*Featured Artwork: “Always Loved” by Anita DriessenIt is Tuesday, 7:34 AM and I hate him. There is the voice I feel and the voice I will use. The struggle is fierce as I attempt to internalize all emotion, potential emphasis on words, or syllables, as I ask him the most significant question of the morning. “Will you please get dressed?”
He sits naked, in the winged back chair we bought when we thought we could still purchase adult things. We had picked out the custom orange fabric and it was an often-complimented piece of furniture, as was the living room table crafted from graffiti wooden planks, that according to Williamsburg furniture store legend were pieces of a truck in India. Now mere artifacts of a pre-children life that existed quietly inside our West Village apartment on Bank St between Greenwich and Washington, when we ordered mac and cheese with no bacon, cheeseburgers, fries, and mint chip ice cream from Westville.
If only at 7:34 AM, I could press those 10 numbers that are tattooed on my brain and hear those beautiful lyrics, “Hello, Westville, what do you want to order?”
With the belief they could deliver the impossible, I reply…
“How about one fully committed and dressed 10-year-old boy?”
At 7:42 AM, there is, quiet, quiet, don’t look. Do. Not. Look. There is movement. His naked butt sitting on the once upon a time fancy orange winged back chair lacks motion, but it is his legs where there is motion.
Do normal non paying attention things immediately.
His 10-year-old left foot slides thru one opening and his right foot through the other of his Scooby Doo underwear. I am–corner of my eye, edge of my parental mental health–watching, like the critical final potential game-winning at bat in the 9th inning of Game 7 of the World Series. With every motion, the voice of my dad rings in my ears, “Are you rooting, Stephen? Are you rooting?” The second time he would punch me in the shoulder and then say, “You are not rooting.” Yes, oh God, yes, Dad, I am rooting. Slowly he pulls Scooby up his legs and the mystery-solving dog settles on my son’s minuscule waist. With the crack of the bat, the fly ball, lifted in the air, I rise from the couch, wishing, hoping, rooting, rooting, “COME ON!” They linger on his waist, they settle on his waist, they remain on his waist, they… he, slowly begins to slide them down. Scooby descending quickly, pulled off my child’s body as if they are the single underwear brand made completely of sandpaper. They are off, he looks at me, with a sense of confusion and clarity, “They don’t feel comfortable. They are itchy and too tight and just not comfortable.”
I should know the answer. Not the answer, the how. I should at this point know the how of getting my 10-year-old naked son dressed in the morning. I should know how to convince him that the underwear is not itchy or uncomfortable. That it is fine. Or that we will buy him new ones, despite knowing that there have been many new ones and they did nothing. He has been mine, ours, for 10 years. At this point, solutions, successful strategies should have been acquired. At this point, somewhere, frontal lobe, back right lobe, forehead, there should exist answers, actionable, answers. But at this point, 10 years in, with more riddles than just this, there remains just…
I DON’T KNOOOOOOOW.
At 7:54 AM, his 8-year-old, brother Finn is dressed in his declared school uniform of light blue sweatpants and a long sleeve Lego Ninjago sweatshirt featuring Cole, Kai, Zane, and Jay, whose father is the evil Lord Garmadon.
Finn and the youngest of our three boys, Arlo, eat Eggo fluffy waffles with syrup and chocolate chips. The previous day, I separated out of a single zip-lock plastic bag, the jagged dark chocolate chips that my wife had bought from the semi-sweet chocolate chips that were intermingling and at times, landing on the Fluffy Eggo, thus ruining Finn’s waffle experience and moved them into two separate plastic bags. Jagged in one. Semi-sweet in the other. Not sure I did anything else that day that felt as rewarding.
Finn and Arlo eat fluffy Eggos with likely too many chocolate chips and syrup while sitting on the light grey child weathered sectional sofa and watch the animated adventures of Apple and Onion. As far as I can tell, the show is about an actual apple and onion and their encounters with other food items like Hot Dog and Chicken Nugget.
10-year-old Wyatt sits naked on the orange chair and watches too.
At 8:01 AM, about twenty-five minutes till the first round of “put your sneakers on, we need to go,” starts, I hate her.
I hate her for the “Morning Plan,” and her use of “we,” as if we are some kind of team. “We” are more like a boxer and trainer. My wife and I, in black shorts with white trim, slump in the corner, red gloves barely providing any protection as we absorb a barrage of prime, 1985 Mike Tyson, left hooks to the heart followed by right uppercuts that shoot our jaw up into our brain, all while she fans herself on a stool in the corner, skimming chapters of “The Explosive Child,” and periodically looking up and yelling “Just stay calm. Stay calm!”
Her Morning Plan has a singular goal: keep Wyatt downstairs. Get dressed downstairs. Brush his teeth downstairs. Eat breakfast. Everything downstairs, because upstairs is where his bed is, where the bathroom is, where the godforsaken opportunity for thinking is…and we cannot allow more thinking. We can only allow downstairs, because downstairs, heavenly downstairs, is where the front door is and if that opens and he walks out, oh boy, if he walks out, well, we got a shot.
It is during our weekly Facetime meetings with Dr. Reiss, where the Morning Plan is introduced, created, and agreed to be attempted. We discuss yesterday’s call with the new psychiatrist, Dr. Farrington, and her revelation that the dosage of medication that the previous psychiatrist had prescribed was at a level so low that we essentially were feeding our son Tic Tacs each evening with the expectation that it was going to create enormous change to the synaptic energy in his brain. I ask repeatedly about the power of the medicine.
“It will not just be the medicine. It will be a combination of therapy, what you both do with him at home, and the medication,” Dr. Reiss says.
I want to yell, “He’s ten!” How about it just be the medicine? I need it to be just the medicine because I am not sure he’s going to be able to sit down with you Dr. Reiss and share with you that he doesn’t feel fully comfortable having a penis because he likes feeling like a girl and putting on underwear makes him too aware of his male body parts and not able to feel like himself and he’s not sure if he’s even a himself. So how about a pill?
Before my wife and I got married, my mother told me that my father had expressed concern about my future brother in law’s gayness being passed along to our children. This from the man that saw La Cage aux Folles on Broadway at least 4 times and would inappropriately hum sing “The Best of Times is Now,” while coaching my little league games.
But our family’s DNA was not some goodie bag of Tootsie Pops with well-adjusted, self-aware centers. Grandma Sadie made eggs and onions, gave me white tube socks from Sears for my birthday, and took weekly ambulance rides as if they were really quick taxis. My father hyperventilated into my middle sister, Janet’s black camera case, while we all looked up and away, on a glass-bottom boat ride during our 1985 holiday vacation in Aruba. He took his blood pressure between 8 to 10 times a day, ordered hot water and lemon from bewildered waiters at restaurants ranging from Felida on the Upper East Side to the Fame diner on Union Turnpike. When he was around the boys, he was on nonstop alert, barking out “Stephen, watch him… watch him… watch him…” as if they were all 7500 ft above ground, walking across a wire attached to two Delta airline flights headed to Phoenix rather than playing with Batman, Riddler and Harley Quinn action figures on the living room floor.
At 8:20 AM, I look at him, not a single piece of clothing on his body and it is clear what we have gifted him.
Paralyzing, anxiety-ridden, fear.
I feel trapped. Completely trapped. Trapped by trying to figure out the time of everything and what everything was when and how and trapped by just existing in this because now my breath is caught in my throat and I cannot find any word to create the metaphor to explain the feeling of anxiety that I feel in my chest because I don’t want to write the word anxiety because I am aware that I am already writing about the anxiety in my son. But it is what this is. I want to peel myself off myself. That is what I want to do. Oh god…Oh… Wyatt is that why you want to be naked?
HOLY FUCK. There…
Wyatt… Wyatt… Wyatt… I need to talk to you because I think maybe I understand. Maybe for the first time I understand. It has to be the first time because I have never understood any of it before. Do you feel trapped Wy? Trapped on your insides? Trapped in a way that makes everything feel like it’s colliding or crashing or maybe like everyone is clapping but in really weird ways and it’s bouncing everywhere in your belly and you don’t know how to make it stop? And it’s too much, right, Wy? It’s too much. I feel it too. Like when I collapsed in a hotel room in Boston right after September 11th and I could see the people falling from the buildings and I was shaking on the ground and mommy and uncle Billy drove there and mommy stayed with me and they gave me a pill to take, like the pills you take before bed, and I laid down in the hotel bed with mommy and the next morning, somehow, somehow, I felt better. I never thought I would Wyatt, I didn’t. But I did. And there were other times, but people helped me like Dr. Reiss helps you and like Ms. Foglia at school and your teacher Mrs. Gartner who sees you, Wyatt. She really does. She’s a special special teacher and she sees you and one day you will know that that means everything…
Wyatt, do you want to try to get dressed?
Will you just try?
I will look away and you can do what feels ok. And I can just keep saying words like I do when you go upstairs to the bathroom and just want to know that we are still here, and you are not alone.
And if it’s hard, and you can’t right away, I won’t get frustrated. I will try not to.
This is a silly thing, but you know when else daddy would get frustrated? When mommy had you in her belly. I would get frustrated because mommy had you in her belly and I didn’t have you in my belly and so I never knew what was going on. And then you were here. And I didn’t know again. And then you got milk from mommy’s boob and you didn’t get anything from me and I hated that and I hated that mommy had boobs that could stop you from crying when you were hungry or could make you feel better cause you felt cozy on her chest and at the beginning you loved her more and I always wanted you to love me the most but I had nothing to stop you from crying except the way that I would try to do the shhhing sounds. And one day I was pushing you in the stroller outside, with the vacuum sound that helped you sleep playing on my iPhone, but you wouldn’t stop crying and I couldn’t do anything, and people looked at me and they couldn’t even hear the vacuum sound because you were crying so loud and I hated that I didn’t have what mommy had so I could just make you feel better because I wanted to be able to make you feel better too.
I don’t know what else to say. Do you want me to sing you the shushing song? Daddy was a really good shusher. I was…
I turn and there he is. He is beautiful. Not beautiful because he is mine or because he is dressed. He is beautiful because he is. But it is damn beautiful that he is finally dressed.
Standing there, full, Wyatt, his overalls with the pink unicorn on the center pocket and My Little Pony socks featuring Twilight Sprinkle and Rarity covering his soft feet and underneath, no underwear, cause that’s what is comfortable.
And now, we would be in the car, together, Wy, Finn, and Arlo, blasting a hip-hop song about a Hexagon that Arlo loves, and I would drop Wyatt and Finn off at middle school and say, “I love you Wy” and he would say “love you” cause he never says the “I” part and I would scream “I LOVE YOU” at Finn and “I LOVE YOOOU” even louder because he hates it, and embarrassing him is a little bit of dad joy…
When I got home from drop off, I would call my mom and tell her everything, Wyatt getting dressed and how I talked to him soft and didn’t pay too much attention, and yes Wyatt got dressed and how I did it. I did it, Mom.
The previous known Ruth Hinda Schechter had a singular goal when it was her turn. To be better. If Sadie Schechter’s mothering abilities existed on the cracked dirty sidewalks around their apartment in Elizabeth, New Jersey, her daughter, the eventual Ruth Palgon’s parenting would live in the sky, a central constellation forever cradling her three precious stars.
In ways it wasn’t fair. There was, in the eyes of her youngest child, her son, none better. There was just her, my mother, who survived the three strangers who robbed our house in the early hours of a September morning in 1981. It wasn’t fair though. There was no bottom to rise above, no beatings to not repeat, or void of love to counter. All I could do was try to repeat her, be the mother of my children in dad’s clothes, and make sure that every accomplishment would find its punctuation in a phone call and her approval.
But none of this happened. Well, none of the positive stuff.
He still has no clothes on. There are five minutes left till we get in the car and it’s clear that Wyatt will not be in it. There will just be three of us singing the Hexagon song and I might not yell quite as loud at Finn cause my mind will be on the one still at home.
God, I want to cry.
Not because I return home and he is dressed but sitting with my wife against the wall just outside the kitchen. “He won’t go,” she mouths.
I breathe. It’s ok. It’s fifth grade. He can miss a day.
I want to cry because there are strong instincts about the inevitable. Wyatt may realize that his way to free, will be no longer as our first baby boy, but in another body no longer itchy and uncertain. When, morning comes, she will skip down the stairs, joyously dressed, comfortable as can be.