We celebrated Thanksgiving in upstate New York. For three days Jay and Wally circulated among cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and friends and enjoyed the pleasures of the rural life: barn exploration, tractor rides, digging in freshly harrowed fields. I felt like a grim character in their lives who popped up only to bring bad news: time for bed, time to brush your teeth, no you cannot have any more cookies.
Now we’re back home and both boys are sick. It’s a cold, but a bad one. The 11-hour drive home on Saturday took years off of Wally’s life, I swear. I picture him now, strapped into his car seat, crying, coughing, shrieking at times in pain, his moist face illuminated by the empty orange glow of Interstate-90. It makes me want to dive beneath the blankets on our bed and not come out for days just thinking about it.
But I was out of bed a lot last night to tend to Jay, who was awake with a hacking cough. It’s a sign of his growing maturity, I think, that he never cried or even whined through it all. Instead he just called to us over and again: help me get to sleep, I can’t stop coughing, sing me a lullaby.
And at 2am, my head resting against the railing of his crib, my hand upon his back, I did sing him a lullaby, the only one I know, Tender Shepherd in rounds.
My voice was constricted with fatigue and by a cold of my own, and the first few times I sang the song to Jay I was aware, even in the dark, with the vaporizer gurgling behind me, of just how badly I was missing each note. But then I recalled how as a child I’d thought my mother’s singing voice was the most beautiful in the world, even though I suppose it probably wasn’t, and as I sang to him I thought maybe Jay was feeling that same way about mine.
Every now and then I get a glimpse of the place I occupy in Jay’s world. It happened about a month ago while Jay and I were raking leaves together. As we worked my mind was occupied with present-tense adult kinds of thoughts: I thought about how cold it was outside, about how many leaves we had left to rake, about Caroline inside trying to make dinner with Wally grabbing at her knees, and about how every time Jay tried to scoop leaves with his little plastic shovel, he had the effect of dispersing them further about the yard.
Then in an instant—and just for an instant—my perspective shifted, and suddenly I saw that fall afternoon as I remember seeing fall afternoons when I was a very young kid, and in a moment of vertigo, I realized that I am to Jay as my father is to me in those memories. It seemed impossible that I could be so large in the expanding panorama of that little boy’s life. Impossible, and breathtaking, too.
And last night as I sang a lullaby to Jay in his crib I had the same experience. When I began to sing my mind was cluttered: I thought about how tired I was, and about how many times I needed to sing that song to Jay before I could tiptoe away, and it occurred to me that the last syllable in shepherd is “herd” as in one who herds sheep, and I thought about how my friends would have laughed to hear me sing so off-key, and I thought about how my mom had sung me that same song, and about how when I’d heard her sing there’d been nothing else in my mind but the sound of her voice.
That’s when my perspective slipped again. I realized that to Jay this moment in his crib with his dad singing to him was the clear, uncluttered leading edge of his young experience in the world. I saw myself not from inside myself, but from outside myself, as a father occupying a place in a kind of foundational memory that Jay is likely to return to for a very long time—a memory of when he was young and sick, coughing alone in his crib, and his dad walked through the door and suddenly he felt safe again.
It is a wonderful feeling to occupy such a central place in another person’s life, and to share a degree of intimacy that allows me to see the world through Jay’s eyes more clearly than I can see it through any other set of eyes besides my own. The experience is instructive, too, as a reminder that even at age 31, the world is still being created before my eyes, even if I don’t look as intently as I used to.