Wally looks for his role

Originally published on September 26, 2015

For a long time after Leo was born, Wally went around the house on all fours. His move looked like a hop, but if you made the mistake of asking whether he was a frog, he’d snarl defiantly in reply: I’m a baby sabertooth.

His inspiration as a baby sabertooth was the cheetah, who at top-speed moves more in leaps than in strides. Wally would take long sabertooth-bounds down the hall, far faster than I could walk and he’d do a series of shorter, quicker hops to round corners. For the last nine months he’s hunted as a fierce baby sabertooth, cuddled as a baby sabertooth, taken frolicking leaps off his bed as a baby sabertooth, mewed after his showers as a baby sabertooth in order to get me or Caroline to come in and dry him off.

And on the occasions when he has not been a baby sabertooth, Wally has not been sure who he is. One night in New Hampshire this summer I heard him crying in his bed. It was past ten o’clock and I was surprised he was still awake. I went in, got him to calm down a little, and in big, wet sobs he told me the most heart-breaking thing I’ve been told as a parent: “I don’t want to be the middle brother.”

But he is the middle brother, and by light of day he seems torn about whether to play up or play down in his search for identity and affection. There is all the time as a baby sabertooth, punctuated by moments in which Wally seems ready to move on to something else. Also this summer, on the front lawn of an island house we’d rented off the coast of Freeport, Jay engaged in a series of one-on-one soccer games against the slightly older kids in the house next door. The games were riveting and a crowd of adults, beers in hand, gathered to watch. From my spot on the sidelines, cheering on Jay, I saw Wally poke his head out of the house a time or two, but thought that mostly he wasn’t interested in the spectacle.

An hour later, at dinner, with Jay sitting red-faced and punch-drunk from the exertion, Wally made a big show of asking my brother to pass him the salad, which neither he nor his brother ever really eat. He scooped a heaping spoonful onto his plate and made a big show of putting a forkful into his mouth. Then he raised his head, looked squarely at Jay, and said with feigned nonchalance, “I guess I’m the only kid eating salad.”

His aspiration to be older, maybe to outgrow his middle role, has come out in other ways, too. He doesn’t much care for watching old sports games on YouTube, the way Jay does, and when afternoon television time rolls around, he usually opts for cartoons on Netflix instead. But one day recently he told me proudly, “Today I want to watch basketball,” as though there was no way to separate being like Jay from growing up.

Another morning recently he went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. I heard some scuffling, then what sounded like the kids’ stool being deposited into the hallway. The water turned on, Wally called to me, “Look Dad, I can reach by myself.” I went in and found him teetering on the edge of the sink, one hand on his toothbrush, the other holding onto the faucet, his feet dangling in the air two feet off the ground.

That night in New Hampshire and several times since, Caroline and I have deployed some genuinely felt talking points about what it means to be the middle brother. We’ve told Wally the middle brother is a special brother who holds Jay and Leo together. We’ve told him how lucky he is that he’s the only one of the three boys who gets to be an older brother and a younger brother. Sometimes he takes these ideas to heart. Other times he seizes on them opportunistically, like when he claimed that it only makes sense that as the middle brother, he should get the coveted middle stool in the kitchen. Once, maybe to test how sincerely we’ve meant all this, he said to Caroline, “You love me best because I’m the middle brother?”

Day-by-day we watch the boys plow on, Leo on his hands and knees, Jay supremely confident in who he is, Wally intently trying to figure out his place in it all. The conversation has turned recently to Halloween and to costumes. On and off through the summer Wally had mentioned he wanted to go as the “green grinch,” as in the one who stole Christmas, who I think Wally admires for his scheming. But last week he told us he wanted to go as a sabertooth instead. “OK, we can order a baby sabertooth costume tomorrow,” Caroline said. “No, not a baby sabertooth, a grown-up sabertooth,” Wally answered, his tone indicating that we’d been missing something all along.

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