Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Baby Ducks

Walt will play for minutes—minutes!—on end and by himself these days. He hugs, points to his eyebrows, distinguishes mom from dad from grandma from the friend visiting last week who brought over for the house a head of kale and six pounds of butternut squash. Walt is drawn to wheels of every variety. He pulls the giant plastic bin filled with cars out from under the piano, dumps them on the floor, and runs a few across the carpet. The slightly larger plastic cars are self-propelled, but he hasn’t quite figured out the winding mechanism. I hold and point these cars toward the sofa, but often they run in circles—bad tire, poor alignment—and end up behind the easy chair, or under the coffee table, where we dig them out weeks later.

Last Sunday, at the park, Walt borrowed from another kid a miniature pram with a plastic baby doll inside of it. He ran the pram back and forth on the sidewalk, alternately smiling and furrow-browed, pleased and determined. The sidewalk was really a narrow strip of cement between two sports fields, beside a school. When the pram ran into the grass, Walt pushed and pulled a bit, stood back, then grabbed the doll and tossed it onto the ground. Too heavy. He labored across the grass.

We saw friends in the city last weekend: birthday parties, brunch. It’s a little more than an hour’s drive, and we timed the last trip poorly. As we drove up and over the hill, Walt started to konk out. His eyes glassed over. He went limp in the car seat. We desperately named every fire truck, ambulance. We asked Walt the same few questions, over and over. Do you want to go to a party today? Do you think you’ll see your friends there? Sluggish, a tad imperial, he replied, Dah. As we got out of the car, Walt saw other kids and perked up a bit. He ran pell-mell between fabric discs placed on a yard, racing from one iceberg to the next.

Whenever Katie and I visited Indiana, I would get a lot of mileage out of mocking animated shows: getting the words wrong, misnaming the characters, asking pointless questions about the plot. It sounds so awful now, but then, I think my nieces and nephews were at least sometimes amused. As you probably know, I love The Wonder Pets. I have fond memories of singing (the wrong lyrics for) its theme song. When did parody become sincere affection? My nieces and nephew have since moved on to more sophisticated fare, which I love, too: The Office, Friday Night Lights. Perhaps I will one day get them on board with Parenthood.

When Walt and I watch The Wonder Pets, I struggle mightily to enjoy the show and not get too sentimental. We are watching The Wonder Pets to entertain him for a few minutes. I can wax nostalgic for my personal history another time. Walt loves, especially, Ming-Ming (the Wonder Pet duck), which is to say, he loves ducks. Our bathtub is filled with plastic ducks. Our bookshelf is rich with fowl-ian tales. Duck was Walt’s first word. He points at many things still and, lacking the word, offers a heartfelt, Dah.

Perhaps the duck fascination is inherited and short-hand. When we first met in the Peace Corps twelve years ago, I liked to offer Cait false consolations about the culture shock overwhelming us. When it gets bad, I would say, just think of the baby ducks in the world! It became a running joke in our friendship, then our marriage. Walt will no doubt role his eyes one day at some duck-related anecdote from his early, precognitive youth. I keep on my desk a photo of Cait watching gulls fly across a lake in the Sierras. They swirl around her head. Cait is facing away from the camera, a little older than Walt is now. According to his mother, Walt is my spitting image, but I don’t see it. We walk around the house, yard, playground, and parking lot. He holds my finger and pulls me in one direction, then another. In safe climes, he toddles off and plays a while on his own, comes back to say hi, then heads off again.

Baby Ducks

Fragile as epiphytes,
tight as silk saris or orange peels:
the truth always gives way.

The day we met
I convinced you I overcame
childhood rickets. Later:
that I flew with John Denver
the night before he died.

Here’s a fact:
95% of baby fowl
purchased each Easter
never make it to their first birthday.

Forgive all of this

but when I told you
if it gets bad
to think of baby ducks
I didn’t love you. Not like this.

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