When I think of long-distance relationships I think about the hassle of coordinating schedules, I think about long phone calls, elaborate travel plans and lonely nights. To me, they’re temporary things only over-achievers and big dreamers get themselves into willingly – sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. When they do, it makes for a great love story. When they don’t, it surprises no one.

As a parent, I have never once thought about what I would do if either of my sons got into a long distance relationship. For starters, they’re two and three. So, I guess I’ve thought their days for counting down the minutes to when they can be elsewhere with someone else who always makes them laugh and spoils them rotten with love was years, if not decades, away. But as it turns out, my days of being their only true love (alongside their dad) were numbered from the start.

Maybe it’s my narrow view of long-distance relationships, maybe it’s the wisdom that comes with parenting that’s opened my eyes but either way, last weekend it dawned on me my three-year old is already deep in the throes of a long-distance relationship with a place I know very well. I call it the compound; he calls it Grandma and Papa’s.

I can’t blame him. For a kid, it’s a magical place. There’s a large indoor pond full of koi they can swim with and accented with water features they can play in; there are two greenhouses full of produce, garden spiders and giant goldfish holding tubs; there are three homes sitting on a long lane, all of which he’s welcome to explore; a giant mint green Morton building full of car parts and tools and old bikes; open land and two Hot Wheels four-wheelers upon which he and his brother are free to explore it all. But the best part is that the  three houses on that long lane are home to Grandma and Papa, Great Auntie M and uncle Eric.

Both of my boys have always loved going to the compound; we’re all accustomed to counting down the days until our next visit but when our stay is over, it’s always been fairly painless. No hard feelings, no tough goodbyes and no real tears or pleas for more time (at least not on our end). We’d exchange all of our hugs, pack in our car, wave and honk goodbye and begin our nearly three-hour car ride home back to the city, without any real issues. But something has changed.

Last Sunday as I packed up our bags, the boys explored through boxes and special trinkets upstairs. I could hear them laughing and, at times, yelling excitedly. Matty, my oldest, eager to show me what they’d found, came to me, grabbed my hand and sweetly asked if I’d come look. I followed him up the stairs to the far end of the house where his little brother was haphazardly digging into a dust-covered box of old train tracks. I warned them that the train tracks were Papa’s and told them not to get anything else out because it was almost time for us to leave. At first they ignored me and continued to dig and laugh. Matty pulled a piece out enthusiastically, “Mom, look!”

“Matty, we’re leaving soon so I don’t want you to get anymore of those out.” He put the piece of track down in the box, hurried over to me and put his hand on my leg.

“Are we leaving?”

“Yes. We’re going in just a little bit, okay? So don’t get anymore stuff out.”

His face froze. His head turned. His eyes widened and fixated on something in the distance. He didn’t blink. He didn’t sway. He didn’t breathe. “What’s wrong, buddy? Are you okay?” His chin began quiver and dimple. I put my hand on his bony shoulder. “Matty, it’s okay, buddy. What’s wrong?” Without saying another word, his eyes filled with water, his face scrunched up as if in excruciating pain and he crumbled into my lap, burying his face into my belly.

“But I want to stay.” He sobbed into my belly; his thin arms tucked into my lap. I felt a lump form in my throat. I don’t know what hurt more, the fact that I couldn’t give him what he wanted or the fact that he knew I couldn’t give him what he wanted. For the first time, he felt the weight of responsibility and the disappointment of wanting something you know you can’t have. I’ll never shake how he looked in that moment, the quivering of his chin and the wideness of his eyes.

I rested my hand on the back of his head and let him cry. The ache in my throat grew and a familiar pressure formed behind my eyes. No wonder I always thought my parents were heartless growing up – by the time I was old enough to behold them as cold hearted, they were probably pros at hiding any and all emotion at all times. Is that the key to surviving? When he finally calmed down,  we walked downstairs – him with his broken heart and heavy feet, me with my heavy heart and best smile. My mom and aunt asked Matty what was wrong.

“I want to stay.” He tried to answer without crying, but each time he failed.

With plans already set for the boys to come back the next weekend, everyone reassured Matty he’d be back before he knew it. Five sleeps is all he’d have to endure.

When he walked away, I quietly told my mom what had happened upstairs. Water pooled in the bottom of each of my eyes. I pretended they weren’t there but I knew she knew. I am not very good at hiding my emotions. She listened and gave only a small smile in response. I was certain it had to break her heart at least a little, but you’d never know by just looking at her. I wondered how long it’d take before my kids regarded me as cold hearted.

In the driveway, everyone exchanged hugs and farewells. My youngest, unaffected by pretty much everything all of the time, eagerly waited by the car after giving a round of playful goodbyes, quick hugs and kisses. Matty lingered. He shared an elongated moment of whispers and giggles with Grandma before giving me a turn. When my turn came, my mom glowed as she told me Matty had wrapped his arms tightly around her neck and whispered into her ear.

“Five more sleeps.”

I realized then my son was in a predicament I hadn’t even begun to prepare for. A predicament I wasn’t expecting for decades, if at all. He might be three-years old and he might not be able to understand emotions and feelings, but he is deep in the throes of a long-distance relationship. And there are no signs of it ending anytime soon.

Something tells me it’s going to be one of his life’s greatest love stories.