I smile when I see the slough of fresh earth, tossed down the bank, and the clear dark circle above it. Our groundhog dug out last night, or maybe this morning, but not yesterday, when the smallest of openings was still visible if you knew where to look. Asleep for months with no day or night, only the rhythm of the slowest possible heartbeat. Today was the day, to come back into the world.
The woods are still a sparse a collage of browns against the damp, gray sky. And then, there it is! It's leaner than in the fall, but still wide and round. Taking a couple of steps, standing on its hind legs, dropping back down. Rubbing against a sapling. Chewing the finger-width trunk. When it's still, which is more than it moves, it blends completely into the leaf cover. A little leap of excitement in my stomach each time. It's thrilling to watch something disappear, to be in on the secret.
I move into the living room so I can watch through the glass slider.
"The groundhog's out," I call into the room. The older kids are already at school, headphoned, and don't look up from their computers. Nicky, though, bounds over.
"Look over the top of the grill, past it, into the woods behind."
"Pick me up!" But he is getting too big to pick up, so we move to the left and try again.
He can't see it, it's invisible.
"Just wait, it will move in a second and you'll see it." It does, and he does, turning his beaming face up towards mine, three of us in on the secret now.
I think we've named the groundhog before, but I can't remember. So much of the past year is hard to recall, a long blur punctuated by vivid details. We tentatively settle on Jeffrey.
Last spring I was shocked to see our wild rose bush shaking violently, shortly after its foliage came in. It's a big, sprawling tangle with a sumac growing straight through the middle of it. Suddenly Jeffery dropped out, and continued to strip leaves off the briars. The circumference of the bush, denuded to the height of a groundhog.
It was last summer that we noticed the den. The kids saw Jeffery bolt into into, flushed by their playing. We all crept up as close as we dared, and looked at his face and clawed feet, packed into the opening, staring back at us.
"Mrs. Murphy answered one of my questions yesterday," Nicky tells me.
"Oh yeah? Which one?"
"The one about recess. We're going to have recess, but we have to still wear masks. If you want to take your mask off, you have to sit on a special bench."
"Mmmm, well, that makes sense."
"But different classes can't play together, so I can't play with Braden," As Nicky says this, he drops his gaze and twists his shoulders side to side.
There's a Wondering Box in Nicky's classroom where the children slip notes to their teacher. It contains the things that are hard to remember to ask at the right time. The things that are too scary to ask, or too embarrassing, or the most important. It contains the wide eyes and open hearts of 18 second graders.
"Come on. Come help me with these."
I hand him a wet cereal bowl, and he puts it in the dishwasher.
"What else do you want to know?"
"Who will I sit with on the bus?"
"Well, I don't know, but I'm sure you'll have the same seat and the same person everyday."
"I hate everyone on my bus. I'm going to have to sit with someone I don't like."
"You don't even know who will be on the bus this year. Things are different, you know? Why don't you wait and see who's on the bus before you decide it's a problem."
He stonewalls me, and I pass him the silverware.
"Look. If you're stuck with someone you don't like, we'll fix it okay? That we can change. That's a problem we can solve. Who's a problem solver?"
After a pause, he points a finger to his chest without looking up.
"That's right. Who else?"
Now at me.
"Yup. Who else is a problem solver?"
"Yup, Daddy. And Miss Karen, and Mrs. Murphy. Do you think Miss Karen is going to make you sit with someone you don't like?"
He shakes his head and meets my gaze as I squat down.
"No. That's right. Ok?"
"Ok." He steps forward, putting his arms around my shoulders. I feel the wet metal press into my shirt, and I pull him in. We stay like that until he's ready to step away.
It feels a little like talking about Santa Clause sometimes, explanations made to fit the particular circumstances of the questions. Why is it safe now when it wasn't before? If three feet is okay, why didn't we do that the whole time? I smile and confidently explain away the inconsistencies, I withhold adult information, and I notice a small, persistent excitement. I have that feeling of not exactly lying and not exactly telling the truth, because I'm not sure myself, of the line between reassurance and reality. It's hard to tell that things are changing until one day you decide that they have.
"It's going to be amazing when they're all at school." I tell my therapist. "It will be so quiet. All day. No one is going to interrupt me. It's going to be so peaceful."
"That's a big shift for you."
"I know. It's weird. I thought it would be a really big deal, and now...it's just something that's happening."
We wrap up our conversation and I swivel my chair to look out the window. A robin is plucking at the ground. A cool, humid breeze slips through the barely open window. A plague of grackles is roosted in the oaks with an awful lot to say. Maybe it was the excited chitter of birds, all around now, that woke up the groundhog. The inevitability of spring is thick in the air. The pale green winter remnants replaced by authentic, eager sprouts. Maple leaves, so plump and red as they begin unfurling, that the sky is faintly rosy at the edge of the branches. They are calling us out of our slumber, out of the smallness of our burrows and demanding we come back into the world.