Yesterday afternoon, 3pm, the house lay like this: Jay was downstairs in the playroom, having just been admonished to do a whole lot better at “quiet time” than he had the day before; I was upstairs with sweet Wally in my lap, bottle cocked in my right hand, leaning back against the wall and settling him down to nap.
The previous day at this same point, Jay had started whining from the playroom—something about wanting a blanket. I don’t like whining at any time, but particularly when I’m putting Wally to sleep, and so I’d stormed downstairs angry at Jay (in the process, surely arousing the sleepy Wally more than Jay’s bleating would have had I simply left it alone).
Anyway, Jay whined the previous day and so when I prepped him for quiet time yesterday I was sterner than usual: I reminded him about how he’d been bad during quiet time the day before and how that had cost him his afternoon fruit leather. “Really do we want that to happen again?” I asked him.
So I was upstairs with Wally and naptime was proceeding normally when from the street outside, I heard the loud and unmistakable sound of an Ann Arbor city trash truck making its way down our block.
Now, Jay loves trash day. Every Monday night we put out our three containers—trash, recycling, compost—and throughout the day on Tuesday Jay runs pell-mell to the living room window whenever one of the trucks comes by. In the small, repeating orbit of his life, trash day is certainly one of the main events.
When I heard the trash truck I knew that Jay must have heard it, too, and immediately I understood his dilemma: Just a few minutes earlier I’d scolded him not to leave the playroom and not to yell upstairs for me, yet there coming down our block was the truck and surely if Dad knew what was going on he’d make an exception and let me run and see, but how (how!) to let him know?
As I sat there feeding Wally I grasped all this at an instant. For a moment I felt like God, possessed of complete knowledge of the passions and conflicts roiling that little boy’s mind.
And in that same instant I recalled feeling as a boy the same way Jay was feeling now: I remembered exactly what it was like to be stuck between a parental admonition on the one hand and an overwhelming desire on the other, with the conflict intensified to the level of a tragedy by the recognition, in Jay’s mind, that I did not have the specific circumstance of the trash truck in mind when I made the general rule about not leaving the playroom.
To make matters even worse, Wally sleeps with a white noise maker which was humming simultaneous with the sound of the advancing trash truck, and which made it next to impossible for Jay to communicate with me upstairs without yelling in a very loud voice which, of course not minutes earlier I’d expressly commanded him not to do.
Yet I heard him trying to get my attention. Between gasps of the trash truck’s air breaks and beneath the blanket of white noise there he was, whispering, hoarsely: “Daddy, Daddy.”
For a moment I considered ignoring him. But then I recalled again the utter torment of being in his shoes, the soul-evacuating despair he must have been feeling just then, and I did something I almost never do: I paused naptime.
I took the bottle from Wally’s mouth, stood up, and walked out into the hallway. “Jay,” I called down the stairs. “You can go see the trash truck.” Before the words were out of my mouth—before Jay could even begin to ponder how it was that his dad knew the design of his heart—Jay was sprinting across the floor, rejoicing in the improbable benevolence of the universe.
And as he stood at the window I went back to feeding Wally, proud of what I’d done for Jay, feeling elevated by the boundlessness of my compassion.