper tang of blood mingles with her lavender lotion... then it's chamomile soap and tea tree shampoo, cappuccino lip balm and sugared vanilla bubble bath... the warm sweet funk of exhausted child and spent adrenaline...and finally, I find it. Her. Just her. The smell that is only one person, my person. My child.
She smiles up at me, gap-toothed and sleepy, and says I am a total bad-ass. I grin back, voice thick with emotion, and tell her: damn right, you are.