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Big Brothers; Together; Bed Room; Versus; All the News, Again; Monkey See; Splish Splash

Big Brothers

My second son is growing right on schedule. Outfits baggy one week pull snug around his toes and shoulders the next. And, unlike daddy’s jeans, the dryer doesn’t cause the shrinkage. “More rolls than a bakery,” says our babysitter as Edwin slurps another bottle dry.

Edwin is catching up to his big brother. Alex seems the same size as forever. For more pediatrician’s appointments than I can count Alex has come in at 22 pounds and 32 inches. Lately the pediatrician just makes a furtive dot on before palming the growth chart. He doesn’t mention growth at all. “Every time I see him I see great improvement,” the ped says.

I agree, and even seeing Alex every day I can see improvement. Tonight he shut off and turned on his own tape recorder. Tonight he spent 10 minutes fishing cans of Pediasure out of a shrink-wrapped carton and toting them one by one to a kitchen drawer. He dropped them in, then shut the drawer, then opened the drawer, took out the cans and rolled them across the floor.

Pediasure is his source of nutrition. We give him strawberry and vanilla. Both smell pungent but taste like chalk. Alex won’t drink anything else, except a spot of watered down white grape juice and half-cups of calorie-free water (“ra-ra”). He picks at food like a supermodel.

Alex has always had trouble eating. Getting him to take a bottle last year was a fight of bubble by bubble. Getting him to chow down has involved every snack food on the shelf. We’ve never successfully taught him to use a spoon. He has nibbled at applesauce, fish sticks, chicken nuggets, french fries, hamburger and brownies. Most have enjoyed a moment of favor and then hit the floor. Mostly we rely on Cheerios, Bugles, Pringles, and such. I have no idea how Alex stays alive.

Edwin eats better than I do, and he’s never had a peaked day in his 59 days of life. It’s hard for me to imagine him casting food on the floor or handling a spoon with anything less than assuredness. Bottle or breast, Similac or mom’s own, he clamps his lips and lets his eyes droop in bliss as the food vanishes. He has dimples and folds, and thighs and forearms like the Michelin man. Jill says Edwin can tell an empty breast from a full one.

I watch Alex casting his chicken nuggets and fries to the floor, and I look down to where the ricochets almost hit Edwin and I notice that their heads are nearly the same size. Little Baby and Big Baby, Aunt Julie calls them. “Except Little Baby is almost as big as Big Baby,” she said once.

Size matters with brothers. Guys live in the physical world. My brother was nine years older, and the first time I flung him onto the couch felt like the breaking of a barrier. (It was also the breaking of the couch, and I got the blame.)

We worry about Alex. He seems unaffectionate; it doesn’t seem to matter if he’s serenaded with “The Noble Duke of York” by a parent or a stranger. But I wonder what kind of siblinghood Alex will have. I’ve never seen a family where the big brother was smaller than the little brother. What’s it going to be like when his own little brother is bigger in his own home?

All I can tell him now is that I’m sure I’ll have to replace a broken couch someday. Only I’m not sure who will get the blame. (February 2001)

Together

"Try'em togedder! Togedder!" - Norm Peterson, his mouth full of shrimp and meatballs at a wedding reception.

Alex is Ned's big brother, and Ned is Alex's little brother, and it's time to put them together in a cage.

After his bath and just before story time, Alex is refreshed and perky. In this time, Ned is also usually awake and still safely on the this side of pre-bedtime wailing. So I place Ned in with Alex, who turns to look at him.

"Alex, say hi to Ned."

No need to prompt Ned. His smile ignites every time he lays eyes on Alex. He also squawks and, lately, waves his fist. Alex too is usually delighted at this face to face, at least initially. His most common embrace of Ned is to place his outstretched hand on top of Ned's skull -- exactly how his Uncle Lee used to hold off Alex and Ned's blindly swinging dad 30 years ago.

I still have to hold Ned up, since he can't stand. Alex is usually looking out of the crib and doesn't always immediately notice when I place Ned inside. When I started doing this, Ned came up to Alex's chest. Now it's more like to Alex's chin. Ned is growing fast.

"Alex, you want to say hi to Ned?" He does. Hand to the head, fingers to the mouth.

We've wondered how much Alex notices Ned. Jill says Alex hasn't had much chance to relate to Ned in a way he can relate to people. So far, that's not much. Alex doesn't kiss anybody. Sometimes, Alex will do anything but let his eyes rest on yours. He has only lately become attached to a stuffed creature: Elmo, for whom he trots through the house beckoning "El-mo? El-MO?" Alex loves Elmo.

Alex seems to realize that Ned is not a toy Elmo, which is a good thing since if Alex is tired and crabby he tosses even Elmo over the railing of the crib.

"Ned, say hi to Alex."

Their eyes meet, and Ned blossoms into that rapture reserved for his brother, mom and dad, and everything else in this new world. Alex also breaks into a heartening combination of grin and giggle, and with Elmo in one arm he reaches out with the other. Hand to the top of the head, fingers to the mouth. Thumb near the eyes.

"Alex, touch nice."

In the early days, Ned didn't do much more than wobble there and receive Alex's touch. The other night, however, his hand swatted out and grabbed a wad of Alex's T shirt. Ned pulled himself in close and got his other hand on Elmo's arm, and pulled. The smile faded from Alex's face. Alex has had about as much experience with people grabbing for his toys as he's had with kissing.

(I tell Jill that Alex is always glad to see Ned. "Yes, but Ned can't do much yet," Jill replies.)

"Oh," I say into the cage, "I wouldn't do that, Ned."

Alex rolls into a ball at Ned's feet. Then he stretches, his thin arms clutching Elmo and his thin legs digging at the crib mattress until he rolls on top of Ned's ankles. This is how, I sense, Alex can relate to Ned right now.

Ned holds out his fat arms and lays his hands on Alex's thighs. Alex keeps rolling and Ned tumbles. "Okay," I say, lifting Ned out, "say goodnight, Ned."

I haul Ned up and over the railing. For a moment he watches Alex before I wiggle him into the car seat and buckle him in. Ned hates to be buckled in, but if you don't he squirms out now. He doesn't stay where you put him anymore.

"Say goodnight, Ned."

I turn off the goose lamp and the big round lamp, and unplug the lamp that's a string of fireflies that Jill picked up at Target. It's a very pretty string. Sometimes Alex stares it for minutes on end. He doesn't do anything else, just stares.

"Say goodnight, Ned."

I scoop up the car seat, check the air conditioner, and say, "Goodnight, Alex." Alex still lies there. He has barely moved since Ned left the crib. (July 2001)

Bed Room

Ned sleeps in a bassinet. Ned is getting too big for it. If his nose is too close to the side and he rolls over, his nose is too close to the other side. He can reach one expanding fist to the rail and heave himself up until his face looms over the side like a surfacing submarine. Last night, he placed both fists on the railing of the bassinet and pushed himself almost to a squat.

Aunt Julie immediately suggested taking the bassinet off its stand and putting it on the floor. But Ned needs a crib. Alex has a crib. It's the only crib we have.

"Get - a - new - crib!" Aunt July intones. "Go out and - buy - it - today!"

We will, we will, but first we have to coax and coach Alex into using the toddler bed. We bought this bed months ago. It has low railings and, hence, a limitless opportunities for flight. We place Alex on the bed -- sometimes with a book, a blanket, and Elmo -- and he rams him legs out and jackknifes to the floor. Some nights Jill will read to him, snuggle, sing, and he will actually pause, look around, slap the mattress, and still jackknife off as if to say, like Jack Klampus on "Seinfeld," "No. Thanks, no."

"But Alex, this is where you have to sleep now," we say. "You need a bed like a big boy."

Thanks, no. Off to the living room.

Alex is past the age when kids have snuggled down in a real bed. Alex's young life seems to be a pattern of knocking down one skill after another, but at a pace known only in his own head. And it's true, he does remain on the bed a fraction of a minute longer each time we try. He's making progress. (The only reason we don't just let him sleep on the bed and live with him scampering into the living room after bedtime is the oxygen. He still wears a cannula at night; I don't think he could remove it before being caught up like the dog in the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons.)

Never before in Alex's progress, however, has there been someone coming up behind. Ned already wears the same size diaper as Alex (who also should have moved on to toilet training by now, I guess). Ned loves the crib. He grins when he stands up and grips the railing, standing on his own two pudgy legs and radiating accomplishment. "See what I can do if you give me the tools," Ned seems to say. "See what I can do when I have the proper environment."

Yes, but it's time to snag Alex and put him to bed. "Say good-night to Alex, Ned," we say, lugging the little brother off to sleep in the little brother's bed.

Obviously we have to disassemble the toddler bed, buy another crib ("Buy - it - today!"), screw it together, and move on. Except that I'm not ready to pull down the toddler bed, in the same way I wasn't ready to okay a trach for Alex, in the same way I wouldn't give up on getting him into preschool this fall. It would feel like surrender. Yes, he should be in the bed by now, and this room with the towering shelves of toys and the firefly lights shouldn't be the scene of a possible turf war. Alex should have moved on.

We stall by putting Alex and Ned in the crib together for short periods. We give them both a toy, and stand back to test the boundaries of brotherly co-habitation. Ned's face ignites when his big brother pays attention to him. Alex kind of rolls down in front of Ned, or sometimes pays attention to Ned by taking his toys. Ned's face used to beam even brighter at this, for some reason, but lately when Alex seizes the rattle or the little Elmo, Ned's smiles flicker out and he turns himself to the toy that Alex just dropped. Once, he tried to take the toy back. Another time he grabbed Alex's hair. Just playing.

"Say good-night to Alex, Ned."

We carry Ned out, but not too long from now we'll leave this room empty-handed each bedtime. We will leave them to play, fight, read by flashlight. They will also sleep, one in the crib, one in the bed. (August 2001)

Versus

A reader writes that friends are expecting a full-termer to go along with the preemie they had a few years ago. Can I tell them what to expect?

I wrote back: "Pay attention to the special moments in the older child's life and development: It will become increasingly easier to overlook them. Also, realize that the new child isn't going to have an easy time, either -- nobody does in this world, and pay attention to their difficulties. Nobody should be overshadowed."

As I typed this originally, it felt pretty sensitive. Now it reads as slight. It skips over, for example, the sensation of looking down into Ned's crib and seeing him turn his eyes to find mine, then looking down into Alex's crib and seeing him mouth the fender of a toy school bus and stare into space. It skips over the tingle in my stomach on Labor Day, when a cousin said about Ned, "You may have some issues with Alex, but you certainly hit the jackpot with this one!"

We won't know Alex's true issues for months or years. Nor do we know Ned's. Maybe Ned is normal. Maybe, too, he's only as normal as his paternal grandmother, who used to sprinkle pepper on the Christmas tree to outwit my brother's cat. Maybe Ned is only as normal as his dad, who rarely passes a day without fantasies of being in Starfleet Command. Ned isn't out of the woods.

Still, there's out of the woods and then there's compromised. Is Alex compromised? I wonder, as I teach him to kiss. "Kiss for daddy?" I ask after his bath, as I've asked after many baths before this. At first I had to take him by the jaw and gently turn his face toward my cheek, give his chin a little tilt and press my own cheek onto his lips. (I learned about this by watching our babysitter with her own 1-year-old.) The other night I said, "Kiss for daddy?" and Alex offered his lips on his own.

Ned doesn't kiss yet; he drools and blows raspberries. Nonetheless, he might be ahead -- is "ahead" a good word here? Which of them will one day hate me for using it? -- ahead of Alex in a few areas. I read somewhere that nobody should be overshadowed, and I know I shouldn't post my boys side by side, as if on a sales chart comparing retail outlets.

But:

--Thanksgiving. But Ned ate sweet potatoes, turkey, mango, and pumpkin pie. "He ate everything that was put in front of him," Jill said. "He reached out with his fat little hands and ate all." "You're not going to have any trouble teaching him to eat," Aunt Julie added. "No contest," I replied. Alex ate Goldfish and a granola bar.

--Alex can wash his hands at the bathroom sink. He still needs his cannula and oxygen overnight. Ned's only piece of overnight equipment is his bottle, which he doesn't yet hold.

--Ned's grab is getting stronger in regard to his brother's toys. Luckily, Alex's arms are getting longer.

--Mornings. Both boys do equally well at making sure dad -- who's had a tough few years and deserves to sleep until 7:15 -- remains in his boxer shorts, his bare feet slapping the hardwood floor as he turns on the coffee and re-fills Ned's formula bottles and nukes Alex's bacon and unloads the top of the dishwasher and makes sure that Alex's lunchtime chicken nuggets are packed for school. It's almost worth it all, though, when I enter their bedroom and find them bushy-tailed and giggly at the prospect of another day. And it's definitely worth it when I peel off their diapers, which weigh about 50 pounds each after the overnight, and slam them into the wastebasket.

--When we sweep, Ned crawls after us to eat from the pile. Cheerios, crumbs, lint (...you've hit the jackpot ... ). Alex never did this, though I can see the attraction.

--Ned and Alex both pet stray cats with the same gentleness and delight. Ned spies them from farther away. Ned also notices pigeons on the playground; Alex does not.

Not not not. Too many nots. I have to stop this. If I judged my life by the nots, I never would have gotten close to a woman as pretty as Jill, never would have had a New York City hardwood floor under my bare feet, never would have heard the whump of the diaper in a wastebasket. So here's my advice to those people with the new baby:

Ignore the nots.

(Afterward: Last night in the bath, Alex kissed Ned -- unasked -- and then stroked his hair. It seemed like an equal step forward for both of them.) (November 2001)

All the News, Again

Here are the latest dispatches from the world of Alex and Ned.

--Ned is standing. "No standing," says Jill. But Ned is undaunted, pulling himself upright with a touch on the tabletop, up to a stature that's no longer a baby's. He scoots to your ankles and reaches up to grab your knees - again, a feathery touch - and lifts his arms and face skyward to be picked up. He understands. Take his hands and one foot ventures forward. Then the other. "No standing," says Jill, then admitting, "He's taking more steps every day."

--Alex may be beginning to learn how to read. When we read together, I ask him to pronounce all the single-syllable words that end the lines -- ham, hen, bear, street, treat -- and he mimics them exactly. Last night, he looked at a picture of a chair in a book and said, clearly, "chair." Then he did the same thing with "snow," "beach," and "rain." He often calls Jill "mommy"; he also calls the babysitter "mommy." This morning, Alex looked at a boy on "Elmo" and said, "Joseph," which is the name of a boy in his class.

--Friction is ever so slightly heightening between Alex and Ned. Each is plainly moving beyond "parallel play," approaching the point where he grabs toys from the other and the other realizes it. (My friend Jon calls this "perpendicular play.") Once or twice I've caught Alex disdaining to turn to me for help and instead trying to take the law into his own hands. We have to watch this. I have twin cousins who almost tried to kill each other even when they were 15, when their parents gave them BB guns. Maybe that's what their parents had in mind.

--We're trying to get Alex to sleep in a real bed, and he's proving about as trustworthy on the mattress as a chronic bettor alone at the track. A split-second of turned back finds him at the shelf, rummaging through the books and the puzzles and every possible noisy toy like Yoda rummaging through Luke's pack in The Empire Strikes Back. "Alex, get into bed!" And sure enough he will; he may even lay his face down for an instant, but just to prove he knows what you're saying and after all shouldn't this mean he's old enough to stay up until 11? Ned also seems to be learning from him. Thanks to all the readers who've sent their suggestions, though I'm holding off on the one about "electric fencing."

--In lieu of progress on the bed front, Alex moves ahead with Brushing His Teeth and Sleeping Without Oxygen. I think he understands pulling the toothbrush from the rack -- he definitely understands standing on the stool to reach the sink, and turning on the water and getting his sleeves wet. He runs the brush under the water and brings it to his mouth smoothly. There, however, I think he runs into thinking the brush is just another way to drink. I tell him to open up and he does, and I brush, thinking what life with Alex will be like when he gets a toothache. Regarding the oxygen, I let him guide me when I go to slip on the cannula. This oxygen thing is a huge achievement when I stop to think about it, which of course I don't have time to do.

--Ned has had a runny nose since Thanksgiving. He remains remarkably cheerful. Should he maintain his high spirits throughout life, he'll be the happiest guy I've ever known. He is also eating everything, including, lately, black bean soup, potato soup, crackers, cookies, and pears (fresh and canned). He is also beginning, sweet and slight, to say "da-da."

--Both boys are growing. Suddenly the blue-striped overalls come to Alex's ankles even with the straps loosened all the way. And the other night our babysitter turned from trying to diaper Ned in the crib -- which is becoming like trying to diaper a greased otter -- and announced, "Ned needs size six!" Turns out they both do. Turns out the generic brand of diaper that we like only sells its size six in the 18-diaper bag. Turns out our cost for diapers just went from 25 cents to 30 cents a change. Turns out I should keep records and whip this on the boys in 20 years, before they move out of the house.

--Alex is dropping his pants in the living room. This means something. (January 2002)

Monkey See

At breakfast, Alex will fling granola bars regally to the floor if he doesn't happen to want them at that moment. The other morning, Ned watched Alex do this, then flung his own granola bar away. And for weeks, whenever we weren't looking, Alex has grabbed our telephone and walked around saying, "Hello? Hello?" into the mouthpiece. Then, in one of those displays that makes me realize nature's splendor, I caught Ned walking around with our telephone saying, "Heh- Heh- Heh-" into the mouthpiece.

Younger brothers imitate older brothers. I used to imitate my older brother, especially if we were doing something I thought he knew a lot more about than I did, such as fishing. Ned hungers for some reaction out of Alex, and I think he thinks imitation will get it for him just as fast as biting. Though he'll try that on Alex, too.

Ned is no carbon of Alex. Ned still rubs his right arm against us viciously when we pick him while he's annoyed; it would never occur to Alex to do that. Ned can throw a ball. He can almost score a basket. I don't believe Alex has ever thrown a ball. Ned likes to climb furniture with a ball, drop the ball, then go find the ball. Sometimes he varies what he has to step over to get to the ball. Alex never played these games. Ned was also pushing the buttons on the phone -- dialing -- the other night before he spoke into the mouthpiece. (A few hours later, a woman with Caller ID phoned to demand who at my house had called her. She sounded Austrian.)

Imitation is good. For instance, we think Ned would talk more if Alex talked more. Alex can sort of talk, but single words, maybe a simple sentence, and no conversation.

So we worry about Ned's speech, and we're taking him to be evaluated for home therapy. How strange to listen to these questions for therapy screening again, for another son, yet have different answers. No, Ned eats everything. Yes, he likes to throw balls. No, he looks right in your eyes when you talk to him. No, Ned can drink from a straw. (So can Alex, I recall.) No, Ned was a scooter, sort of, with his leg drawn up. (Alex drew his leg up, too.) No, Ned doesn't have any words. (Neither did Alex, for a long time.)

During one of Ned's evals, a therapist holds a teddy bear and a plastic spoon up to Ned. She pretends to feed the bear with the spoon, and she says, "Mmmmmm..." She hands the spoon to Ned. I think he's going to fling it, but instead he looks into the therapist's face and tries to put the spoon near the bear's mouth. I hear him make a little "Mmmmmm..." I'm actually surprised when I see one of my sons doing this.

When Ned's evals come in, we'll keep photocopies of them, just like we did of Alex's. We treat Alex's old evals as scrap paper for him to color on. When he's done coloring on each sheet, he whips it off the table, and I see the phrases as they flutter by, scraps of opinions from months years ago. Failure to thrive. Mouths toys. Severe. Below the norm. Significantly delayed.

I hope Ned stops imitating Alex when it comes to evaluations. Alex's speech therapist at school called just today to warn us about, well, severe wording in Alex's upcoming end-of-school-year evals ("It's so he'll get more services," the therapist explained). And we just got back another eval that stated: "Alex doesn't have a best friend." I don't think our hearts could stand to hear something like that about a second child.

Last night after the bath, I took a plastic spoon and the boys' stuffed Paddington Bear and sat on the floor with Ned. "Mmmmmm..." I said, putting the spoon near Paddington's threaded mouth so Ned could see. Then Ned took the spoon and fed the bear again!

"Alex?" I said, "why don't you feed the bear?"

It took a minute to pry Alex off the block he was chewing. Alex is pretty good with a spoon; Ned is catching him, but Alex is still the reigning spoon-and-applesauce champ in our house. Alex took the spoon and placed it near Paddington's mouth. "Mmmmmm..." I said to Alex, "mmmmm...". Alex drew the line on that, and returned to his block.

A few minutes later, I found Alex with a toy phone, and he was pushing buttons. He's never done that before. It'd be nice to know who started pushing buttons first, but maybe it doesn't matter. (June 2002)

Splish Splash

The bottom of my tub is alive with pink skin: writhing, squirming, limbs intertwined, a miniature orgy on porcelain. Shrieks ricochet off the tile of the walls and straight through my head.

It is 6:30 to 6:45 on a weekend night, or on an evening when our babysitter had to leave early. The last of the water has swirled and gurgled down the drain completely unnoticed by Alex or Ned, who are the sources of the shrieks piercing my mind.

This stops right now or I'm ending this bath! I told them a few moments ago, my nose dripping bath water, their palms slapping like rays. I'm ending this bath! I proclaimed, and yanked out the plug like pulling the switch at Sing-Sing.

There. I am in charge in this bathroom. I need a mop.

My proclamations pass through both boys at bath time these days. Alex is on the rim of the tub, trying to climb into the sink on which, moments ago, I conked my head. Down, I tell him, down now. He holds the rim of the tub and lifts one leg. He stares ahead and shrieks. Shrieks shrieks shrieks. He turns around and around, his arms pinwheeling farther and farther until he threatens liftoff. Then he sits and remembers he has to try to stand on his head in the bottom of the tub.

Ned gazes at Alex, studying the angle of big brother's arms and legs, rapt as a fresh ballet student. Then Ned is on the rim and trying to climb into the sink. Down, I order, down now! He holds the rim of the tub and lifts one leg, glancing at Alex to confirm his technique. He shrieks. He turns around and around and sits, then tries to stand on his head in the bottom of the tub, but this is too advanced and his effort dissolves into giggles.

No one can stop them. Not the babysitter, not Jill, not dad.

Dad who? Ned thinks, as he plops down on the sloping end of the tub and, to his amazement, slides the length of the bath until he stops at Alex's feet. Ned hurries back to the sloped end of the tub; I see his brow crease as he tries to re-create the slide over and over, never quite hitting at the right angle. I'm almost laughing. I hide my face, because to let them see me smile is to snap the unraveling thread that is my control over this bath.

Alex climbs the sink. Ned discovers he's behind on his slashing. I end this bath now, I announce, and pull the plug.

Water pools a quarter-inch deep in some spots of the floor. I've already whipped one of Jill's hand towels to the rack above my head, where it drips with overflow. Without this towel, the bath water they expel would leave the black and white tiles awash, and maybe lap onto the hardwood of the hallway beyond. It's been all I can do with this kind of headache -- Alex be quiet! -- to keep ahead of the water. I've also stripped. I used to stay dressed for their bath, until Ned learned to pour water on my sleeves and marvel at cotton's absorbency.

Stop it now!

Mostly they use their hands to splash. Sometimes their feet. They sit and face each other and bicycle-pedal. Then they flap their hands like Rebecca Howe on "Cheers" after she gets fired. Ned likes to submerge a toy fully, then fling it over the side of the tub with as much water as possible. You'd think the Elmo Dump Truck would carry the most bath water with it. But the big green ball seems to splash out more. I wouldn't have thought that before I had kids.

I've tried to teach Alex how to throw the ball to Ned. No, Alex, don't bite the ball. Throw the ball to Ned. Throw the ball to Ned, Alex. I place the ball in Alex's palm, extend his arm, and help him throw. Alex giggles. Ned laughs and shrieks, and picks up the ball and flings it at Alex's head. Alex tries to understand this. Sometimes Ned throws the ball at my face.

Alex bites Ned. It starts with a hugfest, pink arms ensnaring each other, Ned laughing and Alex laughing and sinking his mouth on Ned's ripe, ripe flesh in what looks like love until Ned's face explodes into wails. Alex, no! No! Never bite! Never bite!

"Nevah bye-tee!" shrieks Alex, then he moves in for another hugfest. Ned backs up. He's going to be a fast learner in school. "Noo ... noo ... " says Ned. He retreats until his bum touches the faucet. Alex advances. Ned picks up the Elmo Dump Truck.

I end this bath now! (January 2003)

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