Originally published on January 19, 2016
On the way to Virginia after Christmas we stopped for lunch at a Mexican restaurant and ordered fried ice cream for dessert. It arrived at the table as a big to-do, with whipped cream, sprinkles, and a cherry on top. Wally pounced for the cherry and because the tie goes to the middle child in our family these days, we let him have it.
Wally, who is filled with deep and peculiar passions, held his prize aloft by the stem, an inch or two from his face. He licked at the residual whipped cream and took small nibbles at the cherry and then he nibbled once too hard, so that the cherry fell from its stem, down past his lap, into the forbidding darkness below the table in our booth. Caroline told him immediately it was gone. I craned my head below the table, located the cherry, and nudged it permanently out of reach, because I knew like a seer that if Wally got his hands on it, he would eat it.
Jay and Wally each has his own way of dealing with setbacks. For Jay, the emotional fallout is largely something that has to run its course. When I take it upon myself to defeat him in our nightly playroom basketball game, no amount of prior assurance from him is enough to check his anguish when the timer beeps zero.
Wally, by contrast, prefers not to take his hits head on. The other day in the car he was listing his favorite football teams the way he has heard his older brother do, and he included the Red Sox on the list. Jay jumped in to say the Red Sox were a baseball team and Wally replied, “Oh yeah right, that’s what I meant,” which is his quick and common reply whenever Jay asserts his 24-month head start in the world.
At other times Wally appears to reimagine his preferences to match the circumstances that have been handed to him. Last night Wally and Leo took a bath together, as they do every night, and Wally came up with the idea that a plastic Easter egg filled with water contained medicine for cuts. Wally told me that the egg needed to be stored in a cup that was in Leo’s hand so I told him that he couldn’t have the cup just then. Rather than make a fight, Wally did as he often does. “Oh yeah right, I forgot, the medicine needs to be stored in a different place,” he said. Then he picked up a sand toy shaped like a star, placed the egg inside it, and whistled on his way.
Wally is no pushover and more often than not he reacts to aggression and perceived slights at full volume, especially when they occur in relation to Jay. But he has other tools in his kit, including an ability to find more than one way to be happy.
Back at the Mexican restaurant, I wondered how long it would take Wally to get over the cherry and imagined his whining and crying stretching over many miles of highway driving. Yet within minutes of the cherry disappearing, Wally sat himself straight up, looked right at me, and said, “It’s okay, I only wanted to take a few little bites.” I looked back at him and couldn’t quite tell if he believed what he was saying.