He arrives for babysitting two mornings a week. He jumps out of the car and trots to my waiting arms. He usually has a sippy cup in one hand, and a bag of dry cereal in the other hand. "I have snacks!" he says, beaming. He is sturdy and strong and confident. In the wintertime, he wears jeans or slacks, layers of short-sleeved and long-sleeved T-shirts, and brown suede Velcro'd shoes in size 8W. In the summertime, he wears knee-length shorts, a T-shirt, and the same practical shoes. Until a recent buzz cut, his hair looked as if someone made a large batch of milk-chocolate frosting and then applied it to his bald head...generously, lavishly, excessively, inexpertly. Sometimes, it would be frizzy in spots, or have a bit of "snack" stuck to it. He always smells good.
This morning, he arrives clutching a bag of day-old hot-dog buns. "More bread! More ducks!" he shouts, as he climbs out of the car. Yesterday, we fed ducks at the local Wetlands, and he wants a replay. Why not? I strap him into my car, and we drive the half-dozen blocks to the Wetlands.
Upon arriving, I grab his "backpack" from his diaper bag. The backpack is small and soft-sided, with plastic fasteners across his chest, and an attached leash. The boy has a tendency to bolt (he refuses to hold hands), and the murky ponds make me nervous, so I insist on the backpack. He complies readily. (Later, he'll change his mind, rather noisily and melodramatically: "Take it off! Please! I hate it!" A fisherman will notice, and give me a look.) But for now, he strolls happily along a paved path, still clutching the bread. He asks if he can hold the leash--essentially taking himself for a walk--and I agree to that, since we haven't reached the water yet.
He stops suddenly on the path, and bends at the waist to watch a roll-bug. A ruffle of disposable diaper peeks out between shirt and shorts. I watch him, as he watches the bug. His attention falters momentarily; he takes a step forward, and his size 8W's crush the bug. He looks around, unable to locate it. "Did it fly away?" he asks, confused. "No," I say, but stop short of a lecture on aerodynamics. "Where is it?" he asks. "It crawled away," I lie. He furrows his brow a bit ("How did I miss that?"), and we continue walking.
We find a lot of adult ducks, and five babies. We stand at a railing, and toss chunks of hot-dog bun into the water. He's enthusiastic and competent. Occasionally, he takes a bite of hot-dog bun, looking up at me for approval. I grin at him. "Tasty," I say.
We return to the car, and I ask if he wants to drive to the neighborhood with all the front-yard water features. "Gorgeous water features?" he asks, using a new word I taught him. Five minutes later, we're in an affluent hillside subdivision. "I like this neighborhood," he says, using another new word. I turn and smile at him. He has removed his shoes and socks, and his bare feet are pulled up onto his car-seat. He seems relaxed, and I anticipate a nap, but it doesn't happen. There's no traffic, and I drive slowly through the neighborhood, stopping whenever we spot a water feature. Between sightings, he uses a sweet falsetto voice, as if calling for a lost puppy: "Water! Water!" I linger at our favorite: a gray concrete bowl overflowing into an identical (but lower) bowl. "Like this?" he asks, forming a bowl shape with his little hands. "Exactly," I say.
I suggest we swing by McDonalds for hot fudge sundaes, and he's on board. I sprinkle nuts on mine, and he requests nuts, too. He makes a huge mess, but it's okay, 'cause the glove box is full of fast-food napkins.
His mom will meet us here in half an hour, so there's time for more fun while we wait. We're parked in the shade; "The Essential Leonard Cohen" plays quietly on the stereo. The boy sits beside me in the passenger seat. He finds a pen in the glove box, along with the Honda's owner's manual. He turns to a nearly blank page, and suggests that I trace his hand. I do so, several times. He takes the pen and makes a series of small, imperfect circles. "I made circles," he says, proudly. "Good job," I say.
He politely asks me to buckle his seat belt; then, he asks me to buckle mine. We continue to draw, and talk, while buckled in snugly. Ten minutes later, he reaches over and turns the stereo off. "That's enough Leonard Cohen," he says, giving me a slightly stern look, as if I should know better.
Sometimes, instead of the Wetlands and the water features, we stay home, doing art projects. "Let's do crafts!" he says, as he enters the guest room, where the toys are stored in a box in the corner. He opens the closet doors and selects the supplies for an art project. He prefers a project that requires a lot of glue and/or a lot of paint. I grab one of my husband's T-shirts and pull it over the boy's head. With his new haircut, he now looks like a Tibetan-monk-in-training. He squirts black acrylic paint onto a large manila envelope, and smears the paint around with a small foam roller. He makes several paintings...enough for each of his loved ones. When the paint dries, we'll glue Popsicle sticks to the envelopes, or pipe cleaners, or pompoms in assorted colors and sizes. We're in no hurry. We know that art cannot be rushed.
If he's in a nurturing mood (and he often is), he hauls out the small plastic Animal Hospital, complete with a vet (and her upstairs living quarters), an exam table with X-ray apparatus, a helicopter pad and elevator for emergencies, an ATV for errands, a handful of animals, and all their expected paraphernalia (cages, food and water bowls, bandages, blankets). We sprawl on the queen-sized bed, and I watch him play. Mostly, he enjoys wrapping each animal in a blanket--carefully, sometimes clumsily--and then pulling it to his chest, his shoulders hunched, for a hug. He coos, but seems unaware that he is doing so. Eventually, I can't resist grabbing him for a snuggle. He humors me, and then gets back to playtime.
I know how lucky I am to have this boy in my life, and other boys, too. (I like hanging out with adults, but I'm more comfortable--and philosophically aligned--with children.) Babysitting (for lack of a better word) feels like a meditation; it's as close to a Zen-like state as I ever get. It's kind of like a gray concrete bowl overflowing into another gray concrete bowl. "Like this."