“Mommy, can you buy me a new toy today?” my son Smoke asks from the backseat. He’s finished a long day of kindergarten, finished the popcorn that I gave him in a plastic cup, and now he’s at a loss.
I’m at a loss too. He’s been asking me this question every day for weeks and I just can’t get the answer right. He’s been prone to fits of rage lately, and the word “no” and all its variations are the trigger. I try to let him down gently. “That’s not part of my plan this afternoon.”
It’s approaching five o’clock, and the roads are crowded. I’m nearing the onramp for the freeway, getting ready to pick up Stump, Smoke’s little brother. The daycare center is open until six, but I feel better if I pick him up by five.
“I want to get a toy at Target!” Smoke insists.
“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” I tell him, “but I’m not going to Target today.”
He must have understood I meant it, because the next thing I know, a hard object glances off my head and lands below my seat. It’s Smoke’s plastic cup—the one that held popcorn moments ago. He’s thrown it to spite me, and now he is red-faced and crying. I’m thirty feet from the freeway and the onramp is crowded, but I fumble for my hazards and pull to the side. In my own mind, my actions match the drama of the situation. This will show him, I think. My head smarts. My heart is pounding. “We’ll get back on the road when you can promise me we’re safe,” I say. I’m trying to sound calm, but the tension in my voice betrays me.
Smoke is unimpressed. There’s nothing more for him to throw, so he reaches for his brother’s empty car seat and rocks it. His look is pure defiance. Since all of my strategies are failing, I yell. “What are you doing? WHAT are you doing? Why do you want to hurt me?”
Over the course of the month since these rages began, Smoke has taught me that this is not the way to calm him. Reacting to his rage with my own just stokes the fire.
“You’re the one who’s being mean to me!”
I find my pseudo-calm voice again. “I’m not being mean. I picked you up from school, and I gave you a snack. Now I’m driving and you threw a cup at me, and that’s dangerous, so I’m mad.”
He’s quiet now, and so I wait for a break in traffic and get back on the freeway. “Why do you do those things Smoke?”
His cry becomes less aggressive, more private. He shakes his head and wipes a tear. “I don’t know,” he answers. All of a sudden it seems we forgive each other.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in September and the day has warmed to eighty degrees. It’s like summer, but with a softer light. We’re at a gathering in a friend’s backyard, with a view of her horses, her chickens, her tomatoes exploding off the vine. I’ve found a bench in the back corner of the yard, away from things, where both of my sons can wander, can throw balls and swing rackets without knocking over someone’s beer. When I sit on the bench and Smoke joins me, I don’t expect to stay there long. I’m not foolish. Stump is twenty months old and so parties, for me, mainly mean chasing him around on damage patrol.
But today, by some stroke of luck, Stump follows Mommy Kellie back into the thick of the party, and he stays with her. Smoke spreads across the bench and lays his head in my lap. I run my fingers through his hair and pick at a spot of dried out yogurt—Stump had launched it at him earlier today. Smoke looks straight ahead now at the lawn. I take in his brown eyes and every freckle on his face. I am surprised by how content he is to be with me this way.
“Did you know,” I begin, “that a few days after your birthday school will be closed for an extra day?” He doesn’t answer, but I know he’s listening and so I continue. “And do you remember what my birthday present to you is going to be?”
“The Forbidden Forest Lego set?” he asks.
“No, it’s not a toy.”
“The zipline park.” He remembers.
“Well if it’s a nice day we’ll go, just you and me, no little brother.”
As he continues to lie in my lap, I think about the last eight months, the second year of his brother’s life. For the first year, I felt a little bad for my second child because his infancy didn’t get the same undivided attention that Smoke’s did. I didn’t photograph every moment, didn’t respond immediately to every cry. But in this second year, it’s Smoke who’s wound up with the short end of the stick. If Stump is awake, I have no hands free to sit and draw, or make a puzzle, or do any of the activities Smoke may request of me. And if Stump is napping, I am busy catching up on personal and household tasks. For the most part, Smoke must fend for himself. I’ve wondered lately if the rages are a symptom of his utter jealousy, his displacement. And I wonder now if this moment together might be some kind of salve or antidote. I find myself getting caught in the hope that I’ve fixed it, that beginning right now there will be no more rages. But of course that’s not how medicine works. If it’s a medicine that cures, we will require multiple doses. For a time, these two things might be true at once: a) my son is prone to violent tantrums, b) my son requires my undivided affection.
Smoke raises his head just a little. “Let’s talk more about special days,” he whispers.