Cayde wanted to stay home today, and he was specific: WITH DADDY. I walked in on him in the bathroom, lingering over the toilet bowl with a pained expression on his face. He has learned the art of play-acting, and he employs it when he can. Mommy and Daddy are smart though. We cross our arms, and gently call him out when we know, exactly, that he’s not telling the truth.
When he did have the flu, a few weeks back, he was surprised at himself vomiting.
“Why does my throat burn?” he asked.
I explained bile, stomach acid. We all have languages of love, and Cayde and I talk science on the daily. It’s how we sometimes connect.
“Does this mean I’ll have a hole burn through my neck?” he panickedly asked, the fact of ‘acid’ widening his eyes.
“No, no, no. Calm down, Kid. You’re fine. The body’s good at keeping everything in.”
From this exchange, I learned my kid has been faking it all the times he might’ve said, ‘Daddy, I barfed.’
No, Cayde. No you didn’t barf all those times you said you did.
But I forgive you for fibbing.
I dress him for school and he keeps flopping on the bed, play-acting and pretending himself inconsolable.
“Jeezus, Cayde, I CAN’T stay home. And if Mama’s gonna stay home with you, she’s gotta go to school first. She’ll need a sub. Tie your shoes. You HAVE to be there for the morning, THEN Mama can take you home if that’s how it has to be. Please. GET DRESSED.”
I dress Finn, too, in the meanwhile. We like to put him in a neckerchief. People ask if he’s a ‘cowboy’ or conductor’. My neighbor asks this, actually, as we put Finn in the van, today.
“No—it’s just his flare,” we say referring to the double-knotted gingham round his neck. .
The neckerchief is just cute, and frankly it catches the drool.
At work, I’m in between buildings, the Penguin Encounter and the Avian Center. There’s been re-structure recently. I’ve taken care of all manners of feathered things in my career, and now I get to ferry between both places, prepping diets, throwing grain to waterfowl and feeding otherwise penguins beaks with fish. I love it.
But I get stuck today trying to figure out my shift. It’s new to me, although I’ve worked the gamut at SW. I employ hands to help me, I get caught up, and then draw my finger down a prescribed shift sheet in search of the next task.
“Ok—looks like I hafta do med inventory.”
Soldierly, I walk back to the PE and start opening cabinets and eyeing prescription bottles. I write things down. We need this, we need that. A tour files into the building. I smile and wave, ‘Hello.” A little girl starts crying—a terrified cry—and I look up confusedly.
“Hey, could you close that cabinet?” I’m asked.
No one has told me this is a ‘Make-a-Wish Tour.’
I put everything away, quick.
This three year-old girl is crying crying crying.
She has terminal brain cancer. In her mind, where there is no suspension of disbelief, she thought she was walking into a building where she was just going to (and did) meet penguins. She then saw an open cabinet with all those amber bottles lined up, things we dispense to analgesically treat our aged birds.
We’re good at what we do. We’re excellent at what we do, and our new scientific and revolutionary endeavor comes down to the most basic thing: comfort. Our birds live three times longer than they would otherwise. They are comfortable and happy and they are well. They tell us by still laying eggs and singing to us in the doorways. To be a zookeeper is not have our song be defined by the jangling of keys, but to be defined—more accurately—by how we shout, ‘Good night, Kids!’ every night we close the door, and while we look forward to seeing them tomorrow.
This girl: she cried and cried. She thought the bottles were for her.
I tell my boss I’m gonna take a long lunch.
Sometimes I drive home during a lunch break, to terra firma, to my house—only to look around for a few minutes, just to remind myself of my wife and kids—before getting back in the car, driving back to work, and roughing it through the closing hours of my shift.
I call my boss once back home. I ask: “Do you think you can cover the rest of my shift? I need to stay home.”
Turns out the tour went great. I mean, penguins. C’mon.
This girl, her frightened cries—it sincerely haunted me. Finn had his chest cranked open when he was three months old. Doctors fixed his heart, and Finn took his medicine smilingly. He’s alive and is four and is the light of my life.
“I’m ok. It’s ok,” I say as assurance to my boss while I speak on the phone. I am far from unwell, though I’m in tears. I’m uniquely strong; I can handle this. I just need respite for a minute.
“Take care of your family, take care of yourself,” she decides and I hear a guarded smile through the receiver.
You see, I figured something out on the drive back home, and before calling work:
Cayde, who is encyclopedic and sensitive and much too ME, I guess, realized before I did today, that Jan. 30 is my Grandma’s birthday. (She died of cancer a couple of years ago). He wanted to stay home with me today because he wanted to console me, wanted me to console him. It’s why he was play-acting sick
.And I, accidentally, ruined a cancer-stricken girl’s day, by holding a cabinet door open and accidentally exposing her to things that she thought would maybe make her sick again, at least sick to her stomach. And we all need to be comfortable before we go. God, I really fucked that one up, even if by accident.
I know it’s not my fault. Everyone has said so, and I trust them. It hurt, though. A LOT. And it hurt me when I put my kids’ shoes on this morning, saying you HAFTA go to school, and when I couldn’t stay back with him.
Sometimes life is the better school, which you don’t need shoes for.
I’ll go back to work tomorrow, certainly, but life punched me in the eye today and it made tears.