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September 11, 2014, Footprints

I repost this essay I wrote every September 11. I don’t see why this year should be any different…

I

Change rarely visits Bialystoker Street. Every morning, men in black hats make their way to the Bialystoker synagogue for morning prayer. About an hour later, women wearing wigs and black stockings emerge from their apartments, pushing baby carriages with two or three other children in tow. The little boys wear yarmulkes. The girls have patent leather shoes.

So it surprised me to see that the bench outside my old apartment building was no longer there. It was a standard-issue bench with solid-concrete sides and wood slats painted parks-department green. The whole row of them was gone. Poof. Vanished. The only thing that remained was a couple of indentations on the sidewalk.

II

My father complained over dinner about how my mother had this terrible habit of using the word “she” twice in one sentence, when she was referring to two different people.

“I’m constantly having to ask her, ‘She, who?’ my father said, and then turning to my mother, he said, ‘You can’t say “she” twice in one sentence and think I’ll know who you mean.’”

“Eddie, will you stop criticizing me? Enough,” my mother said, throwing her fork down on the table.

It might have been any old day. But it wasn’t. My father was dying of esophageal cancer. As a last ditch effort, he’d signed up for a clinical trial at Memorial Sloan Kettering that had a 66-percent success rate. But we were told that morning that he was among the unlucky 34 percent. His cancer was spreading, and he was out of the program. My father was going back to his home in Florida to die.

“Let’s get some munchies,” he said as we walked back to my parents’ hotel. Despite carrying around coffee cakes, pretzels and little cans of apple sauce to nibble on in between meals, my father’s 185-pound frame was down to 128 pounds.

“Everything’s closed,” I said.

We were sitting in a restaurant on 36th Street and Sixth Avenue, so close to the Empire State Building that if it fell, it would hit us. Things like that mattered that day. It was September 11, 2001. There was an eerie quiet in Midtown. Sixth Avenue was nearly empty but for a lone man in a sweatshirt walking down the street with a video camera. At the corner of 35th Street, a homeless man and a man in a suit stood next to each other, watching the news on a television set that was resting on top of a garbage pail. Police tape blocked pedestrians from walking on 34th Street as armed men in uniform walked bomb-sniffing dogs back and forth in front of the Empire State Building.

I dropped my parents off at their hotel and walked to Pennsylvania Station, hoping a store along the arcade would be open. It was 8 p.m. and hundreds of commuters were standing near the board that listed train departures. They were stranded when the entrances and exits to Manhattan were sealed.

My parents were among the stranded. They had come into Manhattan from Long Island for chemotherapy and were on a subway heading to the hospital when the second plane hit. Subway service was suspended, and my parents were forced out of the train at Times Square. They walked all the way to the hospital on the East Side only to find chemotherapy was canceled, but my father was given his CAT scan results. The tumors had not shrunk. They had grown. Dejected, my parents tried to hail a taxi back to Penn Station but every cab was occupied. They eventually bribed a taxi driver, who already had a passenger inside, while he was sitting at a traffic light. They made their way back to Penn Station only to find that the train service to Long Island was suspended, so they orbited the station, trying hotel after hotel until they finally found a vacancy.

I found a store that was open and bought a bag of sugar-coated nuts, M&Ms, potato chips and two toothbrushes. When I returned to their hotel room, my parents were sitting up in bed, watching CNN. They invited me to spend the night. The three of us squeezed into one bed with me sandwiched between them.

“What are you scratching?” my mother asked.

“I think my cat gave me fleas,” I said.

“Go take a shower,” my father said abruptly.

I stood in the shower and thought about a banker I once interviewed for a story in World Trade Center 7 and how that building was no longer there. I thought about my siblings and wondered if any of them ever had fleas. I wondered if I would ever feel my father’s approval or if that void was so deep that even a thousand loving gestures wouldn’t plug the hole.

When I got out of the shower, I climbed back into bed with my parents. I tossed and turned for about an hour on account of my father’s snoring.

“He’s been doing that since he got sick,” my mother whispered. It was something else about him I didn’t know.

The following day, my parents were able to get back to Long Island, and for the next several days, they sat on a couch in my aunt’s house watching CNN. In the footage, the towers are up. The towers fall down. The puff of smoke. The towers are up. The towers fall down. The puff of smoke. The news showed young people lighting candles in Union Square. Mothers and fathers and husbands and wives were wandering the streets, holding up photos of their loved ones in front of the television cameras or taping their pictures to utility poles. At the time, it seemed appropriate. A week later, it was clear an entire city had been in denial.

My parents returned to Florida at the end of September. I followed them down there about a week later. For two months, I researched cures for cancer. I joined a message board for people with esophageal cancer. I investigated the various treatments, proven and unproven. I bought a used book called Cancer Therapy: The Independent Consumer’s Guide to Non-Toxic Treatment & Prevention. I ignored thoughts about why the person who bought the book no longer needed it. I couldn’t convince my father to get acupuncture. He didn’t like needles. But I talked him into seeing a Chinese medicine doctor in a nearby strip mall. The doctor’s face was black and white.

“What was wrong with his skin?” my father asked as we left the doctor’s office.

“I don’t know. Something with his pigmentation.”

“If he can’t fix his own skin …”

“Dad. I know,” I said.

I went to Whole Foods Market almost every day to buy whole wheat pasta, organic vegetables and wheat grass. Blueberries were filled with antioxidants. A cup of raspberries a day contained enough elegiac acid to inhibit the growth of cancer cells. I made my father a concoction of cottage cheese, banana and flax seed oil every morning because a doctor in Germany had fed it to people who were near-death, and it had brought them back to life. I put a prohibition on sugar because I’d read that cancer loves sugar. I went through my parents’ cupboards and pulled out every box of soup, every bag of candy, every can of sauce that contained sugar and put them in boxes that I stacked in the corner of the dining room. One night, I heard my father rummaging through the boxes.

“What are you doing back there?” I said.

A small body emerged from the darkness holding a little can of fruit cocktail.

“I just wanted to take it upstairs with me,” he said.

He looked at me like he was in trouble.

“Oh, just take it,” I said.

For much of the fall, my parents would go to chemotherapy during the day while I’d stay at home, cooking meals from a Whole Foods cookbook. The woman who wrote the book had cured her own leukemia with a macrobiotic diet and now had a cooking show on PBS. One afternoon, I decorated the dining room with pumpkins and squash, and twig wreaths covered with leaves from outside. I strung orange lights across the doorway and lit about a dozen candles. I wanted to watch my father’s eyes light up as he walked in. I wanted to save his life so he would love me.

My father had a piece of paper taped to the side of his desk listing the things he would do after his recovery. Go to Bristol, Tennessee, for a NASCAR race. Join the Boca Pointe board of trustees. Check out the new BMW M3. Visit the kids up North, starting with Caren and Ellen on Long Island, then Richie in Massachusetts and finally Steven in Rochester. He called it his victory tour. Nothing was ever crossed off the list. In July, the doctors had given him six months to live. He died in five.

III

I stood on Bialystoker Street and watched two boys play basketball through the chain-link fence. The block was so far east in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that the roadway leading to the Williamsburg Bridge at that point was already aloft. I stood under the road, looking up at the cars going across the bridge. A subway train went by. A jogger bobbed up and down in the caged-in pedestrian pathway that ran along the outside of the span. As my eyes watched him move across the bridge, everything else seemed to fall away, the screeching of the subway, the honking of the car horns. Time seemed to go in slow motion, like when your eyes follow a single snowflake or raindrop as it falls to the ground.

I walked across the street and sat down on the curb opposite where the bench used to be. I thought of a night back in March of 2001, a month after my father’s cancer was first diagnosed. I had called him on my cell phone from 14th Street, and the two of us talked as I walked the 17 blocks to my apartment on the Lower East Side. As we chatted away, it began to snow. It was a crisp winter night, and by the time I reached my apartment, the ground was white. I sat down on the bench.footprintssnow1

“Now that you have cancer, do you find it harder or easier to live in the moment?” I asked.

I wondered if having a finite amount of time would make him want to live each day more fully, or if he was so obsessed with the prospect of dying that it was impossible to think of anything else.

He paused, and said, “It’s harder.”

But then he told me a story about how he had been dancing at a wedding with my mother the weekend before, and for a single moment as they stood on the dance floor, he felt truly content. He was in the moment at that moment, and it felt close to bliss, he said.

As I sat on the curb and looked at the spot where the bench had been, the image of that night in March came back to me. It was the night my father walked me home, and we danced as the snow fell around us.

We’re toilet training my three-year-old son, Eddie, and this morning, I took a new potty out for a test drive. Our third, to be exact. We figure if the child is not taking to the toilet, there must be something wrong with the potty.

“This one was Grayson’s potty! And Vincent made pee pee in it when he was here,” I said, as if knowing all of his friends had urinated in it would make it more enticing.

This potty seat is too hard.

This potty seat is too hard.

My son sat on the new potty, and as I read him a book about Big Bird and the Snuffleupagus going camping, he kept lifting his butt off the seat to readjust. I noticed he had a red circle on his buttocks.

“You sure you don’t want to use your old potty?” I asked.

“No. This is good,” he says, as he lifts himself up briefly and sits down again.

After we read for a few minutes, I put him in the bath and asked him if he wanted his usual banana and chocolate shake, or if he wanted pancakes.

“Pancakes. With blueberries and chocolate chips,” he said.

“Okay. Then I’m going to run downstairs just to get them started,” I said.

I knew that by offering pancakes, we might be late for school. When we’re late, it means the side door, which is closer to his classroom, has already been shut and you have to use the front door, which is on the other side of the building. I also had a yoga class starting at 9:15 a.m., and I didn’t want to miss too much of it. I ran downstairs to throw the pancake ingredients together and noticed my husband had put all of the ingredients for a shake into the blender: the frozen banana, strawberries, chocolate syrup, Nutella, peanut butter, and the Flintstone’s vitamin we sneak into the mix. All I had to do was press the button. I paused, knowing my son would be disappointed but also knowing it would save me a lot of time. I then pressed the button, and the shake was made. As I walked back upstairs, I thought about how I was going to break the news to Eddie about the shake. As I walked back into the bathroom, I decided to tell him the truth.

Daddy did it.

Daddy did it.

“I was fully prepared to make you the pancakes you wanted, but daddy had already made your shake,” I said. And in case he didn’t hear it, I said it again. “Daddy did it.”

“Nooooooo! I don’t want a shake!” he screeched. “I don’t like shake!”

The truth is, the child has every right to hate shakes. He’s had one almost every morning for the last year. It’s no wonder he doesn’t like them anymore. I was actually surprised he’d lasted this long. But I didn’t want to throw the shake out. It seemed a waste. And I didn’t want to drink it. I had yoga. And of course I knew that giving him a shake, rather than pancakes, made it more likely we’d be on time to school.

But I looked at my son, who was now weeping. A lot of parents at that point might think their child was being manipulative. Me, I saw my child in pain, and I just wanted to make it stop. I tried to assuage him, saying something I’d read in a parenting book: “I know you must feel disappointed.” My empathy did nothing. Nor did telling him it would be the last shake he’d ever have to drink. I knew lecturing him on the ills of waste and the virtues of recycling and conscious consumption wouldn’t have any affect. It barely has an effect on adults. Instead, I said, “Fine. I’ll make you pancakes.”

I got Eddie dressed, though I left off his diaper and pants as part of our new potty training regimen. Breakfast is prime pooping time, and in the potty training book I’m reading, they recommend going diaper free as often as you can. The theory, I guess, is that the child is not likely to poop or pee on the floor – much – so they’ll begin to notice that sensation of having to go to the bathroom – and may even ask you to take them there. We need him to notice that sensation because our current stage of potty training isn’t fruitful: we put Eddie on the potty, to practice, when he doesn’t have to go, and when he does have to go, he’s nowhere near the potty. And he does nothing to get himself closer to one. And why should he? With a diaper on, he can poop anywhere.

I escorted Eddie downstairs in just his shirt, while I carried his diaper, a pair of pants, and his shoes and socks. As we headed to the kitchen to have breakfast, he ran ahead while I stopped in the living room to put something into my knapsack. Eddie suddenly came out of the kitchen and said, “Mommy, I have a birthday present for you.” For a split second, I thought, “There’s no way he just peed on the floor and is calling it a birthday present. No way.” I walked into the kitchen, and there on the floor was a huge puddle of pee.

“Really?” I said. “Really?”

I'll fix your Christmas tree up there, and then I'll bring it back here.

I’ll fix your Christmas tree up there, and then I’ll bring it back here.

My first thought was, “I don’t have time for this! We’re already late.” Because you don’t just clean up pee with a paper towel, not pee and not in a kitchen. You use a scrubbing brush and soap because you at least want to give yourself the illusion that you could eat off your kitchen floor. This is going to be time-consuming, not what I needed when I’m already running late and volunteered to make pancakes. I must have had that look that the Grinch had when little Cindy Lou Who came out of her room and said, “But why, Santee Claus, why are you taking our Christmas tree?” and the Grinch rubbed his stubbly little chin and said, “There’s a light on this tree that won’t light on one side. So I’m taking it home to my workshop, my dear. I’ll fix it up there. Then I’ll bring it back here.” I looked up at my son, and before I could stop myself, I said, “Well, that’s it. No time to make pancakes now.”

I knew what I was doing: I was using my son’s minor indiscretion to get out of doing something I didn’t want to do anyway. Now that’s manipulation. And I told my son that next time he has to pee, blah blah potty, blah blah lesson, blah blah consequences to his actions, blah blah his fault. I felt like a heel but continued to seize the opportunity. He wailed. “I want pancakes! I don’t want shake!” As I’m cleaning up his urine, he’s just standing there, his face red, tears streaming down his cheeks, and all I keep thinking is I just wish the morning was longer and yoga was later, so I could just give this kid what he wants, and he’ll be happy, and I won’t have to see him cry. But there was a part of me that thought, he needs to take a lesson here, and I can’t give in to him every time he cries, because then he’ll know all he has to do is cry, and I’ll give him what he wants – which is basically pretty accurate.

And then he said one of the worst things he could have said: “I want my daddy.” I don’t know how I looked at him, but it must have been with deep seated sadness because he added, “…and my mommy.” I hugged him and kept telling him it will be the last shake he ever has to drink, and that he just shouldn’t pee on the floor, and that I’ll make him pancakes when he comes home from school.

Huh-yah!

Huh-yah!

He wound up drinking part of the shake, and I took him to school, but when we got to his classroom, I could see his eyes still looked puffy and red from crying. When Eddie ran off to get the Ironman costume out of the costume box, I whispered to his teacher, “Eddie may be a little sensitive this morning. We had an incident with the potty training, and he’s still a little raw.”

And with that, I burst into tears. I told her everything that happened, and what I did, and how I felt bad, and she told me to buy him plastic underwear and pick my battles.

“A lot of the boys in here aren’t toilet trained yet,” she said.

I stood there in his classroom for a while, helping my son get into his Ironman costume and then standing next to him as one of his classmates, dressed at Thor, came over and leapt into the air, and thrusting a fist out in front of him, shouted, “Huh-yah! Huh-yah!” I hoped that by standing there, my son might forgive me for all the indiscretions I’d already made and was likely to make in the future.

“I don’t want to skate,” my three-year old son said, kicking the tip of his skate blade against the rubber flooring.

“Why? I thought you liked skating?” I said.

“It’s boring,” my son said, boldly.

Skating is boring

Skating is boring

I had an English teacher in high school, a short little man with an effeminate lisp, who, when students would proclaim something was boring, would say, “Bored people are boring.’ At the time, I thought he was being wise, even helpful, saying that if you were bored, it had something to do with what was inside you and that you could change it. In retrospect, I think he was just annoyed with the arrogance of youth, and he was just calling us “boring” out of spite.

I wasn’t going to call my son boring, but I was getting annoyed. I’d enrolled him in ice skating lessons two months ago after we’d gone skating with friends, and he’d enjoyed it. I wanted him to be involved in some activity, any activity, not so he could go to the Olympics or an intramural hockey team but so he could have a feeling of achievement. He has knock knees and doesn’t run very fast, and I see it frustrates him. I wanted to show him that sometimes people aren’t good at one thing but they’re good at another. I was giving him something to be good at.

It took some cajoling and repetition, but I convinced Eddie to rejoin his class on the ice. He made his way over to them holding on to the wall. He hadn’t needed to hold the wall since early on in his lessons, and it surprised me. I wondered if he was saying he was bored because he was afraid. Maybe that is how we learn a skill — not linearly but in a series of loops, where just when someone is about to move forward two steps, they go back one-and-a-half steps out of fear.

The skating teacher tried to pry Eddie off the wall, but he held his grip. She then backed away and held her hands out, asking him to skate toward her. He was reluctant at first but slowly let go of the wall and began marching in her direction, slowly, arms out like an airplane, knees bent, just as he’d been taught. She backed up a bit, and he moved toward her again, but he then fell on his butt. Bam! He looked over toward me.

"I'm just watching!"

“I’m just watching!”

“Everybody falls,” I said.

The teacher helped him up, but I knew he wasn’t happy about it. He began skating toward me. He was done.

The class only had two children in it, and Eddie was one of them. The other was a two-and-a-half year old named Zachery. As Eddie skated away from the class, Zachery stood on the ice in a big black helmet, his skates bowing out to the sides, yelling, “Eh-dee! Eh-dee! Eh-dee!” I thought, if anything is going to get my son to rejoin his class, it’s this kid. He really, really wanted Eddie to come back. But no chance. Eddie turned around and walked away on his skates, leaving Zachery screaming his name across the ice for a solid five minutes while my son stood at the edge of the rink, kicking his skate blade against the wall, and I stood in the opening where he would get out.

“Stay on the ice until the lesson is over. I don’t want you to come off yet,” I said.

“But I don’t like ice skating. I want to go home,” he said.

“You’re not coming off the ice until your lesson is over,” I said. “When your cousin, Cade, wants to skate with you, you’re not going to be able to skate. When Uncle Steven wants to skate with you, you’re not going to be able to. Is that what you want?”

I must sound like such an asshole, I thought. One of the other mothers who had been standing next to me, watching her own child skate in another class, turned and walked away. There’s a fine line between scoffing and giving someone privacy.

A really stubborn piece of lineoleum

A really stubborn piece of lineoleum

As Eddie continued to stand at the entrance to the ice, I turned around and walked away, thinking maybe if he couldn’t see me, he might go over and rejoin his class.

The instructor was not his regular teacher. She did not seem to have anything invested in the lesson – nor did she know my son and how in every other class he skated fine. I wished she would skate over and get my son, or at least look in our direction, but I think she was happy to just be teaching one little kid rather than two, who were at different levels anyway.

I inched a little farther away from the rink, near the benches where we put on my son’s skates and out of his field of vision. I was still hoping he would go back to his class, but he just stood there. He knew I was still in the vicinity, even if he couldn’t see me. I decided to take it a step further. I walked right in front of him and said, “Go back to your class. It’s over in five minutes. Go on. Go,” and I walked out the door that leads into the hallway.

I stood outside the doorway to the rink for several minutes. Through a window in the door, I could see through to the ice. I could see my son’s helmet and his two hands on the glass barrier that surrounded the rink as he just stood there. It was one of those parenting moments where I had no idea, whatsoever, what I was doing and whether it was the right – or a very wrong – approach. It was potentially a pivotal moment in my son’s life that will either have helped him through some block or created one for which he’ll seek therapy. Regardless, I’d already started something, and if I was going to move forward in the direction I’d chosen, it didn’t help to just stand there staring at him through the glass. Either I was committed to this silly exercise or I wasn’t. I turned my back to the ice and started to watch two rink employees trying to lift sheets of linoleum tile with a pry bar so that they could replace them with the more traditional rubber tiles that fit together like puzzle pieces. The two men had gotten halfway across the floor but were stuck on one particular tile. They hit the pry bar several times with a hammer, to wedge it further under the tile, but every time they would then try to peel the tile upward and off the floor, it wouldn’t budge.

“This one is never, ever going to come up,” said the younger of the two men, clearly frustrated.

I turned around and walked back into the rink. My son was still standing at the entrance to the ice.

“Go out there,” I said, pointing to his class. “Go on.”

“I’m just watching,” he said and turned around and started to walk on his skates slowly toward the group. As he got closer to them, I could see the teacher turn around and talk to him. I then heard my son’s voice across the ice. “I’m just watching.” As the instructor tried to engage him in the lesson, he yelled, “I’m just watching!”

He stood in the middle of the ice for a few minutes and then headed back toward me. Small as it was, he’d made an effort. If I pushed him anymore, I thought I might wind up doing some long term damage. It would certainly make it harder to bring him back for his lesson next week.

As we left the rink, I saw that the two workmen were finally able to pry off the stubborn piece of linoleum and were now halfway done getting off the old floor. I wondered if maybe the learning process isn’t like loops but rather like clearing a clog in a plumbing pipe. Some will see a block and quit while others will keep slamming into it, like a battering ram, until they break through. I hope my son turns out to be the latter. Because like Oedipus, you can’t change fate. I’d sent my son to skating lessons to give him a feeling of achievement, and inadvertently, I’d fostered his sense of failure.

Every morning as I lie in bed and hear my three-year-old son begin to rustle in his crib, I vow that today, I will get down on my hands and knees and play with him. Soon, he’ll be going to school, making friends and playing soccer and video games, and at that point, he won’t want to play with me. And then I’ll miss him and feel regret. So when he says, “Mommy, will you play with me?” I vow to say, “Yes,” and grab one of his trucks or Thomas the Tank Engine and drive it around his ringed track saying “Chuggah, chuggah, choo choo. I’m a useful engine!”

The spaceship we don't fly

The spaceship we don’t fly

And yet every afternoon, as my son drives his cars on the floor right next to me or runs his trains around the track, I not only fail to make good on my vow, I’m barely in the room. Instead, I keep checking my email, thinking about stories I want to pitch, essays I want to write and sometimes taking notes for my parenting blog on raising a toddler — except I spend more time writing about raising him than actually raising him.

“Mommy, who are you talking to?” my son says, as I whisper into my tape recorder to remind myself how when he had his hands covering his eyes yesterday at the playground, I thought he was crying when it turns out he was only playing hide-and-seek.

“I’m, um, talking to myself. I’m trying to remind myself of the funny thing you just did,” I’ll say.

The trucks we don't drive

The trucks we don’t drive

I realize this is bizarre, given that he doesn’t understand what a tape recorder is, what a memory is, and why his mommy no longer has one.

I know I should savor this time with my son, like a peppermint, but I can’t help myself. If I’ve experienced something noteworthy, I want to write about it. And so I walk that tightrope all writers must walk: to live in the moment in order to experience life or to come out of the moment in order to write about it. So when my son does something funny or interesting or smart, my default reflex is to reach for my pen instead of my son.

Sometimes I can’t write it down fast enough, so I scribble on my hand, the back of coupons, inside book jackets – sometimes even library books – or I’ll grab my iPhone and type a note or record a phrase. But when it’s time to turn these experiences, notes and recordings into prose, I fall asleep, and all those pearls of wisdom just fade away like penning a great poem and then leaving it out in the rain. And then the next day comes, when I hear my son rustling, I vow to play with him, and then spend half the day taking notes on what it’s like to half play with him, and the cycle begins anew.

I’m not just distracted from playing with him because I’m a writer. I’m distracted because I’m struggling with the fact that I’m no longer working full time. I had my son at 47 so I’ve spent the last three decades building a career as a journalist, but since I had him, I’ve cut my workload and my paycheck by a third – not to mention the fact that his needs and moods and demands and incessant chatter has destroyed my ability to focus. Stories take five times longer to write, naptime dictates when I can schedule interviews. Worse, I now have severe mommy-brain and can no longer hold a thought for more than a minute. The instant my son interrupts me, which happens all day long, my focus runs off the track like a Thomas train.

My husband’s job, however, has changed little. Except for coming home early one night a week so I can go to yoga, his work hours and job title remain the same, though his office wall is now covered with photos of our son.

The crafts we don't do.

The crafts we don’t do

There’s a lot of talk about this social dynamic: couple has child, man keeps career, woman watches hers unravel, at least until the child goes to school. First, there were books and articles about how women can have it all: motherhood and a career. Then everyone admitted women really can’t have it all. And there are cries of sexism and how something has to change. I agree it’s sexist, but at the same time, I’m a beneficiary. I’m glad it’s acceptable for me to put half my career on hold while I spend time with my son in his formative years. My husband could have said he wanted to stay home while I continued to work full time, but he didn’t, and it’s not just because he earns twice what I do and his workplace is less flexible. It’s because underneath it all, despite our liberal beliefs and cosmopolitan sensibilities, like old wallpaper you might find underneath plaster, we still believed boys go to work and girls stay home. And I feel lucky for that. I get to be with my son in these delicious but fleeting formative years. If I could only stop working long enough to enjoy it.

This morning, when I went into my son’s room, I said, “I want to play with you.” My son looked surprised but broke out into a big wide smile and hugged me. His response warmed me so deeply, I thought, “This is it. This is what it’s all about. It’s not about awards or accolades or money. It’s about this. Loving and being loved. Wanting and being wanted.” The experience was so moving, I grabbed a notebook to jot it all down.

February 8, 2014 The Circus

My three-year old son, Eddie, has had a love affair with super heroes for more than a year now. Batman and Superman top the list. Whenever anyone asked him what he wanted for Christmas, he’d say, “BatmanZoopaman,” as if it were one word. The fact that he meant any kind of doll, car, game, shirt, sticker or book related to BatmanZoopaman was implicit.caren's camera jan 21 2014 596

So it didn’t surprise me that when I took him to a small circus at a local high school gymnasium, he looked right past the stage and the red, yellow and blue curtains, didn’t even see the tightropes strung overhead or the huge stage lights indicating something important was about to happen, and ran right to the row of concession stands and shrieked, “Batman!”

“We haven’t even sat down yet,” I said, lugging a knapsack on my back and a food bag and diaper bag over each shoulder.

“I want Batman, Mommy. Mommy, I want Batman,” my son kept saying.

I wanted to first find the couple we were supposed to meet there. They had a daughter, Meara, who was just a little older than Eddie. But more, I wanted to find a seat so I could put down my coat and my gear. But I knew there was no point. Either I was going to get Batman immediately, or I was going to suffer an endless stream of “I want, I want” until the item of his desire was in his hands. I walked over to the nearest concession stand and bought an inflatable Batman. I also bought my son a popcorn, even though he didn’t ask for it.

We walked over to the bleachers and quickly found our friends. Eddie and I sat down on a bench near them, but before long, he and Meara were running on the gym floor, playing in a valley created by a gap in the bleachers. Eddie was waving his Batman around, pretending he was flying, while Meara was swinging around a glow-in-the-dark sword.

Soon the gym lights went out, the stage lights went on, and the show began. There was a family that rode around on bicycles and unicycles, followed by a contortionist, a girl who could keep 20 hula hoops aloft as she wiggled her chest and hips, and a man covered in brown tubing that moved back and forth across the stage like a slinky.

As I watched the acts, I would glance over at my son, who seemed more interested in the glow-in-the-dark sword his friend, Meara, was holding. Just then, the lights went out and all the children who had glow-in-the-dark swords began waving them.

“Mommy, I want a sword,” Eddie said.

“I already bought you a Batman,” I said. “You can’t have both.”

“But I want a sword,” he said.

“Listen, you could have had a sword or a Batman, and you wanted Batman,” I said.

“I want a sword, Mommy. I don’t want Batman,” he said.

“You don’t want Batman?”

“I want a sword,” he said.

“You’re telling me you don’t want the Batman anymore?” I asked.

“I don’t want Batman. I want a sword,” he said.

I knew there would be no peace until I gave him what he wanted.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“I want a sword, Mommy,” he said.

I grabbed the Batman and walked back to the same concession stand from which I’d bought the Batman and, doll in hand, sheepishly asked the woman if she would exchange it for a sword. I thought I would have to explain why I had chosen so hastily and that I was sorry and wouldn’t do it again, but she snatched the doll from my hand and replaced it with a glow stick, as if she’d done it before. I thought I might get some change, given that the Batman was $10 and clearly a much more sophisticated toy, but she didn’t give me any, making me think, “Of course she was happy to switch the items. She made out on the deal.” I walked back to my seat with the $10 glow stick.

My son’s eyes lit up. He grabbed it from my hand.caren's camera jan 21 2014 598

“Thank you?” I said.

“Thank you, Mommy.”

He began brandishing it and play fighting with Meara, and I knew I had made the right choice.

The gymnasium lights came back on, and there was a lengthy intermission, where some of the circus celebrities came out and members of the audience could have photos taken with them. Meara had her photo taken with two women who were scantily clad and what clothing they did have on was covered in feathers, making them seem more fitting for an act in Vegas than a small-town circus. Soon, the lights went out and the second act began.

About halfway through, a young boy walked by our row of bleachers carrying a Batman doll. My son turned to me and said, “I want Batman.”

“Are you kidding me?” I asked.

“Mommy, I want Batman,” he says, and leans in toward me and gives me a hug.

“Sorry, dude, you got a sword now,” I said.

“But I want Batman,” he said.

“Then you chose unwisely,” I said.

I knew he didn’t know what I meant, but he seemed to take it in for a moment. He then responded, “I want Batman.”

“Nope,” I said.

“Mommy,” he said. “May I please have a Batman?” he says, using the phraseology I’ve been trying to get him to say. He was pulling out all the stops.

“Sorry,” I said.

He began to cry.

“Oh. My. God,” I said.

I imagined going back to the woman at the concession stand and asking her if she would give me the Batman back and her laughing at me. I then imagined a bird’s eye view of myself, where my son is pulling me by the nose first one way, and then the other, and then back again. I simply could not give in. This was not a behavior I wanted to reinforce.

“No!” I said.

It only made him cry harder. Now his nose was starting to run.

I turned to my friends who were seated next to us.

“Okay, reality check. What would you do?” I asked them.

“Um, I would get him the Batman,” the husband said quietly, so my son couldn’t hear. I turned to his wife. She nodded her head in agreement.

“Dammit,” I said. Oddly, it was actually what I wanted to hear. I hated to see my son cry, and I wanted to give him what he wanted, not because it would make him stop crying but because it would make him happy, if only for a moment.

I walked back to the woman at the concession and asked if I could have the Batman back. She made the exchange without saying a word.

As I walked back to our seats, I could see my son’s eyes light up, and I knew I had made the right decision. So he chose unwisely, I thought. I’ve made plenty of bad decisions. I couldn’t help but fear I was opening up some door that would now be hard to close, that I’d shown him some sign of weakness that he could now exploit. But he was smiling now, and that made me smile.

As we watched the remainder of the circus, my son held the Batman doll on his lap like it was a child. When the lights came on, he turned the doll around to face us. The two of us sat for a moment, staring at the doll. It was a funny looking Batman, with a flat face and squinty eyes.

My son looked up at me and said, “I’m afraid of Batman.”

I pretended not to hear him.

I knew her as “the lady who let her kid play in the middle of the street,” until our annual block party, when I learned her name was Summer, she was a single mom with three kids, and she is probably a better parent than I’ll ever be.

Summer let her three-year-old son, Devin, climb their tree like a monkey. He’d sway back and forth from a hand-made wooden swing and then leap to the ground like Tarzan, sometimes landing in the road. She would let him go to a skateboard park and ride a half-pipe. She would let him take his boogie board so far out into the ocean that she was vexed as to where to stand in case he needed her: way out in the water, or way up on the beach. In either place, she was going to be really far away from him at some point in his ride. And that’s all before he turned four.

“I never told him, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ And when strangers tell me he’s going to get hurt, I say, ‘No, he’s not. He can handle it,’ “ Summer said. She then sings her son’s praises with enormous pride, for all the world to hear. “You know that kid rode a wave all the way in from 30 or 40 feet out in the ocean, at three years old?”

One day, Devin climbed so high up the tree in front of their house that he found himself just outside a second-floor balcony. He leapt to the balcony and walked into his mom’s room. Summer says it alarmed her but never forbade him from doing it.

“I knew that was never going to work. I saw it in his eyes. So I said, ‘Oh my god, Spiderman! Don’t ever do that when I’m not here! I want to be able to see you do it,” she said.

Devin is now 10, and the only emergency room visits he’s ever had were in the last few months: one for gas and another for an eye infection. And he has a strange quality you don’t often see in kids these days: joy.

Summer wasn’t just liberal with Devin. She let all her children splash around in dirty puddles, throw mud pies and play in paint. She’ll take her 15-year old daughter, Raven, and a friend to Atlantic City for her 16th birthday because she found a nice hotel with an indoor pool. When she booked it, she asked about interesting activities for 16-year olds and the clerk said, “You do know this is an adult playground, right?”

“I know that,” she told me, “but it’s a night away, somewhere different, in a hotel with a pool. How is that not fun for a kid?”

My husband and I play it a little loose on the parenting rules as well, though on a much smaller scale: We’ve always let our son, Eddie, who’s nearly three, eat with an adult fork and play with scissors. We leave knives out on the island in our kitchen, sometimes within his reach. And I let him stand on a chair near the stove so he can watch me cook. We’ve never covered the electrical outlets with plastic or cleared the room of small objects for fear that he’ll swallow them. And when he started saying, “Dammit!” and “What the heck,” we let it slide, figuring nothing makes a kid want to do something more than if you tell him not to. We view bad behavior like a bad smell, feeling it’s better to leave the front and back doors open and let the odors pass right through.

Our approach is a bit too loose for some. We had a regular weekly play date last year with a child a little older than Eddie, and every time I picked my son up from their house, he’d say he’d been given a time out. His infractions were minor – throwing blocks, or failing to share — but it got so that going to this friend’s house became synonymous with going for a time out. After a while, I found that if I asked him not to do something, he’d sit himself down on the floor near the front door, and when I’d say, “What are you doing?” He’d say, “I’m in a time out.”

“Time-out mom” is a bit controlling for my taste. Hearing “No” and “Don’t” all the time might start to make you feel like you can’t do anything…right. Sure, there are times when we should say “No,” and they’re obvious: “Don’t chew razor blades.” “Don’t play with daddy’s gun.” But the pendulum seems to have swung toward “No,” and “Don’t do that,” with time-outs becoming epidemic. In any given day, I can find a thousand reasons to say, “Don’t do that,” from telling my child to stop playing with the jam packets in a restaurant to telling my husband not to use the last piece of toilet paper without replacing the roll. But I don’t. I pick my battles. Because to dole out “No’s” like playing cards can’t be good for the soul.

Imagine a world in which all we heard was “Yes.” It would feel like a salve. Summer’s house is the closest I’ve seen, and it’s given Devin the freedom to grow and explore and be who he is rather than who she is. Sure, time-out mom’s child is well-behaved, but he’s going to grow up to be, well, time-out mom. Me, I have so many fears, of heights, of waves, of going downhill too far too fast, that my child would be better off not turning out like me. They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I say if you hold on too tightly, the apple won’t fall at all.

My son and I actually saw the inside of Summer’s house yesterday. We went over there so Eddie could play with her kids. Devin answered the door holding a rabbit. It was a strange looking rabbit, with a mane like a lion.

“What’s that?” Eddie asked, beaming.

“It’s a bunny,” Devin said.

Summer’s house looked like a scene from Alice in Wonderland. The door was turquoise, the living room walls were color-washed gold, and the kitchen was periwinkle. The dining room chairs were covered in a big, bright floral pattern. The couch was covered in a sheet made of a zebra pattern, and there was a pillow the color of peacocks. Everything in the house seemed vibrant and alive, making other houses seem black and white in comparison.

We stayed for about an hour as Eddie played with toys, drank hot chocolate with a big puffy marshmallow, and sat on the couch with Devin watching television. My son cried when we left.

Yesterday morning, Eddie and I were doing our new routine: he’s not yet potty trained, and I don’t want to push him for fear he’ll dig in his heels, so he just sits on the potty, like it’s a chair, and we read a book. The book I plucked up was “Little Bird, Biddle Bird,” which starts out, “Little bird, Biddle bird, time for your snack. Mommy is busy and hasn’t come back. Little bird, Biddle bird, mother has flown. Is it time you were finding some food on your own?” For the next 10 pages, the bird ponders what to eat. He eventually finds a worm, struggles to pull it out of the ground but finally does, and he is then full and happy. When his mother returns, she commends him for his ingenuity and then sings his praises with enormous pride, for all the world to hear.

“Read it again, Mommy,” Eddie said.

And I did.

As I drove my son home from school the other day, I said, “Guess who’s going to be at our house when we get there?”

“Who?” he asked.

“Gary,” I said, referring to a dear friend of ours whom my son likes a lot.nativity 4

“But where’s the baby Jesus?”

“The baby who?” I asked.

“The baby Jesus. Where is he?”

Being a Jew, I’m not an expert on the whereabouts of the baby Jesus. We lost track of him somewhere between the crucifixion and resurrection.

“Um, the manger?” I said.

There actually is a manger not far from our house. We live near a little park that the local fire department decorates every Christmas with colored lights, a red sleigh and a big white star that hangs over a Nativity scene. It’s your run-of-the-mill creche, replete with Mary, Joseph, a baby Jesus, some wise men, a couple of sheep and a donkey.

I wasn’t shocked my son was inquiring about the baby Jesus’ whereabouts. We send him to daycare in a church. While I’d rather he be in a Jewish-run daycare, there isn’t one near my house. I actually like the daycare he attends. He learns good, solid values like sharing and getting along with others. It’s also two blocks from my house. I’ve learned to accept the fact that along with the pumpkins, candy corn and pilgrims they paint at school, they’re also painting pictures of Noah’s Ark, the tree of knowledge and the creation.

But I still wince when he talks about God and Jesus. Jews were persecuted for so long, many, like myself, have developed a bit of an ‘us and them’ view of the world. Jews like chicken fat and kneidelach, for instance, while Christians eat deviled eggs and brown bread out of a can.

“Jews don’t wear canary yellow,” I once told my husband, after returning from a trip to Nantucket.

But if I’m going to be standing on one side of this great divide, I want my son next to me, not on the other side of the chasm. So it’s hard when he comes home from school saying or doing things that are overtly Christian, like when he came home a few months ago with a big cross covered in purple paint, and his name, ”EDDIE,” emblazoned across the front of it in purple glitter. “That’s it. They’ve got ‘im,” I thought, feeling like Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. While I usually pin all of the art work he brings home from school onto a wall in my kitchen, the cross remained on the passenger seat of my car for two weeks, until my neighbor shamed me into bringing it inside.

I bribed him on Chanukah with lots of presents.

I bribed him on Chanukah with lots of presents.

“That’s a part of him, too, you know,” she said.

And it is. Whether we sent Eddie to daycare in a church or not, he’s only half Jewish. My husband, Bruce, is Christian and so by default, half of Eddie is Christian – not because of any agreement I reached with my husband about how we would raise our child but because intentionally or not, parents impart to their children what they, themselves, learned as kids, and kids absorb it, the way someone standing near a fire will start to smell like smoke.

When Eddie began daycare at the church, he wasn’t yet two. I took it for granted that he wouldn’t take the program’s religious content on board, sort of like walking a blind child past an ice cream store without worrying that they’re going to scream for a cone. But this year, he’s nearly three and can hear what they’re saying. I know this because he regurgitates it at home.

Some nights before dinner, he says, “Thank you, God, for this good meal, and thank you for our lunch.”

And lately, he’s been singing “Happy birthday, Baby Jesus, Happy Birthday to you.” After they lit the Christmas tree in our town, he yelled out, “Je-sus!” And the other day, when I asked him, “Who’s your favorite super hero now?” he said, “Mary and Joseph.”

“Mary and Joseph?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“How about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? What about the Maccabees? Are they your heroes, too?” I asked.

 “They’re soldiers,” he said.

 “Yeah, the Maccabees are soldiers. That’s pretty heroic,” I said.

 “They don’t have capes,” he said.

 “Well, Mary and Joseph don’t have capes, either,” I muttered.

 The other day, my son and I were walking through the park by our house and stopped by the Nativity scene.

“Where are the bad guys?” my son said, pointing to the crèche.

“Bad guys? I don’t know that there are any in there,” I said.

 “That guy’s the bad guy,” my son said, pointing to one of the three kings.

 “Which one?” I asked.

 “The red one,” my son said.

 “The one with the red coat?” I asked.

 “Yeah.”

 “He’s a bad guy?”

 “Yeah,” he said.

He was a sheep lamb doggie.

He was a sheep lamb doggie.

“Well, you’re probably right. You see that box he has in his hand?” I asked. I paused for a moment and then uttered, “He stole that box. Those two in the manger, there, they were talking to him, and as soon as they turned around, he grabbed that gold box that was lying on the ground in front of them, and he stuck it under his coat.”

I couldn’t help myself. This Jesus thing has been growing slowly and steadily in our house over the last few months like an inflating balloon. I needed to let some of the air out before he turned into a full-fledged Christian.

It’s hard to compete with Christianity, particularly at Christmas time. For Jews, it’s like going to a carnival and watching all your friends go on the rides. I tried to make Chanukah enticing, making a big deal out of lighting the candles, showing my son how to play dreidel – a game that needs high-stakes wagers to make it interesting – and giving him gifts on almost every night. But no matter how many Batmen I bought him, he still came home singing about the baby Jesus.

It’s no mystery why. My son is in his daycare’s Nativity play, and they’ve been practicing their songs almost daily since before Thanksgiving. It would probably bother me more if the whole thing weren’t so damned cute. He sings, “No room at the inn,” with his little index finger wagging, like he’s saying, “No.” He sings, “We wish you a Merry Christmas,” and then after one verse shouts, “Cha, cha, cha, cha!” and throws his hands in the air – because in his play, that’s when they shout, “Joy to the World!”

But it’s the way my son says “Baby Jesus,” that keeps me from wincing. Eddie has a slight lisp that makes “Baby Jesus” sound like ‘Baby Jethuth.” It sounds so cute, I smile every time he says it. It reminds me of Linus and his soliloquy in the movie, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” where he tells everyone the true meaning of Christmas but in a voice that’s so nasal, he surely must have a back drip or deviated septum. I once lived in London and used to ride the subway at night without fear because even the most menacing characters had that perky little English accent and looked like at any moment, they could burst into a verse of “Consider Yourself,” from “Oliver.”

On the morning of Eddie’s Nativity play, my husband and I took seats along the center aisle. As the play started, the children began to file down the aisle toward the stage, starting with the youngest class. Throughout the room, when a parent would spot their child, they’d shout out their name, wave wildly and take photos. Christians and their Nativity plays, I thought.nativity 2

After the youngest class went by, I began to see faces I recognized from my Eddie’s class: his friend Lana, dressed as a leopard, his friend, John, dressed as a cow. And then I spotted my son. He was wearing a pelt of fur that looked like a headband, but it had two little flaps of fur coming down the sides to simulate ears. There was another piece of fur draped around his shoulders like a cape. As soon as I saw him, my heart leaped up. Soon, I was shouting his name, waving my hands wildly and taking photos, just like all the other parents, and for one beautiful moment, the chasm between us disappeared.

 

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