We departed Fitler Square at 7pm tonight in a good mood: Jay was riding happily along on his tricyle, Wally was asleep in his carrier, and Caroline and I were buoyed by a successful afternoon in the park. Jay had run and played and made friends with a boy named Gabriel while we’d chatted with our good friends Paul and Ceci. And in the end when we said it was time to go home, Jay boarded his trike without objection. As we walked home through the twilight, any reasonable observer would have said that our seventh-to-last night in Philadelphia was going to be reckoned a good one.
But storytellers who recount this evening will intone: The writing was on the wall. They’ll say in an ominous voice that The Toddler had awoken from his nap an hour earlier than usual, and add by way of background, “He wasn’t the kind of boy who does well when he hasn’t had enough sleep.” They’ll point out the folly of staying at the park half-an-hour past dinner time. They’ll note that the Infant Wally had slept through his afternoon snack and was beginning to stir with hunger even as his mother considered him asleep. And they’ll sigh when they describe the smiles on the two parents’ faces as they pulled up to their apartment: happy and content, the very picture of human tragedy.
The first hint of trouble came in the hallway. Caroline and I climbed the stairs to our apartment and unlocked the door, expecting that Jay was right behind us. But when we turned he was nowhere to be seen.
Caroline called back, “Jay, are you coming?”
From the bottom of the stairs Jay whined, “I wanted to do the keys.” He was silent right after that, and standing in the entrance to our apartment where we couldn’t see him, Caroline and I wondered if Jay was now climbing the stairs or if the silence was instead because he was preparing to cry and couldn’t breathe. I said to Caroline: “How could he be about to cry? What could possibly be wrong?”
But it was an open-mouth cry, of the kind that will be recounted in family lore, decades later, when The Toddler is old and will be able to say he can’t remember the last time he shed a tear.
The quiet persisted for five seconds, then ten. The father and mother stepped back into the hallway. There at the bottom of the stairs, rooted in place, was The Toddler with his mouth wide, his face a deepening shade of purple, and tears pooling in the corners of his eyes. With a gasp he let it wail, deep and long and heart-broken, a cry to obliviate the words coming from his mouth—something about how all he’d wanted in the world was to be the one to unlock the door.
Caroline and I ignored the tantrum. We’ve done this successfully before. It isn’t fun to listen to Jay scream but we knew he’d get through it. Most of the time these things burn themselves out—eventually Jay comes into the apartment sniffling a little, but otherwise acting like nothing had happened. Plus, the time he spent crumpled in a heap at the bottom of the stairs actually made it easier for us to set the table and heat up dinner (Indian leftovers).
Later people would say that the cry lasted for so long that there were children born who never knew a world without The Toddler’s wail. Finally, with dinner cooling on the table, the weary father climbed down the stairs and took the distraught Toddler in his arms. As the father carried The Toddler through the living room, The Toddler’s wailing penetrated the soft spot in the head of the Infant Wally. The Infant Wally had found an uneasy calm at the breast, but now he detached from his dinner and joined His Brother in a choral cry.
The Father carried The Toddler into the bathroom. He pried the crying boy’s fingers apart and washed them. When he was done he carried The Toddler into The Other Room and he soothed him.
Eventually Jay was calm enough that he was willing to be put in his seat. Wally was content on the bed now that Jay was finally quiet. We gave Jay a bowl of Indian food, his own spoon, and a cup of water. Jay promptly dumped his Indian food into his water and began to stir it. Usually this would get a reaction out of me, but by this point I was just glad that he was quiet. Caroline and I started to eat our dinners. It wasn’t exactly a pleasant meal but I figured at least we were going to get through it.
But in the same way that a ship remains afloat right after its hull is breached, or an animal staggers on despite a mortal wound, the parents did not see the ruin that was poised to engulf them as they ate their food.
The sky broke came when a piece of naan meant for The Toddler’s mouth fell from his fork onto the floor. The earlier turmoil, contained but never extinguished, now burst forth with a greater ferocity than ever before. The site of the coveted bread laid to waste on the dirty floor was more than The Toddler’s small mind could bear. The Toddler screamed and cried. He pointed his chin to the unjust heavens, and the noise jolted the Infant Wally who wailed, too, and would have raised his arms to the skies in anguish but that he was swaddled in a blanket.
Caroline and I had really only wanted to eat our chicken tikka before it conjealed, but Jay’s renewed tantrum made it clear that we weren’t going to be able to salvage the evening.
“So this is how it is,” the mother and father sighed, falling into a shared and reflexive resignation. “Who are we to impose our wills against the great forces of the universe?”
The mother unbuckled The Toddler from his seat and carried him off to a premature bedtime with grains of basmati rice still stuck in his hair. The wailing receded down the hallway and the father retrieved the distraught Infant Wally from the bed and rocked him and bounced him and whispered in his ear: “The boy you heard is not your real brother, and he has been taken to a place where his cries can no longer hurt you.”
Eventually the Infant Wally heard this message and was quiet. At the same time The Toddler found a peace in his crib that had eluded him in his seat.
Caroline and I returned to our plates. Quietly (so we wouldn’t wake the Infant Wally) we laughed at the absurdity of it all.