By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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He looked odd, hardly lovable. His head was elongated from the pounding it had taken against a cervix that did not fully dilate. He was covered with blood and amniotic fluid. When he took his first breath, he closed his eyes and screamed. The sound, the sight of him, and the profound terror of being a parent took my breath away.
It has been a year and a half since Kyle was born, and I can only now admit how little I understand about being a parent. I still don’t really know him. I am daily surprised by him. I feel awkward, and marvel, watching him change.
Today I walked him home from the babysitter. I am in a hurry; he wants to stop and dig in the dirt. He knows there is soft potting soil in a barrel planter along our path. I am tired. I want to drop off the bag of diapers he has used today, and I want to sit down. He picks up a spade near the barrel and plunges it into the dry mixture of dirt and manure.
At first I feel annoyed. “House,” I say, hoping to encourage him to follow me home so that I can cook dinner, catch the news, and unwind after a day of graduate school.
He is deliberate. “Nuh no.” He roots in the loose, brown humus with the spade and dumps some soil onto his sleeve. He turns the soil, examining its texture, then plunges in with the spade again.
I hang there between diapers and book bag, a harried cargo carrier, suddenly aware that I am witnessing worship. I want to drop the bags and join him. But I only watch and wait for him to finish. It takes more than this simple testimony to mindfulness for me to undo years of impatience.
I set down my heavy book bag. He notices but goes back to his digging. Then he walks across the paving stones with a load of earth, intending to dump it on my bag. Part of me thinks that burying my books would not be a bad idea, but I counter, “No no,” and lead him back to his work.
Watching him, sometimes, I feel time jump its track. I don’t know who he is, yet he seems so much like me.
I know he has a fear of mine. When he was about three months old, he had a walker that played “It’s a Small World After All” when you wound a flower-shaped crank on the side. I felt relieved that he could move now under his own power; he looked less like a baby, more like a boy. Sometimes on his trips around the house, he would stop in the kitchen and look up at me with a piercing expression, appealing, desperate. Dad, his look said, please love me. I’d scoop him up and hold him close, smelling his hair, his fragility. I’d try to tell him, chasing away his baby fear with the sum of my conviction and sincerity, that of course I loved him. How could I not love him?
There have been other times when I’ve been sound asleep and his voice rose from a chant to a plaintive wail. The noise got behind my eyes and burned there. I remember the peculiar pounding, unlike any I had felt before. Often I was angry. On those nights, Megan would tell me not to get up, not until I wanted to comfort him. Then she would go to him. On those nights I wasn’t able to be a parent. I was still a child myself.
Sometimes, lately, my reluctance falls away, and he and I speak the same language. He lies on the table as I change him, and he begins, “Haab daab daab yow,” gesturing exaggeratedly with his arms. I forget who I am and join him, chattering, “Yaab bo daab haand oh.” Passionate assertion, legal argument, the big questions fill the weight of our debate. Sometimes I broadly assent with giant nods and swinging arms, Desitin in one hand, in the other a pair of plastic pants. Sometimes I disagree but keep the tone conversational. His eyes show that he understands. He giggles, and I speak from deep within myself, saying truths I dare not utter to any other. He senses the communion, contributing secrets of his own. He laughs, showing two perfect but lonely, lower teeth.
In the morning, he is very small. He cries before beginning to name his world. “Kitty . . . milk . . . on (turn on the light) . . . Papa . . . Mama . . . truck.” When the world is named, he strides into it, confident, unbroken. I feel the impossible desire to protect him, keep him from ever breaking. But the thought burns off as we both move into the day. Again, I hurry. I want him to eat his bananas so I can get out the door to make my eight o’clock class. “Ah pea,” he asks, open. He wants me to help him with his curriculum: opening and closing juice bottles, milk bottles, toothpaste tubes. This morning, “ah pea” is for his green, plastic turtle that houses different shapes — stars, triangles, hexagons — in its shell. He is holding it up to me. “Ah pea.” I sit down, open the turtle, take the cylindrical piece, put it in my mouth, lie back, and shoot it skyward. He takes the oval piece, lies back, and blows until it puffs above his head. I guess I will be late.
Sometimes I think he holds me back. I don’t have all the time I once did. I don’t know when I last went to an art exhibit or talked over a beer. I feel that I will never have the energy necessary to excel at anything. But, perhaps by way of detour, I feel pushed ahead, too. He shows me things. I have had a cordless phone for more than a year, but there are buttons on it I’ve never understood. Within a week of picking it up, he had found the intercom, page, and finder buttons. He made the answering machine respond to commands I didn’t know existed. He speaks into the phone, and the answering machine amplifies his voice; he pushes “page” and gets great, shrill beeps from the distant machine. He sees a world I barely notice.
Once in a while we go into the back yard after dinner, when it’s almost dark. A light illuminates only a small part of the yard, and I like to stay under it, rolling the ball back and forth, but he charges ahead and flings the ball into the darkest corners of the yard. I walk back there to get it through dust that fills my sandals, through the shit of neighborhood cats. I don’t like it, wouldn’t walk there if I didn’t have to retrieve the ball. He stands on the edge of shadow, a silhouette, swinging his hands, walking in circles, half dancing, half waiting for me to bring back the ball. I don’t know who he is, really, this person in my care, but he seems very close to knowing himself.
When he sees me coming back out of the dark, he runs. His feet do not touch the dirt as they disappear, too short for his body, in a galloping blur. He is pleased that I have come back. I toss the ball toward the light, hoping to move us in that direction. He retrieves it and flings it back into the darkness, then swings his arms, or touches his fingertips to fingertips, or walks in circles, waiting.
He stays with a neighbor couple while I am at school. To them, he is part of the family. He goes walking with the retired husband. They go where Kyle wants to go. Sometimes they walk over to the bus stop. He knows the buses. They sit and watch them squeak to a stop. They breathe in the released air of the brakes and feel the air-conditioned whooshes of hydraulic doors opening and closing. They are in no hurry. They stay until they get tired of the view, then move on to another. Kyle knows the park and can speak a few words of Spanish with some of the homeless regulars who stay there. He knows the library. He knows the fountains in the mall. The two of them move slowly, deliberately. About a week ago, I came home early and found them watering trees in the back yard. “Hola, este . . . Erec,” the husband said to me, as if he couldn’t quite remember my name. That is his way. “Buenos dias,” I answered. I followed up the salutation with a broad-armed stoop that I thought would elicit a hug and called out, “Kylito!” Kyle turned to look at me. He seemed a little surprised or annoyed. He turned back to the neighbor, grabbed his hand, looked back at me, and said, “Buh bye.” They turned off the water, and the two of them walked away together, the one old and a little bent, the other brand-new, trying out his body.
He changes between the time I drop him off in the morning and when I return for him in the afternoon. His new words, gestures, surprise me. I try to find a continuity. He offers to reacquaint us. “Bao?” he says, pointing up at an orange tree we pass on our walk home. Tight, green oranges hang from the branches. They look like the ball we toss around the yard. I jump to grab one for him. When I give it to him, he is pleased and holds it with both hands before tossing it down the driveway. I race him to pick it up.
The oranges in my reach have now been all but exhausted, so I sometimes plant an orange in the crotch of a branch. On our walks home, I harvest oranges that are reruns.
Kyle has gotten used to being outside, to walking. One day, I closed the gate when he wanted to go out. He stood next to it and demanded that I open it. “Ah pea.”
“No no. It’s time to stay in the yard.”
He crossed his hands, wrung them, and said again, a little more desperately, “Ahhhh pea.”
It became clear to him that he couldn’t leave. The pleas gave way to whimpers, then a pout, then a full scream. It was difficult to walk away, quietly asserting “no no.” I sat at the other end of the yard while he stood facing me with his back against the gate, berating me in every way he knew. We stood off for almost an hour. Only when I went into the house for some fruit did he relent and come join me on the porch.
It’s just me and him for now. In the future, he will have teachers, peers, schedules, but those years still seem distant. I watch him wield a long piece of plastic pipe. It is twice as long as he is tall. With it, he is a warrior of the yard and trots around reciting victory incantations. He holds his arms up in triumphant glory when he doesn’t know I’m watching. He sometimes chases the cats with his lance. They elude him, jumping onto high adobe walls, warily unwinding and flicking their tails. They are adversaries, dragons, full of animal cunning. He pursues them fearlessly.
I admire him. His movements betray his unbroken desires, his trust, his confidence of place. Someday, I know he will doubt, will see me pull the orange from behind the branch, will sense my discomfort when playing his games. Without another player, enthusiasm — en theo, in God — will eventually wither. He will forget his wonder. I am reluctant to play my inevitable role, the instructor of limitation, yet the dance my son and I do is fated, I believe, inexorable as the tides. He will forget how to walk slowly, as I have forgotten. But I want him to know how for as long as he can so that maybe, someday, he will begin to remember.