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Our Boys Are In the Air; The Happy Time; "Hang On, Kowolski!"; Snapshots; Better You Than Me; Can We Keep Him?

Our Boys Are In The Air

This August, when I'm 27,000 up in a jet and when I don't have enough of those 27,000 feet between me and a screaming Alex, I will at least know that I'm not the first person who tried to fly with kids. Readers of the late-May essay "High Hopes" responded with splendid tips on how to drag Alex and Ned through an airport and seal them for hours in a jetliner.

"I just got back from flying cross-country without my kids, and had a wailer on my plane, too," said Dear Reader Cindy. "I was annoyed with the parents for not thinking ahead. The kid was maybe 14 months old, walking, and bored out of his brain with having to stay in his seat while the seat belt sign was on. His parents had brought no toys, no books, no snacks, absolutely nothing in the way of alternative entertainment. They were expecting him to sit quietly for the whole trip? Or watch the movie maybe?"

"It used to absolutely drive me nuts being with children on a flight," recalled Dear Reader Patricia. "Two and a half years and the birth of my twins changed things. Now the only thing I expect is to see the parents trying frantically to do something to appease their child. I don't blame the child for screaming (truth be told, if I was allowed to scream through the entire flight I would too), but I do blame the parents for sitting by idly and ignoring them."

Dear Reader Liz reported that "tons" of Web sites offer advice for flying with kids: snacks, water, wrapped-up toys. "Nico, our 21-month-old, just discovered crayons and loved them, so a new box of crayons and a coloring book actually bought us about 10 minutes of happiness," said Liz. "One thing we found helpful was to bring his porta-booster seat. It immobilized him better than the plane seat and gave him the idea that it was sit-and play- or eat-time, and not climb-time. Also, running Nico around at the gate before boarding helped him sleep for about an hour both ways."

Our flight could be a complicated one, New York to Denver. At least there will be no ocean. Dear Reader Kris said she's flown with her son, now almost 2, a lot of times, "but I feel like a 'pro' ever since I took him by myself to Germany," she said. "This may not seem such a thrilling feat on the surface, but you must know that on a Scatterbrain Scale of 1 to 10, I'm about an 8; on a Wildcrazyhyperboy Scale of 1 to 10, my son is about a 35; and I don't speak a lick of German (and we had to change planes in Frankfurt!) It was a 9-hour flight, and I was pretty sure that we would be ejected somewhere over the Atlantic."

Cindy's daughter, when age two, once screamed for an hour on a flight. "I actually timed it," recalled Cindy. What about drugs? "We'd given her Dramamine in the hopes it would make her sleep. It made her sleepy, but without the option to lie on her belly on a flat surface as she was used to, no way was she sleeping." I meant what about drugs for the parents?

"Remember," said Dear Reader Lori, "the people that give you nasty looks get really grossed out when you change a nasty stinky diaper at the seat right next to them." And Julie found out that "those damned diapers" fill up a lot faster at high altitudes. "We had to buy clothes for him in the airport on the layover because I didn't quite think ahead on that measure. He now has a heinous purple polyester 'Littlest Vikings Fan' sweat suit as a result."

"Get a car seat to strap your kid into," said Dear Reader Julie, referring I think only to when Alex is on an airplane. "It also sits them up high enough so they can see out the window without getting out of their seatbelt, and it sets them up just about even with the food tray when it comes."

Oh god, the food tray ...

Lori seconded the suggestion of a car seat also because it's FAA regulations (please nobody tell the FAA that Alex is flying this summer!), and "that way (Alex) will understand he has to sit still ... and although many adults can't open the (airplane) seat belt, you can bet toddlers have it figured out in milliseconds."

Decide ahead of time the logistics of who will carry what through the airport and onto the plane to "avoid in-transit conflict," added Julie, who apparently is an optimist.

According to those who should know, a flight from even New York to Newark, New Jersey, requires toys. Toys toys toys toys toys. (Kris, as if estimating fuel consumption, calculated that one new toy lasts one hour of flight time.) Julie makes a pre-flight, secret trip to Toys R Us. "The cheaper the toy, the more Alex likes it," she said. "Big hits have been plain paper with crayons and stickers, a new book, and cheap cars and airplanes." She also links up with an outfit called Babies Away (www.babiesaway.com), from which roadie parents can rent cribs, toys, car seats, and other items.

Other toy suggestions:

-Junk mail catalogues. "The kids seem to greatly enjoy destroying them, they cost nothing, and you can toss them (the catalogs) once you have arrived at your destination," said Patricia.

-A small flashlight with extra bulbs and battery. "When I showed him that he could put his hand in front of the beam to make shadows, he was absolutely mesmerized," recalled Kris.

-A travel-size magna-doodle so dad doesn't have to root around under the seats -- and under other passengers -- for lost crayons.

-A small cassette player or Walkman. Keep the volume low.

And relax, advised Liz. "There were no real meltdowns during the flight, just fidgets and boredom. No terror or anger ... So probably flying won't be horrible for you, just long." "You'll find that the kids take the travel much more in stride than you anticipate," Julie concluded.

Like I said, an optimist. Hope she's sitting in front of us. (June 2001)

The Happy Time

Ned is gurgling and sitting by himself, fiddling with blocks and gumming the glossy pages of catalogs. Alex will start school in a few weeks, and he's learning how to eat right and is saying new words. Last night, he put a tape in and turned on the VCR by himself.

This happy time would be even happier if we could get some sleep. The worst moment of the worst nights is when Jill wakes me in what feels like just before dawn. I've been in a deep, sweet sleep. She has pulled me out of a dream. "Jeff, Alex is howling and I've been up with Ned twice already," her shadow says in the bed beside me.

I've long since been conditioned not to say a word when she wakes me like this, but just to do what she says needs to be done. (In boot camp, they call this "the breakthrough.") Besides, I went to bed around 11, and I must have had six or so hours by now.

As I stumble up, I glance at the clock.

12:45.

Ah God. Ah God. Ah God. Alex is calling calling calling. I stumble into the shadows of his room and see his T shirt sitting upright in the crib. He makes a pre-language call: "Ahh Ahh Ahh!"

"Alex, what do you want? You want a drink of water?" Go to sleep for God's sake!

"A-wa-wa..."

I get him water. Sometimes this makes him drop his head back down to the crib mattress, sometimes it just makes him still sit there, fondling one of my T shirts that he sleeps with, and which is becoming his version of a security blanket. I wish I had a security blanket.

I wonder if sometimes Alex is hungry in the middle of the night. We're monkeying with his eating schedule these days, trying to get him to eat better food. Often, dinner is us pushing for chicken or fish and Alex pulling for Bugles and Chee-tos. He's also taken to napping in the afternoons again. All this has mucked up his sleep.

"Alex, daddy needs you to go to sleep. Alex, daddy needs to go to sleep," I say to him. On good nights, that's the end of it. I stumble back to bed and climb in. My elbow bumps something little and hard and Jill's shadow asks, "Can you put Ned back in his bassinet?"

Ned slept with us a few times when he came home, but that's out now. He's turned into too much of a space hog, not to mention that he wakes us up in the middle of the night - is there any other time of night lately? - by scrabbling his fine fingernails on our backs. I hoist Ned out and up; his head lolls on my shoulder as I slide him back into the bassinet near the foot of our bed. I tuck the blanket around his dim little form and get back into bed.

My dreams lately have made my heart pound in my sleep, but I can't remember any of them. Hearing about other people's dreams always made me sleepy, anyway. Remember what it was to actually need to be made sleepy? I drop into one of those dreams for a few seconds until Jill's hand touches my back.

"Jeff. Alex." Computer: 3:30.

Usually this time I'm clear-headed, clear-headed enough to actually consider getting up for the day. I find Alex "ahh ahh ahhing." More water? What's the matter? What in hell's the matter? I can't stop his crying - in fact, the open-mouth wail takes hold and laying him down only makes him cry like I sawed off his arm. I hear Jill's patter behind me.

"I don't know what's the matter with him tonight," Jill says. "I was just in here. Alex, what's the matter, sweetie?"

We fumble and fuss over him in the dark. My attention wanders to the window across the alley - don't those people ever shut their lights off? - and after a respectful few moments I leave Alex to Jill and return to bed. In a moment, the sounds of his cries stop penetrating my pillow.

My head has gotten to know my pillow pretty well when the wild visions in my head start to include a baby crying. Now why would a baby be-

"Jeff, can you settle Ned? I just put him back there."

My eyes open on a pale gray light through the curtains, and I can see my alarm clock. 6:11. I get up, marveling in my foggy brain that I don't actually trip over anything, and find Ned's form there in the bassinet. My fingers probe and fumble around his head, and finally locate his binkie. I put it in his mouth and snuggle him in with the Beanie Baby and maybe a blanket.

I climb back into bed, but I feel the sheets don't want me there anymore. "You had the chance to make this night work," they seem to say.

Jill bumps me. "Alarm," she says. 7:34. I have to get up now and go to work. Where did the evening go? (August 2001)

"Hang On, Kowolski!"

Jill and I are back from our first family vacation. The drive was nine hours drive each way, Jill and me in the front with Alex and Ned strapped into the back seat. Nine hours of crying, tears, and tantrums. But thank goodness the boys stayed quiet.

The quotes started the night before we left, when I said, "Ned needs a change!" and Jill replied, "That's why we're going to Maine!" The wit flowed from there. Among the best lines from the car:

-"We are never doing this again!" Jill said this, I don't know, eight thousand times between The Bronx and the gravel driveway of our bayside vacation house. For me, this trip was a pilgrimage home. But for Jill, it became a matter of twisting around in the passenger seat to comfort Ned when he started crying. She had particular trouble feeding him backwards and upside-down in the stop-and-go of I-95 outside Boston (leading to the Runner Up in our Best Quotes Contest: "You're not the smoothest braker in the world, Jeff!"). Good thing we didn't pack a divorce lawyer.

-"Blahhchh!" Poor Alex, he almost made it. But on the twists and turns near Ellsworth, Maine, the motion, the sunlight, and the steady diet of crunchy crap that we'd handed him all afternoon brought forth first two coughs -- which caused Jill, who was driving, to swerve at breakneck, pre-vomit speed into the parking lot of a migrant workers' motel - followed by, well, the stream. The migrants watched wordlessly as we whipped through a clip of diaper wipies to get the stuff off the car seat and our luggage. Alex needed a total change. (Almost as total as the one he needed in a restaurant a few nights later, when, in the words of my friend, fellow dad and fellow vacationer Jon, we "lost containment" on a diaper and Alex wound up naked under the window of a meatloaf and pie eatery while Jill scrubbed with everything she could find. "From his arms! His arms!" she said later.) Anyway, in the middle of the clean-up outside the motel, one of the migrants asked me if I knew where the Wal-Mart was. Why? Was he going to buy us paper towels?

-"There's a roach on me!" Our vacation house was home to more than mosquitoes, it seems, and on the ride back Jill had just settled in the back seat -- the better to calm Ned -- when she let this one fly. I had killed an earwig near that very spot just an hour earlier, and you didn't hear me squawking about it.

-"Is this volume, an accident, or what?" I haven't done a lot of driving in the last several years, and my innocence evaporated approaching the clogged toll booths of the New Hampshire Turnpike. There we had 30-minute crawls to the privilege of spending one damned dollar to drive through to the Maine border. I would have paid 10 bucks to avoid the Turnpike altogether, but New England, unlike New York City, isn't built that way. I tried over and over to explain this to Jill, who looked at the other cars and just muttered, "I hate all these people." Incidentally, not until the return trip, outside New York City, did a jam pay off in an accident: a car spectacularly flipped over. I hope they didn't do it for our benefit.

-"Hang on, Kowolski!" Being rookies at car travel with kids, Jill and I tried to feed Ned while he sat strapped in his car seat, facing the rear window. The one of us in the passenger seat would get into a crouch, facing backwards, and maneuver the spoon and food into his mouth, which was just ever so slightly out of sight. Jill hated doing this.

When it came my turn, however, I snapped off my seatbelt and grabbed the strained carrots as if grabbing a first-aid kit, exclaiming, "Oh boy, it's like I'm in a bomber and I have to help a wounded crewman!" I leaned over Ned and cried, "Hang on, Kowolski!" You have to do this stuff on a long drive.

-"Moo-zik!" One of the surprise pleasures of the week with Jon and his wife Cindy was that they lent us a Jessica Harper CD. Soon Alex would accept no substitute for road tunes. Oldies stations, other CDs, his parents soothing tones ("There's a roach on me!") only set him wiggling in the car seat and firing requests for "Moo-zik! Moo-zik!" until we slid in Harper's "Rhythm in My Shoes."

Here's the weird part: When we got home, Alex continued requesting "moo-zik!" and was only satisfied with Harper's CD. But he wouldn't listen to it unless strapped into his booster seat. Alex seems to find the home combination of seat, straps, and music just as satisfying as a long car trip, which is good because, as I heard somewhere, we are never doing that again. (August 2001)

Snapshots

"I find reading other people's holiday features about as interesting as sitting down for half an hour with their holiday snaps. This is doubtless a character flaw, but I get easily bored." - British Airways magazine editor, in a recent classified.

Here are scenes from our recent week in Maine:

-Said my friend and fellow vacationer Jon, " It's a whole different experience coming on vacation with kids. You have to take what is a difficult job already, one that you normally do around your home, and bring it on the road."

Like me he's a dad of two, and like me he brought to Maine books to browse and dreams to dream of shoreline walks and swings in a shady hammock. Except our vacation house had no hammock, and after a day or so we realized that the best we could grab was a few hours of wine and talk after the kids were asleep.

"I've read maybe three pages of the book I brought," Jon said on our last day.

-I saw my brother. Pictures exchanged in the uncounted months since we've seen each other made him look like a middle-aged guy growing pudgy in the recliner. But the first thing I glimpsed as he approached our front screen door was his midsection, and he's slim as ever. He's gone gray in hair and mustache, but aside from that he might as well be the high schooler who used to throw me down the hill, or the 20-something who'd toss the Frisbee around with me from after dinner until dark.

This was his first real exposure to his nephews. I've seen him deal with kids twice in his life. Once, while he was playing pinball in a bowling alley a little kid wiggled between him and the machine and stuck up his head in my brother's field of vision. My brother tossed him aside like a movie monster tossing a bus. Another time, I was eating lunch with my brother and his girlfriend in a diner when two screaming kids ran by. My brother watched them go and said, "Makes you want to run right out and have a couple, doesn't it?"

Ned and Alex consumed one of my brother's few days off during splendid summer weather. But he sat in a Bar Harbor park with Ned at his feet, and even pushed a stroller in public ("Wish you'd gotten a picture of that," his mother-in-law reportedly said later.) Alex (Alexander Lee) is also named after him, and he seemed to take a special pleasure in Alex.

Pleasure is hard to spot in a guy from Maine, but often comes through in action, attention, and quick compliments. We left my brother with Alex on the sidewalk for a few minutes, for instance, and when we returned my brother said, "Alex is a wicked babe magnet!"

Then there was the restaurant. We had burgers and fries, nibbles of which had been sure bets with Alex until that afternoon, which was the launch of his unannounced Post-French Fry Period. He fussed - so did Ned, for that matter - and seemed mostly to want to bang a spoon on the table. My brother ("Makes you want to run right out and have a couple ... ") spent a few minutes watching Alex, then tore off a tiny bit of fry and placed it on a spoon. Alex threw it all on the floor, but, trust me, Alex is the first kid my brother has done this for in a restaurant.

We hugged goodbye in a parking lot. My brother told me he loved me. He's gone gray. I miss him.

-I'm not sure Jill had ever had fish chowder prior to this trip, but we toured stands and sampled their $3.95 servings with a travel writer's zeal. Best we found was at an stand at the turn-off for a secluded beach on Mount Desert Island. This place used butter, not margarine, and like all thoroughbred chowder stops prescribed to none of that "outastata" crap about bacon in chowder. They also cooked their chowder the night before and refrigerated it, allowing the ingredients to get to know each other, before nuking individual orders for customers. What impressed me most was that this stand was in the middle of the woods, with no other stands nearby. They didn't have to do a good job. But they did. Jill asked for the recipe. They refused to give it.

-Alex got a critically poopy diaper in a pie restaurant just as I had a fit about how the vacation was not turning into the pilgrimage to home and truth that I'd envisioned. Jill snapped into her Combat Mom mode, hauling Alex outside to the gravel near the parking lot to wipe him off toe to arms, while I ran to the car to fetch fresh clothes. That left Ned alone; when we returned he'd been adopted by a family at a nearby table. "We've all been there, mom," a woman in the family told Jill.

"Jeff, I just don't see how I can stay married to you if you don't change your expectations," Jill told me in the parking lot a few minutes later. She meant it. I shut up and tried harder to enjoy myself, and that's enough said about the pie restaurant.

-Next day we drove to my hometown. In a mall arcade where I squandered months of youth, I won Alex a new plastic bath time flute at skee ball. Then we wheeled him through KB Toys until he had to be distracted by the 25-cent toy jeep ride outside Lechters. "Muh!" he kept saying as I poured quarters into the little slot. I used to lose a lot of quarters in this mall, but never this way.

Then we swung by the home of one of Alex's old PICU nurses. She and I went to elementary school together - I kissed her in second grade - and she lives in Bangor now. Dear readers may recall how she and I re-discovered each other over Alex's unconscious, vented form one winter evening three years ago. Her name is Rose.

Jill called Rose from a gas station pay phone - our cell could find no signal in Maine - and soon we pulled to a curb on a street I'd nearly forgotten, and found Rose sitting on a porch. Alex squealed as she held out her arms for him, which is weird when you consider that he spent his previous time around her sedated and artificially paralyzed, and there is little way he could remember her. She gave him a big squeeze. He squealed more when he ran around her apartment and tried to touch her agelessly patient cat. Rose gave us Fresca. We talked about people we mutually hated at Alex's old hospital.

As we drove off she kept saying, "You made my year! You have no idea!"

A sunny day within sight of my old junior high, a sweet cat, an old friend, two sparkling sons. I couldn't have predicted any of that on those black nights back in the PICU. I'm glad I have the snapshot. (August 2001)

Better You Than Me

Yesterday Ned, Jill, and I went to a "special services and family" fair. I went to push my essays and to prime the pump about speaking of my NICU experience. Jill went to learn about services for Alex. Ned went to be admired, and succeeded best of all three of us. "What an adorable baby!" everyone said. "Come meet this remarkable couple!"

They said a lot to us, all of it constructive: how to apply for money and care; how to learn more that will help Alex; how to get the best for all of us five years or so down the road. The fair touched us, too, for what wasn't said.

"You didn't get the feeling," Jill remarked, "that anyone there was thinking, 'better you than me.'"

Better you than me. Let's call it BYTM, and it's been a silent burden for almost four years now. Jill was no sooner slapped on bed rest in the spring of 1998 than I began to sense that people were looking on us first with pity, then relief. Fueling this were the words of my old high school English teacher, a professor-smart man who helped Stephen King write many of his first novels and for whom I harbored schoolgirlish respect in 12th grade.

But he was a dark man. "There are those who believe," he once said, "that no matter how close you are to someone, when something bad happens to them a little part of you thinks, 'Better you than me.'" (King himself fiddled that tune in Storm of the Century, when a town of normal folks surrenders one child to the Devil to protect their own kids.)

I've seen little to contradict BYTM. When my father died in 1974, my mom's sisters, whose husbands were still alive, told her they understood what she was going through. "But they don't understand," my mother said to me later. "They sympathize, but they don't understand."

When I was hammered through 1998 by a rocky pregnancy, the premature birth of a baby, and the death of my mother, I began to see in the eyes of co-workers as much pity as I saw steel in the eyes of doctors. My boss never hesitated to give me an hour, an afternoon, or a day off to hit the hospital or fly to my mother's side. But to ask for that time whittled at me.

I went to work two days after Alex was born, and my then-new co-workers gathered around me to collect the news. They didn't say much. They didn't need to: I heard their screams of "Poor bastard!" Readers e-mailed that the saga of my son -- my son -- made them hug their children tighter. I knew how they meant it, and was flattered for the good thoughts. But nobody wants their son to be the reason somebody else holds their kid tighter.

I didn't sense BYTM from my brother, though. I phoned him on one of Alex's bleakest nights in the hospital, and my brother remarked, "I have absolutely no idea what to say to you." Better no one than you, he seemed to say.

Better you than me. Four words I tried to not say to myself as Alex grew gram by gram, and as online I happened across other babies' memorials. As Ned emerged calm and strong, Alex went on to school, and I learned of others' NICU stays that were just beginning. I thought I was past BYTM.

Then I heard this morning that a colleague's wife has cancer. He tells me her outlook isn't good. I try to not listen to the muted calls in the next cubicle, or notice him as he darts home unexpectedly at mid-day. I don't say much. I try keep my questions level and upbeat. But he won't look up as he wonders aloud how he's going to tell his 12-year-son. What could this be like to have hanging over your marriage? I recall how just last week after a fight in my own, suddenly solid home, I thought how I'd miss Jill if I killed her. (Even remarkable couples have to joke.)

All I can do is tell my boss I'll pitch in to cover for my colleague. It's all I can do, since I have absolutely no idea what to say. (November 2001)

Can We Keep Him?

If you find yourself at the corner of East 104th Street and Park Avenue, and you have time, and it's daylight, stop and say hello to the slim tuxedo cat. He looks young, and he obviously hasn't hung around the corner of East 104th Street and Park Avenue, under the Metro North tracks, for long, because he's friendly. He comes up on his hind legs to sniff and rub his soft snout against your fingers. Stop and see him.

"I know this cat," says Jill as we approach. She prowls the neighborhood with Ned during the week. Jill and I used to own a tuxedo cat. His name was Monroe, and he was a lot fatter -- at least until the end -- than this little guy.

You can tell in the first few seconds if a sidewalk cat will allow being picked up even a little, and this guy says yes. I lift him a little closer to Ned, watching simultaneously for opened claws and ambitious fleas, and Ned wears a frozen smile as he reaches out and strokes the side of the cat's head. Then he pulls his hand away and laughs, twisting in the stroller straps.

"Alex, look."

I have to position the cat closer to Alex than I did to Ned, but Alex too gets the picture. He reaches out with his expectant, bright expression, runs his hand down the black and white coat, and also laughs and squeals. Ned takes a little grip. "No," we tell him, "no, Ned. He won't like that."

Most parents I've seen don't have a clue how to acquaint their kids with animals. Once at the Baltimore Zoo I saw a boy reaching his arm into the prairie dog pen until his father told him to stop. "Why can't I do that?" the boy asked. "Because you might get hurt," the father replied. Wrong. You shouldn't do it, primarily, because the animals don't like it.

Ned stops the gripping and goes back to stroking. (Ned loves animals, even the pigeons on the playground; Alex seems to like the feel of his grandmother's big, friendly tom.) The cat laps the attention until I turn my head up to Jill. "He should come home with us," I say.

"Oh no, no, Jeff."

Can we keep him, mom?

Jill had two cats when I met her: tux Monroe, and Mimi, an all-brownish black Burmese. Jill called Mimi her baby cat, because he incessantly craved attention and because he liked to sleep next to her. (That was fun on hot nights in August.) Mimi used to sit on the couch next to me during my first dates with Jill - which was a lot more than I could say for Jill, who stared at me from across the living room and shifted only slightly in her chair as she asked me questions like, "What motivates you to say that?" I would pet Mimi and try to change the subject. Monroe was more reserved. He was from New England. He had six toes and ate like a dog: greedily and without stopping until the bowl was empty. He used to ask for breakfast at five in the morning. He would stand on his hind legs -- almost -- for a piece of whitefish. We called them our boys, or sometimes our big furry bugs, as in, "Why do we let these big furry bugs live in our house?" The lived with us for two years in Brooklyn, two years in Ithaca, and almost three years in Baltimore.

Monroe died in Baltimore, of kidney failure. Mimi died shortly after Alex was born. We've had no cats since.

We've often talked about getting one. (We do have a neighbor's cat coming for the holidays, and Aunt Julie keeps trying to get us to adopt a friend's tux - she keeps e-mailing us pictures of the cat under the title, "Your cat.") But getting Alex out of the hospital and getting him off the home medical equipment, the moving and renovating, then getting Ned born and Alex into school, left little room to squeeze in even a cat the size of the guy on the corner of East 104th.

Can we keep him, mom? Not this time.

I always think it's going to be hard to get away from a sidewalk cat, but all we have to do is start wheeling our boys toward the train tracks. The cat looks after us for a few minutes, but then his attention is taken by a man walking by. As I watch, the man begins to kneel and the cat walks toward him. That's the last I see, as the sun's gone down and this is a bad neighborhood after dark, and anyway the boys need dinner, a bath, and bed. (December 2001)

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