Did you know that the tank was introduced during the Battle of the Somme – one of the world’s bloodiest battles of all time – in 1916 as a way of trying to break the stalemate of trench warfare? And the word “tank”, which seems so apt, actually came about because the Brits developed it in such secrecy that they told the people on the assembly line making the things that they were transportable water tanks for the Russians. Actually, Churchill – who was then First Lord of the Admiralty – almost called them “water carriers for Russia” until an assistant pointed out that this could be misconstrued as WC’s – or toilets – for Russian.
I know all of this – and so much more – because of my son. Along with all sorts of things about “Curiosity,” the rover now winging its way toward Mars, “fake fake” computer viruses, the culture of Nerf guns, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the phenomenon of online reviews of Lego products, the Green Bay Packers, Magic the Gathering, and the lyrics and dance moves of Michael Jackson. And that’s just the past year’s obsessions, not even going back, say, to survival skills, My Side of the Mountain, and Avatar – The Last Airbender.
What humbles me on a regular basis is how resistant I was to having a boy. How foolishly closed I was to this vast world of sounds and movement and curiosity. I’d not wanted to know the gender of either child, and with my second I’d been certain it was a girl. “She” felt so much the same in utero as her sister. I was so sure, in fact, that when my doctor placed a baby in my arms and nearly fell into me with happiness declaring, “You have a boy!” I was sure she had it wrong. She was Franny. She was the spunky sidekick to her calmer older sister, and the two of them would share the bifurcated attic bedroom in our new house. She was not he. So much so that we didn’t even really have a boy’s name (which explains why Tobias Michael had about four different names in the course of his first 24 hours of life, beginning with Simon). I am embarrassed to admit that that night, alone in the hospital, I cried. What was I going to do with a boy?
That question now seems absurd, in part because of the assumption that the parent does something with the child when it’s generally more the other way around. And for nearly nine years, he has been doing with me just fine. He needs me, he clings to me, he attaches like some deep water mollusk. As a toddler, his father often noted that I was his sun and moon and stars. He made very clear that though I may have had initial doubts, he had none, and I’d best get over them because he had things to do.
For me, boys were the fear of the unknown. Fear of violence. Fear of belligerence. Fear of emotional shut down. Fear of sports involving balls. Fear of monotone clothing. Fear of monotone grunts. Fear of dirty socks and stinking laundry hampers. Fear of the men in my life who had not been … enough.
It’s much easier for me to see men as the boys they were. To love that 7-year old curious, mischievous part of them.
Embracing the so-called other on a daily basis – first feeding him from my body, then cleaning his (even today I hang out in the bathroom while he showers under the pretense of conversation – he’s quite the chatty bather – to ensure that he actually uses soap and shampoo) – has give me a much more genuine soft spot for men. It’s much easier for me to see men as the boys they were. To love that 7-year old curious, mischievous part of them.
Last night while watching his sister’s swim team prepare for their state meet, Tobey said, “You know, I’m really proud of Bella. I took [my friend] Andre up to her room just to see all of her medals and ribbons. It’s pretty cool what she’s doing.” He was very earnest and, indeed, very proud. I hugged him, and laughed at my earlier self who feared that having a boy meant some absence of emotions.
He’s taken me into other lands, too, so that I can see parts of life that I’ve only previously viewed through the lens of emotion. Recently, we’ve been working on a PowerPoint report about the Battle of the Somme. I find myself always focusing on the brutal and senseless loss of life. But Tobey sees barbed wire – cool! He sees the maze of trenches, each with their own purpose – cooler! And he sees the tank – a giant metal machine that looks like it shouldn’t work, and yet it does – coolest yet. Though the loss of that battle doesn’t recede, I’m able to view parts of it as least through the lens of ingenuity. I hold him to me – so aware of all of the drive and energy, the desire to be taking things apart and discovering something entirely new – so utterly different than his sister his in what compels him through a day – and must admit that I drink in some of that energy, thankful to have it so close. Thankful to have been so very wrong.