After waking up and drinking his milk this morning, Jay rushed straight into the other room and slam dunked a basketball into Wally’s* bassinet as if he’d been up all night long planning his ambush. “If Mom and Dad won’t do something about it then I will,” I imagined him thinking. Wally, thankfully, was in bed with Caroline at the time. When Jay realized his plot had failed he slumped to the carpet and began shuffling around his blocks.
Many people have asked me how Jay’s taking the arrival of his baby brother. My first answer, which is probably the most accurate one I can give, is that I don’t know: Jay is two-years-old and a bundle of tumult all his own. Even before Wally was born Jay would collapse to the floor sobbing if I took off his socks rather than let him take them off himself. So it’s hard to disentangle his pre-existing emotional craziness from whatever shock he’s experiencing from having a new child brought into our home.
Plus, Jay isn’t very good at telling us how he’s feeling. He can tell us when he’s hurt (on the short walk to school this morning he told me that his foot, shoulder, and back hurt though I’m fairly certain none had so much as an itch wrong with them) and he lets us know when he’s scared, as in, “Snuffy uh scare me,” which he said recently when watching a Sesame Street song on YouTube.
But that’s about it as far as self-awareness goes. His first inkling of a bowel movement occurs only seconds before he needs to go to the bathroom. I’d put it at fifteen years before he’ll be capable of expressing what he’s probably really been feeling since Wally came home on Monday: “I’m emotionally conflicted about my little brother’s presence in my life, and unsure of how I fit into our family now that he’s here.”
There have been some tender moments, though. On Tuesday Jay asked to hold Wally for the first time. We sat Jay on the couch and then placed Wally on his lap. Caroline chaperoned the meeting and she only had to restrain Jay twice: Once when he pinched Wally’s nose a little too hard and again when he tried to play the conga drums on Wally’s head. But besides that their first real interaction as brothers was a success. Jay bent Wally’s head up to his lips and gave him a kiss and he gave Wally gentle pats on the tummy, just as we’d taught him to do with dogs in the park. Caroline suggested that Wally might like it if Jay sang him a song; Jay responded by repeating Wally’s name over and over to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
I don’t remember how I felt when my siblings arrived but I do have strong memories of another period of family upheaval when I was young. I was nine-years-old the summer my parents divorced. As my parents divided their lives and my sister, brother and I began to shuttle between their two houses, I felt a lot of things, but what I remember most is that whatever I felt, I felt it strongly. When I felt scared it was the most scared I’d ever been. When I felt elated it was nearly to the point of mania. When I felt angry, I felt so massively angry that I could barely tell I existed anymore.
I thought about this yesterday evening when Caroline, Jay, Wally and I came home from the park. Jay had spent the last hour digging in the dirt. His hands were filthy and he tried to wriggle away when I propped him up against the sink to wash. I begged him to comply. I told him about all the fun things he could do as soon as his hands were clean. I reminded him how big boys always wash their hands. I even told him about germ theory. None of it worked. Finally, with the water running and Jay pinned between my body and the sink, I washed his hands myself. I pried apart his clenched fingers and pressed liquid soap into his palms. I scrubbed his hands with my fingers as his body went rigid and his face turned red and he screamed and screamed and screamed. By the time it was over he was so hysterical he couldn’t stand up and my heart was racing nearly as fast as his.
Maybe he reacted this way because of Wally. Maybe he didn’t. As I picked him off the bathroom floor I thought about how hard a time this probably was for him, even if he couldn’t have begun to say why.
He was still sobbing as I carried him into his bedroom. I told him to put his arms around me and to squeeze as hard as he could. I felt his thin arms press against the back of my neck. I told him to do it again, and as Jay squeezed me I felt a catharsis, too. In that moment life felt very real.
With tears drying on his face I brought Jay over to a panel of switches on the wall. Even as an infant he’d loved playing with them. Jay flipped the ceiling fan on. Then off. Then on. Then off again. The fan’s momentum kept it spinning even after he’d turned it off for good. “Fan stopping,” he said, pointing up to the ceiling.
“That’s right,” I said, “The fan is slowing down.”
He took a long, deep breath and ran the back of his hand across his wet nose. As Wally cried in the other room, Jay and I watched the blades of the ceiling fan ease slowly through the air, and before they came to a complete rest we headed back out to dinner.
*Starting today I’m going to use pseudonyms for the kids’ names: two-year-old Jay and newborn Wally.