If Hugs are Medicine

1.

rage

“Mommy, can you buy me a new toy today?” my son Smoke asks from the backseat. He’s finished a long day of kindergarten, finished the popcorn that I gave him in a plastic cup, and now he’s at a loss.

I’m at a loss too. He’s been asking me this question every day for weeks and I just can’t get the answer right. He’s been prone to fits of rage lately, and the word “no” and all its variations are the trigger. I try to let him down gently. “That’s not part of my plan this afternoon.”

It’s approaching five o’clock, and the roads are crowded. I’m nearing the onramp for the freeway, getting ready to pick up Stump, Smoke’s little brother. The daycare center is open until six, but I feel better if I pick him up by five.

“I want to get a toy at Target!” Smoke insists.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” I tell him, “but I’m not going to Target today.”

He must have understood I meant it, because the next thing I know, a hard object glances off my head and lands below my seat. It’s Smoke’s plastic cup—the one that held popcorn moments ago. He’s thrown it to spite me, and now he is red-faced and crying. I’m thirty feet from the freeway and the onramp is crowded, but I fumble for my hazards and pull to the side. In my own mind, my actions match the drama of the situation. This will show him, I think. My head smarts. My heart is pounding. “We’ll get back on the road when you can promise me we’re safe,” I say. I’m trying to sound calm, but the tension in my voice betrays me.

Smoke is unimpressed. There’s nothing more for him to throw, so he reaches for his brother’s empty car seat and rocks it. His look is pure defiance. Since all of my strategies are failing, I yell. “What are you doing? WHAT are you doing? Why do you want to hurt me?”

Over the course of the month since these rages began, Smoke has taught me that this is not the way to calm him. Reacting to his rage with my own just stokes the fire.

“You’re the one who’s being mean to me!”

I find my pseudo-calm voice again. “I’m not being mean. I picked you up from school, and I gave you a snack. Now I’m driving and you threw a cup at me, and that’s dangerous, so I’m mad.”

He’s quiet now, and so I wait for a break in traffic and get back on the freeway. “Why do you do those things Smoke?”

His cry becomes less aggressive, more private. He shakes his head and wipes a tear. “I don’t know,” he answers. All of a sudden it seems we forgive each other.

2.

peace

It’s a Saturday afternoon in September and the day has warmed to eighty degrees. It’s like summer, but with a softer light. We’re at a gathering in a friend’s backyard, with a view of her horses, her chickens, her tomatoes exploding off the vine. I’ve found a bench in the back corner of the yard, away from things, where both of my sons can wander, can throw balls and swing rackets without knocking over someone’s beer. When I sit on the bench and Smoke joins me, I don’t expect to stay there long. I’m not foolish. Stump is twenty months old and so parties, for me, mainly mean chasing him around on damage patrol.

But today, by some stroke of luck, Stump follows Mommy Kellie back into the thick of the party, and he stays with her. Smoke spreads across the bench and lays his head in my lap. I run my fingers through his hair and pick at a spot of dried out yogurt—Stump had launched it at him earlier today. Smoke looks straight ahead now at the lawn. I take in his brown eyes and every freckle on his face. I am surprised by how content he is to be with me this way.

“Did you know,” I begin, “that a few days after your birthday school will be closed for an extra day?” He doesn’t answer, but I know he’s listening and so I continue. “And do you remember what my birthday present to you is going to be?”

“The Forbidden Forest Lego set?” he asks.

“No, it’s not a toy.”

“The zipline park.” He remembers.

“Well if it’s a nice day we’ll go, just you and me, no little brother.”

As he continues to lie in my lap, I think about the last eight months, the second year of his brother’s life. For the first year, I felt a little bad for my second child because his infancy didn’t get the same undivided attention that Smoke’s did. I didn’t photograph every moment, didn’t respond immediately to every cry. But in this second year, it’s Smoke who’s wound up with the short end of the stick. If Stump is awake, I have no hands free to sit and draw, or make a puzzle, or do any of the activities Smoke may request of me. And if Stump is napping, I am busy catching up on personal and household tasks. For the most part, Smoke must fend for himself. I’ve wondered lately if the rages are a symptom of his utter jealousy, his displacement. And I wonder now if this moment together might be some kind of salve or antidote. I find myself getting caught in the hope that I’ve fixed it, that beginning right now there will be no more rages. But of course that’s not how medicine works. If it’s a medicine that cures, we will require multiple doses. For a time, these two things might be true at once: a) my son is prone to violent tantrums, b) my son requires my undivided affection.

Smoke raises his head just a little. “Let’s talk more about special days,” he whispers.

 

The First Days of Kindergarten: Like an Overturned Bathtub

Yesterday, the season changed to fall. We’ve had a long, dry summer, but suddenly the rain clouds have rolled in, the wind has picked up, and the sunlight—when it breaks through—is that pale yellow light that whispers “almost gone.” Last night, as I began the process of bedtimes, cold air blew through the open window. I closed it, and dug out the comforter that we had retired from the bed for July and August.

Our house is in disarray. On Monday, Smoke, Stump, and I returned from the east coast, and I still haven’t unpacked. We were gone for nearly two weeks, and Kellie used the time to remodel the bathroom; the floor underneath it had been rotting for years. But she hasn’t finished. We have a toilet, but no sink, no washer dryer, and the bathtub is upside down in our living room.

I’m beginning to realize that chaos is a choice we keep on making rather than something that is constantly happening to us.

For instance: about a month ago, Smoke got a packet from his kindergarten teacher in the mail. It contained homework. We looked at the various pages at the kitchen table. Within an hour, several of the pages were spotted with pizza grease. I worry about what this says about us.

So last night, the night before the first day of kindergarten, the night of the cold wind and fading light, I brought the kids home freshly bathed. I told Smoke that he could choose a show to watch while I put Stump to sleep. He chose Caillou.

Caillou. The bald toddler who interested Smoke for about a month when he was three and hasn’t interested him since. Caillou was quickly replaced by Dinosaur Train, and then Ninjago and Spider-Man and Chima, and there was no looking back. Until now. On the night before kindergarten, my son chooses Caillou without any trace of irony. He asked me to read him the episodes, and he remembered each one like he had watched them only last week, and finally he settled on “Caillou Tells the Truth.”

After Caillou and books he fell asleep within minutes, without protest, holding his stuffed fox. This is not how our days have been.

sleep

 Our days have been full of contention. At least once every day, Smoke decides that any given limit I’ve set is proof that I am out to get him. A look crosses his face and he begins to taunt me. He’s silly at first, calling me a poop-butt or a stink-bunny, but if I react he comes after me. He’ll belt me in the gut, or kick me from behind. This is all very alarming, and the two things that keep me from running to the nearest child therapist are a) I seem to be the only recipient of these rages and b) in some weird way, he seems to have control over them. He has yet to actually hurt me, and it always seems like there’s a calmer, kinder Smoke only one layer underneath looking on in wonder.

Still, I’ve been struggling to explain his behavior to myself in any kind of satisfying way. I think perhaps that summer has bored him, or that he’s trying on his independence, or that he’s jealous of the constant attention his little brother gets, or that he’s anxious about the big changes coming his way.

This morning Smoke rose early, and I got up to find him snuggled into Kellie’s arms for the minutes before she had to leave for work.

Our morning began well, until I asked him to get dressed five times over the course of twenty minutes. He was jumping from the bathtub to the couch and could not be interrupted. His brother, for once, was eating quietly in his high chair. “I don’t know what to do with you,” I told him. “We need to go, and you’re not getting dressed.”

“You’re so mean!” he said. The look flashed across his face.

“How am I being mean?” I asked.

He stood on top of the bathtub and furrowed his brow. “I woke up excited this morning, and then you came along and hurt my feelings.”

I sat down on the couch and pulled him into me. I know that feeling so well—that feeling of bright expectation, interrupted by conflict. I knew also that I wasn’t mean, but was in that moment the container for his ambivalence, the voice that nagged about all the things that needed to be done. “I’m so sorry,” I told him. “I want you to be excited. Let’s both work at being nice, okay?”

Twenty minutes later he sat on the rug in his classroom while parents and siblings gathered at the edges. The teacher read a story called The Kissing Hand about a raccoon who was nervous to begin school. I held Smoke’s little brother Stump in my arms, praying he would not leap or cry out, or demand to run amok across the room. In the book, the raccoon’s mother kisses the inside of her child’s paw, and tells him he can use that kiss any time he needs some love from home. Her child returns the favor.

Once the book had ended, it was time to say goodbye and so the parents found their children one last time. Smoke looked around and had trouble spotting his brother and me. I could see him crumble just a bit. I called to him. Everyone around us was kissing hands. “Goodbye!” he offered brightly after spotting us.

“No wait,” I said. I offered the inside of Smoke’s hand to Stump, who eagerly kissed his brother, not once, but over and over. We did that all around, kissing hands until the moment passed and parents filed out. We closed the door behind us so it looked like we were gone, but many of us stole an extra moment watching through the classroom window. When I saw that the other parents were crying, a quiet sob shuddered through me. How long had it been lying in wait? All morning? All month? Since the day he was born?

That sob completed my rite of passage. Leaving Smoke behind us, I walked Stump home in the stroller, sniffling, now the mother of a school-aged child.