Two Sunday nights ago flooded roads waylaid Caroline, Wally, and me on our way back to Jay. We’d left him for the weekend at my dad’s house in upstate New York after he’d been deemed (by us) unfit to attend a friend’s wedding near Poughkeepsie. In the interim Hurricane Irene had raged, and so it was that at 11pm on Sunday night, after hours of detouring around fallen trees and washed out roads, we pulled into a gas station only 19 miles from my dad’s house. There a woman fueling beside us delivered the unwelcome news: “Ain’t no one going to Cobleskill tonight,” she said dourly. Later we’d learn that 24 hours of hard rain had caused the Schoharie Creek to overrun its banks, swamping every highway, road, and cow path in and out of my dad’s county.
We spent the rest of that first night trying in vain to find a hotel room before settling gratefully on the floor of a high school gymnasium that had been converted into an emergency shelter. The next morning, after it had become clear that we weren’t traversing those final 19 miles that day either, we retreated to a friend’s parents house north of Albany, where the power was out but the roads at least were open and a guest bedroom awaited us.
That night at dinner the conversation turned to raising children, particularly in times of duress. Our hosts had a lot to say on the subject. They’re Lebanese, and they’d spent their first six years as parents amidst civil war in Beirut in the mid-80s. They talked about huddling in the basement of their apartment building with their two young sons when the bomb sirens would go off.
The father told us that during those years, before he and his family moved to the United States, his kids’ safety had always been on his mind. He implied that the presence of such an overriding concern had shaped his relationships with his children in ways that would have been different had they been born into calmer times.
I had that idea in mind—how circumstances shape how I interact with Jay and Wally—over the next tumultuous week.
On Tuesday morning we made it back to my dad’s. The expression on Jay’s face when he saw us step out of the car made it clear that while he talks a lot, he feels a great deal more than he can say. For nearly a minute he stood still on the porch, looking at us down the walk with a wary expression on his face that said, “What business do you have showing up after I’d finally come to terms with the idea that you weren’t coming back.”
We spent that afternoon and evening swapping stories from our respective sides of the creek: Caroline and I talked about the kids who’d run around all night at the emergency shelter playing tag; my dad and little brother Andrew (who also took care of Jay while we were away, and whose attentiveness and caring were exemplary for a person of any age, let alone for a 15-year-old boy) told us that had we been gone any longer they would have started making plans to enroll Jay in the local pre-k.
The time for reflection was short lived, though. Early the next morning we set off on the 600-mile drive to Ann Arbor. Jay managed to spend less than an hour of the twelve-hour trip asleep which means in toddler time he must have felt like he was in the car for a year (and he let it show). We arrived in Ann Arbor at dusk, with only frozen dinners from Trader Joe’s and an air mattress to see us through the night. When Caroline and I finally got Wally and Jay stowed in their portable cribs, we surveyed our empty house and wondered where exactly we went from there.
The answer, of course, was that we unpacked boxes; found our way to the grocery store; harangued my sister twice a day to check our email (Comcast was bogged down by undergraduate move-in and couldn’t get to our house for a week); and generally tried to balance the somewhat antithetical tasks of maintaining two little kids while trying to find our way in a new town.
The hardest part for me was not knowing where anything was. As in, for four days every single time I needed to change one of the boys’ diapers I’d spend five minutes trying to locate the right supplies, before giving up and yelling to the heavens (or to Caroline), “Where are goddamn baby wipes!” On one occasion I got a reply. It came channeled through Jay who told me, “We get wipes at the store.”
Ah yes, my son, but where the hell is the store?
Aside from that exchange, the only thing I recall saying to Jay during our first days in Ann Arbor was “no.” “No you may not go out the front door without us.” “No Daddy won’t sleep in your bedroom with you.” “No don’t unpack that box.” “No don’t open that closet.” “Nooooooooooooo don’t touch that vase!” In an unfamiliar environment, out of our routines and with our belongings strewn about, it felt like we were managing Jay every minute of his waking day.
But sometime in the last few days we began to find our footing, and as the chaos of the move subsided, there was Jay, waiting for me.
This morning, with Caroline and Wally still asleep, he and I went downstairs for breakfast. We sat in our respective chairs, eating peanut butter toast in the quiet of the dim Michigan morning. I looked over at him, chomping away, and told him that I had a secret to tell him.
“Did you know you’re the rascal, Jay?”
He smiled and pointed his finger back at me. “No Daddy, you’re the rascal.”
As we laughed I thought to myself, “It’s really nice to see you again Jay.” I imagine he was thinking the same thing about me.