It’s Sunday afternoon, and everyone in the house except me has been grappling with some sort of dual-evacuation stomach bug. Mom is laid out in the living room in her green recliner, looking like someone in an Edvard Munch painting.
She’s nursing Jack. He’s a harder one to diagnose since, as an exclusively breastfed baby, his number two resembles number one. But Mom reports that he barfed that morning, so we’re keeping an eye on him.
Ryan, almost certainly Patient Zero in this household pandemic, is of course by now asymptomatic. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but it seems to me that if the kid is going to get everyone sick, he could at least have the decency to get sick himself.
Anyway, even in the full flower of health one of the wonderful things I do for my wonderful wife on weekends is get her wonderful 5-year old the hell out of the house.
With her immobilized and looking hospice-ready, it’s doubly imperative. Especially since I know that in the space of time it will take to get Ryan ready and out the door, tectonic plates will have shifted, galaxies will have formed and died, and several species will likely have gone extinct.
In fairness to the Woog, in this respect he’s not unique among small children. Parents have access to a shared store of universal truths. Among them: at least once a day, babies will refuse to poop until just after you’ve changed their diaper; teenagers frequently resemble sociopathic creeps; and the time preschoolers take to get ready for something is measured in millennia.
“All right, Woogie, we’re going scootering. Let’s put on some outdoor pants.”
“But I don’t wanna go scootering. I wanna stay inside. In here.”
“No one gives a crap what you want, Woogie. I’ve already written two blog posts about that. Now put on your outdoor pants or I’ll frog-march you outside in your pajamas.”
Of course, I didn’t actually say that.
“We’re going to get some fresh air,” I actually say. “And exercise. It’s important to get fresh air and exercise.”
I’ve come to realize that when I’m suppressing my parenting id, the reservoir of dad cliches I draw from is remarkably shallow.
“I wanna get exercise in here,” Ryan says.
“I’ll get your pants.”
I won’t belabor the interval, since it would be even more tedious to write than to read. When we finally get outside, I announce that I have a special surprise.
“We’re gonna go to the old park.” I say it like we’re having pizza for breakfast.
“The old park?” Ryan asks. “Oh.”
He walks past me, opens the car door, and climbs into his car seat without further comment.
This reaction is disappointing, but hey: I’m a parent, he’s my child. Par, meet course.
The old park is about a mile from where we currently live. It’s a block and a half from the “old house,” a three-bedroom colonial we rented for a year when we first moved up here from Florida.
Ryan and I used to go out on scootering adventures everyday back then. These were voyages of discovery, it seems in retrospect, wondrous and pure. Back before he became a sullen pre-teen in training and I became a grizzled old fart of a dad.
As I start the car, I say, “Heyyyy. Maybe we can go past the old house.” For six months after we moved, every time we were in the vicinity of the old house, Ryan had insisted that we drive past it.
Now he ignores me. “I wanna listen to something,” he says. “Can I pick a song right now?”
The trail at the old park is mostly clear of snow, but there are a few patches left from the recent nor’easter. Needless to say, Ryan’s scooter isn’t equipped.
“Just pick it up and walk around the snow, Woogie.”
“No, I don’t wanna do that,” he says, laboriously pushing the scooter through a 20 foot-long stretch of slush and snow.
I walk to the end of the slush patch and wait. A minute later, he’s a little over halfway through, grunting and groaning.
“You want some help?” I ask.
“No, I just, I just … I’m doing this.”
As I watch him inch forward through the patch, I think about the immense aggravation I used to experience at his constant dawdling on these outings. How he’d stop to inspect bark, talk to ladybugs, collect berries and rocks and put them in his pockets.
“Ohhh, look, Dada! What that’s called?”
“What? It’s a tree.”
“No, what kind of a tree that’s called?”
“I don’t know, Woogie.”
“That tree has pink flowers.”
“Yeah. It does. Come on.”
Why was I in such a hurry? Where the hell was I going? What was so goddamned important that I couldn’t spend a minute to answer this child’s question? To tell him a story?
Gotta make lunch, gotta get him home for his nap, gotta get him home for dinner. Mommy’s got something on the stove, what’s our ETA? Taxes. Investment allocation, asset blends. IRAs, 401K, 529s, ETFs, REITs, IRR. Working on second draft of the endless novel. Will Frank get the girl? Who is the girl? Gotta patch the foundation. Have to go out for a run before it’s dark. Moving, packing, find a storage unit. House hunting. Comps, PITI, DTI. Still building Ryan that big boy bed. Man, I wish I had a drill press right now.
“RYAN. Let’s go.”
Now we have all the time in the world. In fact, the object is to keep him out of the house for as long as possible. The cold wind feels good. We’re alone in the park. We’ve all been excessively housebound recently, and for a moment I almost wish the park trail would extend to infinity.
Once upon a time, another source of overwhelming irritation for me was Ryan’s regular practice of stopping on his scooter to back-up and imitate a forklift — beeping sound and all. He called this performance a “tricky level,” and for about a year — when he was three and a half to four and a half years old — he did tricky levels everywhere we went.
We couldn’t exit the park at the south end without him stopping to do a tricky level at “the branch library” — his name for a street sign located near the park entrance.
“Ryan, no. You already did five tricky levels. It’s time to leave.”
“But I just wanna do one more at the branch library.”
“I’m counting to three …”
Now, as we exit the park at the south end he passes the street sign like it’s invisible.
“Woogie!” I call out. “Don’t you wanna do a tricky level at the branch library?”
He doesn’t reply. He’s around the corner and scootering fast down the sidewalk into the old neighborhood. I jog after him and catch up when he stops at the three-way intersection down the street from the south end.
“Woogie, didn’t you hear me?”
“I asked if you wanna do a tricky level back at the branch library.”
He looks down and absently stubs at the back wheel of his scooter with his toe. “I wanna, I just wanna go to the car.”
“The car? You wanna go home?”
“But don’t you remember? The playground is open.”
“I, I, I just wanna leave.”
I stand up straight, put my hands on my hips, and survey our surroundings like I’m trying to figure out how to get us out of a fix.
“Well, we just got here, Woogie. We can’t leave right after we got here.”
He looks off into the distance.
“Look, we’ll just scooter around the block past the old house and then go past the playground on the way to the car. If you still want to leave, we can leave.”
I bend down. “Okay?”
He looks down and nods.
We cross the street and continue up the sidewalk. Ryan scooters past all of the old landmarks that used to require us to stop in order to pay homage to their continued existence. Past the wraparound fence with the no soliciting sign, past the Christmas House, past the bush with the strawberry lights. He blows by all of them without breaking stride, their meaning totally overwritten in his memory.
He almost scooters past the old house. We’re on the other side of the street. We stop and I say something incredibly profound.
“Well, there it is.”
Ryan amplifies my wisdom. “That’s the old house where we used to live.”
“Yup. Do you remember anything from the old house?”
He thinks about it. “I remember the bumblebees used to live in that tree.” He points to the overgrown bush next to the garage.
“Ohh,” I say. “I remember that too. Do you remember anything else?”
He thinks for a moment. “I remember the bumblebees that used to live in that bush.” He points to the smaller, less overgrown bush in front of the house.
“Yeah, I remember that too,” I tell him.
“What else you remember?” he asks me.
I gaze at the old house. I remember hot summer evenings when the sun loitered behind the trees and I dragged the sprinkler into the front yard and turned on the spigot. Mommy sat in her outdoor recliner and we watched you run back and forth laughing through the wheels of water.
I remember raking the leaves in the front yard as you laid on the ground and called out, “Cover me, Dada!” You giggled as the rake swept wave after wave across the lawn, until the only parts of you that were visible under the mountain of foliage were your deep red bangs and the way your smile got brighter in the twilight.
I remember the night you discovered fireflies.
Your mother held out a slender hand and said, “Like this. Gently.” A firefly silently fluttered onto her finger, glowed, and then fluttered away.
I watched you as you followed the intermittent pulse of light trailing across the yard, and I recognized that in that moment you’d seen everything in the world there is to see.
“Dada? What you remember?”
I turn to Ryan and smile. “I remember a lot of stuff, Woogie. A lot of good stuff with you in it.”
The playground is empty, and the Woog lets me hear about it.
“There’s no one at the playground,” he says. “You said there were kids there.”
“Uh, well, there were. I thought there were.”
This is true. When we drove past, I could have sworn I saw a handful of kids climbing around the playground equipment. I get out my phone to enter the following note in my To Do list: “Google sleep deprivation + brain damage.” I immediately forget why I have my phone out.
“Do you want to leave?” I ask him.
“No. We can stay for a little bit.”
I take off his helmet and we enter the playground. Most of the ground is still covered in a thick crust of crunchy snow, which makes getting around a little challenging.
He goes down a couple of the slides, and I sit on a bench at the far end. He sits on the edge of one of the slides and looks around. He seems content, but I’m struck by the lack of exuberance compared with previous visits. Getting him out of here used to require dynamite.
He comes over to the bench, climbs up, and leans back against me. I put my arm around him.
“We haven’t been here in a while, Woogie.”
“We used to come here every day. Do you remember this place?”
“Uh-huh,” he says, nodding. “I remember the old park.”
He points out the bathroom, and the water fountain by the tennis courts where a handful of bees used to congregate. Older kids thought it was fun to jam up the fountain drain with mulch and sticks, causing the basin to overflow. Their hijinks created a handy drinking puddle for the bees.
“Yeah, you didn’t like those bees,” I affirm. I usually had to lead him around the puddle in order to drink from the fountain.
“Bees’ll sting you.”
“If you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone.”
“Yeah, and if you get too close to the bees they’ll sting you with their stinger.”
I nod. Ryan has an ambivalent interest in bees: on the one hand, he’s very curious about them — their hives, especially, and their production of honey and beeswax. I gave him a block of beeswax I sometimes use on my shop tools, and he still carries it around the house, periodically showing it to me and Jack.
On the other hand, he has an almost morbid preoccupation with being stung by bees, even though to my knowledge it’s never happened.
“Only if they feel threatened,” I reaffirm for the hundredth time. “Just don’t get too close to them, and they won’t bother you.” As usual, this salves his concern. We sit and listen to the wind.
Ryan points at the tennis courts. “And over there is where I pooped in my pants, and we had to go home.”
“What?” I tilt my head down to look at him. “What’re you talking about?”
He describes what happened, and the incident comes back to me. He was three years old, and he’d just started potty training. His mother and I had chewed over what to do about potty training, since this was the one and only area in which I had no appetite to be a hard-ass and he appeared to have no interest in using a potty.
Not expecting anything to come of it, we explained to him that he couldn’t go to school full-time unless he started using the potty instead of a diaper. He immediately began self-training.
Hope everything’s that easy, his mother said.
You just jinxed us, I replied.
But for the most part, it was that easy. Mishaps like the pants-pooping tennis court incident were rare. On that day, he’d insisted on heading to the playground commando-style, just like the big boys. Got a little over his skis, as it turned out.
“And because I pooped in my pants, we had to leave the playground and go home,” he says.
His tone is a little self-incriminating. It seems to me that he’s being a little hard on the three year old Woog.
“You just had an accident, Woogie,” I say with a shrug. “So we had to go home and change your pants. But we came back after you had clean pants on.”
“We came back?” He apparently doesn’t remember that part.
“Of course. It was just an accident. Mommy and I were very impressed by how hard you tried to use the potty like a big boy, and that time you just forgot. Everyone has accidents every now and then.”
“You don’t have accidents,” he says.
I see my mistake. To tie the tennis court accident to the larger litany of mistakes that happen to the best of us, I’m using the term ‘accident’ too broadly. Ryan’s still focused on his specific accident.
“Well, not anymore, Woogie, but when I was three, I’m sure I had some accidents. Mommy and I are very proud of you for how hard you worked at using the potty.”
That mollifies him, or he’s lost interest in the topic, or he doesn’t want to sit any longer on the rock-hard bench at the playground with no one in it. We get up and head back to the car.
As I start the car, Ryan asks me how old he was when he saw the bees at the old house.
“Was I four, or five?”
“Hmm. You were four.”
“You’re right, Dada. I was four.”
I back the car up, put it in drive, and head out. I get a text. It’s mommy. She needs me to come home and put something on the stove. What’s our ETA?
“I said you’re right, Dada.”
“Thanks, Woogie. Alert the media. Just think, you’ll never be four again.”
“I don’t like four,” Ryan says.
“You don’t?” We pull up at a stop sign and I turn around and grin at the Woog. “You don’t miss being four?”
“Nooo,” Ryan says cheerfully. “That’s silly. I don’t miss four.”
I shrug and drive on. “Okay. It’s a free country.”
“Do you miss four?” Ryan asks me.
I didn’t think I did. But I do. I definitely do miss four.