After the birth, Jay and Wally react

Originally published on December 21, 2014


Thursday morning I walked into the kitchen to a strange sight: every cabinet was flung open, every drawer was pulled out, and there in the middle of the room was Jay, waiting for my reaction to his handiwork.

It was a first-time event around here and just the kind of thing Caroline and I have been on the lookout for in the eleven days since Leo was born. Jay and Wally would have a hard time telling us directly how they feel about such a big change in their lives, though they’re furnishing plenty of signs.

Wally’s motor always runs fast, but it’s churning extra-hard lately. On Tuesday evening he spent the twenty minutes before bed hopping off of two feet and making a vibrating noise with his lips. When we finally herded him to his covers, he sat up in bed and announced, “I’m nocturnal. Nocturnal animals don’t sleep when it’s night time.”

Not every aberration has been so charming. Under clearer skies, Jay and Wally will play together in the morning for half-an-hour or more before a squabble prompts me and Caroline out of bed. For the last few days, though, they’ve had a hard time going more than a few seconds without running off the rails. Jay’s needling has a little extra needle in it, and Wally is always a hair’s breadth from screaming. This morning they went back and forth for several minutes over a small plastic flashlight, not larger than an inchworm, at which point I rolled out of bed and asked if they might consider playing in separate rooms.

Yesterday afternoon Jay and I played soccer in the backyard, as we do many days after school. He scored on his first shot, light and happy. I blocked his next kick, and he fell apart. He screamed and cried, tossed the goal angrily, kicked the ball against the fence over and over again. “We can do whatever you want, Jay,” I told him. “I want me to have a thousand and you to have zero,” he snarled. Later, we kicked the ball back and forth through dry fallen leaves. When the ball came back to him, Jay paused and said, “I want you to tell Mom that I cried.”

Caroline’s mom has been here since just before Leo’s birth. She’s heard the early morning fights, seen the sharp mood turns. “These boys are suffering,” she said recently, “and they don’t even know it.”

We’re trying to show Jay and Wally that important things about their lives haven’t changed, and that those things that have changed, have changed for the better. Caroline and Leo still don’t make it down for breakfast most mornings, but they’re there at night: Caroline reading the boys their books and singing them their songs, just like she used to, Leo taking turns on his brothers’ laps.

It was on one such evening a few days ago, that Jay finally put words to his feelings. The lights were off, the boys were in bed, and Caroline told them it was time for them to ask their last questions of the day. Usually these concern dinosaurs, or things that burn in the sun, but that night Jay had something else on his mind: “Why do you spend so much time with the baby, and not with us?”

Leo is born

Originally published on December 11, 2014

12.11.14 aWhen I think of Jay’s birth, my memories start with a bowl of frosted mini-wheats, left half-eaten on the dining table as Caroline and I rushed off to the hospital. Hours later I came back and found it sitting there, a last instance in the lives we’d left behind.

With Wally, my memories begin on our front stoop in Philadelphia. In the early evening, hours after Wally was born, I returned home and met my college roommate and Jay. He’d taken care of him while we were gone, and had bought Jay a yellow pickup truck, a present to mark his first day as a big brother. As Jay and I walked upstairs to our apartment, I felt that we were less alone than we had been at the beginning of the day.

And now, with our third son, I think my memories will begin with a scene in our kitchen: I’m standing at the sink, washing the boys’ lunch containers, while upstairs Jay and Wally watch Dinosaur Train and behind me, Caroline rolls out pizza dough, pausing every six minutes or so for an early labor contraction—her hands spread on the counter in front of her, her head down, her eyes closed, knowing she needs to have this baby in stride.

12.11.14 bThose early labor contractions progressed quickly, and a little before 1:30am, Leo was born (that’s his blog name). He was purple and wet, with dark hair slicked against his small head. Within seconds he was on Caroline’s chest, crying, and utterly wondrous.

A few years ago, I wrote a post, “The feeling you get when a baby is born.” It was about how before Jay was born, I worried whether I’d show the right kinds of emotions—would I cry the way a new dad was supposed to cry? Would the doctors and nurses see just how happy I was to greet my son? I wrote about how when the time came, Jay’s birth dwarfed those preoccupations.

This time around I might have worried that witnessing the birth of my own child had become too familiar. Halfway through the labor, a nurse came into the room and saw me leaning against a wall, eating a granola bar. “Look at Joe Cool over there,” she said. “I bet this isn’t your first baby.”

12.11.14 cThere are plenty of experiences in life that grow less exciting the more you have them (watching fireworks comes to mind). But then there are experiences that only deepen with repetition, that are so tremendous and incomprehensible, they’re hard to see the first time around. Watching people marry is like this- if you’ve been married, or have seen lots of other people get married, the significance of those vows becomes a little plainer.

The birth of a child works this way, too. Watching Leo rush into the world early Tuesday morning, I felt the warp and weave of reality shake. And when they placed him on Caroline, we looked at each other, shook our heads in disbelief, laughed, cried real, hard tears. Over the last five years we’ve watched Jay, and then Wally, grow from newborns into real people. And because of that, in those first few seconds, I think I more immediately recognized the consequence of Leo’s arrival.

Who are you? Oh my God. Thank goodness you’re here.

Wally at dusk

Originally published on October 30, 2014

10.30.14We left for soccer last evening to a thunderclap, but instead of rain, the skies opened into long streaks of late afternoon sun. Beneath that fading glow, the Falcons raced up and down the field against the Pink Ninjas, the ball disappearing into thick knots of five-year-olds before shooting out again: sideline cheers, hard collisions, a call for “subs,” the glory of a goal.

On the sidelines, Wally raced around. From my position on the field—whistle poised, timer running—I caught glimpses of him, fast by Grandpa’s side, then raising a new, discovered treasure from the earth.

After the game, a few kids continued on, chasing each other and a soccer ball around the vast plain of the old, converted airfield. Wally chased the soccer ball, too, though he never got it. Finally I caught up to him, at rest with two older kids.

“We carved our pumpkin today,” Wally said. “We gave it a silly face.”

“We’re not talking about pumpkins right now,” one of the older kids replied.

Wally chewed on that for a moment, then switched gears. “Poooopy diaper,” he crowed, hoping to gain a little social traction with his potty talk charade.

The older kids laughed. I looked at Wally, his narrow shoulders cocked in the silver light, his head thrown back in laughter, a fire roaring into the night.

Two kinds of Jay in a single day

Originally published on October 28, 2014

10.28.14 aFriday the boys were off from school, and as I sometimes do on long days at home, I retreated into chores. I changed sheets, washed dishes, swept the floors, and generally kept myself occupied to avoid having to referee squabbles between Jay and Wally. I went upstairs to our bedroom with a basket of laundry, which I dumped on our bed to fold later. Down below I heard the two of them playing War with a degree of high-energy chaos I was glad not to be a part of.

After lunch, though, I took my turn, and brought the boys with me to the grocery store. We had a long list that included ingredients for jambalaya, which we were bringing to a friend who’d recently had a baby, and for deviled eggs, our contribution to a 1950s-themed murder mystery dinner that evening.

We found a spot near the entrance to the store, and before unbuckling the boys from their seats, I turned to give them a talk. Jay recognized the look on my face and preempted me. “I know. You don’t need to tell me,” he said.

“You do know, but you also knew last week at Target, so maybe you need a reminder,” I said. Then I gave the boys their instructions: No acting wild in the grocery store, no getting out of the car cart, no banging each other, no screaming and being crazy. Just sit, drink your complementary juice box, and be quiet. They both nodded earnestly, and with that, we stepped out into the parking lot.

In the store, the boys were good to start. They stayed peacefully tucked inside their police car cart while I deliberated about the number of bananas to buy, and even endured a long conversation with the meat clerk about the best substitute for Andouille sausage (we settled on chorizo). Things frayed a little in the yogurt aisle, when both boys suddenly jumped out to lobby for their favorite flavors (raspberry for Jay, maple for Wally). But with some stern, eye-level words and a pointed finger, I reminded them how important it is to stay composed while food shopping.

That pep-talk was enough to get us to the checkout line, which is where things fell apart. While I was unloading the cart and handing off our reusable bags, Jay climbed out of his seat and stood on the front of the cart. That would have been fine, but then he stuck his foot through the mock windshield and tried to nudge his brother, who was still sitting inside. Wally squirmed out of the way and grabbed Jay’s foot. There was a lot of jostling, a fair amount of squealing. “Yes, that’s a navel orange,” I told the cashier. “No, it’s not a debit card,” I told the pinpad. Off to my right I had the sense that a swarm of monkeys was moving in on me, and I realized the best thing to do was to get out of the store as quickly as possible.

Back in the car, I was exasperated, with Jay especially. “Do you know what it means to act wild? Do you like it when I get mad at you?” I asked him. He nodded his head yes, then no. “Then why do you do it?” I said. He looked down at the floor between us and shrugged his shoulder to say that he didn’t know.

At home, I told Caroline I didn’t get why Jay, who seems capable of so much, and so mature a lot of the time, can’t hold it together for a thirty minute shopping trip. We often take turns convincing each other that an event, which seems like a big deal in the moment, really isn’t. This time it was her turn to convince me. “Eventually Jay’s going to put it all together,” she said. With that, the boys started afternoon quiet time, and I took a nap.

Some time later I woke up to find that the afternoon had moved on, and the boys were sitting at a table in the playroom making Halloween crafts with Caroline. I walked in, still groggy. Jay was using pinking shears to cut out what looked like a pumpkin from a piece of orange construction paper. He put the paper down and told me he wanted to show me what he’d done during his quiet time. He led me upstairs to our bedroom and I prepared to praise whatever it was he’d made out of Legos.

Instead, I walked into the room and found him standing before the bed, which was topped with neat piles of folded clothes. I didn’t understand what I was looking at. Caroline had come up behind me. “Jay did this,” she said. “All by himself.” Apparently it had been a surprise to her, too.

I took a closer look at the piles, and slowly began to make out Jay’s handiwork. Each individual sock had been folded in half and the socks had all been stacked on top of each other, rather than balled in pairs, and instead of creating a pile for his clothes and a pile for Wally’s clothes, which is how Caroline and I normally do it, Jay had grouped their clothes together by item: a pile of neatly folded little boy polo shirts, a pile of little boy shorts, a small stack of underwear.

I looked over at Jay, expecting to see him beaming, but he had a more reserved expression on his face. I tried to imagine the moment when he’d decided to turn his attention from his Legos to the pile of clothes. I pictured him withdrawing each item from the pile and folding it, one after another, all alone in the room, with our experience at the grocery store reverberating in his mind as he worked. Maybe he’d done this to show me he was capable of more than he’d displayed in the checkout line. Maybe though, he’d done it to prove the same thing to himself.

The twists and turns of a childhood minute

Originally published on October 20, 2014

10.20.14 aThe other night Caroline called from the kitchen: Dinner’s ready! Upstairs the boys were watching the closing credits of Dinosaur Train and tussling over a piece of paper.

“That’s mine,” Wally said, reaching for the paper as Jay danced away toward the stairs.

“Give it to him,” I told Jay, who’d already made it a few steps down the staircase. Instead of handing the paper back up, Jay gestured as though he was going to throw it over the railing, down to the hall below. Every time he feinted, Wally screamed.

“Give him the paper!” I said, loudly. Jay placed the paper between the spokes of the bannister, and left it dangling precariously over the edge of the steps, then skipped away wickedly.

“Go wash your hands,” I called after him. Meanwhile Wally had slid down the steps to where the paper dangled. He took it in his hands and then a new thought occurred to him: Maybe it would be fun to drop it off the stairs after all.

Down below, Jay, back in play, his hands still unwashed, egged Wally on. “Drop it Wally, drop it,” he urged. Wally laughed a deep and mirthful laugh and held the paper over the void. He couldn’t quite bring himself to let it go. “Do it, Wally,” Jay yelled. Wally spread his fingers and the paper fluttered free. He cackled as it floated down to the floor, then cried out when he saw the consequences. Jay, waiting below, scooped it up, and ran away, leaving Wally on the stairs, despondent again.

“That’s my paper!” I called after Jay, taking the steps down two at a time. I caught him in the dining room and wrested the paper from his grip. “Go wash your hands!”

10.20.14 bBack at the bottom of the stairs, Wally was near tears. “It’s fine,” I told him. “I’ve got the paper.” I uncrumpled it, and smoothed it across my knee. It was a piece of torn printer paper with a few stray lines written in colored pencil and the letters “W-A-L-L-Y.”

“I’ll take care of this,” I said to Wally. “You go wash your hands.” He moped toward the bathroom and joined his brother at the sink, both boys squeezed atop a narrow stool. I heard the soap dispenser clatter into the sink, followed by a burst of nonsense laughter.

“Dinner’s ready,” Caroline called again.

Later on, I thought about our trip down the stairs, and I remembered something
I think my dad had told about the coast of Maine. From Kittery to Eastport is only a couple hundred miles as the crow flies, but he said that if you took the whole Maine coast and stretched it into one straight line, smoothing out every cove and inlet, every peninsula and rocky point, it would be as long as the coast of California.

Childhood time is like that. I picture the boys walking downstairs to dinner. For me, it’s a simple trip that takes no more than 15 seconds. For them, there’s no such thing as a straight shot: They double back, catch a fancy, follow a dozen emotional twists before they make it across a room. When you’re tracing that intricate a path, no wonder a year feels like a lifetime.

Looking for the fool at the card table

Originally published on October 14, 2014
The other morning I walked downstairs, saw the boys in the playroom, and thought: uh-oh, Wally. They were sitting across a small table from each other, playing the card game War. In the first hand I saw, Wally flipped over a Queen and Jay played a Joker, the top card in our house. “I win,” Jay said, and Wally cheerfully handed over his card, happy just to have a seat at the table.

Growing up, I cheated a lot at War. My brother and sister, quite sharp now, were a step slow during a few crucial years and probably wouldn’t have said anything if I’d played five aces in a row. The easiest way to cheat was to replace high cards on the top instead of the bottom of my pile. The best way to cheat was to fabricate wars—Oh, did two nines just come up? What are the chances of that—and use the tiebreaker process to rook my brother and sister’s best cards.

So, when I saw Wally sit down at the card table with his big brother, I knew what he was in for. Yet that day, and the several times they played War together in the weeks afterward, I never saw Jay cheat. Sometimes he’d win several hands in a row and exclaim, “I’m getting good at this!” revealing a kind of myopic attention to his own perceived skills. Meanwhile, and perhaps undetected by cheery Jay, Wally was growing steadily less content to fork over his cards. Games grew volatile, and often ended in a fight, or with Wally refusing to play a card he didn’t want to lose.

This weekend, though, Jay and Wally sat down to play War again, supervised by their Grammy. The first few hands went fine and then a war hit, a big one: two Kings. Jay’s eyes went wide at the sheer improbability of it, when really they should have narrowed. He played his war cards, three down, one up, with the last one being a respectable Ten of Spades.

Across the table, however, it became quickly apparent that Wally meant to engage the fight in a different way. He peeked at his top card. Yikes, it was a Joker, the last card you want to lay down sacrificially in a war. So, rather than play it that way, Wally tucked it between his chin and his shoulder, and placed the next three cards in his pile face down. Then he removed the Joker from beneath his chin, placed it face up, looked across the table at Jay, and broke into celebration. Jay, seemingly in the same room as the rest of us, was none the wiser to this brazen treachery. He didn’t even object when, lo and behold, Wally’s marauding Joker came up again on the very next hand.

I’ve written a couple posts recently (here and here) about the tough lot of younger siblings, and I do feel for Wally, whose view is often obstructed by Jay. At the same time, we’re most exploitable at the exact moment we think we know something for certain. I don’t think it’s conceivable to Jay (or maybe me) that Wally could pull one over on him, and I suspect he may pay for that presumption more than once throughout their childhoods.

Related posts:

A tale of two Wallys

Last night at soccer practice, I realized you can’t treat a second child like a first child

Watching parents walk toward children

Originally published on October 12, 2014
A few weeks ago I was checking out at Whole Foods. The cashier was a woman, probably in her early-fifties, with neat short hair and a bright face. Jay and Wally were with me, bouncing around in the shopping cart. The sight of two little kids must have reminded her of her own son. “He makes sandwiches right over there,” she said, pointing back toward the deli. “Everybody always tell me how good they are.” I asked if her son ever makes sandwiches for her at home and she shook her head. “When he’s not at work, that’s the last thing he wants to do.”

At the time I was struck by the pride in her voice when she spoke of her son’s sandwiches, and also by the contrast of such an intimate relationship stretched across the generic landscape of a grocery store.

After we left, I didn’t think of her again at all. Days went by and I made many more trips to the grocery store, and each time I approached a check-out lane, it never occurred to me that I might see her again. Then on Thursday night I found myself standing in the bakery department, trying to decide what kind of cookies to buy for Caroline’s parents and sister, who were due in the next morning. It was past eight o’clock at night and the store was quiet. It was possible to stand still in one place and not get in anybody’s way.

And as I stood there, a woman came up on my left. We made eye contact, just for a second, but in that second I realized two things: It was the same woman I’d talked with while checking out a few weeks ago, and I knew just where she was headed. We exchanged small smiles—I don’t think she recognized me—and I watched her walk over to the sandwich station. There was a young man in his early twenties, tall and skinny in a white food service cap and matching chef’s jacket, assembling a Ruben or a roast turkey club. She leaned against the counter and talked. He kept his head down on his work. I wondered whether she visited him at every break, or here and there when time allowed, or whether she’d walked over at the end of her shift, specifically to ask whether he wanted a ride home that night.

I didn’t end up buying any cookies that evening, but afterward I thought about the expression on her face as she’d flashed past me, and why in that moment it had been so self-evident where she was going. It was an expression I’d seen before, though it took me a few nights to remember where.

Eight years ago I came home from a long trip abroad. Caroline and I landed in New York City after midnight, and the next morning I took the train north to see my dad. We spent a week together, then I took the train back down to the city, and a commuter line out into the suburbs, to Larchmont station, where my mom was going to pick me up. We’d spoken on the phone a lot and we’d emailed even more, but the nine months I’d been away was many times longer than we’d ever gone without seeing each other.

I got off the train wearing sneakers and my big traveling backpack, and I stepped down a short flight of stairs from the platform to the parking lot. I looked around and didn’t see her. Then I looked around again, and there she was, walking toward me down a long line of cars. She seemed almost to be bouncing, and several times nearly broke into a run. I remember how far behind she’d left my stepfather, who’d come with her, the forgotten way her purse swung on her arm, and the broad, breaking smile on her face as she drew nearer. It felt almost embarrassing to be the object of such emotion after having done nothing more than come home.

There is an assuredness to the way parents walk toward their children. I can recognize it now in the way my mom walked toward me, and I saw it the other night in the way that mom in Whole Foods walked toward her son. So many of the steps we take in life are laced with doubt or indifference that it’s striking to see someone walk with so little regard for anything, but where they’re going.

Related posts: Overheard: a conversation between a mom and her son