Parenting, Reading

Asea

One night, in a phosphorescent sea, he marveled at the sight of some whales spouting luminous water; and later, lying on the deck of his boat gazing at the immense, starry sky, the tiny mouse Amos, a little speck of a living thing in the vast living universe, felt akin to it all.

There is no walking away. Not this time, not ever. It astounds me that he still behaves as if I am truly leaving, his face opening up in fear, his body chasing after the warmth of mine.
 
“You can’t hit, buddy,” I say in a quiet voice. I hug him gently and walk with him back to the bed. I keep my hands off of his body, trying now to guide with word and deed. Trying to practice what I preach. It is not so easy to stay good. We slip-slide up this steep learning curve together. I understand that some of his intensity is just being Bug at six. Some of it, I’m ashamed to admit, is me.
 
I keep my voice gentle as the tears press against his. “You have to use words instead of hitting when you want something to be different.”
 
“It wasn’t really hitting,” he says, crawling back into the bed. “Hitting is like with a fist.”
 
“You’re right that it wasn’t hard hitting, but it was still hitting instead of talking about your feelings. You cannot hit.” I pull the covers up over him.
 
“Can’t you just read one more book?” He asks. His eyes are wide and frightened. I understand his worry. We never deviate from our bedtime routine. This choice rattles me, too.
 
“No. I’m sorry. You hit me, so no more stories.”
 
“Can’t you just turn on one more light?”
 
“It’s bedtime.”
 
His face is quivering. I crawl in next to him. “I’ll sing you one song,” I say. “First, can you tell me what you were feeling before you hit me?”

Overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery of everything, he rolled over and over and right off the deck of his boat and into the sea.

For a long moment, he is quiet. Then, “I didn’t like what you were doing.”
 
I knew the instant everything turned for him. We had reached the page where the little mouse is bobbing in the water, possibly about to drown. His boat is bowled away in the wind. Amos frets about what he should do and what big fish might be coming for him. I had asked Bug about Amos. “Does that face look worried? How would you feel?” When I stepped out of the story long enough to wonder at the fears of the waterlogged mouse, Bug turned on me. His face tightened, he scowled, he hit me. Twice.
 
That’s when I closed the book. I stood and turned out the lights. “No hitting. Time for bed.”
 
Now, I say, “Baby, if you don’t like something a person is doing, you have to say something. Say, ‘Please stop. I don’t like that.’ Maybe they’ll stop or maybe they won’t, but you can’t hit. You have to figure out other ways to deal with your feelings.”
 
Bug scrunches down under his Dora blanket.
 
“Can’t I just have one more book?”
 
This kills me. It is our one precious sliver of Us every night we are together, this ritual of reading. Three books, three songs. Today we only made it through one book and part of a second, and now we have to call it quits.
 
The kiddo has been struggling at school the past few weeks. Twisting a classmate’s arm, disrupting, ignoring the teachers. Notes have come home. Red days on the calendar. Something is amiss, and I ache to help him. I have no idea what I am doing. I hate that sometimes I have to sacrifice our sweetest gift so that he can learn to check this behavior. I hate it more that I have no idea if this is the right approach, and if I might be risking our very bond by holding this line.

Morning came, as it always does. He was getting terribly tired. He was a very small, very cold, very wet and worried mouse. There was still nothing in sight but the empty sea. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, it began to rain.

“Just one more? Please?”
 
I stroke his hair. “No more books, sweetie. One song, though. We always need a song.” I begin to sing.
 
Baby beluga in the deep blue sea
 
As the tune drifts around use, I rub my boy’s belly and stroke his arm. After a moment, he shakes me off and turns away. His lip is pooked out. “Please stop touching me,” he says to the wall. I remove my hand and finish singing to his shoulders, his spine.

As he was asking himself these dreadful questions, a huge head burst through the surface of the water and loomed up over him. It was a whale. “What sort of fish are you?” the whale asked. “You must be one of a kind!”

When I finish the song, I lay with him for a moment. I tell him about our morning, about how we will need to leave extra early so I can go to the dentist to have him put on a crown. When I had the root canal in November, Bug came with me and watched. Now, he turns back towards me, suddenly fascinated with the topic. We talk about enamel, roots, and how teeth draw nourishment from below the surface the way trees do. How the crown is like armor to keep the tooth from breaking.
 
“Is it metal? Or liquid?” He asks. “Will he, like, pour it on?” He gestures the fluid cascade. My mouth, the waterfall. The meteor shower.
 
“I’ll let you know when I get home tomorrow. For now, though, you should get some rest. We have an early morning ahead of us.” He pulls the blanket up over himself. I keep my hands behind me, stilling the urge to tuck and fuss. It is hard, this lesson in boundaries. He is forever my flesh, it seems. I can still feel his feet seeking purchase against the walls of me.

Amos said he’d had enough adventure to last him a while. He wanted only to get back home and hoped the whale wouldn’t mind going out of his way to take him there.

“You know what, Bug?” I say. “I am so pleased that you asked me with your words not to touch you a few minutes ago. It really worked. I think that choice deserves another song.”
 
Bug ooches around and smiles. I open up my voice.
 
The wind is in from Africa. Last night, I couldn’t sleep.
 
My boy presses sideways against me. “Can I cuddle?” I whisper. He nods and turns a little more into my body. I put my arm around him and he folds himself to me. I sing the song and he breathes quietly, his gaze softening, his eyelids drooping. He lets me drop a kiss on his cheek.

What a relief to be so safe, so secure again! Amos lay down in the sun, and being worn to a frazzle, he was soon asleep.

Excerpts from Amos & Boris, by William Steig. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, New York: 1971.

 

Growing Up, Parenting

Happy 100 Days: 34

I climb in and wrap
my arms around the boy I know
is forever mine
and forever
my only.
I use these secret lies
to balm the places
that will be pruned
without  my consent
and without fair
warning.

He is still fidgeting, clicking his tongue’s metronome against the verses of the song.
 
“Shh, baby. Take a deep breath.”
 
“Why?”
 
“Because we are helping the little whale get ready for bedtime.” I speak in a whisper. Bug turns, his pajama top riding up over his belly. I tug it back down, stroking my fingers against his back and side as he rolls yet again. He is a porpoise, rifling through the sheets and leaving a storm of tangled linen in his wake. He shivers. “Shhh.” I take in a deep breath and let my chest rise before easing the air out. I watch him do the same. “That baby whale is gliding in the dark water under the starry sky, slowly, slowly, until it’s just the waves bobbing him to sleep.”
 
Bug presses backwards into me and sighs. His lungs flutter like fins before finding the rhythm of the lullaby. He is half awake and then not and then he has slipped down below the surface where I cannot reach. I finish out the final verses. The song is a treasure chest I have to close so nothing precious escapes.
 
With the morning sun
Another day’s begun
you’ll soon be waking. . .
 
I breathe the tune down low, voice vibrating out through my ribs and into his.
 
In the face of these legacies his daddy and I leave him to bear (the poor eyesight, the tempest heart) at least the lyrics I have stashed away in those underground caves will be there if he chooses to seek comfort there. With song, even the deepest places will retain one small portion of light. He will learn, should we not fail him completely, that this will be more than enough to find his way.
 

Uncategorized

Happy 100 Days: 90


 
While we are brushing teeth at bedtime, I somehow manage to elbow Bug in the face. I feel the crack, and immediately pull him into my soft belly. A split second passes and then he is wailing. Hot tears and even hotter anger seep through my shirt.
 
“I’m sorry, baby. Goodness gracious, that must hurt. I’m sorry.”
 
He howls into my side. “It’s your fault, Mommy!” Choking sobs. “It’s all your fault!”
 
I call down the stairs and ask my mother to bring us the ice pack from the freezer. She hands it up to us and I talk softly to Bug, finding a pillowcase to wrap around the pack. Bug is still clinging to me, yelling, “It’s your fault!”
 
“Yep, it is,” I say. I help him press the ice to his cheek then have him put on his jammies. I fill a mug with cool water for his bedside table. “It was an accident. I am sorry.” He keeps crying and scowling as the spot under his eye puffs to an angry pink. He reminds me about two dozen more times that I am to blame for his misery. I concede this fact.
 
Here is tonight’s small victory: My son does not hit me. He does not bite, kick, spit, or butt me in the face with the back of his head.
 
“Can I have paper for writing?” He asks. I dig up a clipboard from the clutter in his room. We crawl into bed and I begin to read as he writes on his paper with a thick red marker. Halfway through the first book, Bug interrupts me. “That’s you, Mommy.” I look over and see he has drawn on the far left of his page a frowning stick figure with a distressed look. I am impressed with the expressiveness of the eyebrows.
 
“That looks like a mean mommy,” I say.
 
“It is,” he says. He returns to drawing. I keep reading. After the next book, I look over again. He has filled in the page with two more stick figures. “Now you are sad,” he tells me, pointing to my double.
 
“Is that you with an angry face?” I ask.
 
“Yeah. I am punching you.”
 
“Oh. I see now.” He marks in little teardrops falling from the mommy’s eyes. “She seems pretty upset,” I say. “And he looks mad.” He draws the two faces again at the top of the page. One is crying and one is scowling. When he puts the cap back on the marker, I tap the page. “You know what you did, kiddo? You told your feelings to this picture.”
 
Bug reaches over and gives me the gentlest of swats on the shoulder. “Now I did the same thing to you for real,” he says.
 
I let it go. So does he. He pulls the page from the clipboard and drops it off the side of the bed. He starts practicing his letters. I start on the third book.
 
After we are finished reading, I tuck him against me into a full-body hug and sing “Baby Beluga.” My son’s new favorite approach to cuddling is to slip his arm under my neck and pull my head down on his chest. He wraps his hand around my shoulder and strokes my hair. It is an odd juxtaposition, my son holding me against him the way I have held him for so many years. I feel small and safe. I feel gigantic and cumbersome. I feel the echo of my voice off his fragile ribs and his unbroken heart.
 
Downstairs, I hear Giovanni come to drop off the dog. Her nails tippy-tap on the kitchen tile, a staccato counterpoint to the thundering footsteps of my parents as they wash up the dinner dishes and stash away the pizza stone. Bug’s schoolwork is on the kitchen table awaiting his teacher’s smiley-face sticker. A truck roars past on the muggy street outside. The air conditioner hums to life. The presidential debates begin.
 
I sing “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” and Bug sings along, his voice fading.
 
There’s a lake of stew and ginger ale too,
you can paddle all around it in a big canoe

 
He is under before I reach the end, but I finish anyway. I stay there for a few moments. His hand is against my ear, fingers tangled in my hair. He holds me as close as he can even in his sleep.
 
My son was angry at me. For the first time in 5 years and 363 days, he told me about it with words and art instead of with his hands.
 
So often, I sense the hugeness of the task ahead. Survive, save, support my child, teach him well, build a future. It is daunting. It can be very lonesome.
 
Tonight, I can feel my son’s strong pulse against my cheek. All around, the world goes on. It sometimes happens that in all that going on, people help. Sometimes, someone takes care of something that need taking care of. Someone walks the dog. Brings the ice pack. Pays the mortgage. Teaches the kids. Runs the country.
 
Sometimes, I can whisper my boy through his storm of feelings precisely because I am not alone.
 
What a revelation.
 
Sometimes, I am not alone.