Jill and I sit down to eat. I've just settled Ned in his bassinet in the bedroom. He is sleeping. I slice the meat and load up my fork with salad when his cry slices into our dinnertime.
"Oh no," says Jill.
"Your turn," I say.
"No way!" she fires back. "Two-minute rule!"
This means, I learn, that whatever you do to settle Ned has to have an effect lasting at least two minutes to count as a turn settling Ned. "Show me the rule book," I mutter, heading for the bedroom, penetrating Ned's cries as if wading into the vines of a jungle. But if not me, who? If not now, when?
Ned is an fairly easy baby to settle most times of the day. He's also keeping boredom at bay with more to do these days. He smiles, he tries to laugh. He kicks his legs and waves his arms and tries to bring his fists to his mouth. Lately he seems content to watch the world from his car seat, more like a bird in a nest than a bomb with a short fuse. Pivoting the seat to give him a new perspective, much as a three-month-old can have a perspective, calms him.
But after a few minutes, the creases erupt across his forehead and tiny eyes - they have seen so very little - start to pucker. The corners of his smiling mouth fall, the supports of his joy cut. The face dissolves. It's like trick photography. Seconds later, unless I head it off, it's also like a trick with a megaphone.
Calming Ned requires a four-pronged counterattack:
--Binkie. We have a "cherry-shaped" pacifier for Ned, Ned seems to like this method, but it's open to criticism. "Good way to give him a double chin," says Jill's mom. "He's too young for a binkie," Jill adds. "If you want to give him something to calm him down, let him use his little fists. He can always find those." Yes, he can. Ned is a smart baby. Sometimes Alex also tries to take Ned's binkie.
--Shaking. The bassinet, not Ned. I started with a gentle jiggle, but found that it bounced off Ned's wakefulness like bullets off a tank. So I increased the force until I found the bassinet moving back and forth almost an inch with each jiggle, with Ned on his side in there swaying until his nose was almost pressed against the mattress. It worked. Even Jill, after the recent failure of one of her own Please-God-Ned-Go-To-Sleep maneuvers (and I invoked my own Two-Minute Rule), returned from Ned's bedroom and remarked that yes, indeed the harder shaking worked.
--Patting. This we used to pull on Alex in the isolette, when it was crawling toward 8 p.m. and we really wanted to start home but not at the price of leaving an awake baby alone in a hospital. The nurses used to call it "patting him into submission," a phrase that tells you a lot about NICU nurses. (Nurses also used to tell Alex to "Calm down!" when he cried.) One secret to making this work is raising Ned's arm so I get a clear pat at his ribs.
--Stroking the eyebrows. We learned this from a baby masseuse when, again, Alex was in the hospital. I put my fingertip on the bridge of the tiny nose and caress toward the forehead, branching right or left at the eyebrow. I don't know if this relaxes Ned or he thinks that if he closes his eyes I'll stop doing it.
I have to use four tricks for the same reason you overwrite a first draft: under the gun, it's easier to cut than to add. The only way I've found to unshackle myself from bassinet-side is to gradually stop doing one thing for Ned at a time. I'll do a couple eyebrow-rubs while simultaneously shaking the bassinet as Ned chomps a binkie. Then I'll move from the eyebrows to the patting. I'll start with a firm pat, then gradually go softer and softer until I'm barely touching him. At the same time, I jiggle the bassinet with less and less force until I'm barely moving it. If his face starts to dissolve anywhere along the way, I increase the force or frequency of the maneuver that's currently being phased out until he gets a hold of himself. "Calm down," I whisper. The binkie I let him keep.
It's like when service stations stopped checking your oil, then stopped washing your windows, then stopped pumping your gas, then jacked up their prices. I'm helping Ned -- If not now, when? If not me, who? -- get used to a level of service that he will have to get used to. Imagine what gas stations will be like by the time he owns a car! Besides, he's asleep, at least for the next two minutes. I continue taking things away as long as he doesn't stir. (March 2001)
Edwin often sits in the doorway, in his car seat, during Alex's bath. The event thrilled Ned at first: the splashing, the giant boy in the tub, the limitless fascination of the rows and rows of tiles on the wall. But lately he's bored.
As a bored Ned is not a thing to have in a small room that holds sound, I scrambled for amusements. He liked my singing for a while, especially "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and old Eagles hits such as "Lyin' Eyes." Eventually, however, you could see the tiny blue eyes glaze over and the minute fists start to twitch. Next came the furrowed brow and the opening of the little pink mouth.
"Oh, Ned, no..."
Too late. I salvage his peace of mind with a smile and a monkeyshine, but with Alex just warming up in the water Ned's reserves were spending fast and taking more and more of my attention. "Alex," I say in the direction of the tub, "play with this." I hand him a toy.
Alex has many toys near the tub, in a green plastic basket that is itself a toy, including but not limited to: fat plastic pop beads; a wind-up plastic frog and dolphin; oversized plastic toy nail clippers; and the plastic wreck of the Fisher-Price pirate ship. He also has some yellow plastic - I'm going to stop saying "plastic," it's redundant when talking about kids' bath toys - some yellow blocks that press together to form a grid; on the grid you can snap a whirly yellow wheel and tiny palm trees. Alex lost the palm trees long ago.
I hear Alex snapping the nail clippers in the water while I try to rescue Ned. Some of the tears turn to laughter down there in the car seat, but I'm losing the struggle. I'm about to issue a distress call to Jill when Alex, leaning over the rim of the tub, drops the yellow whirly wheel by my hand and bleats for a new toy.
Before he loses his balance and we have a problem that makes a wailing baby mean nothing, I hand Alex the hull of the pirate ship, watch him settle back down, and turn again to Ned with the whirly wheel in my hand.
"Now, Ned," I say.
Hey, how about this wheel? I hold it in front of Ned's face, and the first thing that comes into my mind is a really smart cat. His legs stiffen and his hands form tight little Cs. His lips purse and his eyes get wide. He doesn't blink. He starts to shake. He may be fascinated, doing Ed Sullivan, or having a stroke.
"You like this, Ned?"
I hold the wheel in front of his face and spin it. The stubby yellow spokes become a blur as big as his face, and he can't tear his eyes away. His legs and arms shake. He bubbles spit and I hear a sound in his throat. I move the wheel to the left. His eyes follow it, locked. I move it back in front of him. I move it up and down. Am I teasing him? Still he hasn't blinked. Does he hate me for this? I hear water from the tub, and Alex chattering.
I take the wheel away. Ned's face relaxes: his eyes can move again; his fists soften and move to smear his spit across his cheeks. I bring up the yellow nail clippers. "Ned?"
All blinking stops again. His face tightens until it must be painful. He doesn't cry. Crying is for babies, and no baby looks like this. I feel powerful. Cluck like a chicken! I consider saying. He would too, if he could talk. But by the time he can talk, I bet I won't have this power. Still, I can't look at his face and wonder if I'm overloading the circuits, burning out something behind the locked-open eyes just like I burned out the locomotive on my toy train track 30 years ago. What is that smell? What is that hollow, metal smell of burning?
What is that noise? A rapid clicking back in the tub. I take the yellow toy away and Ned returns to us now from his trance. I must revisit this. For now, I turn and see that Alex has taught himself how to wind up the dolphin. How about that? And I missed it. (May 2001)
Second to the Table
Ned's teeth appeared during my latest dental emergency.
The history of the latest hole in my head began months ago, when a dentist found a cavity near the gum on one of my upper right molars. The cavity was on the side of one molar, in a gap between my teeth. So the dentist had to drill and drill and drill through one tooth to get to the problem. He got there - thank God for nitrous oxide - and packed the cavity and the gap with something gritty and sweet that hardened and let me get on with things.
I felt this filling coming loose days ago. The other night before bed I was sucking on a citrus candy, which I do nightly, when something foreign slid over my tongue. Next morning, said tongue discovered that the filling had broken away and - with that hollowing tingle that accompanies discoveries of dental troubles -- I was once more facing a major Molar Gap.
My mouth is a junkyard. I have a score of fillings, an inlay, even a crown at just 39. Still I like to eat. I'll chase a pepperoni pizza with a big bowl of cereal with blueberries. Unless I'm fresh from a brush with the nitrous oxide, I've always chewed with abandon on candy, pie, cake, chicken, steak, potatoes, ice cubes, bread (soft and crusty), cucumbers, lettuce, popcorn, apples, unpitted cherries, potato chips, ham, meatloaf, and you get the idea. I've always believed that fate would take care of my teeth.
They say kids today are growing up with no cavities. I wonder if they'll use nitrous oxide when Ned goes to the dentist. I wonder how much it'll cost.
Ned's an eater. Right from the first nipple, Ned was good with a bottle. His fine pink mouth opened in such an instinctive and perfect "O" that I have never even thought about the frequency of bubbles coming up in the bottle of formula, or about how many ounces we got into him in however many minutes. You just stick it in his face, and pretty soon the bottle's empty.
"Ned knows what to do," Jill says.
In no time, we're cracking little jars for Ned. Bananas. Peas. Oatmeal the consistency of old paint, the lids coming off with the pop I recall from the tortured, ounce-by-ounce late-winter of 2000 when we started feeding Alex. This weekend we tried baby-food yams for the first time. Alex used to eat those until he actually started to turn orange.
"I showed Ned a French fry today," Jill reported recently. I know what happened: the little pink mouth opened in an instinctive and perfect "O."
I put Ned on my knee and bring the spoon toward his mouth. Sometimes he quivers with anticipation. His mouth opens and the spoon just meets it. Sometimes he cranes his jaw forward. The stuff coats his lips, cheek, and bib as if he's auditioning for a Gerber's Glop commercial. Look at him there, delighted with the stuff on his face. I push my tongue against my Molar Gap and wonder what he'll eat next.
Soon, Ned will want to chew. (The other day he saw somebody with gum in the park, and then spent the afternoon moving his lips and teeth up and down.) He eyes us when we eat, follows the fork from the plate to our lips. He reaches for our water bottles. His front teeth on the bottom have overnight turned from a thin whitish line to two tiny icebergs. He has been teething: the threads of drool, the depthless crankiness around bedtime that makes out windows ring with the loud, loud mysterious cries until, ding dong, one of us remembers to look in the fridge for the teething toy.
According to Dr. Spock, Edwin can have a baby biscuit soon. Already his mush is thick as thin oatmeal for a grown-up, and if he hits a bit of improperly pureed pea he has learned to spit it out. That's amazing. I run my tongue over the gap, wondering what he'll eat next, wondering how much it'll cost. (July 2001)
Last night I had Ned on my knee while Jill spooned Gerber's pears into his mouth. It was a tough feeding because his head was turned. His head was turned because his eyes were fixed on the TV set. "Look at him. Look at him," Jill said.
Ned was transfixed on a football game, a preseason blowout between the Giants and the Jaguars. He stared as New York moved downfield with what Ned seemed to think was the best combo of pass and run he'd seen in his eight months of life. He watched New York turn a fourth and four into a smooth touchdown, and smiled and tried to clap.
"Ned will watch football because you watch it," Jill said to me. "He'll learn about it from you and he'll be interested in it because of you." Poppycock, I thought, though Ned might have watched because it was the second week of preseason and the starters played most of the first half.
This morning Jill called and said, "You remember last night when Ned couldn't take his eyes off the TV when there was a football game on?"
"The TV's on now, and he's not watching."
Really? What's on?
"'Martha Stewart,'" Jill said. Amazing that she got the tube long enough to watch Martha, with Alex hogging it for Elmo and Mother Goose.
"Ned is going cold turkey off television when Alex goes to school," Jill said.
I have several observations about this:
-Cold turkey never works, except it might work for me if I stopping watching Martha. Martha is duller programming than pro golf.
-Ned cannot become a Giants fan. As his clapping set in, I turned him away from the TV fast and screeched "Nooooo!" into his face, which made him smile wider. Actually, speaking as a Redskins fan who grew up with a father who watched the Raiders and an older brother who watched the Cowboys, I know that the quickest way to turn Ned off the Giants is to pretend to watch them myself.
-They say that when he was just two years old, the famous Dallas running back Emmitt Smith glued his eyes to the set whenever a football game was on. He seemed to drink in every detail. They also say that Emmitt Smith, a multi-millionaire now, is extremely generous to his parents.
-Ned got hooked on TV by watching Alex. Alex will sit on his rocking horse and digest whole videos of Elmo and Mother Goose. Last night Alex dragged his booster seat in front of the set to have dinner while he caught the end of Sesame Street's "Peter and the Wolf." "Alex, you want fries?" I'd ask, holding one up. He just turned his neck to look beyond my hand, to miss not a minute of how Elmo became the village hero. (I never wanted to be a parent for whom the TV was a babysitter, but, dammit, I'm tired.)
On what I'm coming to see is an alarming number of occasions when Alex watches TV, Ned is on the blanket in the background. He's usually smiling at the screen. He looks away during commercials. If Jill or I bend down to give him a hug or a smooch, Ned will act like some guys embracing their loved ones on Thanksgiving: He cranes his head around the obscuring loved one and keeps his eyes on the screen.
I used to do that, too. TV was a big thing all through my childhood. We had an old Magnavox with rabbit ears and a twist-knob channel selector. When the picture would get all jumpy, my mother would whack the knob claiming that it "got the dust out of it." She also wrapped tinfoil around the tip of the antenna, claiming that this brought in Channel 7 better. "Oh, they're a lousy station!" I can still hear her saying. The cleverest thing I said in my first five years came out when my mother stepped in front of the screen during a crucial moment of "Combat." "You're a better door than window, mum!" I said. (Before you label me a snotty little kid and say that we'd better get Ned away from the set before he learns to speak, you should know that I stole that line from my big brother. I presume he stole it from someone, too, probably my father during a Raiders game.) TV can bring families together.
I'm sure Ned would agree. Jill will nevertheless make good on her cold-turkey threat, within limits. "When Alex goes to school," she said, "then I'll watch Martha." (August 2001)
Lure of the Floor
"First they learn to sit up. Then they learn to stand up. Then they learn to sit down. Soon, they're on the move." - The baby lady on the "Elmo" video
Ned is on the move. He hasn't learned to stand up. He's sort of learning to sit down. But he's on the move. "Where's Ned?"
"He was right there a minute ago!"
Oh, there he is, playing with the cord to the halogen lamp. Those bulbs get to hundreds of degrees.
Ned used to lounge in the bathroom with me and Alex during Alex's bath. But lately I've asked Jill to keep Ned busy during the bath, because he kept trying to grab the rim of the tub and pull himself to stand, which would be a positive sign of normal development until he lost his grip and bounced his tiny skull off the porcelain. So, last night, I was at the tub with Alex splashing around and Jill had Ned in the living room, by the couch. I could peek through the bathroom doorway and see them both from where I was.
Then I looked over and saw Jill craning her head in my direction. "Look out," she said. Around the jam of the bathroom door bobbed Ned. His head was going slightly up and down, his arms were hauling the rest of his body across the living room hardwood like an ambitious little baby monster. Jill calls it "the lure of the floor." I think it's like having a really smart cat around.
His face got steadily bigger. For a yuk, I pushed the bathroom door closed. But Ned's a delicate guy, and I opened it again before he burst into tears. When I opened the door, however, Ned was far from tears: His expression was unchanged and set, and he plowed over the sill. "Hiya, Ned." Straight to the rim of the tub. Then he leaned over the water and leaned waaay over for Alex's floating toothbrush. Yeah, that looked like a good idea.
In my office I have pictures of Ned. One was taken a few hours after he was born, when he was still a delightful lump somewhere in the hospital blankets. In the second photo, however, he looks like a young cat: He rests on his elbows on a blanket, his head up, his grin wide, his eyes sharp. He looks charismatic, as if he wants to sell me something I don't need but will buy anyway. Soon, he seems to say, I'll be on the move.
Ned's growing when our backs are turned, just like Alex did (most good things happen when you're not looking, or at least when I'm not looking). I still remember that Sunday afternoon in early 2000, working at the computer in front of Alex's crib and turning around and seeing Alex just standing there with his hands on the railing. I'm not sure he's sat down since. Wow, I've often thought, how tiring to have one little boy running around!
Somehow I've never believed that Alex and Ned would one day be on their feet at the same time: Surely they'll understand that two kids pinballing around the house is too much for one father and one mother and one babysitter and just one bottle of aspirin. If anyone understands that, it will be my boys.
Doesn't seem to be going that way, though. Only last winter we brought Ned home, wrapped him in blankets, set him in his bassinet, and walked away to do other things. When we returned, Ned was where we'd left him. We could depend on it. Now, our house knows the pitter-patter of another person moving around. Not footsteps yet, but the slap of little hands on the floor, getting louder and louder. "And here's Ned!"
He likes to be where the action is. If we're in the kitchen - thank God these halogens are mounted on the ceiling, still out of his reach -- he'll slap slap slap all the way from in front of the television, across the living and dining rooms, and onto the kitchen tiles. Slap slap slap.
I like when my kids greet me when I come from work. For months, Alex has come to the door, taken my hand, and steered me to the TV so I could put in a fresh Elmo video. Lately, however, Ned also heads right toward me, his arms and hands doing most of the work, one leg crooked under him while he pushes off with the other leg. He comes to me even if "Elmo" is on the TV, even if the baby lady is saying, "... and growing and growing and growing. Bye bye, baby!" (October 2001)
Jill had just one question the other morning: "What happened last night?"
How should I know? She woke me around 1:15 a.m. to report that Ned was crying. I went to him and gave him a bottle. He took a couple of ounces, I guess, if my dream-smeared eyes correctly read the bottle's notches in dim, wee-hour light. Then Jill woke me at 5 a.m. to report that Ned was crying again. I gave him another couple of ounces.
"Did you pick him up and cuddle him," she asks, "or did you just let him lay there and shove a bottle in his mouth?"
What do you think? Why is she on me like this? Must have been "my night" and she didn't inform me. We've got to straighten this out.
More nights than not now, Ned sleeps through. He eats around 6 p.m., gets a bath with Alex around 6:30, is in his crib around 7, and I'm cracking the Merlot by 7:05.
The crib is in the boys' room - it's a big thing in our lives that the apostrophe is at last after the "s" in "boys" - and Alex and Ned bed down together, lights dimmed, guitar lullabies going on the tape player, Alex head-walking around his own crib before collapsing entirely. Ned's a slightly different customer, in that when you first lay him to bed, he screams as if impaled.
Seems healthy. I give him a bottle - think of it as a nutritious nightcap - and let him slurp until he pauses for a breath. Then WHAM: In goes the binkie. I tiptoe to the kitchen, where Jill is usually making dinner by this time. I sip wine and slice myself a piece of cheddar; we start to re-hash our day when Ned pierces our time with a cry from the bedroom.
"I'll hit him with a bottle," I tell Jill. She knows how I mean that.
Round two. Bottle, Slurp. Breath. Binkie, with a hug and snuggle with the giant stuffed Beanie Baby bull. Maybe a blanket wrap. Tiptoe out. Wine. Cheese. Ned again.
It takes about three rounds, and five or so ounces of formula, to grind Ned down to where he surrenders to sleep. Alex murmurs from his own bed. He seems amused.
Lately Ned has been a charm, sleeping right through the evening (Blockbuster Video suddenly knows who Jill and I are again.). And around 10 p.m., we start working on him again, trying to get him to drink another five ounces or so in his sleep. This can keep him straight through to sunup.
Except last night. "I cuddled. I cuddled," I tell Jill. "But you have to understand that to him, cuddling with me isn't the same as cuddling with you." Jill doesn't completely buy this but she doesn't deny it, either, I think because it's flattering. It isn't the same to him, either. He can't relax with me. Dad's the guy he's going to play catch and soccer with - assuming my back isn't bothering me that day, and this thing on my right heel isn't a first bunion - and mom is the one with the softness and the cuddling. If I cuddle Ned in the middle of the night, he treats it like the beginning of a gym class. I thought moms were the ones who got up in the middle of the night?
Well, smooth nights usually follow rough ones, and sure enough the following night was slumberland until almost 7 a.m. That brought us to last night. "So it's your turn to get up again tonight, right?" Jill asked in a small voice. "It was my turn last night, and he happened to sleep through. It's your turn to get up again tonight, right?"
I'm surrounded by children. "No," I replied. "If a person has a good night, they get the duty the following night, and every night until Ned wakes up a lot. That just makes sense." And it does make sense, doesn't it?
Turns out we both got up last night around 12:30, when Ned cried. He brewed a cold all yesterday afternoon, and in the wee hours last night the poor little guy just couldn't breathe with the binkie in his mouth. Jill and I had hopped up maybe three times before it struck us to give him DimeTapp through a nipple - which wasn't easy, seeing how Ned's eyes were all aglow and he seemed to think he had discovered a new playtime.
We got the medicine in and bedded him down, and had just returned under our own covers when he started crying again.
"He's just going to have to cry for a minute," Jill said suddenly. And he did. Then he got quiet, and the next thing our household knew, it was 7 a.m.
"I guess he got the message last night," Jill said on this morning after, as Ned beamed and rocked in the high chair. "I started to get the sense last night he was thinking, 'Oh I can cry and just make them appear anytime!' Weren't you thinking that?" she said to Ned. "Weren't you just thinking that? There was a little manipulation going on!"
Ned rocks and grins, and I think he thinks that his morning afters are going to be different from now on. (November 2001)
Where He's Going
He wobbles like a cute drunk, his legs sliding into a V. He makes his way hand over hand, lift of the leg by lift of the leg, around about a third of the perimeter of the crib. He bows his back and looks up. Sometimes the knees buckle. Then he goes plop. -- from "Standing Ovation," January, 2000
Ned has begun to stand. I was supposed to note the moment his legs went straight under him, mostly since I missed that moment with Alex, but I missed it with Ned, too. Just one day the little fingers gripped the side of the coffee table helplessly, and the next day they hauled Ned upright. One day he had me by the ankles, the next his hand was landing like a little sponge on top of my knee. Suddenly Alex found that the top of the coffee table offered no sanctuary for his toy school bus.
Ned still crawls with one leg tucked under him, pushing himself with the other leg and dragging himself along by the forearms. "Looks like a crab," says Aunt Julie. That spare leg curled under him gives him leverage to get his hands and arms just that much higher when he at last arrives at somewhere he can pull himself up. It's almost as if he's organized. He used to just sit hypnotized in front of Elmo videos; now he stand hypnotized.
Now Ned can also allllllmost stand while I peel off his diaper before the bath. Then I put him in the tub, where the splashies inspire him to grab the edge of the tub and haul himself upright (I demand to see someone in authority!). Then he stares me in the face and lets go, letting his rump make a kitten-sized cannonball in the water. Lately, at bedtime, I turn from Alex to discover Ned peering over the edge of his crib, fingers tight on the railing, legs stiff. Not long ago, his eyes didn't clear the railing.
"Where you goin', Ned?"
We're coming up on one of those fun times to be a dad. Walking is one of the first things you can truly teach a kid. So sometimes I take Ned gently under the arms, or by the hands, and coax him into placing one little foot in front of the other. Feet that aren't as little as they used to be. (I came home the other afternoon, and he was wearing shoes!)
"No walking!" Jill commands. "No walking!" She just means that Ned is her last, at least before Ned and Alex have kids of their own, and she isn't ready to see the last one walk away. But even she looks forward to this stage, and mentions it every time on the street when she spots a new walker among the ranks of Manhattan's kids.
"It will be funny," Jill admits. "Ned will place one foot slowly in front of the other. He'll keep looking down at his shoes."
He'll take my hand on the street, too, until those steps come easier. And long after. Though I guess one day Ned will take his hand away.
I guess too that one reason I've been hesitant about Ned walking -- "Why can't you crawl there, Ned?" "Dad, it's my high school graduation!" -- is because I was scared he'd already be taller than Alex. That fear was dispelled the other day, however, one stolen moment in front of an Elmo video when I glanced in the direction of the TV and found the boys standing together. Ned often stands in front of the TV, unblinking, his nose about two inches from the screen.) Alex remained a head taller. Speaking of heads, Alex reached over and stroked Ned's high-off-the-ground hair. No toy school bus was anywhere near, and it was a gentle moment.
Once they start walking they usually don't sit down again. Maybe on Sunday afternoon for a little of the game, or a cup of coffee, but not for long.
I should just turn around to see those thick knees stiffen and see the world at last where it belongs. Under my son's feet.
That was then; that was Alex. This is now, and now it's Ned heaving on the crib bars, demanding to see the warden. I guess that's still me, for now. (November 2001)
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