There are a lot of heartbreaks you set yourself up for as a parent. Perhaps you have a while before you need to deal with some of them — the first date, going off to college and moving out, the eventual wedding — but no dagger strikes so deep yet as the odd and unforeseeable moments when you look at your young one, and realize they will never again be as young as they are right now, and comprehend the two or the ten or the twenty-nine months you’ve lost forever since the last time your heart broke when you realized this.
And if you happen to be mercifully oblivious in your distance from that place on some particular evening, there is nothing that snaps you, like an elastic band, back into that wistful reverie faster than coming in your nightly story time to the last chapter of Peter Pan, wherein the eternally young and impish boy returns after many years to the home of one Wendy Moira Angela Darling, now grown up and with a daughter of her own:
And then one night came the tragedy. It was the spring of the year, and the story had been told for the night, and Jane was now asleep in her bed. Wendy was sitting on the floor, very close to the fire, so as to see to darn, for there was no other light in the nursery; and while she sat darning she heard a crow. Then the window blew open as of old, and Peter dropped in on the floor.
He was exactly the same as ever, and Wendy saw at once that he still had all his first teeth.
He was a little boy, and she was grown up. She huddled by the fire not daring to move, helpless and guilty, a big woman.
“Hullo, Wendy,” he said, not noticing any difference, for he was thinking chiefly of himself; and in the dim light her white dress might have been the nightgown in which he had seen her first.
“Hullo, Peter,” she replied faintly, squeezing herself as small as possible. Something inside her was crying “Woman, Woman, let go of me.”
“Hullo, where is John?” he asked, suddenly missing the third bed.
“John is not here now,” she gasped.
“Is Michael asleep?” he asked, with a careless glance at Jane.
“Yes,” she answered; and now she felt that she was untrue to Jane as well as to Peter.
“That is not Michael,” she said quickly, lest a judgment should fall on her.
Peter looked. “Hullo, is it a new one?”
“Boy or girl?”
Now surely he would understand; but not a bit of it.
“Peter,” she said, faltering, “are you expecting me to fly away with you?”
“Of course; that is why I have come.” He added a little sternly, “Have you forgotten that this is spring cleaning time?”
She knew it was useless to say that he had let many spring cleaning times pass.
“I can’t come,” she said apologetically, “I have forgotten how to fly.”
“I’ll soon teach you again.”
“O Peter, don’t waste the fairy dust on me.”
She had risen; and now at last a fear assailed him. “What is it?” he cried, shrinking.
“I will turn up the light,” she said, “and then you can see for yourself.”
For almost the only time in his life that I know of, Peter was afraid. “Don’t turn up the light,” he cried.
She let her hands play in the hair of the tragic boy. She was not a little girl heart-broken about him; she was a grown woman smiling at it all, but they were wet eyed smiles.
Then she turned up the light, and Peter saw. He gave a cry of pain; and when the tall beautiful creature stooped to lift him in her arms he drew back sharply.
“What is it?” he cried again.
She had to tell him.
“I am old, Peter. I am ever so much more than twenty. I grew up long ago.”
“You promised not to!”
“I couldn’t help it. I am a married woman, Peter.”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, and the little girl in the bed is my baby.”
“No, she’s not.”
But he supposed she was; and he took a step towards the sleeping child with his dagger upraised. Of course he did not strike. He sat down on the floor instead and sobbed; and Wendy did not know how to comfort him, though she could have done it so easily once. She was only a woman now, and she ran out of the room to try to think.
Peter continued to cry, and soon his sobs woke Jane. She sat up in bed, and was interested at once.
“Boy,” she said, “why are you crying?”
Peter rose and bowed to her, and she bowed to him from the bed.
“Hullo,” he said.
“Hullo,” said Jane.
“My name is Peter Pan,” he told her.
“Yes, I know.”
“I came back for my mother,” he explained, “to take her to the Neverland.”
“Yes, I know,” Jane said, “I have been waiting for you.”
When Wendy returned diffidently she found Peter sitting on the bed-post crowing gloriously, while Jane in her nighty was flying round the room in solemn ecstasy.
“She is my mother,” Peter explained; and Jane descended and stood by his side, with the look in her face that he liked to see on ladies when they gazed at him.
“He does so need a mother,” Jane said.
“Yes, I know.” Wendy admitted rather forlornly; “no one knows it so well as I.”
“Good-bye,” said Peter to Wendy; and he rose in the air, and the shameless Jane rose with him; it was already her easiest way of moving about.
Wendy rushed to the window.
“No, no,” she cried.
“It is just for spring cleaning time,” Jane said, “he wants me always to do his spring cleaning.”
“If only I could go with you,” Wendy sighed.
“You see you can’t fly,” said Jane.
Of course in the end Wendy let them fly away together. Our last glimpse of her shows her at the window, watching them receding into the sky until they were as small as stars.
As you look at Wendy, you may see her hair becoming white, and her figure little again, for all this happened long ago. Jane is now a common grown-up, with a daughter called Margaret; and every spring cleaning time, except when he forgets, Peter comes for Margaret and takes her to the Neverland, where she tells him stories about himself, to which he listens eagerly. When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.