This is Henry when he was four months old. He couldn’t crawl and he couldn’t sit. He was nursing every few hours and puking every few minutes. He was smiling. Always smiling. He did that pretty frequently pretty early on, which I took to be a good sign.
My baby will be happy, I said.
And boy was I right. When he’s happy, he’s really happy. When he’s frustrated, he’s really frustrated. He exists in a perpetual state of One Extreme or The Other.
Sometimes he’ll hang around in The Middle. When he’s in The Middle you’ll know it. He’ll bring you a book and in his most civilized babble, ask you to sit still with him and read.
He likes to flip the pages on his own. Usually he turns to a picture of a cat, or a dog, or a truck. Each time he’ll identify these creatures as “lights.” Everything is a “light,” or as he likes to say it, “ite.”
My kid loves the light. Airplanes are repeatedly identified as “ites.” Dogs are ites. Squirrels are ites. The garbage truck is an ite.
Henry aches to be in the light every second of every day.
He throws vicious tantrums when I pull him inside after several HOURS of outdoor play. Sometimes these tantrums result in headbanging. My precocious toddler with the curious eyebrows, owl face and wide eyes will begin to screech like an angry monkey. He’ll throw himself on the kitchen floor and bang his head into the tiles.
By bedtime all will be fine again. I’ll scoop him out of the tub and we’ll sit for 10 minutes on a couch in his room and read. He’s especially fond of the butterfly at the end of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. He has no time for the rest of the story. He furiously turns to the final page, skips the part about eating one piece of chocolate cake, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie (my favorite part), and with a profound sense of wonder he’ll trace the wings on the butterfly.
“Ite!” He says. “Ite!”
He’s learning to blow kisses. He’s getting better at petting (not mauling) the pug. He travels our neighborhood via Little Tikes car. He opens everything with his teeth. He tap dances like Gregory Hines. He likes classic rock and spinach quiche. He brushes his teeth and has more than once taken a sip of my coffee.
He loves going on bicycle rides. I pull the bike out of the shed, he spies his little green bike seat and squeals with delight.
“Ite,” he says. “Ite!”
Then he does a Gregory Hines tap dance and ducks his head into his helmet.
He can climb onto the kitchen table. He can build a step stool out of hardcover books and erase all the messages on my office answering machine. I once handed him a screwdriver to see if he could fix his broken baby gate and he clumsily fit the tool into the head of a screw. (He inherited his fine motor skills from my father.)
Every two minutes I have the mind to write these things down. Oh yeah. I should be recording these moments; maybe even blogging about them. I do, after all, have a blog.
But as quickly as the moment occurs, it passes. Henry tips over the pug’s water, then throws my car keys into the garbage can, then runs into the bathroom, which I thought was closed and splashes in the toilet bowl. This charade comes to an end when he returns to the kitchen, where I’m mopping up the dog’s water, slips on a spot I’ve yet to dry and falls hard on his ass.
Then he wails.
Then I notice his diaper is filled with nuclear waste. So I soothe him after his fall. I carry him into his room — this wet, stinky heap of wild one-year-old — and I engage in an act of war otherwise known as a diapering. Diapering involves eight arms and such supersonic reflexes I could work in a NASCAR pit crew.
When all of this is through, when Henry is dressed and his mood is calm, when the dog’s bowl is placed high on the counter and the kitchen floor is dry again, when my car keys are fished out of the garbage can and the bathroom door is closed, when order is restored in my house, the moment is gone. Passed. Evaporated. A moment of commotion, lost within a day of commotion, lost within a week of commotion, lost within a month of commotion.
When your kids are little it’s hard to separate life from commotion. That’s why this time goes so fast. You think it’s all commotion, a blur of putting out little fires in the name of parenthood, but really it’s life.
Sometimes I close my eyes and bat these moments back into my head. I picture my son doing something ordinary, or extraordinary, or naughty or darling. I can see him as a helpless infant — a memory that’s as fresh as yesterday. I can see him shaking his curled fist. I can see his gummy, gaping mouth opening and closing like a hungry guppy. I can see him as a newborn at the birthing center, his hairy arms resting on my bare chest, his moon face and wide eyes, his eyebrows so dark and distinct, as if they belonged to a wise man with old stories under his belt.
I think about writing down these moments and then I think about how trite they might sound to other people. I’m no different than any other mother. Henry is no different than any other child. We’re doing what you’re doing, what your mother did and what her mother did.
So I slip away from my blog and devote what little time is left (when you subtract Henry) to the ebb and flow of freelance work. I tread the middle ground because that’s what adults do. But like my son, treading middle ground does not come naturally. I still occasionally bounce between extremes.
When Henry was about nine months old, I took him to our favorite park — the one you see in the photos above. It’s a secret pocket park nestled between two cobblestone streets in an old neighborhood with a slight hill. You can hardly call it a park. It has one bench and an assortment of oak trees and mature pines. There’s no playground and no restroom. I actually can’t think of any reason to frequent it other than to read a book in solitude or hang with your baby in solitude.
Every Monday for the first nine months of Henry’s life, we would walk to this park. I’d pack a lunch, a couple of toys, some board books and a blanket. We’d walk two miles to a clearing between the oaks, spread our blanket out in the thistles and relax for hours, just the two of us.
At the time I was still meeting weekly newspaper deadlines. Mondays were my cherished “off days,” so I made sure to savor every second.
On this particular day seven months ago, I was feeling especially peaceful and earth motherly. I had just nursed Henry in the company of squirrels and a fat pollinating bumble bee when in the distance I spotted what looked like dandelion wisps floating in the breeze.
I stared at the cluster of wisps as they got closer and greater in number. How exactly were they floating? The air was still.
I scanned the park for headless dandelions. There were none.
The cloud of wisps got closer; so close it got Henry’s attention.
We both stared now, bewilderment quickly turning to horror as we realized we weren’t seeing dandelion seeds, but a mass exodus of termites departing from an old oak tree. We were seeing wings, millions of wings flapping; a swarm.
I pulled Henry to my side. The swarm was headed right for our blanket. With no time to evacuate, I laid flat on my back with Henry on my chest. Within seconds our blanket was enveloped. The swarm was about to collide with another swarm, which had just risen from another oak.
They were mating.
I held my breath and waited for the bugs to flap out of sight. Henry’s eyes were bugging. I couldn’t tell if he was mesmerized or terrified. We left the park shortly thereafter and didn’t return again until this week. (One termite love fest was enough to last me a lifetime.)
This time when we retreated to our spot in the thistles Henry could walk. When he ambled over to the tree where the swarm had originated I cringed. Please don’t let it be full of termites.
He started peeling back the bark.
“Henry,” I called. “Can you please come back to the blanket?”
He acknowledged my request by grabbing a fistful of dirt and rubbing it on his face. I walked to the tree to fetch him.
“Ite,” he said, pointing to the bark. “Ite!”
“Yeah,” I said. “This is a bug tree. Let’s stay over here.”
“Ite,” he said, once again pointing to the bark.
I crouched to his level and traced his finger to a lady bug curled up in the dirt.
“Ohh,” I said, plucking the bug from the tree. “This is a lady bug.”
When he reached out to touch it, it spread its wings and flew away.
“Ite,” he said.
“Ite,” I said.