I don’t know why this is. Maybe because he’s more like Ellen, so different from me that he scares me sometimes. Back when he had just turned four, I remember going to his pre-school Christmas party. All of the other kids got up and sang silly songs about Santa losing his reindeer and Jolly Old St. Nick. Will knew these songs, I know he did, because he sang them at home. But that morning he refused to get up with the rest of the kids, just sat quietly on the floor by himself, in his black turtleneck and brown corduroys. Watching. It just about broke my heart.
“He’s lonely,” I said to Ellen that night after showing her the video I’d taken. “He doesn’t know how to socialize.”
“He’s fine,” Ellen said, she who’d spent many a moment in her life standing on the sidelines. “He knows what he wants. He made a decision and he’ll be okay.”
“But he looked so sad,” I said.
“That’s just because you don’t like being by yourself,” Ellen responded. “You’re sort of pathetic that way.”
I am not, and I have 148 Facebook friends who will back me up on that. Implicit in her comments, though, is the idea that Will is a breed that I don’t quite understand. And that’s true enough.
Then again, maybe writing about Will is just hard for me because he’s the first of my children, and the one I love the most.
Oops, just kidding. What I meant to say is that I love him more than the other two put together.
No, no, that’s not it either. I mean that I love them all differently, in their own unique ways, and his unique quality is that I’d die for him at the drop of a hat.
Actually, none of that is really true—except for the hat part. I do love all three kids immensely. It’s just that Will was the first one I held in my arms, the first one I held and felt the tiny spurs of his backbone like little peas in a row, the first one I held and thought: “Oh my god. He’s alive. And he’s mine.” And then I felt my heart bend in a way it’d never bent before.
Or it could be that I’ve put off writing about Will simply because, of all my children, he’s the one for whom I was most scared as we packed up our lives, said goodbye to our friends, and drove away from the only house he’d ever known.
It’s not so much that he’s fragile. More like brittle. Will likes what he likes, knows what he likes, and doesn’t apologize that he likes what he likes and likes nothing else. Whereas Lucy has 17 different favorite meals—“Listen,” I’ll tell her. “Favorite, by definition, means only one.”—Will likes only two meals: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chicken fajitas. Nothing more. Nothing less. And believe me, if you make him fajitas, you’d better have the right kind of tortilla, or you’ll be getting out the bread knife.
And it’s not just food: Will is like this about everything. He has a highly tuned sense of right and wrong (hmmm . . . I wonder who he got that from) and is keenly aware of any injustice in the universe, particularly—some might even say exclusively—if it’s injustice toward him (I know who he got that from). In short, he’s an eight-year-old boy.
Ellen and I didn’t help ourselves by declaring, before we left the States, that since there were only three bedrooms in the new flat, he and Lucy would have to share. Ellen and her brother had shared a room when they were little, and for some reason she thought that that was a keen recipe for a long-lasting sibling relationship. I wouldn’t know, because Mark and I always had separate rooms and to this day call each other names—particularly at Christmas and birthdays (for some reason, Easter is a real sore spot)—that can’t be printed in a family-blog,
“But I want my own room!” Will said.
“We know,” I began—
“I need someplace to read!” he urged. This is the boy, after all, who loves to read so much that his grandmother once apologized for not taking more pictures of him, saying, “But there’s only so many snaps you can take of a boy reading a book.”
“I know you like to read,” I said, then Lucy piped in.
“I want to room with Jamie!”
“You can’t,” Ellen told her.
“Yeah,” said Will. “Lucy and Jamie should room together.”
“Jamie wakes up too early,” Ellen said. “If Lucy doesn’t get her sleep, she’s—“
“I won’t mind!”
“She won’t mind!” Will said.
“—cranky all day,” Ellen finished.
“I wake up early,” Will said, and in his voice you could just hear his determination to rise at 4 A.M. for the next three weeks running. And Will? When he’s determined, you can rest assured he will do it.
“You do sometimes,” said Ellen. “But you’re also old enough to know how to be quiet. We know you won’t wake your sister up, even if you do get up earlier than her.”
Will threw a glance at Lucy, and you could just see the little cartoon thought balloon over his head, with the words “Oh yeah?” inked inside.
But we stuck to our guns. And he stuck to his. The very night we arrived in Hong Kong, grimy and aching from twenty hours on a crappy American airline that charges you for drinks and makes you keep your windows shut even though it might mean you don’t see the sun for 24 hours—that very night, Will strolled into the flat, scoped out the two kids rooms, and tossed his stuff into the room with only one bed.
When, two minutes later I moved his suitcase and the six A-Z mystery books and two Hardy Boy novels we’d allowed him to bring into the other room, he followed, simply too tired to complain. The next few days, though, he made his dissatisfaction clear. After Ellen returned to the States for her father’s funeral, I had to take the kids everywhere—grocery shopping, getting household items, stopping at the personnel office to pick up insurance forms. This would have been rough under any circumstances, but when you’re jet-lagged and in a completely new non-western country—and you’re half-mourning, half-dying inside for your wife—it’s misery. Absolute, complete, crappy, bugger-all misery.
In the midst of all this, Will was astoundingly—indeed, almost admirably—effective at being passive aggressive. He would walk 10 feet behind Lucy and I at all times. While Lucy and I struggled trying to get the stroller past a heavy glass door—there are very few sliding doors in HK—Will would stand aside, hands in his pockets, looking sullen and distracted.
Fortunately for him, I’m nothing if not a calm, cool father, particularly when stressed, so when he behaved this way all I did was scream in his face like an idiot. “Can’t you see,” I would spray, “that Lucy and I are trying to get Jamie through the door? Did it ever occur to you to help?”
And he would just look at me, face mildly startled, but frankly more bland than anything, as if to say, “Maybe if I had my own room, you and I could work a little something out.”
Ninety percent of the time for ninety percent of kids, the yelling and screaming and face offs would lead to nothing but a stand off. And to be honest, Will and I both stayed the course for a while: Will kept walking slow, hands in his pockets, I kept feeling anger swell in my chest, competing with the exhaustion and the heat and the sense that maybe, just maybe, coming to Hong Kong was the stupidest thing I’d ever done.
But then something changed. After about a week, I suddenly realized Will was walking beside me when I was pushing the stroller, his hand on one of the handles. And when Ellen got back, he explicitly asked her if he could push Jamie. And he did.
And there’ve been other things, many of them having to do with food. I’ve already written about the Tai Po wet market and Will and his fish ball soup, but to recap: he loved it. Fish ball soup. Soup with fish balls in it. Fish. In balls. In soup. Mr. Peanut-Butter and Jelly gobbled it up. Go figure.
I knew, though, that we were making real headway when, a week later, we headed down to Kowloon and ended up at the Spring Deer, a restaurant we later discovered was one of the most famous in Hong Kong. We ordered almost at random, only ensuring that there was at least one dish with chicken in it to keep the kids happy. I’m not going to pretend that Will ate the dried, pickled cabbage—he didn’t even look at it—but he drank some tea and ate some chicken and then some broccoli and some rice and then more chicken. Afterwards, he and I were in the bathroom and I asked him how his dinner was.
“Great!” he said. And my son is not one for exclamation points, in speech or otherwise.
I nearly peed on my shoe. “Really?” I said. I mean, this is the boy of a thousand explanations for why he shouldn’t be asked to eat his food: it’s too soft, too hard, too mushy, too slippery, too salty, too vinegary, too gucky, too murky, too sludgy, to potato-y, too grimy, too slurpy, too smudgy, fudgy, grudgy, or mudgy. You can put double chocolate chocolate-chip ice cream in front of him, and if for some perverse reason he decides he doesn’t want it, he will assure you it tastes “funny.”
“Really?” I said that night at the Spring Deer, reminding myself to tell the management they might need to mop the men’s room.
“Great,” he said again.
He’s even added a few dishes to his vocabulary of what is good: he will eat sweet and sour pork anywhere, anytime, under any conditions. He likes barbequed pork, too, and won’t turn away Peking duck. One night we took a taxi down to Tai Mei Tuk, a little beachfront village two down from campus, and he interrupted us as we began to order some boring chicken-patty dish for him.
“I want the chicken wings with lemon grass,” he told the waitress. He’d found them on the menu himself. And when he got them, he ate them with chopsticks.
Chicken wings. With chopsticks. The boy of one-thousand faces for food he doesn’t like.
Now I really have seen everything.
When cognitive neuroscientists talk about the brain in relation to age, they often discuss its plasticity. Young brains are have high neuroplasticity, meaning the physical properties of the brain can shift and expand and change and grow relatively easily. Older brains, on the other hand, have less plasticity—old dogs may like rubber bones, but they don’t like new tricks and they don’t have rubber brains.
That sentence sounded better in my end than it does on paper, by the way. Thought you’d appreciate knowing that.
Moving along: the near complete absence of neuroplasticity is, some argue, one of the reasons for Alzheimer’s. This is why one thing many doctors encourage as folks get older is that they try new things, learn new languages, pick up new hobbies, leave their wives and start running around with their yoga instructors—that sort of thing.
Anyhow. Prior to coming on this trip, I was pretty sure Will was about to enter the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest known case of early onset Alzheimer’s ever—he was just that inflexible.
I no longer fear this. The reason has nothing to do with food or Hong Kong or yoga instructors (I wish), but rather, with sweat.
You see, above and beyond everything else, my oldest son hates to sweat. If it’s hot outside, it doesn’t matter what’s going on out there—tree climbing, Frisbee throwing, the resuscitation of a fully-grown, previously-frozen Woolly Mammoth—Will will be inside, lost in a book. Prior to starting archery this fall, the only sport he liked was swimming, because—duh—you don’t sweat in the water.
But three weeks ago, my son Will did a 3.5 k run for no other reason than that his gym teacher convinced him—convinced the whole school, for that matter—that it would be fun. Ellen thinks this man is David Koresh, but I think he’s a genius. Anyone who can get little kids to thrill in using their muscles, in stretching their flexible, pain-free legs out and sprinting across the school field in broad daylight in 90-degree heat and 86% humidity—that person is a genius. And okay, if they wanted to start a cult, they’d be great at it—but that doesn’t exclude being a genius.
Anyhow, this particular race was at 8:30 on a Sunday morning on Hong Kong Island, a good hour’s drive from where we live. And that’s assuming we have a car. Which we don’t. So getting there required taking a taxi across town and catching a bus, which meant rising at 6 A.M. on a—have I mentioned this?—a Sunday.
So naturally, good parents that we are, Ellen and I spent most of Saturday trying to talk the kids out of it. I mean, we love the little buggers, but we’re not idiots. It’ll be hot, we told them. It’s on a mountain. You’ll have to get up early. You’ll sweat. You’ll probably lose, and people will laugh at you.
But no, none of it worked. So we set the alarm for 6—actually, Ellen stayed up all night drinking tequila and listening to reggae, but that’s another story—dragged the kids out of bed—they bounced up instantly, and were dressed before we could remind them how hot it would be—and got a taxi that took us to the bus that drove us to the island that held the mountain that swallowed the cat the ate the rat that chased the spider.
We got there at 8, and were startled to find that it was a city-wide race, with kids of all ages and women too, some of whom actually had fancy running shoes and did weird stretches that made them look like they knew what they were doing.
“You sure?” we said to the kids. Lucy nodded eagerly. Will looked pale, glancing at all the people, the uniforms and the numbers they pinned to your shirt—and nodded. Quickly. Just once.
“You sure?” I said again, a little more gently this time. He nodded again.
And then he ran the darn thing. The whole thing.
He hated it of course. I mean, he’s not an idiot: it was hot out there, and a long run, and some of it was uphill, and what the hell, it’s Sunday and he should’ve been in bed and then gotten up and curled up on the couch and read 60 pages of some novel about magical bats or flying machines that do battle with giant bugs shaped like squids.
But he did it. The whole thing.
Afterwards, when someone mentioned the next race on November 3rd, Will looked doubtful. Later, when it was mentioned again and Lucy said she was definitely going to do it, Will said he’d probably pass. Looking at his face, you could just see him picturing himself lying on the little couch in our living room, the one right under the air conditioner, actively not perspiring.
In recent weeks, though, he’s started to talk more and more about the November race. Already, he and two of his friends have signed up for some weird obstacle course thing where you run some, swim some, climb a rope ladder and kill a baby alligator with nothing but a pound of raisins and a copy of Mansfield Park (Jane’s lamest novel—good for little else).
Sometimes I’m not even sure I’m talking to the same boy. Running races? Obstacle courses? Sweating?
Then, on some rainy Sunday when I’m buried in work and he’s finished his Putonghua and Jamie’s asleep and Lucy is in the kitchen seeing just how crazy she can make her mother, Will will come over to where I’m sitting on the couch, tapping away at my laptop, and curl up next to me, book in hand, losing himself completely. I’ll lean into him a little, still typing. Then he’ll press back and maybe put his head against my arm, all without looking up, And—sweat or no—I’ll think, “Oh my god. He’s mine. My little boy.”