“It’s time for bed,” we tell you. You giggle and hide behind the couch cushion, a flimsy defense even by your standards. You have just turned three, and you are always laughing until you are not. We are not laughing. It is late, and we are tired, and your little brother is crying out beyond your worldview. “Sylvie, will you please come get ready for bed?” I ask, rhetorically.
You do not, so I pick you up, still so easy a gesture. You kick wildly, not to wound, just to communicate. I put you in front of the toilet. “I don’t want to go potty,” you cry.
There are so many things we don’t want to do. “We always go potty before we go to bed. Every night,” I say, too tiredly.
“Let me down!” This is not about potty, of course. Every year of parenthood adds another layer of irony. At first it was the layer of development, the idea that every action had an affect on future actions. Now, it is that, and it also a layer of control.
“I will not let you down. You need to go potty, and we need to get ready for bed. It’s late,” I add, as if this proves anything. I pull a pant leg over a foot, pajamas at the ready.
You lean forward and hit me in the chest, a chopping motion. “Go away, Dad. Go away forever.”
Your mother appears instantly, takes you upstairs to brush your teeth and scold you, while I follow your first imperative, if not the second, retreating to the family room couch to hold Felix. It does not hurt, I think to myself, reacting the way you do when you skin a knee. It should not hurt. It hurts.
You are three years old. You are a beautiful, hilarious psychopath. You know how to love people but not how to understand how they feel. And even in those brief moments when your id gets the upper hand, it can’t last; you’re being pushed forward by the conveyor belt of your own curiosity and energy. You’re the clumsy ice skater who plows into random people.
I don’t really know what to do about it. I put my trust in the liberal philosophers who taught me that everyone acted rationally, that everyone could cooperate if they could see the benefits. How do I teach you what happens when you don’t brush your teeth, if you use the word “forever” like an underline? I don’t even want you to know what forever is, yet, because then you’d have to figure out the opposite.
So for now I’ll go away forever, and tomorrow I’ll come back. It doesn’t hurt that much, as long as I remember what the words mean to you. We’ll pick berries and you’ll refuse to leave the green ones. We’ll swing and you’ll demand I tell you stories. It’ll be fine. We can go on like this forever.