Recently, my wife Caroline was away giving a talk at the University of Western Ontario. (You can see the poster for her talk here -- she'd probably prefer I not post it, but I'm too proud.) While she was gone our two boys (Jay, 3, and Wally, 10 mo.) were good, but after I'd gotten them into bed on Thursday night I slumped on the couch, imagining myself as a superhero who'd exhausted himself in the process of exercising his superpower.
Sitting on the couch, I noticed how quiet the house felt. Most nights are pretty quiet around here, but there's something different about being the only adult in a house -- the stillness is denser, heavier. It more closely resembles what it's like to be alone in the woods. Altogether, I don't mind the feeling.
Fifteen minutes after the boys had gone to bed I was still sitting on the couch when Jay called out from his crib: "I want my blankets on."
It's funny: For two-and-a-half years, Jay slept every night in a completely empty crib. But a couple of months ago he was sick and we gave him a pillow to elevate his head. Since then, he's filled the crib with just about every soft thing in his room: the pillow, eight stuffed animals (that he refers to somewhat creepily as "pets") and four blankets.
As I walked upstairs to his room I thought about a conversation I'd had the first semester of my freshman year of college. It took place in the stairwell of my dorm and maybe six or eight of us were there.
The topic was whether the certainty you have that someone exists changes depending on whether they're standing right in front of you or are on the other side of a door. A few times over the course of the conversation, someone would walk out the front door of the dorm to dramatize the point. As soon as he disappeared from view, the argument went, the people inside had to downgrade the likelihood, even just a little, that he still existed.
The conversation lasted until dawn. Even at the time, I remember thinking that it was almost too classically the type of thing you're supposed to do your first year of college, though I loved being a part of it, anyway.
When I got to Jay's room I found him lying on his back with his hands behind his head. He repeated his request. I layered the blankets on top of him like strips of phyllo dough. Once the last blanket had been placed he looked up at me. "Is this a nice bed?" he asked. We both knew the answer to that one.
As I went back downstairs in the quiet house, it occurred to me that when Jay calls to us from his crib he has not a single shred of doubt that we will be there to hear him. You can tell by his voice -- there's not a tremble of uncertainty, not even the hint of a question. He's no less certain of his own name, or of the existence of his right hand, than he is of our presence in the house as he sleeps at night.
This is a wonderful thing to give a child. There's something in it for me, too. I think Jay believes in my existence even more than I do -- and his confidence has a way of fortifying my own.