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Somewhere between my 3-year-old and my 7-year-old is a disappearing line, a benign barrier that divides parents from their children.

Our younger boy is still totally in front of us. He's in our bed before sunrise, he's digging through the groceries before they're unpacked, popping up like a prairie dog between me and my husband as we try to relay phone messages. I can't not see him; his face is the closest thing to mine all day. He drives me crazy, and I crave the flicker of his brown eyes, the flush and pale of his cheeks, all the markers that guide me through his experience.

But the big kid, the other boy who once also played this role, I glimpse the back of him. After all day at school, Ezekiel always greets me with a huge hug and then the question, "Can someone come over?" When we get home, he vanishes up the stairs and closes his door, his privacy a prized, new costume. At his winter piano recital, he finished "Angels We Have Heard on High" and stepped off the stage with pride. We got ready to squeeze him with congratulation, but he walked right over to his friends and sat down with them. Their heads clustered together as they whispered about the program. This is his experience now - privacy and friends, solitude and an interior life that no longer needs our constant guiding instruction and reinforcement.

As I often do, I took both kids to a friend's house the other day. While the younger children settled at the table for snacks and we waited for the kettle to boil, I looked up just in time to see the flash of Ezekiel's silver coat disappear behind the bathroom door. Which he closed. Of course. This shiver of loneliness ran over me. It's not that I want to interrupt him in the bathroom, nor that I long to double the maddening, methodical steps Otis puts me through when we're in the bathroom together - THIS is how you work a zipper, THIS is how toilet paper comes off the roll - but for every private moment Ezekiel adds to his day, he reveals less to us. The reward of the tortuous bathroom visits with Otis is that I also get to hear him crow about the triangles he made at preschool, his hot, damp hand on my shoulder as he steadies himself.

My husband and I are intensely proud of Ezekiel and marvel, in the way of parents who cannot quite believe in their creation, at his school achievements, his interest in baseball, his ability to use the Internet, his way with his brother and with others. We're proud of his ability to be alone.

We all strive to teach independence to our children so that they may grow up and go out into the world, yet I catch myself thinking, "Not yet." Naturally, I'm only thinking that in the tiny slices of time between Otis and Otis. The main thing about the 3-year-old is he's HERE. Where is Ezekiel? Half-swallowed by a door that is closing on a classroom or a restroom or a friend's house. There he goes down another aisle at Ace Hardware. There he goes, off to tell the guy at the ice rink his shoe size. His step is direct, he knows exactly what he's planning to do. Imagine Otis announcing his shoe size in any way that actually correlated to his feet!

Ezekiel still loves reading together at bedtime and says it's still OK to help with washing his hair, but he wakes up Saturday mornings wondering how many hours he can spend with his best friend and whether they can finesse the playdate into a sleepover. The first time she slept over, about a month ago, they talked right up until silence. In the morning we heard them wake up and start laughing. Laughing! The very first sounds out of their mouths, and we had no idea what about. How careful we are, or try to be, as we don't ask what's funny and don't ask what they're playing. When he needs us, we'll know.

Susanna Sonnenberg is a Missoula writer and mother of two children.

Her column appears every other week on this page.

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