Way back in the fall when the school sent home sign-up sheets for afterschool activities, Will decided he wanted to do archery. We were okay with this, even though it meant tromping all the way across town every Sunday afternoon and sitting in the hot sun for over an hour.
He loved it. Which makes sense if you know Will: it’s a sport that requires a lot of concentration, a fair bit of intelligence, and not a lot of sweating, which has never been Will’s favorite thing to do. The first few times he went, he came home ecstatic, talking about how many bulls-eyes he got, what his scores were, what he had to do before they’d advance him to another level and move the target back.
Then, maybe three weeks into it, he came over to where I was typing my stupid blog on my laptop, and said, “I don’t feel good.”
I looked up. His face was pale, dark red circles around his eyes. I could see sweat forming in his bangs.
“You’re probably just hot,” I said. It was October, but still steaming. “Sit in the shade for a bit.”
So he did. And then he went back to his bow and arrows, and shot a few more rounds.
I was lost in my computer again, when he reappeared.
“I really don’t feel good.”
“You think you’re going to throw up?”
I took him to a shady spot beside the fence, plopped him down on a stool, and made him put his head between his knees.
“Did you feel okay walking up?” I asked. It’s a good mile from the bus stop, with not much shade.
He shook his head a little. Then nodded a little, then shrugged, his face still between his knees.
We waited for a few minutes until he started to feel a little better. I got him some water and that seems to help. Some.
“You want to stay a bit?” I asked
He didn’t say anything for a bit. I saw his eyes glance from the bow, to the target, to the arrows. Then he shook his head. And we went.
Which wasn’t really a big deal.
But then it happened the next time, too. One minute, he was happily splitting straw as I typed away, the next he was standing beside me, pale as a sheet, forehead dewy with sweat.
“The heat again?” I said.
The next week, we didn’t even make it out the door.
“I don’t feel good,” he said, when I strolled into the living room, my lap top satchelled on my shoulder.
I stopped where I was. Something below my lungs twisted a little. I looked at Ellen, who was sitting on the couch downloading pictures onto her computer. She met my glance. Ellen and I aren’t on the same page very often (or even in the same book), and we’re arguably the worst parents ever (why else would we eat our kids’ M&Ms when they weren’t looking?), but every once in a while we get it right, and we get it right together.
So we sat down and talked to Will about archery, about his stomachaches, about what was going on. We never did figure out exactly what was happening—he said he loved archery, and we believed him. Who knows: maybe he was putting a lot of pressure on himself to succeed; maybe, standing there, bow raised, one eye closed, focusing on the target, trying to calm his breath, he just felt the heat swell through is body, felt something huge and unmanageable crushing his lungs. Who knows?
But he went that day. And he had fun. And he went every week after that, except for the ones where we had something else to do, and then he complained voraciously about missing.
Of all of my children, Will has come the farthest this year.
Partly that’s because he had the farthest to go. When I first wrote about him in the fall, I mentioned my theory that his was the earliest case of early-onset-Alzheimer’s, that his brain just plain lacked neo-plasticity, the ability to take in new information and link it to existing neural networks. He’s always been this way: when we brought his sister home six years ago, he spent two whole years refusing to acknowledge her existence. He just doesn’t take change well.
And this year has been full of change. Duh. Aside from the macro stuff—small-town Virginia replaced by Hong Kong, brats on the grill replaced by steamed chicken, moonshine replaced by tea—there are all the smaller changes, which really aren’t that small in the end: instead of walking 10 minutes to school, he had to hoof it fifteen minutes down a hill, get on a mini-bus, get dropped off in the middle of a busy intersection, wait 10-15 minutes, then take another bus. And the school wasn’t the school he’d known, the teachers weren’t the teachers he’d known. Kids spoke a language—check that: languages—he didn’t understand.
And the kids. They weren’t his friends. This isn’t to say that they weren’t friendly—they were, mostly. But you have to understand that Will has known his oldest friend, Lena, since he was a month old. And his second oldest friend, Maria, since he was three months old. And his third oldest friend, Charlie, since about that same time. And these are not kind of friends, people he waves at in the Kroger parking lot: no, these are close friends. Charlie and Maria and Will play every day after school. And Lena once pooped in Will’s bath. We’re talking really close here.
Which means, of course, that Will hasn’t really had to make friends that much: he’s just grown up with the same people attending his birthday party every year, seeing the same people at the swimming pool every night during the summer.
Until his jerk parents decided to move to Hong Kong for a stupid year.
That this transition wasn’t that easy for Will was evidenced in a million small details. He’s been more short of temper this year that before, particularly as the Spring has stretched on and we still haven’t packed our bags and headed home.
And he’s been self-medicating even more than usual, which doesn’t seem possible. Luckily, Will’s drug of choice involves glue, paper, ink, and a table of contents. And if you think I’m joking about books serving as medication, then you haven’t seen my son come home after a lousy, hot, sticky, sweaty, chaotic day at school, kick his shoes off at the door, drop his backpack by the dining room table, grab a book, and curl up on the couch, his head down. For the next hour, or so, he literally won’t hear anything that’s going on around him.
Which is fine with us. More than one study has shown that reading is like meditation, that it slows the heart rate, deepens the breathing, relaxes the mind. Even though sometimes it’s a pain in the butt having to tell someone for the sixth time that he needs to wash his hands for supper, I think Ellen and I are both glad Will has this mechanism for recovering from a hard day (writes his father as he takes a sip of wine and reaches for another Chips A’Hoy).
And luckily for us, my host institution has arguably the best children’s library in all of Southeast Asia. I’m not making this up. We’ve spent most of the year heading to a single aisle in the stacks where every series of note from the last 50 years is stored, in its entirety. Will has worked his way through Mr. Gum, The Magic Treehouse, some trilogy about prehistoric bats, Enid Blyton, and a dumb series about a mouse that pisses me off every time I have to read the damn things. Just this week he’s started the Percy Jackson series, and is already on book 3.
But even so, there’ve been some hard moments. Some of these I’ve chronicled already: earlier in the Spring, for instance, he was in the throes of a bullying situation. Bullying is always bad (says the writer who hates people who state the obvious) but probably its worst form is when the bully is someone the bullied really really likes, and really really wants to be liked by. As was the case this spring, when Will was told that he was “annoying,” that he read too much, that he was unpopular, that he should care more about sports—all by the most popular guy in Year Four.
Needless to say, stuff like this absolutely destroys any parent who has to stand by and watch it happen—and we have to watch it happen: we can only intervene so much. We can’t be there on the playing field, can’t throw out the retorts that we’re certain will shut up the idiot who thinks our son is an idiot, can’t, finally, control the will of a 10 year-old-boy who is trying to destroy the 10-year-old boy we’d die to save, simply because he (the first 10-year-old boy) wants to see if he can, wants to see if he can exert some force on the universe, can exert pressure on the world around him, can somehow shape a universe that’s intent on shaping him.
All of which is ground I’ve covered before. I mention it here simply because it leads to two moments that capture Will this year:
The first occurred maybe two weeks before Will was supposed to go on a class trip to Beijing. This is an adventure of course, particularly when you’re only nine. But it’s also a little scary, particularly when you’re only nine.
And it’s a lot scary when it means you get to spend five days, 24-hours-a-day, with two boys who used to be your friends, but now insist on making you miserable.
Anyhow, it’s about two weeks before the trip. Will and his mom are in the kitchen. She’s just asked him if he’d rather stay home than go. And after a long moment’s silence, he’s said yes.
The thing is, as much as Ellen and I don’t really want him to go, don’t really want him to be in that situation (without, say, brass knuckles and a book of really witty comebacks), we also know that—like the archery thing—he probably needs to do it. I hate clichés, but there’s one about a horse and falling off and—well, you know the rest (and if you don’t, then you need to stop surfing porn on the internet and read some real books).
So Ellen basically tells him we think he needs to do it. There’s a long silence. I’m lying on the couch in the living room, reading, or napping, or trying to pretend I should be answering work e-mails. Even from that distance, I can feel the resignation in the air, the utter loss, a hopelessness so hopeless it can’t even get up the energy to protest or argue.
After a few minutes, Ellen comes out of the kitchen and starts doing something on the computer. Will comes out too, and sits at the table, pencil in hand, not so much doing his homework, as just sitting, head down, staring at the paper he’s supposed to be covering with words.
“Hey Will?” I say from my spot on the couch.
He looks up.
“Come here,” I say.
When he stretches on top of me, he’s reaches all the way from my chin to just above my ankles. He’s heavy too, but not enough that I can’t breath.
He doesn’t say anything. And I don’t either.
And he doesn’t cry. And I don’t either, though maybe I’d understand if either of us did. Instead, I stroke his hair, his chestnut brown hair, slightly greasy, with my thumb.
We stay there for fifteen minutes: Me on the couch, stroking his hair, him on top of me, face down, melting into me.
The second story has to do with the day he comes back. The flight is late, so I’m standing at the airport at 9:50 on a Friday night, with a lot of people from the school I should know and should talk to if I weren’t so stupid and shy in situations like this.
Anyways, eventually the kids start to trickle out of the gate: there’s George and Mark, strolling together and laughing; there’s Sonja, the Norwegian-English-Argentine-ish girl that Will insists he doesn’t have a thing for, even though he’ll drop whatever he’s doing whenever her car pulls up to the bus stop; and there’s Will, wearing exactly the same shirt he had on five days ago, looking tired and disheveled, but walking with a loose and confident gait.
“How was it?” I say, as we stroll with Sonja and her mom to their car for a shared ride back to the hinterlands of Tai Po.
“Good,” he says.
“Are you glad you went?” I ask.
“Uh-huh,” he says.
“Really?” I say, because I read somewhere that one key to good parenting is to use every opportunity available to show your children that: a) you don’t trust their self-knowledge; or b) you think they’re liars.
“Yep,” he nods. “It was fun.”
Then he says, “Hang on.” And kneels down by his backpack.
“Here,” he says. He’s pulled out a small, decorated box, the kind you get in China whenever you buy a souvenir: the outside is green or red, with an old-fashioned pattern like your grandmother’s curtains, the inside is lined with a red, velvety material, into which is laid the bowl or spoon or miniature vase or whatever it is that you purchased.
He hands the box to me.
“What’s this?” I say. We’d given him a little bit of money for souvenirs, encouraging him to buy something for his sister, since she was certain the fact that he got to go to Beijing and she did not was part of a plot on behalf of God and the Universe to ruin her life
“It’s a present,” he said.
I look at him. He’s zipped up his bag, has stood now. Glancing down, I realize he’s probably wearing the same sock and shorts as five days ago, as well.
“Will,” I say. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“But you got something for Lucy, too, right?” I say, determined as always to do everything I can to ruin a good moment.
“Uh-huh,” he says, in a tone that implies, rightly, that I’m an idiot.
I open the box. Inside is small, cloisonné owl, red and blue and white and yellow, trimmed in intricate lines of gold.
“Will,” I say.
He looks at me.
“Did you know I love owls?” I ask. It’s true: I hate birds—too fluttery, with feathers, and beaks and claws and white-green poo—but owls are a different matter altogether.
He shakes his head. He’s not smiling, but his lips are pressed together, and I can see from the way his cheeks puff that he’s about to.
Now, were I a better writer, or more sympathetic to my weary, I’d stop right there. This is, though, the last post I’ll write of Will here in Hong Kong, so I’m afraid you’ll just have to suck it up for another 300 words, more or less.
For Mother’s Day, Will made a pop-up card: the outside is plain brown, maybe with a little picture or something. The inside, though, is a row of cut-out palm trees that stand straight up when you open the card. Below them is a little treasure chest, with a sliding bolt and a key. Open it, and you find the word “Mother” spelled out vertically, so that the student can provide a phrase that describes his mother for each letter. Here is what Will wrote:
M—Made of molecules
O—One of a kind
T—Takes me to school
H—Happy and Kind
Thinking about writing this post, I’d planned on focusing on “Made of molecules.” I mean, who doesn’t love a kid who comes up with a line like that? Especially when you know the he and his friend Eldon laughed like—well—9-year-old boys when he wrote that.
Typing this now, though, what I find myself focusing on is “Reassuring.” I know this word should scare me: “reassuring” implies the need for assurance, the existence of fear and anxiety and chaos in his world—things caused by situations at school, yes, but also by his mom and dad deciding the best thing they could do when he was eight was rip him out of his quiet peaceful life in Virginia, and drag him half-way around the world to a place where the food smells funny and the caterpillars are so poisonous you’re not supposed to touch them.
So I know this word should scare me. But it doesn’t. What it tells me is that I have a smart boy, a boy who knows what’s good for him, and who’s good for him, and where to go when it all gets to be too much.
This might have been a skill he had before we left. I don’t know. I don’t care. All I know—and all I care about—is that he has it now.