For several months now, I've been carrying around a photo of my 2-year old son, Eddie, wedged inside a book of essays. In the photo, my son is sitting on the edge of our front garden. His cheeks look large like he's storing nuts, his limbs are still fleshy from baby fat, and his bangs are stuck to his forehead from sweat. He's staring off to the side as if he's waiting for someone. In fact he was -- a little girl down the street named Enid, who at the time looked just like Eddie except for her big Shirley Temple curls. In the photo taken just after this one, Enid is sitting on the curb right next to Eddie.
"Cute photo. Is that your inspiration?" asked my friend, Eileen, who saw me sitting in a café the other day with the photo of Eddie next to my laptop.
"No. I carry that photo around so that when I get mad at him, I can remember how cute he is," I said.
And lately, I've been getting mad at him a lot. Part of it is my own fault. I'm not a patient person, and a toddler will certainly try one's patience. I'm quick to get annoyed and not so quick to forgive. I hold grudges like people hold mementos, keeping them in a jewelry box and getting mad again every time I stumble upon them anew. My husband, Bruce, was once late getting home, in turn making me late for a children's show to which I was going to take Eddie. As my son and I rushed off to the event, I noticed the tires on our brand new baby carriage had not yet been filled with air, but Bruce hustled us out the door saying it was fine to use a stroller with flat tires. He was wrong. That maiden voyage ruined the valves on the tires, and even now, a year later, they go flat about once a week. And every time we have to refill them, I get annoyed at Bruce all over again for being late and for his bad advice.
But part of the reason I've been getting mad a lot at Eddie is because he's a toddler, and it's turned him into the human equivalent of a car alarm: endlessly annoying. He knocks things over, dumps things out, kicks, crushes, and on rare occasions, bites -- though, thankfully, I think we've nipped that last one in the bud. He can clear a table of all its objects in five seconds flat with those stubby little hands. He'll take a full glass of water, have a few sips, and then dump the rest onto the floor. Why? Because I once told him not to. The other day, he dumped three glasses of water onto the floor. He would have dumped a fourth if I would have given it to him.
That day actually started out rather well. With the heat wave making it unbearable to be outside, I thought we'd stay inside in the air conditioning and do some spin art. I spread a drop cloth out on the living room rug and placed the little plastic spinning machine in the center of it to give us maximum protection on all sides. What I didn't count on was that when I got up for a moment to go into the kitchen, Eddie would pick up a bottle of paint, walk over to the edge of the drop cloth and squeeze it onto my rug with the audacity of a drunken frat boy peeing on the front lawn of the girl who dumped him.
"Why did you do that?!?" I said. "We were having fun! Why did you have to do that?"
I probably sounded like Ray Liotta in the movie Goodfellas when he finds out that during a drug raid, his wife flushed $60,000 worth of cocaine down the toilet.
"Why did you do that?" he keeps asking her. "Why did you do that? Why did you have to do that?"
Eddie just stood there for a moment looking at me, and I felt like a heel -- until he pointed the yellow bottle of paint toward my shorts and gave it another good squeeze.
"That's it!" I said. "You're getting a time-out."
I put him in the designated time-out chair and walked into the kitchen to try to get the paint off my shorts. I walked back in to the living room with a bottle of seltzer and poured it on to the paint stains on the rug, to no avail.
"Do you know why you're having a time out? Because you can't squirt paint on everything. And you did it again right after I told you not to," I said.
The rules must sound so dumb. "You can't squirt paint on everything?" I'm not even sure what that means. And the fact is, a minute earlier, I was encouraging him to squirt paint, into the little spin art machine. I felt bad for him, trying to navigate a world of imprecise language and arbitrary rules, like a blind man only being alerted to danger when he's already upon it.
When his "time out" was over, he said he was thirsty. I tried to give him a drink in his sippy cup, but we recently saw the movie Monsters University so he wanted to use the cup that had characters from the movie on it. I filled the cup with water but told him to be careful as it didn't have a cover like his regular cup. That's when he dumped the first of three cups of water onto the floor. I got mad. I yelled. And then I felt bad. If I'd have had that photo of him with the big cheeks and the bangs pasted to his forehead from sweat, it might have been easier to forgive, but it was deep inside my knapsack, wedged in the book of essays.
With the heat wave still in full progress, I've had the air conditioner on in my office and have both my office and bedroom doors closed to keep in the cool air. The result is that it's harder to hear Eddie when he wakes up. This morning, he woke up and got his finger caught in the spring of a hairclip I'd put on his teddy bear. He started to cry, and I'm not sure for how long he was crying -- one minute? five minutes? -- before I finally heard him through my bedroom and office doors. By the time I went into his room, his cheeks were red and tears were streaming down his face.
I picked him up out of the crib and rubbed his finger and kept apologizing, saying how very sorry I was that I hadn't come sooner, but with the air conditioner on, I hadn't heard him.
"Should we get some ice?" I asked.
"Sure," he said and smiled.
And just like that, all was forgiven. And I once again learned a life lesson from a 2-year old.