Last night I stepped out of the shower, grabbed my towel, and heard a voice: “Daddy, what are you doing?” It was Jay, calling to me from his crib across the hall, wide awake long after we’d read him his books, rubbed his back, and told him it was time to go to sleep.
On days when Jay takes a long nap, or his motor just wont stop running, it’s not uncommon for him to lie awake in his crib for an hour or more. He spends some of that time lying quietly on his stomach with his hands beneath his body and his head tucked into his usual corner of the crib. He sings, too, sweet riffs on familiar songs: “Down came the rain and washed the spider….let’s go play the leaves outside.”
But mostly he talks. As I walk out of his room after saying goodnight, he tells me, “Daddy, take a nap.” He says it with the cadence of a towel snapping—“Daddy, taaaaake a-NAP”—that Caroline and I try to recreate in our off-hours when, against odds, we find we miss the sound of his voice.
He monitors our activity in other ways, too. On Monday nights when I open the front door to take out the trash he’ll hear the jangle of the chain lock and yell down, “Daddy, don’t go outside.” When he hears the kettle filling he calls out, “You making tea Mama?” “Whatchoo watching,” he asked me the other night when apparently I hadn’t turned down the volume on The Daily Show far enough.
“Nothing,” I replied. “It’s time to go to bed.”
“Oh,” Jay said, and fell silent.
Jay’s nighttime calling reminds me of the “The Waltons,” the 1970s television show about a big family trying to make it through life in Depression-era Virginia. There was a period growing up where my family watched it every weekday night after dinner. My mom would sit in the same corner of the couch and crochet, while my brother, sister and I vied for the best remaining seats—the recliner, or room to stretch out on the couch beside her.
Every episode of “The Waltons” ended the same way, with a wide exterior shot of the family’s white farmhouse and the off-screen voices of Ma and Pa Walton and their seven kids calling out goodnight to each other. “Goodnight Mary Ellen, Goodnight Jim Bob, Goodnight John Boy,” and on and on. Even as a ten-year-old I knew the whole thing was a little too sweet, but I went in for it anyway. I found it comforting that despite the hardship and turmoil of the times, the Walton kids could count on the most important parts of their lives being in the same place every night.
I imagine Jay might feel the same way as he narrates the evening from his crib- that he knows how the land lies around him. At least that’s how I hope he feels, because if there’s just one thing I could give Jay it would be this: a childhood that is consistent and secure, that gives him a fixed point to work from when he’s ready to explore the less certain parts of life.
And I think he’s developing that. When he hears the sounds of the shower turning on and off, of a towel being pulled from a hook, of his brother crying downstairs, he doesn’t just know what these sounds are—he’s learning what they mean. The sound of the kettle filling doesn’t just prompt the idea of tea: it fills Jay, maybe, with the image of his mother standing at the kitchen sink, and it allows him to know the distance between her and him, up the stairs, around the corner, past his pile of cars, across his woven rug.
But as I stepped out of the shower last night and heard Jay’s voice, I realized something else, too. Just as the sound of my feet walking down the hall gives Jay a sense of where he is, the sound of his voice calling from his crib gives the same thing back to me.