I have known the little baby Akio since he was six weeks old, no bigger than a loaf of bread and cute as the dickens. As his mother is another professor at the college here, I would take him while she had class, little babysitting increments of an hour or two. Longtime readers of this blog may remember a post last May in which after several incident-free babysitting appointments, he let loose with a firestorm of explosive poo. Nonetheless, our relationship continued, and he continued to grow and learn and bond with the village around him. At eleven months now, he is an expert crab-crawler, enjoys clapping, babbling, and long walks on the beach. Okay, scratch that last item. But I’m sure he’ll enjoy that some day.
While I was happy to help out Akio and his mother last spring, she hasn’t needed my support in many months. But we still see them on a regular basis. So she was apologetic when she emailed last week to see if I could sit him for just one hour while she went to a late afternoon meeting of the faculty. Oh, no problem, I said, and to help her feel better (and enjoy her company) I told her she and the little one should stay for supper. I could throw a chicken in the oven before assuming sitting duties, and then it would be ready when she came back home with Susanne.
In the meantime, since he’s now a mobile baby, I vacuumed the carpet in the living room, put the coffee table in front of the fireplace—he has previously shown an interest in logs that are alight—laid down a soft blanket on the floor, and spread out a variety of toys and plush animals so that we could have some quality time together. I do like to be on the level of an almost one-year-old when the opportunity presents itself, after all. We would have a giggling, drooling blast, I figured.
I forgot that eleven-month-olds have big time separation anxiety. It’s been a long time since I was eleven months old, see.
All went well as I opened the door. I got a big grin and saw that there are two more teeth to count. She gave him a last-minute bit of food, we checked his diaper, and found nothing notable. The three of us sat on the floor and Akio selected a green plastic Slinky as his first toy of choice. His mom quietly exited, stage front door. I asked him questions about why the Slinky. He answered me by babbling, and then turned to look to see where his mother had gone.
Four minutes. Four minutes had elapsed. And by elapsed, I mean, the child made it all of 240 seconds.
At second 241, he started sniffling and frowning. Second 243 brought on the wailing.
I put my hand in an Eeyore puppet and tried to renew his interest in either the Skinky technology or the Christopher Robin mythology. Neither of these made the cut for him. He began crab-crawling away, toward the front door.
“Okay, okay, Akio, I know it’s rough, but we have…53 minutes left, at least. What else could we do?”
He screeched in such a way as to communicate that I could go sit and spin for all he cared.
I had to think of something. I should be smarter than this, I thought. I picked him up and for one nanosecond, he relaxed a little, happy to cling onto my shirt. One nanosecond, by the way, is over before one knows it. He was back to wailing, this time much nearer my ear. I tried bouncing him. No avail.
And so it began that “Uncle Ev” attempted a variety of tactics for trying to soothe the baby. Singing. Touring the downstairs. Flight simulation. Bottle time. Each was met with a look of complete disgust and a furtherance of crying. My heart began to melt to see him in such despair. I rechecked his diaper, burped him, and tried to tell him a story about a baby who must journey after the loss of his parents. No, wait. That’s not a good idea. And though I’d had this thought before, I started reviewing all of the little kid stories I know that involve parental death. Bambi, Cinderella, Finding Nemo, they’re all about death and grief. What’s up with that?
The baby was still crying, inconsolable. I had to do something. At this point he was a wet mess, so I grabbed a tissue and mopped up his face. He hated me for that, but really, I wasn’t sure what would happen if tears, snot, and drool all combined into one puddle. The universe could evaporate or something. It wasn’t me, I told the little one, it was for the good of the whole fabric of space-time. He continued screaming unabated. I only hoped he could channel this stamina later in life. I looked at the clock.
We were 8 minutes in. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I needed something to distract him. Something interesting, compelling, that would be so riveting to him that the entire concept of “missing mommy” would evaporate like a fart in a stiff breeze. I didn’t have a stroller, though I wasn’t sure if I would have used it anyway, lest I annoy the entire neighborhood with his unhappiness.
I caved in and turned on the television. I knew it was wrong of me. Bad, bad uncle! This is how it starts, out of desperation. This is why that Baby Einstein crap took such hold in US households, even though it was scientifically shown to make babies stupider as a result. I flipped through the guide and found some kid’s show set in Africa, with lots of shots of lions and other safari animals.
He was entranced. I was guilty. He even let me wipe his face while he sat on my lap, mesmerized. I couldn’t believe it, and yet, I could.
I started watching the show, and then realized it had all sorts of messages I didn’t want him to see. No, no, this is too imperialist, my brain cried. It’s devoid of an understanding about race and post-colonial Africa, even as it’s preaching about conservation and wildlife protection! These issues aren’t this simple, and it’s not for Westerners to tell citizens of African nations how to balance an economic incentive with global warming and species protection concerns! No!
But oh, how he loved it. I was selling out for the price of twenty minutes of happiness.
He picked up the Slinky in my hand, starting to babble again and looking content and happy. And then I made a rookie mistake.
I put him back on the blanket so he could play. This reminded him, of course, of turning around and not seeing his mother, which made him realize, all over again, that she was GONE. G-O-N-E. Maybe forever. And here he was stuck with a stupid person, for the rest of his life, who clearly didn’t know the difference between African diaspora politics and children’s entertainment.
The wailing began anew. I tried the bottle again. He threw it back at me. I turned off the TV, figuring I’d done enough damage.
He looked a little bit like the Staypuff Marshmallow Man at the end of Ghostbusters when he realizes he is not among friends. His entire chubby face had twisted into a knot of anguish and anger. I picked him up again and showed him all the pictures of the little people we know. I put him in front of a mirror, since he likes to see himself and the room in reflection. This made him realize all the more how incredibly unhappy he was.
We went into the kitchen, and I attempted to see if tiny chunks of tofu would make his day. They did not.
Just then, the wagon man came into view, with a fresh batch of cardboard to recycle. Akio liked this. He started to settle down, crying only every few seconds, almost like a hiccup. I gave him some commentary to go along with the wagon man’s activity.
“Okay, and now he’ll throw this piece of cardboard over the fence. Ooh, look at it go, Akio. Uh, oh, he doesn’t like where it landed. I bet he squeezes behind the fence so he can pick it up and throw it again. Yup, there he goes, see? Now he’s behind the fence. Before, he was in front of the fence. In French, you say, ‘derriere la cloture,’ and ‘en face de la cloture.’”
He was tuning me out, I could tell. Heck, I wished I’d shut up, too.
He grew heavy in my arms, but I was afraid to shift him to my other side. My back began to groan, but as its version of complaining is noiseless, I ignored it.
The wagon man finished. I briefly considered throwing an egg carton and a cereal box out the window so he’d have a couple more things to throw at the recycling center. I figured I’d gone around the bend, all to keep the baby somewhat happy. We watched as once again a person important to Akio’s life left him behind. He cried.
I took him back to the couch and sat down with him, lower back pressure relieved. Ear drums, not so much. They should be home any minute, I thought, and then I worried that they’d stand around talking to all of the other 120 faculty or rather, the 75 faculty who’d gone to the meeting. I texted Susanne with my free hand.
HE REALLY MISSES MOMMY, I typed, and sent the message.
I heard Susanne’s cell phone joyfully receive the message from its location in the dining room.
I wiped his face with the 27th tissue of the afternoon.
“I’m sorry I’m teaching you to hate tissues,” I said to him. “They really are your friends.”
He was not buying any of my shit.
Finally the door opened, and my utter lack of success at entertaining Akio was made plain to his mother and my wife. She wrapped him up in her arms and began bouncing him, as only she could.
“Don’t I always come back,” she asked him. “Mommy always comes back. It’s okay.”
Behind my shoulder, Susanne petted me.
I slept like a rock that night.