Things we cannot change

Over the weekend the New York Times ran a wrenching essay by Emily Rapp, a mom whose 18-month-old son has the genetic disorder Tay-Sachs and will likely die before he’s three.

The essay, which has circulated widely, is about what it’s like to care for a child when there’s no reason to plan for his future.  “Our parenting plans, our lists, the advice I read before Ronan’s birth make little sense now,” she writes. “No matter what we do for Ronan — choose organic or non-organic food; cloth diapers or disposable; attachment parenting or sleep training — he will die. All the decisions that once mattered so much, don’t.”

And because happy endings are not possible for her son, Rapp says that she’s had no choice but to find a different way to value the time she has to spend with him:

I have abandoned the future, and with it any visions of Ronan’s scoring a perfect SAT or sprinting across a stage with a Harvard diploma in his hand. We’re not waiting for Ronan to make us proud. We don’t expect future returns on our investment…

But the day-to-day is often peaceful, even blissful. This was my day with my son: cuddling, feedings, naps. He can watch television if he wants to; he can have pudding and cheesecake for every meal. We are a very permissive household. We do our best for our kid, feed him fresh food, brush his teeth, make sure he’s clean and warm and well rested and … healthy? Well, no….

Our experiences have taught us how to parent for the here and now, for the sake of parenting, for the humanity implicit in the act itself, though this runs counter to traditional wisdom and advice.

I don’t understand what it’s like to be Emily Rapp any more than I understood what it’s like to love a child before Jay was born.  But I do know that the day Jay was born my worst fear in the world became losing him.  After finishing the essay I sat in my chair, not doing anything.  I wanted to share it with Caroline but for a moment it didn’t feel right to speak.

Caroline and I may have a bias against infant yoga classes, but we do plan for Jay and Wally’s futures.  For most of Jay’s first year, in fact, it felt like all we did was plot: How to get Jay to nurse, how to get Jay to stop cruising and start walking, how to get Jay to sleep through the night.   This preoccupation with problem solving made parenting feel very thin at times.

Which brings me to how we’ve recently found a measure of grace in an unexpected place.  Our prompt has been nothing as devastating as a terminally ill child; Rapp’s is the kind of wisdom I hope I never have.  But in dealing with Wally, who doesn’t sleep these days, Caroline and I have been talking about what it’s like to stop trying to make our children into something more or better or different than they are right now.

(I should say first that it’s unfair to Wally to have his bad sleeping be the first specific thing I write about him in weeks.  Because he’s the sweetest little guy.  He seems to have only two speeds: tired, and irrepressibly happy.  He smiles so easily that sometimes Caroline and I want to say to him, “This is the real world, buddy!  You have a big brother!  Things aren’t that great!”)

Still, as sweet as Wally is there’s no sugar coating his sleep habits.  And at 2am when one or the other of us is pacing him around our bedroom again, it feels like we can’t let another day pass without fixing the situation.  We’ve considered cry-it-out sleep training, supplementing with formula, turning off the nightlight, moving his bassinet closer to our bed, moving it farther away.

But in the end we’ve decided to do nothing, at least for now.  Caroline’s right when she says Wally’s too young to “sleep train” – he’s four-months-old and this is who he is at the moment.  We could go crazy trying every little sleep permutation or we could just accept that this isn’t the season for a good night’s sleep.  This acceptance doesn’t make it any more pleasant to get woken up in the middle of a dream, but it does make it easier to enjoy the warmth of Wally’s head against my chest as I walk him through the night.

Related Posts from Growing Sideways

The feeling you get when a baby is born

Tonight to fall asleep

That thing around the corner

Yesterday I became Facebook friends with an old student of mine—a girl I’d taught in Philadelphia when she was in 8th grade.  She’s about 19 now and as I looked through her photo album it seemed that she’d been having a lot of fun as a teenager: pictures of her with her friends, dancing and laughing at one party after another.

Then, there she was in a maternity dress, pregnant and smiling at her own baby shower beneath a big pink banner that read, “It’s a girl.”  The juxtaposition in the photo album was stunning.  Fun, fun, fun, fun, baby. It was like someone had turned the lights on in the middle of the party.

Later that day I left the house with Jay and Wally to pick Caroline up at campus.  As we walked out the door Jay yelled, “Buckle Wally in first,” which he says every time we get in the car.  I did as instructed, and while I was busy with Wally Jay climbed into the driver’s seat and closed the door.

After I’d finished with Wally I went to get Jay, but just as I was about to open the driver’s side door, Jay locked it.  He looked up at me through the car window with an impish little grin on his face and for a moment I didn’t know what to do.  Then I remembered the car key in my pocket.   “Better luck next time,” I thought, as I unlocked the door and carried his disbelieving little body off to the carseat.

Our route to school is the same everyday: left on Independence, right on Packard.  It’s a short trip, only about 3 miles.  The first mile passes by bland commercial storefronts—a tutoring center, a pizza place, a liquor store—but the scene changes as we get closer to campus.  Uncared for student houses line the streets. The sidewalks thicken with undergraduates.

I always feel a little conspicuous driving through campus.  No one notices we’re there of course, but still I feel self-consciously old amidst all the students, on my way to pick my wife up from work with two boys in the backseat.  As we sat at a red light I looked out the window and saw a fresh-faced kid carrying a case of Rolling Rock, and two pony-tailed girls jogging, and what looked like part of the men’s soccer team on its way home from practice.

Part of me wanted to yell out the window, “This isn’t really me!  I’m not as different from you as you think!” Then the light changed and we moved on.

As we drove the final blocks to Caroline’s office I thought about my student who’s now a mom, and I thought about the Michigan undergraduates who’d just crossed in front of my car.  In one sense their lives are very different: She’s a teenager waking up each day and probably all night to the responsibility of taking care of a child; they’re students at one of the best colleges in the country, and for now at least they don’t owe allegiance to much more than their own whims.

At the same time, it struck me that wherever you are at 19, adulthood comes sooner than you expect.  The bigger surprise for that kid carrying the case of Rolling Rock is probably not that I used to be like him, but rather how soon he’ll be like me.

Related Posts from Growing Sideways

Life in the trees

Does having kids mean giving up on your dreams? (One dad thinks it does)

What it might really mean to learn to be a parent

Last night Wally woke up every 90 minutes. This is a trend with him—not sleeping—but it’s been even worse of late on account of a stuffy nose.  He lies on his back, nurses to sleep, but before long his congestion causes him to cough or choke and jolts him awake.

At 6:30am this morning when Jay was beginning to murmur in his crib and Wally was awake again, Caroline said almost in disbelief: “It feels like I nursed him all night.” My night of sleep hadn’t been great, but it hadn’t been a disaster, either, so I told Caroline I’d take the boys downstairs so she could sleep.  Even though I knew it was the right thing to do and I was glad to be able to give Caroline more rest, I still wasn’t in great spirits when I threw back the covers and put my bare feet on the cold floor.

Jay was chipper, though, as he is almost always in the morning when his battery’s fully charged.  Down in the family room I sat with Wally on my lap while Jay moved his cars around on the small white table we bought him at a yard sale a few weeks ago.  He’d line the cars up and drive them from one side of the table to the other, narrating the activity with lines like “This is a good parking spot” and “It’s raining, time to go inside.”

After about half-an-hour the sun was just beginning to show in the sky outside the window. There was a magazine on the floor, left there from a few nights earlier when Caroline had tried to read it while watching Jay play.  I flipped it open and started to read a short piece about something important—a dry cleaner who specializes in getting stains out of expensive fabrics.

I should have realized it was a bad idea to read the magazine while I was watching Jay, and not just because, as I wrote last week, I want to try and interact with him more when we’re spending time together.   The real reason is that reading a magazine or the Internet creates a bad dynamic between me and Jay: I become absorbed in whatever I’m reading and Jay sees that he’s lost my attention so he starts to do annoying things to get it back.

Which is just what he did this morning.  I’d been reading the magazine for less than a minute when Jay, who’d been entirely happy playing with his cars only a moment ago, came over to my side.

I didn’t look up from the article, so Jay started to crumple the page I was trying to read.  I brushed his hand away.  He crumpled the page again.  I brushed his hand away.  He crumpled the page again.  This time he got to me.  I grabbed his hand hard.   “Stop touching the paper,” I said angrily.  Jay gets reprimanded 1000 times a day, but not usually out of anger, and he knew the difference. He started to cry.

As the first tears fell I managed to say, “You shouldn’t have done that,” but it was a weak reply.  I knew immediately that I was the one who was wrong.  Getting angry at Jay like that doesn’t do any good—it’s too unpredictable to be instructive; all it really does is scare him, and I don’t want to scare Jay over a crumpled magazine page.

Jay recovered within ten minutes, but the rest of the morning I was dogged by the queasy feeling that comes with having treated another person badly. Around 9am Caroline woke up and we all had breakfast.  After eating I took Jay and Wally outside to rake leaves that had been knocked down by an overnight storm.

I raked with Wally in the carrier on my chest and Jay working with his little plastic rake and I continued to think about what had happened that morning.

It occurred to me that there are two ways to think about what it means to “learn how to be a parent.”  The first way, which is the way we most often think about it, has to do with skills and techniques: learning how to soothe an infant, learning how to set boundaries, deciding the number of cookies Jay can have for dessert or how much TV he’s allowed to watch, figuring out how to teach him right from wrong.

These are all important skills, but as I raked I thought that maybe they’re less important than the second way to think about “learning to be a parent,” which has nothing to do with skills and everything to do with learning how to be the person my kids need me to be. 

For reasons I’d have a hard time accounting for, I’m prone to getting frustrated by small things: I’ll be measuring flour and Jay will bump my arm, or we’ll pull out of the driveway and I’ll realize I forgot the shopping list.  These can be enough to make me angry and frustrated to a degree that seems ridiculous when I sit here and think about them and write them down.

I don’t always get disproportionately worked up.  Sometimes a crumpled magazine page is just a crumpled magazine page.  Other times I react the way I did this morning.  As a result, it can be hard for Jay and Wally to know what to expect when we’re together.  Is this the day Dad doesn’t care if I spill apple sauce on the floor, or is this the day it drives him crazy?  It’s not the kind of environment I want them to grow up in.

Jay and Wally didn’t create the hang-ups and weak spots in my personality, but they do make them more consequential.  It seems to me that whether I can figure out how to make my doubts, insecurities, frustrations, and fears compatible with my responsibility to Jay and Wally will go further in determining whether they have happy childhoods than just about anything else I control.

Daddy (and Mama) dont play

Last night after dinner Caroline told Jay he could play in the family room for a few minutes before bedtime. Jay sat down on the carpet and started building a tower out of blocks. A few minutes later Caroline sat down on the couch beside him with a copy of the New Yorker in her hand. Jay looked at her, and then looked at the magazine, and said, “Why you reading that?”

It was unclear, as it often is when Jay asks a question, whether he meant “why” as in “What is the purpose of reading a magazine?” or “why” as in “Why would you choose to read that magazine instead of playing with me?” Caroline took the latter interpretation. Chagrined, she put the magazine down and sat on the floor beside Jay. Together they built tall towers until bedtime.

Later that night Caroline and I lay in bed talking about the exchange she’d had with Jay about the magazine. It struck me that while I spend many hours everyday with Jay, I very rarely actually play with him. A good portion of our time together is spent transacting family business—cooking dinner, running errands, coaxing him through the stages of his day—and basically all the rest of the time I supervise him: I sit in the passenger seat of our car while he pretends to drive; I watch him dig in the sandbox at the playground.

Both Caroline and I felt bad when we realized just how little we play with Jay. My mind ran to the image of a little boy who wants nothing more in the world than to play cars with his dad, but who’s become so defeated he never even bothers to ask anymore. For a second I had to resist the impulse to go into Jay’s room and wake him up for a compensatory midnight play session.

If Jay looks unhappy, it's probably because he knows I'm not going to jump into that leaf pile with him

Caroline made a few observations, consistent with her work as a demographer. She mentioned her friend Whitney, who’d told Caroline that she plays with her son Noah much more than she remembers her mom playing with her. Caroline took this as an indication that the amount of time parents spend playing with their children is partly generational—parents today are likely, on the whole, to be more hands-on than parents thirty years ago.

Caroline also talked about parent-child playtime as a function of social class. She brought up sociologist Annette Lareau, whose theory of “concerted cultivation” I blogged about a couple weeks ago, and who argues that middle class parents are more likely to see themselves as their children’s playmates (and developmental partners) than poor or working class parents.*

I haven’t spent enough time with parents from lower socioeconomic backgrounds to know if that part of the theory holds. But the idea of middle class parents as playmates is consistent with my experience taking Jay and Wally to playgrounds in Philadelphia and Ann Arbor, where it’s not uncommon to see all the toddlers playing separately with their parents, and none of the toddlers playing together.

I could come up with a philosophical explanation for why I tend to let Jay play by himself, but really I think it comes down to disposition. For whatever reason, I feel a little silly climbing around on a jungle gym after Jay and I’m not good at sustaining enthusiasm for the types of games he likes to play.

After Caroline and I had said goodnight, I kept thinking about the amount of time I play with Jay. Overall, I think I’m comfortable with the way things are between us. If, in the extreme, it’s a choice between the extra enrichment Jay would get from playing with me and Caroline on the one hand and giving him the space to learn how to be by himself on the other, I’d rather give him the space.

But those are just ideas, and while it’s good to have a philosophy as a parent, it’s even more important to pay attention to the facts on the ground. And what I realized before falling asleep is that there are plenty of times when I don’t play with Jay because I’m feeling apathetic or lazy or distracted; when I choose to steal a few inconsequential minutes on the Internet instead of saying hi to him.

So this morning after breakfast, when we had a little time to kill before Caroline headed off to school, I went into the family room to see Jay. He was busy putting an addition on the tower he and Caroline had built the night before. As soon as he saw me he said, “Daddy, sit down,” which I did.

For a moment he didn’t do anything, and then he grabbed the yellow bulldozer that his grandparents had given him as a present the weekend before. He picked it up and started to move the front shovel up and down. “This works like this,” he told me proudly. I was happy to see that he hasn’t given up on me completely.

*This article from the Boston Globe a few years ago provides a good summary of the research into how much time American parents spend playing with their children.

Related Posts from Growing Sideways

Do all parents fall into two categories? One leading sociologist says they do.

Jay (sometimes) at play

The Parent Interview #3: Wanting to be a mom and a woman, too

Ingrid H. reached her mid-thirties without plans to become a mom.  She had a career she loved, passions and interests that she was afraid a child might curtail, and a warning delivered by a doctor decades earlier that her body might not be capable of bearing children.

But that all changed one fortuitous birthday night in May 2009. The result was a baby girl named Story and an unexpected transition to family life for Ingrid and her now-husband Gabe.

Over the last two years Ingrid has chronicled her life with Story and Gabe—first in Philadelphia and then out west in L.A.—in vivid, thoughtful, and thoroughly honest terms on her blog Pop Culture Casualty.  In the following interview she talks about life as a “mom/clown,” about yearning to go back to work after Story turned one, and about what it might be like to one day tell Story about all the adventures her mom had before she was born.

[N.b. You can read an introduction to The Parent Interview series here.]

1. First of all, tell us where you were in life—how old you were, where you were living, what you were doing—when you and Gabe became parents.

In May of 2009, Gabe broke his foot in three places and was unable to walk or take care of himself.  I was sympathetic and vowed to make his life as easy as possible, including lifting the ban on unprotected sex during a very careful birthday maneuver involving little to no movement on Gabe’s part.  After all, I had been diagnosed at the age of nineteen with dysfunctional ovaries that were unable to release viable eggs.  What is the chance that one lustful encounter between an invalid and an eggless Florence Nightingale could introduce one lucky sperm to one miracle egg?  Apparently, the chances are pretty damn high.

I was 36 and Gabe was 33.  Unmarried.  Unemployed.  One of us injured.  Gabe had applied to business school in the winter, but he hadn’t heard anything back yet.  I was searching for a new career and hitting nothing but roadblocks along the path.  It was hardly a good time to get pregnant.

But we rolled with it.  We embraced it. We both understood that sometimes life hands you just what you need.  Gabe went back to work and got accepted into an MBA program at UCLA. We got married and our humble lifestyle allowed us to be present in every way for the pregnancy, the birth and the first precious year of our little girl’s life.  Though it will never be the way it once was, Gabe’s foot healed.

2. You came relatively late in life to being a mom, after living what you describe as a “full life.”  At what point did you begin to think you might want to settle down and have a family? What, if anything, prompted that change

Let’s just get one thing straight, I never wanted to settle down and have a family.  I never wasted a day of my life fantasizing about my future wedding or coming up with the names of my future children.  When the doctor told me I would never be able to have children that fit very well with my lifetime goal to have fun.

I chose a graduate degree in international relations so that I could get someone else to pay for me to jetset around the world.  I moved from one major international hub to the next until I landed in New York. I chose a career that made enough money to live in style in a city that never failed to stimulate. But then something happened.

I was transferred to Philadelphia and suddenly my schedule cleared and the horizon flattened.  Just like the empty streets outside my Philadelphia bedroom window, there was no longer a bustle of people passing through my life. The absence of constant activity in my life was a chance to invest more time in my own development.  I took writing classes, started a new blog, performed in storytelling competitions, and spent more time alone.  I also met the man that would later become my husband, and then, well…I already told the birthday story.

3. Last winter, when Story was a newborn, you celebrated 17-years of sobriety.  You wrote, “It is my hope that you will never know me as I was before I began to work the twelve steps.” When Story is older, what do you think you’ll say to her about those years of your life?

Dear Story: 

When Mommy was very young, she was a lot of fun.  Maybe too much fun.  She got in lots of trouble and didn’t like herself too much.  While she made a lot of mistakes, these mistakes made her exactly who you know today.  Of course, life would have been much easier without all those mistakes.  But then she wouldn’t have all those awesome stories to tell your friends when they come over. 

Mommy did it all, so the bottom line here is that you are going to have a really hard time pulling one over on her.  Don’t even try it.  Oh yeah, and Mom is going to make sure you get all kinds of love and stuff so you never have to go down her path.

Xoxo – Mom

4. You wrote recently about a moment at home between you and Gabe that rang true for me: Gabe got on you for letting Story watch too much television, so you went a whole day without letting her watch any.  But that night you went out, and then came home and found that Gabe had given in and was letting her watch something on the iPad. Which is a long way of asking- how has having Story changed your relationship with Gabe? 

Let’s face it, having a baby tests a relationship.  Without the foundation Gabe and I built before Story came into our lives, I don’t know that we would have survived. We schedule romance because it no longer grows wild.  It has to be planted, nurtured, and plucked at just the right time.  Preferably on a night we can afford a babysitter.

We have both had to work on work-life/spouse-parent balance.  But on the other side, our shared love for Story gives us a bond that makes us both feel safe and warm.  Having a child on a shoestring budget means everything has to be negotiated, but we are a team and support one another in a way that has drawn us even closer. 5. For awhile after Story was born you were not working and you wrote, “I am my daughter’s main source of entertainment from the moment she wakes until the moment she goes to bed.”  How did you feel about that?

I recently accepted a job that no longer makes me a full-time mom/clown.  Story is in daycare two days a week, and she gets all sorts of stimulation from the other kids and teachers.  My first week back in the professional world was weighted with fear and self-doubt.  I was certain I no longer had the skills to be credible in a corporate environment.  I feared that the other skilled candidates in my interview group would see through my crisp expensive suit and see that I was a stay-at-home mom who spent most of her days preparing mac ’n cheese and dancing to nursery rhymes.  But somehow I fooled everyone!  It turns out I didn’t forget everything I once knew.  People actually think I’m talented and have something to offer! Adults want to be around me!

Going back to work is not a choice for everyone, and it’s not something that every Mom craves or needs.  But I discovered that this Mom needs it.  Since I’ve re-entered the work force, I’ve been a completely different wife and mother.  I didn’t know how much I needed to go back to work until I did it.  Now I just have to deal with the guilt of being away from my little girl.  But I think Story will be happier with a more confident Mom.  I can only hope it’s the right choice.

6. You also write very honestly about maternity and body image issues. You said, “I worry more about how much longer it will take for me to get my waistline back, my breasts back.”  How do you think men/husbands should approach all the physical changes that becoming a mom has on women?

One of the blessings of being an older mom is that I long ago made peace with the changes in my body.  By the time I got pregnant, I no longer saw my body as my chief offering in the world.  I feel confident that I offer a complete package of sensuality, intelligence, and vivaciousness to my husband. Being pregnant and feeling my body change in so many dramatic ways was truly awesome.  The shift in my body matches the shift in my priorities from looking sexy to being healthy and happy.

I also appreciate that Gabe that hasn’t changed the way he looks at me or lusts for me.  Gabe is very intuitive about my body image and seems to just know when it’s not a good time for me, so he shows me lots of love in other ways.

7. Last question.  I was interested in what you wrote about Story can infringe on your “very precious freedom” and how you feel “selfish” when you want things above and beyond what Story provides.  How content do you feel about the opportunities and constraints of being a mom?  

During Story’s first year I was entirely content being a mom. I read books on breastfeeding, made my own purees, and sewed baby clothes after Story went to bed.  But when Story turned one, something started to change.  She was becoming more independent and her needs were changing from care to entertainment, which left me completely exhausted at the end of the day.  At first it was fun thinking of new activities.  But soon I ran out of ideas.  Story wants to learn and grow and sometimes I just can’t keep up.

And something else was happening too.  With the weaning, came some postpartum depression.  I suddenly felt trapped in a role I didn’t choose, and our financial situation made it impossible for me to escape.  I started to resent the daily rituals and crave the feedback you get in professional environment.  I watched Gabe put on his backpack and march off to school and I was jealous. I was so wrapped up in Story’s life that I lost myself.

To find my way back we put Story in daycare, which had been unthinkable even a year earlier.  For two days every week I dropped Story off in the morning, crying and wailing, and I’d go sit in the car and cry myself.  Those were the times Gabe would remind me that daycare was good for Story.  And good for me.

I used the time to see friends, go to the gym, and work on a new career strategy. Now that I have more balance in my life, I’m more than content with the opportunities and constraints that come with being a mother. I feel overwhelming gratitude to have the chance to be Story’s mom. I love knowing that my love is shaping a life.  I am helping a little girl navigate her way in the world and it is precious and beautiful and awesome.

Additional posts from the “Parent Interview” series:

The Parent Interview #1: A dad looks back

The Parent Interview #2: Where Wall Street meets motherhood

Fade Out: What happens to a toddler’s memories?

When we left Philadelphia this summer, Caroline and I talked about how Jay will probably never remember the city where he spent the first two years of his life.  It made us sad to think that he’ll have no memory of Ms. Kim at the produce store who slipped him cherries, or of Rittenhouse Square where he jumped in puddles, chased pigeons, and cowered from dogs.  In one sense there is no surprise in this—all toddlers forget, after all.  But at the same time, it’s hard to square this inevitable forgetting with just how vibrantly present and alive Jay was during his time in Philadelphia.

On the drive out to Ann Arbor Caroline and I talked about a grim question—if we disappeared tomorrow, how long would it take before Jay forgot us completely?  I thought maybe six months, Caroline thought nine.  Neither of us would go so far as a year.  For about 20 minutes outside Cleveland we rode in silence, both thinking, perhaps, of how the proceeding days would settle over Jay’s memories of us like snowflakes on a field.

Since moving to Michigan Caroline and I have been curious to see how long Jay remembers Philadelphia.  Sometimes we’ll ask him with questions—Who’s the person who would draw you spoons? Who gave you the yellow truck?—but he’s an unreliable interview even about topics he knows well, so for the most part we just have to pay attention to how often he brings up Philadelphia on his own.

The single biggest part of his life that Jay left behind in Philadelphia was “school,” where he went five hours a day, five days a week, for almost a year.  At school he had his teachers, his friends, his routines, and a collection of vivid experiences that he continued to talk about even long after they’d happened—the day he had his picture taken with a firefighter, the day he bit Ariana, the time Ms. M. brought in chocolate cake.  It seemed fair to assume that Jay’s memories of school would hold up as long as his memories of anything else from Philadelphia.

Jay saying goodbye to Lola and the blue chairs on his last day of school

For the first three weeks in Michigan Jay didn’t mention school once.  Then early one morning we were all lying in bed, at about the time we used to leave for school, and Jay said “I want to see friends.”  We asked him what friends.  “I want to see friends at school,” he said.  Caroline and I were caught by surprise, and we weren’t quite sure how to explain to Jay, “You’ll never see your friends again.”  So we asked him instead if he’d rather have peanut butter or jam on his English muffin that morning.

A few days later we got another chance.  Jay was sitting in his booster seat eating a granola bar when, apropos of nothing, he said, “I want to go to the school with the blue chairs and the yellow chairs.”  It was touching to think that in his swirling consciousness the color of the plastic chairs in the toddler room was one detail he’d managed to hold onto.  This time Caroline and I didn’t duck the topic, but we did soft-pedal the truth: “We’re not going to school today,” Caroline said, “But we are going to the playground where you’ll make some new friends.”

After his comment about the chairs, Jay went awhile without bringing up school, and I began to wonder if he ever would again.  Then Wednesday evening this past week I was cooking dinner while Jay rifled through a drawer of Tupperware.  He was spilling the containers all over the kitchen floor and I was getting a little annoyed, when he pulled out a clear blue plastic lid.  “I bring this to school,” he said.

And sure enough, written on the lid in fading black marker was “Jay H.”  Every morning when we’d arrive at school, I’d take a container with that lid out of the bottom of the stroller and hand it to Jay, who’d open the refrigerator and drop it into the crate with the other toddlers’ lunches.

It is a thing about forgetting that you can never pinpoint when it happens.  In this, watching Jay forget reminds me of an experience I had several years before he was born, during a period when I had fewer responsibilities than I’ll probably ever have again.  I was living near the beach and every afternoon around high tide I’d sit on the sand and watch the waves roll in.

For some reason, each day I was interested in trying to identify the wave that made the highest water mark of the day.  Often I’d think I’d seen it and then another wave would come along and eclipse it.  It occurred to me that this was like lots of things in life – an event that can only be recognized after, and sometimes often long after, it’s happened.  When will be the last time Jay remembers Philadelphia?  We’ll never know, and neither will he.