{I’m over at Mamalode today, writing about the clash between babyish innocence and preschool peer pressure.}

Ryan held the book up for his friend to see.

“Look at this,” he breathed excitedly. “It’s called Charlie Brown Halloween. AND I have the movie. We could watch it.”

He’d been excited about this play date for the past 24 hours, which, for a 4-year-old, is akin to 24 years.

His friend, who is Ryan’s elder by six months, sighed impatiently.

“That Charlie Brown guy is for babies,” he schooled him.

Ryan stood still, a blank look on his face. I watched his confusion grow as he suggested they play dinosaurs instead. Then cars, then Barrel of Monkeys.

The response was the same each time: “I don’t play with baby toys.”

With each comment, I drew in another sharp breath. This can’t happen yet, I thought. It’s too soon.

{Click here to read the rest of the post.}

Lay with me, Mommy, his little four-year-old voice says. I can’t sweep well. I need a friend to lay with me.

I almost always say no. From the time he was born, I’ve never let him sleep in my bed, I’ve always been hesitant to lay down in his, even for a moment.

It’s because I want him to be able to soothe himself to sleep on his own, I tell myself. It’s because I’m teaching him independence, I tell myself. It’s because I don’t want to create bad habits, I tell myself.

But I know the truth. At the end of a long day, I’m just done. I’ve been touched, hanged off of, pulled on and snuggled against for too many hours in a row. My introverted skin needs distance.

So I almost always say no and I tell myself that it’s for his own good.

On this night, though, I say yes. I say yes because he’s battling a cold. I say yes because my mother is visiting and I know he’s sad that he’s had to say goodnight to her after a full day of fun. I say yes because for once, I haven’t gotten enough of him that day.

I lay down next to him and he curls into me. I rest my arm across his body, my fingers tracing light circles around his back. I pause for a moment to cup the back of his head, his soft, baby-fine hair, in my hand. I breathe in the musky smell of his soap from that night’s bath.

I marvel at how big he’s become since the day he was born, when he felt as light as a feather as he was laid across my chest for the first time. I think of all the nights I should have been laying right here, memorizing the growing size of him, the rhythmic pattern of his tired breathing.

He raises one finger up to gently close my eyelids. He wraps his beloved worn yellow blanket around my neck, the same way he usually does to himself to soothe his own body to sleep.

He doesn’t fall asleep. He can’t. He’s not used to having another warm body next to him.

So on this night, I pull myself away as he reaches for me to cling harder, not because I’ve had enough, not because I want to but because I created this. I taught him how to fall asleep on his own. I taught him how to be independent. I created what will ultimately be a good habit.

But I wish I hadn’t.

 

Happy Fall

As we were driving around yesterday, Ryan said, ”Look, Mommy! The leaves are changing color. That means fall is coming next year!”

Which made me realize that:

A) I’m doing a very good job of passing along my love of fall to my son, but

B) Perhaps I need to work a little more on teaching units of time measurement.

Regardless, FALL IS HERE, and I’m stoked. This calls for a seasonal bucket list, don’t you think?

Fall Bucket List 2014

I was finishing the list up this morning and told Mike I had room for one more item but couldn’t figure out what it should be. That’s how “Tailgate at a Penn State Football Game” made the cut, as Mike helpfully pointed out that it could be an annual item on the list.

It’s possible I already crossed a couple of these off the list before the official start of fall (coughPumpkinPiePumpkinSpiceLattePumpkinBeercough)That’s ok. I can do them again.

What’s on your fall bucket list?

My sweets,

On the cusp of your fourth birthday, that’s the name I most often call you. You have only yourself to blame for that … you went through a brief phase where you would pretend to put me to sleep. You’d hand me a stuffed animal, tuck me in, kiss my cheek and say, “Goodnight, sweets!” It stuck, as insanely cute things like that tend to do.

Part of me is shocked you’re turning four, while the other part of me can’t believe you’ve been here for what is really such a brief time. It’s hard to remember how life felt before you, how it was to live without the intense joy, love and fear of raising such a smart and charming little boy.

Oh lord, how charming you are. Your charm is my weakness and you know it. If you act out, throw a fit and earn yourself a timeout, oftentimes you’ll take a quick breath, smile sweetly and say, “I’m calm now, Mommy. See? I’m caaaaalm. I promise to be good. I PROMISE to be a good boy.” I’ll be honest — it almost works. Outwardly, I’m still stern and send you to timeout; inwardly, I’m grinning and applauding you for a solid try. (Alright fine, once in a while, it works.)

This is the year you really came out of your bashful little shell. You used to be the kid who stood on the sidelines of the playground, watching and waiting until you had the lay of the land and felt truly, deeply comfortable (by which point, it was practically time to leave). You’d smile shyly at other kids, maybe you’d follow them around a bit, but you’d never initiate conversation. This year, you run to the playground searching for new friends. Just the other day, you were elated to find another little boy your age. You ran to him and asked his name. When he responded, you said, “I can’t hear you. Can you say it louder?” “I’m Aiden,” he said. “Aiden? I love that name! That’s a great name! Wanna play with me?”

See? Charming.

You’ve become so brave in your fourth year. In new situations, around new people and – very notably – around water. At the shore last year, it took you five full days to gain the courage to let the ocean splash your feet. This year, you ran straight for it with no hesitation. It’s so fulfilling for me as your mom to see you feel so … free.

You are so, so, so full of energy. If I could pad every surface in our house, I would, so that you could safely bounce off the walls, the floor, the furniture, the everything. You even bounce off me, kiddo. Multiple, multiple times a day. You know you’re not supposed to, but you can’t seem to help it. I am constantly trying to figure out ways to help you get some of that energy out, but the truth is that it appears to be endless. Honestly, I hope it never runs out.

You are so curious. You ask a million questions a day about the whens and hows and whys of absolutely everything. As soon as you ask a question, I know that no matter what my answer is, you will have no less than five follow-up questions. (Can’t blame you for that; journalism’s in your blood, after all.)

There’s something else about you that I love — you’re a story-teller. You study characters and story lines in books and on television, and you reenact them. The other day, you were watching a Curious George episode. A character on the show made a gesture as he said the line, “You’re pretty smart, for a city kid.” You acted out that line and gesture at least a dozen times, trying to get it just right. You’re not the sort of kid who zones out in front of the TV, which is why I tend to let you watch more than you should. You pay attention, you study, you memorize, and you participate.

It’s not just that, though. You also sometimes narrate your own life. I took you to the Dollar Store two weeks ago to shop for presents and decorations for your Daddy’s birthday. Afterward, as we walked hand-in-hand across the parking lot, I could just barely hear you narrating under your breath – in third-person – what we had just done. And so it is that I will make my first official career prediction: I think you will work in entertainment. You will write scripts or you will act or you will direct or you will produce something.

(Just so you know, I’ll be the one in the front row, cheering like a maniac through whatever it is.)

You’re emotionally intense, Ry. You’re calm and happy one second and furious the next. It’s often hard to judge at the end of the day whether you had a “good” day or a “bad” day because you can fly across the emotional spectrum and back quicker than I can say “sticker chart.” It’s really something to see. But you also have a wisdom about you in the way you communicate with people. You can read people. You know how to get a rise out of someone and how to win them over. And you can do both within the span of a minute.

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Brand new.

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Four years.

Bub, you are a challenge. The biggest, best challenge of my life. But the challenge is never in trying to change you; it’s always in figuring out ways to help you claim your full potential. Because your potential is off the charts, kid.

I tell you this constantly, but I’m going to keep saying it forever: I love you all the time.

Happy fourth birthday, my sweets.

Love,

Mommy

P.S. Slow down that growing a bit, would ya? I can just barely heave you up into my arms these days … I need that for a little bit longer, ok?

******

Previous birthday letters to Ryan:

Six months.

One year.

1.5 years.

Two years.

2.5 years.

Three years.

3.5 years.

Tonight, I stepped outside. We’re in that sweet spot between summer and fall, when the sun still feels warm on our bare arms during the day but the open windows invite in a chill at night that makes us curl up in our sleep.

It was always my favorite time of year growing up. It seemed romantic somehow, like that cool, clear air was cleaning off summer’s slate, making way for all the hope and promise of a new school year and the new memories waiting to be made.

I missed this time of year while I lived in Arizona; so I stepped outside tonight to bask in it for a few moments.

I took a deep breath and a memory rushed in with the air. College. Sophomore – maybe junior? – year. A wood patio off the side of a house I can no longer clearly describe. Same time of year, same crisp, still air, same stars overhead. I remembered sitting with a friend. A guy, one who was older than me, quiet and smart. A phenomenal writer. One I’ve long since lost touch with.

I smiled a bit at my own randomness of recall. Then I picked up my iPhone, hit the button to light up my screen … and looked back toward the sky. What was I going to do, check Facebook for the 417th time today?

I put the phone down. I sat and I tried to remember that night, pulling at every detail of the memory that still remained. A muffled party continuing in the house behind us, sitting on a cold wooden step with that friend, escaping the noise together for a while.

It was a time in my life in which I felt very alone. Maybe alone isn’t the right word. Undefined might be better. Not in a sad way; in an exhilarating way. So few chapters behind me, so many ahead. A pivotal time, one that would set the course for the rest of my life.

Not that I was thinking about all this in the midst of a college party.

Except maybe I was because those were the feelings that came back to me tonight as I breathed in the early fall air. Maybe I was feeling the enormity of my future that night, and I needed to step outside and take it all in.

I don’t remember what we talked about, if we even talked much. I don’t remember what we drank or how long we sat there. I just remember the smell of the air and the emotion and the sense of calm he brought with him.

And that’s my problem lately, the core of my recent bout of writer’s block. I don’t allow myself any time to think or to just be, to look around and see and smell, to wonder, to remember.

It’s not that I have zero “me time;” it’s that when I do, it’s easier to check out of life, to decompress by fixing my eyes to my phone or the TV or – if I’m feeling extra motivated – to my computer, trying to arrange words into sentences to tell the story of a little boy who has begun to define me a bit too much.

I’m spending too much time trying to write about what I think I should be writing about and not enough time poking around inside my own head.

I wrote this whole post without checking Facebook once. Maybe that’s a start.

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You know what’s cool about almost-four-year-olds? They love birthday parties. They love their own birthday parties the most, naturally, but they love everyone else’s, too.

I must have a little almost-four-year-old inside of me, too, because I’ve always loved birthdays. So my little partner-in-crime and I decided to really do up Mike’s birthday this year.

We started with a new tradition, which I stole from Kelle at Enjoying the Small Things: Dollar Store gift shopping. Mike turned 33 this year, so I told Ryan he could pick out three gifts for Daddy. He could pick absolutely anything in the store as long as he could tell me why he thought Daddy would like it.

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That’s how we ended up with this delightful assortment of gifts:

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A scarecrow (cuz he wiggles), a travel cup (for Daddy’s coffee) and a haunted house (because it has a bat).

Oh, and that drawing? That’s the first time Ryan has ever attempted to draw anything other than a few lines. I’ve mentioned before that he’s a bit of a perfectionist. He typically refuses to attempt anything until he knows he’ll be successful (and I mean successful by his standards, which are higher than most). When I told him he should draw Daddy a picture for his birthday, he said, “But I don’t know how to draw, Mommy.” “Well, I can show you!” “Oh, THANK YOU!”

I showed him how to draw a pretty basic stick figure, which is essentially all I’m capable of, and he went right to work. The picture he ended up giving Mike was actually his third draft. Here he is working on Draft #1:

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Mike’s smile was not quite right in that one. It wasn’t right in the second draft either. I think that’s how we ended up as The Mouthless Family:

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Left to right, that’s Mike, Ryan and me. If you’re wondering about my extra appendage (as was I), apparently that’s my computer. Guess he’s trying to tell me something.

On the morning of Mike’s birthday, we ran downstairs to decorate (Dollar Store blue and white decoration for Penn State, of course.)

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Mike acted sufficiently surprised/excited/impressed:

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The rest of the day was filled with football, family, food, drinks and chocolate chip cookie bars:

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At the end of the day, Ryan asked Mike, “Daddy, do you love your party?”

He did. We all did.

At the beginning of the summer, in all my YAYSUMMERYAY exuberance, I created a seasonal bucket list.

I always view these as more of a guide than a hard-and-fast/live-or-die/must-must-must-do-it-all sort of thing. Still, it motivated me on those occasional uninspiring weeks. I think we did pretty well.

Summer Bucket List 2014-complete

Look. Homemade crab cakes were never gonna happen. It’s one of those things that sounds quintessential summer, until you realize it sounds way more appealing if someone else is cooking them for you. Luckily, we went to Ocean City, Maryland last week on our annual family vacation and we had our fill of better-than-homemade crab cakes. Off the hook!

You’d think “Nature Walks” would have been pretty easy to cross off the list. I tried. Today. Yes, in preparation for this post. It did not go well:

Me: Ryan, do you want to go on a NATURE WALK today?!?!?

Ryan: Uhhhhmmm. No thank you.

Me: Really? Why not?

Ryan: Because if I go on a nature walk, I’m going to get too tired. It’s too much walking.

Me: It’s really not that far. You have a lot of energy. You could run for hours.

Ryan: Daddy said I can’t go on nature walks because they’re too dangerous.

Me: Daddy would never say that. Daddy loves nature walks. We’ll look for the best sticks. Also, leaves! And rocks! And bugs!

Ryan, running circles around the room: BUGS?!? NOOOOOO, NOT BUGS!!! NONONONONONOOOOO!

Me: See all the energy you have?!

Anyway, it wasn’t worth fighting for. Plus, we were out of milk. So we went to the grocery store instead. (He was very, very interested in going to the grocery store. Pushing the cart for me + a star-shaped cookie shaped from the bakery for behaving = way better than a couple of dumb sticks.)

We checked everything else off the list, though. Proof:

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Swimming. So much swimming. Swim lessons, our little pool, tons of pool parties. It was the Summer of Swimming.

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Playdates. He had at least one playdate per week with a friend from preschool or friends from his tumbling class. The zoo, the movies, the science center, the playground, Chuck E. Cheese’s, etc, etc, etc. It kept the kids sane, which in turn kept the moms sane. (No, I don’t always dress Ryan the same as his friends … sometimes it just happens. But you know what? WAY easier to keep track of them all that way.)

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Ice cream for dinner. This was the first one we knocked out – on Mother’s Day, in fact. We also had ice cream for lunch, ice cream for dessert and ice cream for snack.

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Zoo. Two zoos, actually. A little zoo near Cape May and the Lehigh Valley Zoo (see also: playdates).

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Library. Three times, which is enough to be able to easily locate the dinosaur and Curious George sections.

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Picnics. We love picnics. We have them in parks, we have them in our backyard, we have them on my bedroom floor.

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Iron Pigs Baseball Game. Mike and I took Ryan once (and lasted four innings) and we went once ourselves (and lasted the full nine). I think you know which scenario was more enjoyable.

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Puddle splashing. We only did this once. Shocking to me, considering how many times we did it last summer. We just haven’t gotten a lot of long, hard rainstorms this summer – the kind that leave puddles on our street. I’m glad we took advantage of it that day.

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BBQs. We love BBQs. We grilled out a lot this summer with family and with friends. On this particular day, the BBQ was a reward for our efforts painting that fence behind Ryan. Please tell me how great it looks.

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Chasing fireflies. A terrible photo but the best I could do.

I also discovered tons of holes in my list. All sorts of other awesome things we did that I hadn’t envisioned at the beginning of the summer … roasting marshmallows, twirling sparklers, flying kites, riding rides/playing games at the local fair, feeding ducks. We painted the sidewalk. We found The World’s Most Awesome Playground (not literally, but it’s really really cool and only 20 minutes away). We went to two different beaches and visited family in Ohio and Maryland.

It was such a full summer. A memory-making summer. A bucket-list-worthy summer.

So I’m going to forgive myself for not making homemade crab cakes.

When I worked full time, I was a Master Compartmentalizer. There was a time to work and there was a time to parent.

On the occasional rough day, those two things did collide — like when I’d get a phone call from the daycare director in the middle of a meeting with my boss, explaining that Ryan had a fever and must be picked up.

For the most part, though, I left work at work and home at home. I knew I only had so much brainpower on any given day, and I could not waste it on something that didn’t need my immediate attention.

Now that I stay home with Ryan and freelance on the side, those lines are blurred nearly to the point of invisibility. The mental stamina required to keep a spirited preschooler entertained while writing 400-600 words on any topic (let alone conducting the phone interviews necessary to gather the information … let’s not go THERE) is challenging.

I have to get creative with where and how I work.

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Bathe, dear son, whilst I write about ovarian cancer. You will splash way too much, and I will scold you for it, as I simultaneously attempt to do justice to the story of a woman who has survived cancer more times than you can count on your little hand.

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Swim, dear son, whilst I write about online liberal arts education options in the Lehigh Valley. (More accurately, splash for 15 minutes, then we’ll take a break and eat popsicles, and we’ll both feel fulfilled even if we accomplished little more than the accumulation of wet laundry and a dead laptop battery. Cuz, popsicles.)

Once in a while, I do get to drop the kid off with some (free! family!) babysitters and get a little work done in peace.

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That day, I cranked out an article about getting one’s finances in order before applying for a mortgage in the time it took my hubby to drive from his office to meet me for lunch. Evidently this atmosphere is the most, uh, inspirational for me.

It’s a work in progress.

The good thing is that as a freelancer, I can pick what projects I take on; if things get too busy at home, I can back off of work. In theory, that is. Realistically, as a perfectionist, I want to take on alltheprojects and smash them out of the park while also introducing a new sensory activity to my kid every day and cooking a fabulous dinner for my family.

The end result is that some weeks, I make a fairly respectable amount of money (but Ryan eats copious amounts of chicken nuggets and watches copious-copious amounts of TV). Other weeks, I feel like a good mom (if not a mom who is going a little Zingo Bingo stir crazy).

That’s life, right? You teeter to this side and your work benefits, you teeter to that side and your family benefits, and somehow you manage to keep pulling yourself back to center. As long as you don’t come crashing down to the floor, you can probably call yourself a success.

I’d love to return to my Master Compartmentalizer status one day; in the meantime, I’ll have to settle for Master of Lots-Of-Irons-In-The-Fire.

“Around here, we don’t look backwards for very long…

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We keep moving forward,

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opening up new doors,

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and doing new things,

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because we’re curious …

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    …and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”

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(-Walt Disney)

Sometimes I wish Mike and I could both stay home with Ryan all day. Not just because, duh, two against one, but also because there are so many moments in a week, in a day, in an hour, when that little boy surprises me, makes me laugh or does something so, so brave that I grin and I clap and I cheer and then I think: Darn, I’m the only one who saw that.

I’m the sole witness to so much of his life. It’s a terrible burden for me, on account of my goldfish-esque memory. I think that’s why my phone is permanently lodged in my right hand. Because I know at any moment, Ryan could be on the cusp of doing something amazing that must be remembered and I have to capture it before it floats off into the clouds forever.

He climbed that rock wall with NO hesitation. I kept hitting the camera button on my iPhone, thinking I really should be doing a better job of spotting him and waiting for him to glance over his shoulder to make sure I was still there.

He never did. In fact, he got to the top and took off running without ever pausing to note my coordinates.

He’s grown up so much this summer. As little as a year ago, he stood on the playground sidelines and watched other kids play, too cautious or intimidated or bashful to join them. Now, he’s the kid who goes in search of a new friend everywhere we go, approaching the first kid he finds with, “Hi! My name is Ryan. What’s your name? Want to play with me? Come on, let’s go!

When I try to get him to do something he doesn’t want to do, he placates me with, “maybe tomorrow, Mommy … maybe tomorrow.” He thinks if you are watching a movie, you should also be eating popcorn. He kicks his shoes off as soon as I put the car into drive. He scolds me if I say “pretzels” when the proper terminology is obviously “pretzel goldfish.” He tells me if I get scared of the shadows while I’m sleeping, to call to him and he’ll come scare them away for me.

He must always know where I am. If I’m out of his sight for more than 2 minutes, he yells across the house to confirm my location. If he sees a beach in a commercial on TV, he yells for me to come see it. His favorite job is to sort the recyclables. If I make a dinner he doesn’t like, he runs screaming from the room and throws himself onto the couch in despair; but he almost always comes back to try it.

He’s freakin’ hilarious and part of me wishes I could bottle him up, press a giant pause button on the way he is right now. 

Then again, Walt is right. I want him to keep moving forward, opening new doors, doing new things and following his curiosity down new paths.

I have to have faith that even if I forget the details, I will always remember how he kept surprising and amazing me.

For nearly four years, I have been mesmerized by my son’s eyes.

When he was brand new, he had those deep blue newborn eyes that are so common. They were a beautiful nighttime ocean blue, but we knew they wouldn’t stay that way.

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Newborn

Since then, it’s been a gradual yet persistent change as new colors creep in. By sixth months old, green was pushing the blue to the edges.

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Six months

By the time Ryan reached 1 year, his eyes had turned a deep green unlike anything I’d ever seen, earning him the nickname “green eyes” for a while. A camera never could quite capture their magic. His one-year photo shoot was closest we ever came to documenting them.

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One year old

But soon, a rich brown began pushing against the green and by age 2, most people were commenting about his “beautiful brown eyes.”

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Two years old

We thought maybe that was it, but the brown somehow lightened and the green around the edges became more defined.

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Three years old

Now, his eyes look different every day. The color changes or deepens depending on the light or his outfit or his mood.

Case in point: these pictures were taken on the same weekend trip to Cape May earlier this summer:

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Hazel?

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Brown?

What has remained consistent is that regardless of their color, his eyes have always brimmed with emotion, intelligence and passion. I often turn to him with a thought, a reprimand or a compliment, and stumble in thought when he meets my gaze with such intensity.

He’s my little blue-eyed/green-eyed/brown-eyed wonder.