It was a gorgeous early summer day in Brooklyn, the sky clear and deepest blue. Some neighborhood parents had decided to take the kids to Prospect Park on a nature walk. The little ones were in perfect moods–darting about together, holding hands, giggling– just reveling in the warm air kissing their skin and the cool breeze ruffling their hair. They seemed so happy to be alive and outside. Jack was just a few months old and had evolved into a smiley, wriggling package that other people delighted in bouncing and holding, and I remember the joy I felt as I walked, my arms swinging free for the first time in what felt like ages.
As we wandered near the Audubon center, the children stopped, delighted. Just feet from us was a majestic family of Prospect Park swans, gliding serenely by. The children stood near the water and admired the long-necked, glistening white creatures as they escorted their fuzzy little flock on a sweet pleasure cruise. They calmly floated in a straight line, parents at the head and the foot, with the teeny perfect fluffy gray cygnets spaced evenly between them.
I stood a few feet back from the kids and half-listened to their cheerful burbling as they stood admiring the bucolic scene. My heart fizzed with happiness as I breathed in the beauty of the day and the moment. I felt so lucky to be there with my two children, the sun glinting on the water and this lovely natural scene unfolding for the most cozily perfect teachable moment that one could hope for.
And then a rush of water and in a horrifying swooping instant every hair on my body stood up on high alert as I watched one of the swans leap out of the water and menacingly plant itself in front of Zeke.
It was making this spine-chilling hissing sound and stood with wings outspread just inches from my little boy. I sprinted over to Zeke and clutched him in my arms, and I found myself face to face with the swan.
It was as tall as I was, its wings spread at least three feet to either side of me and I had the horrible sense that it could have gathered Zeke and me up in those wings and crushed us. It kept striking at us viciously with its head and hissing. Its bill was blunt, stabbing, missing by mere millimeters each time. I was terrified. Instinct told me not to put my back to it, so I stumble-ran backwards, awkwardly, one arm clenching Zeke, the other in front of me in some vague attempt to keep the swan back. I was convinced that once I was sufficiently out of range of the cygnets, that the swan would retreat.
But my instincts were wrong.
The swan kept coming at us, striking, its wings pushing, pulsing powerfully. I soon realized that while carrying a screaming toddler, and attempting to run backwards, I was never going to get away from this thing.
Without thinking, I summoned all of the strength that I had and I heard myself scream as I lunged forward and kicked the swan square in the chest. My stomach sunk as I made contact. Its chest was an immoveable solid mass of muscle and
it was clear that I was no match for this beast.
I was flooded with panic, and as my mind scrambled desperately, searching for my next move, my vision filled with the image of a little black backpack swinging hard and connecting solidly with the swan’s head.
A good Samaritan had seen the attack and rushed in, backpack swinging, to help me and my child.
The swan spun around in fury and chased the woman. I saw it strike viciously just inches from her as she ran away. I took advantage of the diversion, clung tightly to Zeke and blindly ran as fast as I could away from there. I was panting and sweaty and every fiber in my body was tingling with adrenaline. I held my baby close and made soothing noises in his ear.
I never saw what happened to the woman who helped us. Never thanked her.
After this, life of course went on as normal, but there were subtle differences. On the route from our apartment to the park which we travel daily, we pass a mural, erected by our local arts council, featuring paintings by a variety of Brooklyn artists. One colorful panel depicts a pair of swans drifting on a lake. Zeke used to love to run back and forth in front of the mural, examining all of the paintings, commenting excitedly on what he saw. Now, when we passed it, Zeke would linger in front of the swans and ask nervously,
“Mommy? Is that swan going to bamp me?”
At odd times he would tell the story to others, “The swan was bamping me and bamping me…”
And none of us really enjoyed watching the swans anymore. Zeke would hide his face behind my hip when he saw them, and to me some of their grace was lost. They no longer looked so immaculately white, I only saw how many of their feathers were dingy and yellowed. I couldn’t focus on their slow even movement, just on the cruel way they nipped at the little mallards and snatched every last crumb of tossed bread.
And so, with this unthinkable episode, a new verb was born, and my sense of myself shifted a little bit too. Sure, it was just a swan that I fought, not a bear or a tiger, but it was a big-ass, really mean swan, and I knew now that when my child was threatened, even against unspeakable odds, I could tap into my animal nature and
I would totally put the bamp on someone.
“Why not?” I asked him wearily.
“Because it will interrupt my dreams!” he shot back. “And then I won’t dream of Florin!”
“And I love to dream of Florin,” he added in a soft, sad voice.
Florin, according to Zeke, is the boy who lives in his dreams. Florin is an alien and he has a cat named Miracle who is also his best friend. Where Florin lives, the rays of the sun are fuzzy and they tickle you when they shine on your skin. Florin eats bugs and candy and he gets to play as many video games as he wants.
Florin, it appears, lives Zeke’s most awesomely, amazing dream life. He is for Zeke the embodiment of everything incredibly, marvelously spectacular and he has a “big boy” bravery and confidence that Zeke clearly admires.
I have asked Zeke to describe Florin numerous times and joy bubbles from him as he searches his mind for awe-inspiring details. His eyes turn upward and dart quickly back and forth as he talks about Florin’s amazing attributes. His voice speeds up and takes on an exhilarated tone, that makes me wish I was a child again so I could feel the awed delight that his mind gives him.
“He’s shaped like an alien. First you put a few parts on him. And then you put a lot of parts on him. He has hair that is different colors, like a rainbow. And his skin is like a rainbow too. And his boots are white. And his hat is yellow. And he has prickles all over his rainbow back that are rainbow prickles. He has a new haircut so his hair is just on his head, but before it was all the way down to his back. His eyes are yellow. His nose is shaped like a triangle. His mouth, his teeth, and his tongue are rainbow colored. He wears pirate clothes. He has the same skull shirt as me and he wears it all day and all night.”
Zeke was quick to exploit the possibilities of having a younger brother with limited communication skills and a well-documented tendency to manufacture chaos. Jack was just barely walking the first time that Zeke came up to me shaking his head, arms crossed over his chest, and said in a familiar exhausted and conspiratorial tone,
“Mom, look what Jack’s doing now.”
I can’t venture a guess at the number of times I’ve entered the boys’ room to find that bin after bin of toys has been haphazardly dumped, rendering the room completely impassable. In the midst of the mess, I generally find the two of them all smiles, united in the thrill of mayhem. When I inquire about what on earth happened in there, Zeke will answer, his voice echoing my disbelief,
“Jack got a little crazy, Mama.”
Mmmm. Jack, huh.
Then there are the times that a blood-curdling shriek and hysterical sobs slice through the silence, stopping my heart and sending me running into their room. There I find Jack red-faced and howling, fat tears flowing down his cheeks. Zeke is generally about as far away from his little brother as possible, unconcernedly sorting legos or engaged quietly with a book. Attempting to get a clear answer about what might have happened borders on futile. Zeke frequently appears confused; he’ll give an exaggerated shrug, and say in a mystified voice,
“I don’t know what happened to Jack, Mom.”
At other times he is defensive,
“You didn’t SEE me do anything!”
Or he pleads no contest; sits voluntarily down in his white rocking chair, “I’m in time-out already!” and refuses under any circumstances to explain why he’s given himself this punishment.
But, with time, something that Zeke failed to anticipate has taken place. Jack started talking. And, many a time that I am confronted with one of these mysterious scenes, Jack is able to clearly communicate through his tears, exactly why he is so upset.
“Zekie scratch me!”
“Zekie hit me!”
or, once last week,
“Zekie bite me!”
When confronted with his victim’s clear testimony Zeke becomes visibly uncomfortable. He shifts his weight from foot to foot and his face zooms through a variety of expressions: outrage, innocence, confusion…..
No one told him his pesky little brother was going to learn to TALK! The balance of power has been altered and Zeke is no longer comfortably in control.
I am suddenly awakened from deepest sleep by someone yanking on my arm.
“Appoo! Appoo! Come Mama!”
As my sleepy haze begins to dissipate, Jack’s fuzzy little head comes into focus. It is still dark outside, and as I glance at Aaron’s body peacefully rising and falling, bitterness at his ability to sleep through anything begins to bubble up inside me. Along with this bitterness is a pompous mental noting of my status as the “good parent”, the one who dutifully and without complaint gets up each morning, no matter how profound my exhaustion, to feed our children. I head for the kitchen in a cantankerous mood. Each quiet snuffle emerging from the bedroom makes me clench my jaws tighter.
“At least I,” I grumble to myself, “care about whether or not our children go hungry!”
Moments later Zeke is up. I hear his bare feet slap-slapping on the hardwood floor as I slice Jack’s apple in the yellow light of our kitchen. I bring Jack’s apple slices into the living room and find Zeke lost in thought at the table. He is illuminated only by the half-light of the street-lamps, elbows on the table, head resting in his hands, like a troubled soul in a Hopper painting. When I wish him a good morning, he flashes a cherubic smile in my direction and informs me of his urgent need for raisin toast with peanut-butter on it, and also “Milk in a cup with a top and a lot of milk too.”
I head back to the kitchen to make Zeke’s toast. Jack, as soon he sees what his brother is getting, insists on toast of his own. When I place Jack’s toast next to his apple, he commands, “Bow! Bow!” The toast apparently must be served in its own separate bowl to please my not-quite-two-year-old son. Soon the morning quiets. There is just the sound of my two munching sons and the harmonica hum of our tea kettle, to which the three of us all sing “Hot tea-eeeeeeeeeee” and giggle as is our private little custom.
The boys were being so sweet with each other– telling each other incomprehensible jokes and laughing. As they finished their food, I watched them push trucks back and forth and babble happily on the kitchen floor, and I just basked in the warmth of our cozy, contented family. As I became more and more alert, it struck me what a perfect morning we were in the middle of, the sort of easy, tranquil morning that invariably signals a smooth and peaceful day. A day where the two little beings that Aaron and I created coexist harmoniously and prove that we were right in pursuing this crazy familial experiment.
How could I mind missing out on a little sleep, I wondered, when I am so blessed?
And THAT was when I caught sight of the time glaring at me from the microwave:
Zeke was nestled into my shoulder. He was still, his breathing even, but his eyes remained open and staring.
“I can’t sleep, Mama.”
I kissed him gently on the forehead. “Try closing your eyes,” I whispered. “And be very still.”
His breathing slowed and I felt his little body relax. I was sure he had finally surrendered to sleep when I heard his awestruck whisper:
When I close my eyes, it’s like I see lights.
I guess my eyes are imagining.