Two boys

_MG_3956Around the house we call it “two boys.”

Two boys waiting to get their shoes on.  Two boys naked beside each other on the bed.  Two boys sitting on the turtle stool brushing their teeth.

That was the scene in the bathroom tonight.  Jay sat down first then Wally edged in beside him, two skinny bums abreast.  Wally turned to Jay.  With his little index finger, he dabbed at the toothpaste in the corner of Jay’s mouth, took a dollop, and licked his finger clean.

Jay didn’t seem to mind.

Two boys becoming brothers.


A song full of exultant power

I finished “Angle of Repose” last night.  What a truly marvelous book. Beautiful, upsetting, honest, and all wrapped in a story that feels as real as water.  But the passage I reread three times before going to bed is this one.  It is of a diesel truck climbing up into the mountains, and the effort it makes is meant to describe the arc of a life.

Then I heard a diesel coming on the freeway, taking a full-tilt run at the hill.  In my mind I could see it charging up that empty highway like Malory’s Blatant Beast, its engine snorting and bellowing, its lights glaring off into dark trees and picking up the curve of white lines, a blue cone of flame riding six inches above its exhaust stack, its song full of exultant power.  I listened to it and felt the little hairs on the back of my neck, tickling me where my head met the pillow.

Then the inevitable. The song of power weakened by an almost imperceptible amount, and no sooner had that sound of effort come into it than the tone changed, went down a full third, as the driver shifted. Still powerful, still resistless, the thing came bellowing on, and then its tone dropped again, and almost immediately a third time. Something was out of it already; confidence was out of it. I could imagine the driver, a midget up in the dim cab, intent over his web of gears, three sticks of them, watching the speedometer and the steepening road and the cone of fire above his stack, and tilting his ear to the moment when the triumphant howl of his beast began to waver or shrink. Then the foot, the hand, and for a few seconds, a half minute, the confident song of power again, but lower, deeper, less excited and more determined.  Down again where the grade stiffened past Grass Valley, and then down, down, down, three different tones, and finally there it was at the dutiful bass growl that would take it all the way over the range, and even that receding, losing itself among the pines.

Moments of remembering

_MG_3813Over the last couple days, in the moments when I’ve managed to turn away from the news out of Boston, I’ve been reading Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner.  The novel is set in the American West in the late 19th-century.  The dramatic frontier landscapes and the sense of a new society being built have been a refreshing escape from the degenerate events of the week.  This description, of the main character’s two year-old daughter, born in a stone cabin in an empty Idaho valley, describes the way that Caroline and I often feel about Wally:

How she came among us on our crude frontier I shall never know.  It is that double rainbow she was born under.  She comes from a better world than this, and she has moments of remembering it.  She speaks with the fairies.  Sometimes I sit and watch her playing quietly in my workroom when the other two are at their lessons, and I see pass over her sweet little face reflections of some pure life she lives within herself.  She conducts conversations with invisible playmates, sings songs that she makes up herself, draws pictures with a confidence and imagination that her mother, at least thinks utterly remarkable for a three-year-old. There is no doubt which of my children will be the artist of the family.  When she looks up at me and laughs it is as if someone had thrown open the windows of a stuffy house and let the clean sea air rush in.  And the sea air is making her bloom.

Although I should clarify that we are, as of now, still uncertain about Wally’s merits as an artist.

A year later, Jay believes in me a little less than he used to

Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a post called “Jay believes completely in a dad he cannot see.”  It was about an experience one evening after the boys were in bed.  I was sitting downstairs and Caroline was out of town on a trip.  Jay called down to me from his crib: “I need my blankets on.”  I realized, hearing his voice, that he had not “a single shred of doubt” that when he called to me, I would be there to hear him.  The post concluded by thinking about how wonderful a thing it is to be such a reliable fixture in a child’s life.

Last night the scene in our house was much the same as a year ago. Caroline left early yesterday morning for a conference in New Orleans and by 8pm both boys were in their beds and I was downstairs reading a book.  It had been quiet for awhile when Jay called down to me.

“Daddy,” he said.

“What do you need, Jay?” I answered.

“Nothing,” he said.  “I just wanted to see where you were.”

It is a sign of how he’s grown in a year, I think, that Jay doesn’t take my presence for granted the way he used to. He certainly understands more about distance than nearly two-year-old Wally does, who wailed from his crib for “Mama” even though I’d told him Mama wasn’t here tonight.  Jay’s also developed real fears since last spring, of pirates and tigers, and of a mummy stenciled on the side of a Matchbox car that he threw out of his room the other night because it was scaring him.  These specific worries may be off-base, but the maturing sensibility that they grow out of is true enough:  A year later Jay knows there are things to be afraid of, and good reasons to hope that someone is standing guard.

The fever breaks

_MG_3918This morning Wally was kneeling in the kitchen, drawing on a piece of paper.  Jay came around the corner on his diabolical plasma car and barreled directly into Wally, pitching him forward onto his face.  Jay is a master driver with that thing and never hits anything unless he wants to.  I told Jay that he’d lost the car for the next ten minutes, and then I clenched, waiting for him to erupt into a tantrum.

The last two weeks with Jay have been the hardest stretch of parenting we’ve had yet.  Since the second-to-last day of our vacation in March (more on that soon), Jay has been quite nearly impossible.  He resists every act of direction.  He’s ready to turn into a screaming, crying mess the second he doesn’t get exactly what he wants.  Twice this past week he cried the whole way to pick up Caroline because I’d put Wally’s coat on before his.

And, most difficult at all, he’s been both extremely clingy and incredibly annoying.  Last Saturday morning he pleaded for twenty minutes to be allowed into bed with me and Caroline.  Yet, the second he was under the covers he started trying to poke Caroline in the eye before climbing on top of my head.  Finally, Caroline and I threw back the covers and got out of bed.  Jay was left behind, screaming and sobbing that his so-called snuggle time had ended prematurely.

There have been many moments like that in the last two weeks and, really, for the first time ever as a parent, I’ve found myself completely at a loss for what to do.  Jay’s demands have often been so over the top that I couldn’t possibly comply with them even if I’d wanted to- but the second I haven’t complied, he’s lost it.  In the back of my head I’ve felt sympathetic to him.  He’s clearly been going through a lot.  But more immediately, I’ve just felt exasperated and sometimes angry, too, with the way he’s been behaving.

And so this morning when I ordered him off his plasma car I expected that for the next twenty minutes our house would be filled with screams.  But instead, Jay calmly got off the car and asked how long until he could have it back.  I was stunned.  Caroline and I stared at each other.  We could barely remember the last time Jay had behaved so reasonably.

For the rest of the day, too, he’s been his old self again.  He helped Wally apply his chapstick.  He skipped with me through the grocery store, took no offense when I told him he had to put a package of brownie bites back on the shelf, and he went into quiet time an hour ago without a fight.  Even his voice is different today- it’s sweeter, calmer, softer, more in control.  The change is as dramatic as a fever breaking; it’s as if overnight some great knot loosened inside of him.  And it feels so good to have him back.

Related post: Jay falls apart, puts himself back together (June 8, 2012).