The other day we were at the YMCA and Sean agreed to use the potty before we left to run errands. An unusual compliance from him, I applauded his self awareness. But then Sean began getting nervous as he surveyed all of the toilets.
Sean: Which one can I use, Mama?
me: Any one you want, buddy.
Sean: Do the toilets flush by themselves?
me: Yes, Sean, all of them do in here. We talk about this every time.
Sean: I don't like it when the toilets flush by themselves!
This rigamarole. We go to the YMCA a couple times a week, and he always worries about the same thing. He doesn't like how loud the toilets sound when they flush, and his dislike is heightened by the fact that the toilets seemingly flush on their own accord. I did not have much patience for this predictable exchange.
me: I know you don't, but it's time to use the potty and then we need to go! Come on -
He slowly, ever so slowly, began pulling down his pants, bending over at the waist to do so. His head came precipitously close to carressing the toilet seat, which always gives my stomach a lurch, and he whimpered quietly all the while. I was not in the mood to discuss his behavior or fears of the toilet, and Audrey was desperately trying to wiggle out of my arms. I was snippy.
me: Let's go, Sean!
Sean: (still whining) I'm just pulling down my pants. I don't like it when the toilet flushes by itself!
me: I heard you the first time.
After he used the potty, he ran at my legs, which were blocking his exit from the stall, and he avoided looking in the direction of the toilet while it flushed. He believed that looking at the flushing toilet made the sound, the surprise, and the whole experience that much scarier. With pants back on and safely away from the monster toilet, he moved to the sink area searching for the stool that usually allowed him to stand at the sinks by himself. The stool was missing.
Sean: Where's the stool??
me: I don't know, Seancito, but we need to wash hands and get going, so I will just lift you up.
Sean: But I want the stool!
me: Yes, but it's not here, so please just let me lift you.
I balanced Audrey on the sink counter. Then with Sean's belly pressed to the sink and with one knee raised in the air to help keep Sean elevated, I turned on the water and quickly applied soap to Sean's hands. During all of this a woman approached another sink beside us, and she watched while washing her hands.
Sean: (glancing over to the other two sinks) I... Mama... I... I... I want to go over to that sink. (the whining continues) I want to use that other sink. Not this one!
me: No, you absolutely can not use that other sink. Please scrub your hands with soap and then we're going to go.
He tosses his head to the side, as if using this sink is the worst thing that's happened to him.
Sean: (low grunt) uuuuuuhhhhhhhh, Maaaamaaaa..... nooooooooo.
woman: I have 3 year old boys. (eyes darting down to Sean and then back to mine in the mirror) How old is he?
me: (laughing with exasperation) He's 3. Does this look familiar to you, or am I the only one putting up with this?
woman: It looks familiar. Hang in there.
This is not the only time Sean has fought a seemingly normal routine like going potty and washing hands. Most nights, he claims he doesn't want to brush his teeth. And every nap time and night time ritual is complete with this dialogue:
me: Okay, buddy, good night. (give Sean a kiss on the head) Thanks for a fun day (which is said even if it's been a pretty rough day. Most days have fun present in them, even if it's in short supply). I hope you sleep well.
Sean: (quiet whine) Mama?
I know what's coming, but I still answer.
Sean: I don't like it when you leave.
me: I'm not leaving, Sean, I'm just going to be in the other room.
Sean: But I don't like it when you leave my room.
me: Yes, I know, thank you. You say this every night. Are we going to blow kisses?
The blowing kisses ritual usually gets him out of his practiced whine. The Cito loves to blow kisses with whomever has put him to bed. So me from the doorway and he from his bed, we blow kisses as I walk out of the room. Sweet, right? A beautiful ritual, yes? Yes! Until it doesn't go that way. Like at naptime yesterday:
me: Okay, sleep well, Seancito.
Sean: Mama? I don't like it when you leave.
me: Yes, I know, you say this every time. I'll just be in the next room.
me: YES, Sean!
Sean: (drops the whine and matter-of-factly) After you leave, I'm going to move the trashcan so it will keep the door from closing.
Again, a ritual that Sean feels it's necessary to include each time he lays down. Even when there's no breeze blowing his door shut, he likes to have the trash can there, just in case.
me: How about I do it right now, so we don't wake up Audrey (who's already asleep in her crib, not but 3 feet from the door).
Sean: (with increasing volume) Noooooo! I want to do it, Mama!
I move the trash can, and Sean melts down. Crying, wailing, like he's lost his only stuffed animal.
me: (stage whisper, to be heard over the increasingly louder cry, but not so loud to wake Audrey) Do you want to blow kisses?
He's kicking his feet, thrashing about, and he wants nothing to do with blowing kisses now.
Sometimes the fight comes from nowhere, and especially when he's riding in the backseat of the car.
Sean: No! Don't park the car in the garage!
Sean: No! Park the car in the garage!
Sean: Stop the car! Stop driving! I don't want you to drive! Stop the car! RIGHT! NOW!
Sean: No! I don't want to take this street! Why don't we take the highway?!? I don't want to go on this street!
Why must everything be a fight? Why must he rail against things that seem to be routine? Isn't that the whole purpose of having a routine? So that he'll get used to what comes next and be comfortable with it? This is why we brush teeth every night! (Well, for routine, AND for dental hygiene) This is why we read books and say prayers before bed, so that he'll know what to expect and feel safe with the ritual
I felt like Sean was fighting me on so many of the normal, every day routines, and I was beginning to think there was something wrong with my parenting. But then I looked back at my week. My Aunt Jeanne died last Thursday, August 9. My family gathered and had a beautiful wake and funeral for her on Sunday and Monday. It was an incredible celebration of her life filled with music, scripture and ritual - all picked out by Jeanne. Because I could see and feel her hand in everything, it felt like she was there with us singing, talking, and praying. It was very sad, but it was also so good to celebrate her life. I felt like I had multiple opportunities to grieve; to laugh and cry with my parents, siblings and cousins; to hug my mom who's missing her sister; and to sob at the loss of a wonderful woman who's meant so much to me.
And yet: when the funeral mass was coming to a close, the priest walked down from the altar area to stand by the casket and eventually lead her body out. Just at that moment I had the most irrational fight rage inside of me. Tears streaming down my face, and audible sobs leaving my mouth (sounds that I have made fun of my mother for producing in the past were now escaping my lips - I am becoming my mother!), I did not want that casket to leave. Somewhere in my brain it made sense that Jeanne's body should just stay there in the church. Somehow I thought that keeping the casket there, I wouldn't feel the pain of her leaving as deeply. No, no, NO! Don't take her body! No, leave it there! Don't take it! I fought the most commonplace part of the ritual. We all know that the body is brought into the funeral at the beginning and brought out at the end. Why fight what I know to be the routine? Facing my aunt's mortality, and subsequently facing my own, I was fighting the lack of control I have over this life. We are just here to live it, but we have no say when it ends.
Perhaps on a much simpler level - not one of life and death, but of dry or wet underwear, of dirty or clean hands, of brushed or un-brushed teeth - Sean can not be blamed for fighting us on the routines he knows so well. It's those routines that shape his everyday, so when other things feel out of his control, he picks at the things he knows he has control over. Is it possible that he senses, even at his young age, that growing up is difficult? In the words of Ben Folds, "everybody knows it sucks to grow up, and everybody does... the years go on and we're still fighting it."
There was one among us this past week who didn't seem to fight getting older. My nephew, Theo, was well prepared for the wake and funeral. His parents, concerned that he might be scared at his first wake, detailed what would happen. When told that Aunt Jeanne had died, and that he would see her body at the wake, Theo wanted to know if he would also see her privates. The answer was unequivocally "no." In his mind it seemed that those who die must not wear clothes after death. Fair enough.
Theo: Mommy, will her eyes be open or closed at the wake?
Susie: Eh, closed.
Theo: (after a moment) Could I open them?
Susie: No. Absolutely not.
At the wake, Theo walked up to the casket along with the rest of our family. He showed no signs of fear. In fact, when he stood in front of Jeanne's body he laid his hand across her arm and nearly tried prying her fingers apart until my mom stopped him. He went so far as to give Jeanne some kisses on her shoulder and he seemed comfortable just draped there beside her. Except for the growing line of people behind him, he could have stayed there all day. And he did return to the casket many times throughout the funeral. Once when I tried to entice him away from the casket, he moved just beyond my reach, and went over the kneeler.
Theo: I have to say a prayer right now.
Riiiight. He also would go over to Jeanne's body, rub her hand, and then come over to me and rub my hand.
Theo: Your hand feels just like hers!
I wasn't sure how to take that.
By far his best moment of acceptance was receiving his gift from Jeanne. As if knowing that it would make me cry all the harder, Jeanne had planned little gifts that we would each receive after she died. She gave each family member little crosses, pendants, rosaries, and trinkets that she had owned. Theo received a rosary. He accepted it with delight.
Theo: (laying the rosary out beside us on the couch) I have wanted this my whole life.
He was not kidding.
me: Oh really? (laughing) You have?
Theo: Yes. I was going to ask Maimie to get me one for my birthday, but now I don't have to.
A thoughtful moment...
Theo: A necklace... you can wear... underwater.
me: (more laughing) No, I don't think you can wear that underwater.
Theo: (taken aback) Why not?
me: (frantically searching my brain for a reason) Well... it's just not made for that.
Theo: But Uncle Gene has a necklace he wears with a picture of Jesus on it (a crucifix, but let's not mince words). And he wears it even when he goes swimming. And this has a picture of Jesus on it.
So true. Uncle Gene does wear a necklace with a crucifix on it and he doesn't take it off, even when he goes swimming. The cross was given to him by my Aunt Jeanne, so I've been told.
me: Aaaahh, right. I see....
Theo: (putting the rosary necklace around his neck) And the best part is... the cross hits my privates.
This statement might seem crude or insensitive to the outside observer, especially because it happened in the lobby of the funeral home. However, I believe that Theo was just fully embracing his gift from Jeanne. His parents astutely prepared him for this whole ritual, and instead of fearing it, he put his arms around the experience and hugged it tightly. He was grateful for the gift passed on to him, and he immediately associated it with our Uncle Gene who wears his cross so proudly, even when swimming. Theo found the positive amidst a tough situation. As he begins kindergarten this coming week, I don't think he'll be fighting the ever flowing current of growing up that surrounds him. In fact, I could easily seem him put on his underwater necklace and embrace his new found life as a kindergartener.
If only we could all be so lucky.