Yesterday Jay learned to gargle. Or so it seems. He’s been hearing me and Caroline do it for years (and yes, somehow, it’s suddenly years that the three of us have been together) and last night he finally staked his claim.
While we read books before bed he took pulls from his sippy cup and leaned his head back, one gargle and gulp and sip after another. Even after we’d tucked him in he went on like that, pausing his gargling only for a moment to yell downstairs, “Daddy, tell Mama I know how to gargle.”
Jay’s newfound talent reminded me of a passage I read last week in the novel Gilead. The narrator, an old midwestern preacher, recalls walking along an empty road at night with his father. The part that stopped me comes at the end:
I can’t tell you, though, how I felt, walking along beside him that night, along that rutted road, through that empty world- what sweet strength I felt, in him, and in myself, and all around us. I am glad I didn’t understand, because I have rarely felt joy like that, and assurance. It was like one of those dreams where you’re filled with some extravagant feeling you might never have in life, it doesn’t matter what it is, even guilt or dread, and you learn from it what an amazing instrument you are, so to speak, what a power you have to experience beyond anything you might ever actually need.
I know what Jay was feeling last night, with the water bubbling with his own breath in his own small throat. He was discovering himself as an instrument, with a power to experience in this world beyond anything he might ever actually need.
Around the house we call it “two boys.”
Two boys waiting to get their shoes on. Two boys naked beside each other on the bed. Two boys sitting on the turtle stool brushing their teeth.
That was the scene in the bathroom tonight. Jay sat down first then Wally edged in beside him, two skinny bums abreast. Wally turned to Jay. With his little index finger, he dabbed at the toothpaste in the corner of Jay’s mouth, took a dollop, and licked his finger clean.
Jay didn’t seem to mind.
Two boys becoming brothers.
I finished “Angle of Repose” last night. What a truly marvelous book. Beautiful, upsetting, honest, and all wrapped in a story that feels as real as water. But the passage I reread three times before going to bed is this one. It is of a diesel truck climbing up into the mountains, and the effort it makes is meant to describe the arc of a life.
Then I heard a diesel coming on the freeway, taking a full-tilt run at the hill. In my mind I could see it charging up that empty highway like Malory’s Blatant Beast, its engine snorting and bellowing, its lights glaring off into dark trees and picking up the curve of white lines, a blue cone of flame riding six inches above its exhaust stack, its song full of exultant power. I listened to it and felt the little hairs on the back of my neck, tickling me where my head met the pillow.
Then the inevitable. The song of power weakened by an almost imperceptible amount, and no sooner had that sound of effort come into it than the tone changed, went down a full third, as the driver shifted. Still powerful, still resistless, the thing came bellowing on, and then its tone dropped again, and almost immediately a third time. Something was out of it already; confidence was out of it. I could imagine the driver, a midget up in the dim cab, intent over his web of gears, three sticks of them, watching the speedometer and the steepening road and the cone of fire above his stack, and tilting his ear to the moment when the triumphant howl of his beast began to waver or shrink. Then the foot, the hand, and for a few seconds, a half minute, the confident song of power again, but lower, deeper, less excited and more determined. Down again where the grade stiffened past Grass Valley, and then down, down, down, three different tones, and finally there it was at the dutiful bass growl that would take it all the way over the range, and even that receding, losing itself among the pines.
Over the last couple days, in the moments when I’ve managed to turn away from the news out of Boston, I’ve been reading Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. The novel is set in the American West in the late 19th-century. The dramatic frontier landscapes and the sense of a new society being built have been a refreshing escape from the degenerate events of the week. This description, of the main character’s two year-old daughter, born in a stone cabin in an empty Idaho valley, describes the way that Caroline and I often feel about Wally:
How she came among us on our crude frontier I shall never know. It is that double rainbow she was born under. She comes from a better world than this, and she has moments of remembering it. She speaks with the fairies. Sometimes I sit and watch her playing quietly in my workroom when the other two are at their lessons, and I see pass over her sweet little face reflections of some pure life she lives within herself. She conducts conversations with invisible playmates, sings songs that she makes up herself, draws pictures with a confidence and imagination that her mother, at least thinks utterly remarkable for a three-year-old. There is no doubt which of my children will be the artist of the family. When she looks up at me and laughs it is as if someone had thrown open the windows of a stuffy house and let the clean sea air rush in. And the sea air is making her bloom.
Although I should clarify that we are, as of now, still uncertain about Wally’s merits as an artist.
Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a post called “Jay believes completely in a dad he cannot see.” It was about an experience one evening after the boys were in bed. I was sitting downstairs and Caroline was out of town on a trip. Jay called down to me from his crib: “I need my blankets on.” I realized, hearing his voice, that he had not “a single shred of doubt” that when he called to me, I would be there to hear him. The post concluded by thinking about how wonderful a thing it is to be such a reliable fixture in a child’s life.
Last night the scene in our house was much the same as a year ago. Caroline left early yesterday morning for a conference in New Orleans and by 8pm both boys were in their beds and I was downstairs reading a book. It had been quiet for awhile when Jay called down to me.
“Daddy,” he said.
“What do you need, Jay?” I answered.
“Nothing,” he said. ”I just wanted to see where you were.”
It is a sign of how he’s grown in a year, I think, that Jay doesn’t take my presence for granted the way he used to. He certainly understands more about distance than nearly two-year-old Wally does, who wailed from his crib for “Mama” even though I’d told him Mama wasn’t here tonight. Jay’s also developed real fears since last spring, of pirates and tigers, and of a mummy stenciled on the side of a Matchbox car that he threw out of his room the other night because it was scaring him. These specific worries may be off-base, but the maturing sensibility that they grow out of is true enough: A year later Jay knows there are things to be afraid of, and good reasons to hope that someone is standing guard.