Why We Put Our Son on a LeashThomas Beller
A few weeks ago, Alexander impulsively bolted into the street. We were down in Battery Park City that strangely generic space that one feels could be Dubai or Shanghai — with some friends and their kids. We had been running around in a water park. It was a running sort of day. Alexander made his move off the curb while my wife and her friend were right beside him. You want to see someone move fast? Watch a mother as her kid darts out into the street. I saw this gesture because it was accompanied by the two women letting out a shriek that still echoes in my mind, complete with haunted reverb. It rose up like a flock of birds amidst the glass buildings of Battery Park City.
Ever since then, Alexander has been wearing a leash while walking around New York. It looks like a backpack with a teddy bear, but that is just camouflage for a harness and a leash. I think that era is soon to end — the other day it was my wife who held the teddy bear and he held the leash, a kind of umbilical cord. At first this gave me pause.
“It makes him look like a dog,” I said.
“It’s just a stroller where the kid does the walking,” she said.
Which is a good point. People are now workng at treadmill desks. This was like a treadmill stroller. Anyway, that scream was still echoing in my mind, and my wife’s, as well, and I wasn’t eager to hear it again.
The whole episode has punctuated my growing awareness of my son’s growing awareness of his growing body. And is he growing! A couple of months past two, he is big for his age but not huge. Yet there is something in the way he stands, a kind of erectness to his posture, the way his spine sits straight into his hips, that is a fascinating mixture of obliviousness to his body and a dawning pleasure in it. Sometimes he walks with a kind of bump and roll, his head bobbing as though to some private song. I am perched right at the edge of unseemly vanity in my boy’s body, I know. It feels like hubris, punishable by I don’t know what. But my point isn’t merely to celebrate his new physical self but to observe the other, less desirable aspect of awareness of the body, which is the heaviness of the body. The reality of it. The fact of its weight, its contours. Our responsibility for dealing with it. The literally inescapable fact of it.
A real body is not like a baby’s body. Babies are so bouncy. For all their helplessness and fragility there is also something slightly indestructible about them, their limberness and pliancy. Now Alexander is coming to know, along with all this speed and pleasure at the force of his physical self, his own heaviness, too. One of my favorite evocations of this feeling, the heavy sand in the bones feeling, is in Jason Brown’s short story, Sadness of the Body. In this case it’s not sadness, exactly, but something like a dawning awareness.
For example, a few days ago he played organized soccer for the first time in the morning. Then we had lunch. There was some carousing around the house, and then it was naptime.
Oh, the lovely silence of a house during naptime! This one was made all the more acute by the humming of the air conditioner.
When he woke, there was a heaviness to him. He staggered around. His head drooped. He fell to the floor. A kind of mock distress registered across his smiling face. He got up, fell down. He smiled with a kind of surprise at this condition.
“Look at him,” I said. “He’s having to deal with the exhausting reality of having a body.”
“You tired, little man?” said my wife.
He flopped around some more.
“It wasn’t that long ago that he wasn’t really a body of his own. I mean, when they are little they are so soft and bouncy and pliant, and you carry them everywhere. But now look.”
“I can’t carry him everywhere anymore, that’s for sure,” said my wife.
“His own man,” I said. “His own body. And he is in charge of carrying it around! He has to support himself.”
She looked at me.
We looked at this lovely, long limbed two-year-old, flopping around and smiling. He’s thirty seven pounds. I wonder if he will be one of those long limbed guys whose legs stick out, who hang their heads like a drooping flower, whose hands sometimes bend for no reason at the wrists. Examples of this body type: Pau Gasol, J.D. Salinger (who wrote one of the great kid-running-into-the-street scenes in “Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters”), the boy‘s father. There comes a time when you realize you have to deal with your own body. That time has not yet come for my two-year-old boy. But as he woke from his nap, he got a taste of it. He rolled on the floor, smiling. The novelty amused him. For Alexander, just then, gravity was just another a game.