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.

 

Music, Parenting

Last Night, I Couldn’t Sleep

We are a little late getting to bed. Bug has just returned from a long New Year’s winter family camp weekend at the Frost Valley YMCA in the Catskills. His dad reported that Bug actually sang a Justin Bieber song at Karaoke in the dining hall in front of everyone. This, in addition to rocket-making and going down the tubing hill 13 or so times.
 
When my kid returns from these camp weekends, he has adopted funny new mannerisms. Tonight, he makes a little tchk with his cheek and cocks his head while he chatters at me. While he builds legos, he sings, “We are never, ever, ever, getting back together” under his breath. Also, his face is smeared with blue, his hands are purple, and he smells. Hygiene is not a top priority at camp.
 
After bath and jammies, we settle into his bed together. I finish the last book and set it on the floor. Bug is deep into his drawing of some complex set of ladders and pulleys again. I rub his back and start to sing. I don’t get one line into “Baby Beluga” before Bug stops me.
 
“Don’t sing, please.”
 
I stop rubbing. This is new. “Do you want a different one?”
 
“No.” He is coloring hard with dark blue marker. The work of our bath is quickly being reversed. “No songs. Just cuddles.”
 
I stoke his back again with a little more care. He colors in silence.
 
Is that it? Did it just happen? Did my little boy cross over? Someone once said that you will never know when read your child Goodnight Moon for the last time. We step blindly over milestones as if they are just cracks in the sidewalk.
 
I think back to our Christmas week together in Texas. On the first evening there, we sang from our caroling songbook. The second night, Bug asked me not to sing. I thought this was some combination of the laryngitis making me sound like a geriatric goose and the general overstimulation of our lodgings. The final three nights of our visit, he asked me not to sing. This was fine with me because even speaking had become a burden.
 
Are we finished with bedtime songs? Was it over the night before Christmas? Surely, it can’t happen like this. Boom, a kid enters a new stage and there is no looking back? Doesn’t he understand how momentous and heartbreaking this is?
 
“No songs at all?” I venture. “Not even ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’?”
 
“No, thanks,” he says.
 
I watch him add an extra ladder. Adapt or die, as they say.
 
“What are you drawing?”
 
“Guess,” he says.
 
If I can’t sing, I can at least have a conversation with him. In the split second it takes him to enter adolescence, he may well become more irritated by my existence than indulgent of it. I suppose I better get with the program. I look at his drawing more closely. He inks a line from the ladder to a platform where a smiling person stands.
 
“A zipline?”
 
“Yep,” he says. “It’s a high ropes course.”
 
We talk about this for a few moments. He points out what is what. Our exchange is pretty spotty because he is still focused on his composition. The side of his hand and the wristband of his new digger-truck jammies are smeared gray-blue.
 
“Alright, Bud. I’m going to get everything ready for school tomorrow. Finish up the picture and lights out in just a minute, okay?”
 
“Mmm-hmm.” He starts on the higher element at the top of the page. The Flying Squirrel? The Postman’s Walk? He doesn’t give. I kiss his head and go downstairs to finish the dishes. I have almost finished loading the dishwasher when I hear the plaintive cry from the landing. “Mommy? Mo-o-o-mmy?”
 
“Yes, baby?”
 
“You forgot to put the cool water by my bed.”
 
I grin and come upstairs. “We are out of practice after a few days away, huh? I filled it up when you were brushing your teeth but we both forgot to take it to your room. Here.” I help him find the cup. He has not stayed in this house for eleven nights. I have to remember that these transitions take some adjustment. He gulps deeply and crawls back into bed, picking up an orange marker on the way. I stroke his head. “You need to finish up so you can get some sleep for tomorrow.”
 
“Okay.”
 
I lumber back downstairs to finish packing snack and putting away laundry.
 
“Mommy? Mo-o-o-mmy?”
 
I walk to the landing with a sigh. “Yes, buddy?”
 
“I need to go potty.”
 
“So, go potty.” He smiles big, wrapping his arm around my shoulder as I climb the stairs. “Let me guess. You took a nap in the car on the way home from camp today, didn’t you?”
 
He bounces into the bathroom. “What do you think I’m going to say?”
 
“I think you’re going to say, ‘yes’.”
 
He makes a silly face then nods. We goof with our faces going from stern to giggles. “Do you want to come in and see what I drew after I go potty?”
 
“Sure, baby. Then it’s bedtime.”
 
He digs out a pile of sketches that he has produced in the few minutes I was downstairs. This one shows an elaborate series of ladders and several emergency vehicles including two medi-vac helicopters. “It’s an underground hospital,” he tells me. “That’s blood. All full of blood. And that’s the thing with the wheels they take the people out of the helicopter on.”
 
“A stretcher?”
 
“Yep. And this is an ambulance. And here is the X-Ray machine.”
 
“Baby, it is so far past your bedtime, it’s not even funny.”
 
“Okay.”
 
I go downstairs to make copies of his paperwork to start the new before-school program.
 
“Mommy? Mo-o-o-mmy?”
 
I take a deep breath, round the foyer, and mount the stairs. “Bedtime,” I say quietly. “No more coloring.”
 
“But why aren’t you in bed?”
 
“Because I can’t finish my chores with someone calling me upstairs every seventeen seconds. Here. Hop into bed. We’re done.” I take away the clipboard and set it on the floor and put the sack of markers in the drawer. He pulls the blanket up.
 
Gently, gently, I make the offer. “How about a song to help you get to sleep?”
 
He nods and wiggles down under the blanket. “Okay. Will you lay down with me?”
 
“You bet.”
 
“And maybe do all three songs?”
 
“Sure thing, buddy.”
 
He smiles his dozy, droop-eyed smile and presses up against me. As the tune leaves my lips, I hear every word of every verse much more clearly than I have in years.
 
Tonight is probably not the last page of this chapter, but how could I know if it were? We just never know how close we are to the end. There is no way to flip ahead to see. I sing him the whole of each song well past his bedtime and deep into slumber. I add a free fourth tune for good measure just to make up for all the ones I will never hum into his drowsy neck again once he says goodbye to the lullaby for good.
 

Let’s not talk about fare-the-wells now
The night is a starry dome.

As long as this moment lasts, I sing my boy to sleep.
 

From Joni Mitchell’s “Carey” off the forever twilight album, Blue.

Uncategorized

Happy 100 Days: 55

“I wish we could fast forward through the whole year,” Bug says. We are in bed and have just finished three books and our first song.
 
“Yeah? How would that work?”
 
“We would go all the way through fall, past winter.” He floats his hand through the air above our faces. “And come out after springtime.”
 
“What for?”
 
“We could fast forward to a vacation,” he says. “A summer vacation.”
 
How many of us long for the same thing? I smile and touch his palm suspended up there. “But then you might miss a lot of the good stuff.”
 
“Like what good stuff?”
 
“Like all the cool things you get to learn in school,” I say. “How you are just now starting to learn to read. And seeing your friends in class. And playing at recess.” I turn and slip my arm around his middle. “And all the cuddling you’d miss. Think about that.”
 
“But we could come back all the way around to the beginning,” he explains.
 
“And do kindergarten all over again?”
 
“Mmm hmm,” he murmurs. He is fading. “Some kids do it twice.”
 
I brush my lips over his cheek and begin the next song.
 
The wind is in from Africa
Last night, I couldn’t sleep. . .

 
As I walk through the night with the dog over the same quiet neighborhood streets, I notice my mind has retreated again. I have slipped back to the Colorado mountainside or into our Lake George cottage or alongside the San Andreas fault with Bug in my belly. The nostalgia is an open wound. It bites and aches. I miss those trees so much. The dry summer sage. The creek snaking right outside our door. I miss watching Tee drape the house in white twinkle lights as soon as the nights began to lengthen. He would split the logs himself, stack them in the garage and carry up just enough to last through bedtime. Bug always wanted to play with the matches and help bring the fire to life, and Tee always had the patience to let him. I miss walking back through the moonless pitch on those crisp winter evenings towards that glimmering beacon haloed in woodsmoke.
 
I had no concept of the perfect loveliness of everything right in my hands.
 
Then I remind my hands to unclench. I whisper to my mind, beckoning it back to me.
 
You know it sure is hard to leave you, Carey,
but it’s really not my home.

 
The wound is not real. It is only a series of thoughts. I call myself in from those faraway wilds, giving myself the gentle nudge to attend to this here and now, this quiet stroll through a neighborhood with my lop-eared pooch who stops every 36 inches to snuffle in the leaves.
 
The time will come when this is the sweetest memory. It might be ten years or it might be tomorrow, but it will come. I will call up this night, the bones of these bare trees, this sleeping boy breathing in the mist and leftover lullabies, and I will ache for the perfect loveliness of this.
 
Let’s have another round for the bright red devil
Who keeps me in this tourist town

 
There is no rush and nothing to be gained from hurtling past the winter and right out the other end of spring. Do-overs are not allowed in this game. Getting to the promised land faster means you have only failed to inhabit your footsteps as you are taking them. As ill-fitting, bothersome, and wrong as this chapter may be, this right here is the story of you being written.
 
But let’s not talk about fare-the-wells now,
The night is a starry dome
And they’re playing that scratchy rock and roll
Beneath the mantle of the moon.

 
The end of this act is already coming. Whether you recognize it or not, whether you hurtle yourself towards it or fight it every step of the way, you are already on your way to the next unrecognizable incarnation. Someday soon, this will be the hard candy you suck until your teeth hurt. This will be the nugget you cannot spit out. You might as well pause long enough now to place your lips on whatever is here before you. Foul, sweet, and anything in between. It does not matter. It is yours. Take a good, long taste.
 
I say, oh, you’re a mean old daddy,
but I like you.

 

Thanks and apologies to Joni Mitchell for “Carey” from the glimmering winter night of an album, Blue.
 

Uncategorized

Late Last Night, I Heard the Screen Door Slam

The dentist was the last holdout.
 
Henry Wray grew up here. He told me about it in that casual, rambling way a person can when he has his hands in your mouth. His stories were all yesterday. It was just a blink ago that Arlington had more single-family homes than condos. Tilapia risotto may not have been readily available, but you could walk down the block to get your hands such modern-day urban rarities as drill bits, a toilet brush, and practical underwear.
 
When he was little, Henry Wray’s mother took him shopping at Kann’s department store. He remembered standing up on the platform in the shoe department and ogling the caged monkeys kept there, one guesses, for the pleasure of the children and the relief of their mothers. As he grew, he moved and returned a time or three, watching the familiar landscape shift in that way cities do regardless of the potency of memory. Block after block gave way to office complexes, high rises, big-shouldered condos selling for $400 per square foot.
 
Dr. Wray has wrinkles. He wears a bow-tie. After a life of who knows what, he returned to the area and bought up one of the last little houses on North Kansas, a street that is barely a pass-through between the whizzing lanes of Wilson and Fairfax Boulevards. The tiny structure still had the feel of a home. A narrow corridor through the single-story bungalow was flanked by closet-sized rooms transformed into exam spaces and an office. The windows were plentiful. The carpet was brown. His part-time assistant greeted everyone with a booming hello.
 
To one side of Dr. Wray’s lot squatted a black-and-red structure made of what appeared to be oversized legos stuck together at wrong angles. It contained an insurance company and not much else, thought it was hard to tell through the tint of its windows. Behind the dentist’s house was a used car dealership and on the opposite side, a busted-up patchwork of weeds fenced in chain link.
 
From every side, shine pressed in on North Kansas Street. Across from Dr. Wray’s, the glassed balconies of a corner apartment building sipped shafts of light into bent shadow. A little further on, the FDIC’s rippling mirrors stretched the sun aquatic. The brushed steel face of George Mason University’s new Founders Hall burned back the day, its tiny windows blinking blinking against plaza trees that will require two decades of rain to cover its nakedness.
 
Every six months since I started working here, I made the 90-second journey across the street. I loved walking through Dr. Wray’s door (A front door! With a handle that turns!) After hanging my jacket on the coat rack, the dentist himself would call me back. I never had to wait. Henry Wray would reminisce as he hammered away at my plaque. On the way out, I would listen to the receptionist spill over with bubble and opinion as she jotted down my next appointment. I have one in my book for September.
 
Just last week, wrecking crews arrived. They rolled their equipment onto North Kansas Street and unfurled a barbed-wire border between past and future. You can get your visa stamped, but you aren’t coming back. The backhoes roared to life. Dr. Wray’s office, the last of the single-family homes in that long-gone memory of a neighborhood, lay in a heap on the ground. I watched as hot dust settled on the debris.
 
Time for a new dentist, I suppose. The old fellow is unlikely to start fresh anywhere else, unless “starting fresh” means sipping a martini by the side of some Canadian lake. This week, big yellow monsters clambered over the rubble of Dr. Wray’s office went to work on the black-lego building. Now, an entire city block is a moonscape of splintered drywall and shattered glass. Diggers pound deep into the orange dirt to gut the very belly of the earth. An underground parking garage? A sub-basement for HVAC? Anything and everything. It will go down, it will climb up. It will eclipse the sun. It will house the transients who, like me, have little time to spare for memory.
 
A local historian has written that no one can find a photograph of the Kann’s monkeys. People did not have smartphones in 1956, and even if they had, the mothers were too weary. Who captures such mundane things as shoe-shopping? As dental appointments? I did not think to snap an image of the last house on North Kansas Street or Dr. Wray’s red bowtie. I had no idea what was coming.
 
Silly me.
 
Blink, and it’s gone. Even though we know everything is fleeting, we cannot bear to hold that truth up in the front of the mind. We believe in permanence against all the evidence because it would be too frightening to consider how much we stand to lose.
 
Then the world up and blindsides us. Or, perhaps, we blinder ourselves.
 
I do this every day. I mourn the loss of the familiar, but I can’t even draw up an image of the object of my nostalgia. What did he look like, anyway? I gaze at the patch of once-woods where the new houses are going in, trying to discern some trace of the sacred canopy that sheltered a first kiss. What was there before? I wrack my brain. I probe the cavity. Emptied of recollection, the hollow place aches. Loss is the ice water. Better to go thirsty, some people believe.
 
We love so much without even knowing what inhabits the corners of our hearts: a small swath of trees, a giggle with a lover, the rainbow of petit fours in the pastry case at the supermarket. Every bit of it, beautiful enough to make the jaw throb, if only we had a moment, just one more moment, to notice this feast spread here for our senses. So perfect. So within reach.