The moment you stop caring

Today after nap time (it was dark outside) Jay took an empty diaper box and played trash man.  I wasn’t thrilled with my role- crawling around on my knees, pushing Jay in the box in front of me- but at least it was in service of a good cause: At every ‘stop,’ Jay picked up the scraps of paper, old cardboard, and broken cars that had been accumulating in the playroom for months.

But with little kids, no good thing lasts for long.  Soon, Jay’s definition of trash changed to include books, stuffed animals, and the remote controls for the television. And of course, this more liberal definition of trash called for more trash receptacles.  I watched in mild, domestic horror as Jay dumped the train tracks from their drawer, emptied the remaining books from their crate, unloaded, one by one, the balls from their wagon.

And I considered intervening.  But while I pondered the unholy destruction around me, Jay began to cart his trash up to what I suppose was a landfill in the kitchen, where Caroline was cooking dinner.  My pulse flickered.  I thought about telling Jay that the bridge was down, the kitchen was off limits, and by God why did he always have to take a good thing too far.

Then I thought, “Oh, to hell with it,” and got a beer.  My favorite Dawes song came on Pandora, Jay continued at his work.  We’ll see how this turns out.

The weight of fear, in chocolate

IMG_3551It has been a season of new fears for Jay: He’s clung to Caroline the last few times she’s brought him to school; he hates, suddenly, to be left alone in a room; he’s waking up at night and begging us to help him get back to sleep.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to these fears.  Except for the last one.  It’s really hard for me to marshall sympathy in the middle of the night.  “There’s nothing to be afraid of, go back to sleep,” I say to Jay, first in a soothing voice, then in a growl, as he looks up at me from his mattress, his eyes beseeching and moist.

His night waking started on the road after Christmas and continued when we got home.  After a couple weeks of this, Caroline and I were at a loss.  Jay was devastating our sleep and we hadn’t been able to find a quick way to console him.  So finally we resorted to chocolate.

“You can have a Hershey’s Kiss, in the morning, for breakfast,” I told Jay one evening last week before bed, “If you go all night without calling to me or Mama.”  We closed his door and didn’t hear from him again until just past 7am, when he emerged to claim his prize.  Refreshed and rested, I gave it to him gladly.

Jay made it quietly through the night each of the next four nights.  I was happy but perplexed.  His fears had seemed so urgent that I couldn’t believe he was capable of swallowing them for a measly piece of chocolate.

A few nights ago Caroline and I talked about this in bed.  I told her I was confused about how Jay had managed to subjugate his fears in an instant.  She theorized that the chocolate was short-circuiting the bad rhythm he’d gotten into.  He was still probably waking up at night, but maybe now, while still groggy, he was thinking about the chocolate and dipping right back into sleep before he could get fully worked up.

This past Saturday Caroline’s theory was put to the test.  Sometime after midnight Jay woke up in a coughing fit.  Caroline and I lay in bed for five minutes, then ten minutes, listening to him hack, waiting for him to call out to us.  Finally, I decided we needed to do something to help him stop.  I got out of bed and went to his room to fill his vaporizer.

As soon as I stepped into his room, Jay called out, “Noooo…” As in, “No, don’t come into my room because then I won’t get a chocolate.”

I was floored. There he was, lying wide awake in the middle of the night, coughing hard, in the throes of the exact conditions that usually make him plead for us to comfort him.  Yet now he was telling me to get out because he wanted a piece of candy.

Quickly, I told him that I was just going to fill his vaporizer and that he could still have a Kiss in the morning; my voice was full of more sympathy and admiration than I’d ever managed to muster for him at this hour of the day.

Back in bed, I told Caroline what had happened.  I really couldn’t believe it.  What exactly is the calculation in that little boy’s head?  Was he ever really afraid in the first place?  Or does he just love chocolate more than anything else in the world?  I still have no idea how to answer any of these questions, but now, having slept well for a week straight, it barely matters.

Whatever you’re thinking at night, Jay, please keep thinking it.

Searching for a shared reality with Jay

IMG_3483I think I have a pretty good grasp on reality, though I don’t doubt that I could lose it someday.  Recently, in fact, I’ve felt my grip slipping ever so slightly.  Stress and fatigue seem to have wedged just a little extra space between the world and my perception of it.

Exhibit A is Jay who, as usual, figures large in my eyes.  Our relationship has been fraught the past few days.  I’m feeling thin and brittle, with really no room to absorb his three-year-old mishegas.  He senses this- how could he not- and only ups his antics in response.  It’s a bad cycle that needs disrupting.  Yesterday I tried to break it by buying Jay a chocolate chip cookie from the bakery case at Whole Foods.  He ate one half, I ate the other, and for five minutes we were friends again.

The scariest part (from this side of the line) of going all the way crazy is that it would seem impossible to find your way back. You always need at least one thing you can say for sure is real or not, like those little totems Leonardo DiCaprio and his pals carried in Inception- the one surefire way to tell the difference between dreaming and waking.

Sometimes I build Jay into my nemesis; I think, as I’ve written before, that he really is out to spoil my day.  But when my ideas about him harden in this kind of pitted unreality, he has blessed knack for cracking them.

Yesterday afternoon we were watching Blues Clues.  It was the episode where Blue and Steve go to outer space and learn about the planets of the solar system.  As we watched, Jay asked me what planet we live on.  I told him earth.  He asked me what planet Steve lives on.  I told him that Steve lives on earth, too.  Jay disagreed.  I said, what planet do you think Steve lives on? Steve lives in the t.v., Jay replied.

I laughed, and tucked his comment away as a reminder that Jay lives in his own special three-year-old world and that from there he’s unlikely to be capable of or interested in cultivating a deliberate, long-running antagonism with his father.

Later that day, after I’d put an exhausted Wally to sleep, I went upstairs to Jay’s room where he and Caroline were playing before bed.  I found the two of them lying next to each other on the floor.  Caroline explained that they were planning a sleepover party and that they were inviting all the characters from Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day?  Then Jay told me that the party was going to be at his house and Mama’s house, and that the two houses were going to be connected together by construction.  And also, there were going to be three activities for the friends at the party: dancing, snacks, and “Settlers” (of Catan).

I stood there listening to him tell about his party, his eyes wide, his face unspeakably bright, and I thought, if I ever feel like I really am losing my grip, that right there is the image to hold onto.

Middle of the night masterminds

Between the boys being sick again and all the ice outside, I’ve been feeling kind of brittle recently.  Summer feels a long, long way off and even my daily cup of tea isn’t giving the pleasure it used to.  Perhaps that’s why last night I found myself descending into fantasy as I trekked down to Wally’s room where he was awake and crying, hot with fever.

Two nights ago Wally had also woken up sick.  Then I’d gone down into his room with a bottle but when I’d sat him down to drink I realized his forehead was burning and his diaper was already nearly full.  I carried him upstairs, rousted Caroline from bed for help, and a middle of the night scramble ensued to find a diaper, insert a Tylenol suppository, and then give the beseeching kid his drink.

So last night Caroline and I vowed to do better.  Before we went to sleep we laid a diaper, a suppository, and a jug of water to refill Wally’s vaporizer on the kitchen counter.  As I arranged our supplies I thought of an article I’d read earlier in the day about a daring bank robbery in Sydney, and I imagined myself a criminal mastermind meticulously laying the groundwork for a middle-of-the-night heist.

Wally awoke a little before 2am, right on cue; my feet were on the floor before he’d finished his first cry.  Caroline and I moved downstairs with the precision of Navy SEALS. She took the suppository and the diaper, I grabbed the bottle and the jug of water.

Seconds later we breeched the door to Wally’s room.  Caroline changed him and dosed him while I carefully but quickly removed the vaporizer’s hot top, poured the water in without a splash, and retreated to a position behind Caroline, where I waited for her to finish her work.  My heart pounded as I counted the seconds.  Five, six, seven.  Why wasn’t she done yet?  Finally I heard her zip Wally’s sleepsack.  In one motion she stood up, handed him to me, and went for the door.

As she left I turned my body to block Wally’s view so he wouldn’t see his beloved Mama leave and I thought about how ingenious I was, like the incredible pickpocket magician featured in last week’s New Yorker, who uses his body in key moments to block his victim’s view while he extracts their treasure.

Now down on the floor, Wally leaning his hot head back against my chest, the bottle at his lips, I turned into the child whisperer.  “Shh, shh,” I said to ease his fast-beating heart.  I held his hand, kissed his head, readied him for a return to sleep.  He drank four ounces, pushed the bottle away.  My pulse quickened.  If our plan was going to fail, this is where things would go wrong.  Was he going to cough and vomit?  I stood up and steadied him against my chest.  He put his head against my shoulder.  No coughing, no gagging, we were golden.

I walked him for a minute, but just as I was about to lay him in his crib I realized I didn’t know where I’d put the empty bottle.  I couldn’t believe it.  They always tell you: Put bottle in the same place every time, so you can pick it up quickly on your way out without making any extra noise.  I strained in the dark to find it but I couldn’t see anything.

Ok, deep breath, don’t panic.  If I was going to get out safely I’d have to improvise.  Slowly I laid Wally down in his crib; he raised his head for a moment then slumped back down to sleep. I turned towards the door, afraid I was going to kick the missing bottle and ruin everything.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw the faintest little glow, the vaporizer’s red light reflected off the glass bottle, which was sitting on the bookshelf.  With one step I reached the bottle, grabbed it, pivoted on my left foot and stepped out the door, pulling it closed behind me: Mission accomplished.

Upstairs in bed Caroline was awake waiting for me.  We high-fived, or kissed, or maybe just grunted at each other.  I lay down, turned on my side, feeling flush with competence.

But just as I closed my eyes, a voice called out from the other room. “I need help going back to sleep.”  It was Jay, who’d coughed himself awake.

Fuck, I thought. This I don’t have a plan for.

A week with friends signals a new stage of life

Jay learned about the New Year at dinner on the 31st over three flutes of sparkling apple juice. By the next morning he was in the swing of things.

We were flipping pancakes together in the kitchen when Wally started whining—stuck atop a nearby chair. “I’ll help him,” Jay said. He ran over in his new red apron and with a bear hug, lowered his brother to the floor. I hope that act of kindness marked the start of a good year between those two.

We arrived back home on Sunday and as we crossed the state line into Michigan, Caroline and I were pleased to note that our family was in much better shape than when we’d left nine days earlier: no more stomach flu, no more travel, and Wally eating (and keeping it down) like he’s got a pound or eight to gain.

We spent a lot of the drive home talking about all the people we’d seen on our trip. We saw a dozen friends, met two new babies, got to know a couple toddlers who’d tripled in age since we’d last seen them, and generally caught up—over tea, breakfast, corned beef sandwiches, take-in Thai—with a lot of people we don’t see often enough.

We’ve been away from the east coast—and our east coast friends—for 16-months now and things have changed in that time, with us, with them. Across all our visits I got a sense of not being quite so young anymore, and of having turned a corner from the rapid-building stage of life to something slower and more permanent, where happiness and failure play out over decades instead of years or months.

Because for the last decade Caroline and I and our peers have been experiencing life in bursts: graduations, new jobs, new homes, marriages, kids. They are all important milestones but they’re also preliminary, too. Getting married is just the start of being married, which is the harder and more monumental thing. And becoming a parent and tending to a sleepless newborn are easy trials compared with the long-term project of raising kids and trying to balance all the parts of family life.

Our week catching up with friends made it clear that, in our early-thirties, the game has changed. The markers of a successful life are subtler than they were; satisfaction and disappointment would seem to run deeper now, which is exciting because what’s earned is not so easily taken away, but also scary because it’s harder to turn the tide when things aren’t going the way we want them to.

All told, life seems to be asserting itself as I guess we always knew it would. There’s melancholy in the creeping bald spots and signs of paunch on a few of my friends and in the gray hairs that dominate atop my own head.

But it’s thrilling, too, to be midstream with our friends after so many years together close to shore.