Sometimes they cause cringey TikTok videos. Sometimes they start California Wildfires.
Gender is a social construct. My children should be free to explore and discover its interfluidity in their own time.We should really call them sex reveal parties (though the sex reveal happens in the pregnancy announcement – amirite?)
The paradox of bedtime is that a baby won’t fall asleep while you are thinking “Why won’t this baby go to sleep?!?!“. Though the longer it takes, the more you are driven to fixate on that question. Like zen meditation, you have to do it by intently not focusing on the task at hand.
A new parenting first: we took Calvin to the hospital today. When he was born three years ago, we took Calvin from the hospital. A nurse inspected the snugness of our rear-facing car seat, qualifying us to take a newborn home without any extra supervision. It felt like there should be more qualifications for taking a newborn home. We didn’t really know what we were doing. Does any new parent?
Twenty-some months later, we performed the ritual again taking his brother Lawrence home from the hospital. We had a slightly better idea what we were doing. All the car seat straps were in place before the nurse even reached our car.
And then there was today.
Luana called me outside, voice full of urgency, reminding me of the urgency in those previous hospital trips. Something was wrong.
She was carrying Calvin. Calvin was crying.
“He fell…at the playground. He crossed the bridge. He turned and lost his footing. He fell.”
I was in shock. “The wobbly bridge or the snake bridge?” I asked.
Luana’s expression changed from distressed to confused.
I continued, “The wobbly bridge is on the right. It shakes when Calvin crosses and he goes ‘WO-BBB-LY BRIDGE!!!’ The snake bridge is on the left. I stick my arms through the cargo netting and he shouts ‘Snakes!!!’ as he passes”
It was Luana’s turn to be shocked. “Does it matter?” she asked.
And she’s right. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that Calvin fell. What matters is that a five-foot fall is a long fall for a 2-and-a-half-foot body. What matters is that falling on brick is a hard fall for a body of any size.
“He fell on his arm,” she adds.
I gather Calvin’s crying body in my arms. A golf-ball lump of swelling bulges at his elbow. The arm is folded and doesn’t want to unfold. Calvin’s crying turns into screaming if I touch him anywhere below the shoulder.
Once, when I was 13, I flew over the nose of my skateboard and landed on my elbow. Gathering myself, I realized my left arm wouldn’t unbend. Holding the left arm with my right, I walked home and asked my mom to take me to the emergency room. The arm broke just above the elbow. Surgery followed, then a cast, then rehab. Two decades later, the arm has its full range of motion again, but the surgery scar on my elbow still makes a happy face if I curl the bicep.
That was the last time I skateboarded. Will Calvin ever skateboard?
I hold Calvin and he sobs. I don’t know what to do, but I’m trying to be calm because I don’t want Luana to think I don’t know what to do.
What can you do? You can’t make him unfall. I pray.
I pray, and I kiss Calvin’s head, and I tell him it will be ok. Will it be ok?
Is the arm broken? We need x-rays. We call a cab to the hospital and pile into the backseat when it arrives. Calvin falls asleep in my arms. At least he’s not crying anymore.
This is a good time to mention we’re in Brazil. We’ve been visiting Luana’s hometown for a few months. That’s why we’re in the back seat of a car without any carseats. I can feel the American hospital nurse from 3 years ago scowl disapprovingly into the future. Are we still qualified to be parents?
Brazil is also why the playground is built on brick instead of sand or mulch or that rubbery-tire stuff American playgrounds are built on. Would Calvin’s arm be ok if he had fallen in an American park?
We arrive at the hospital. It’s a white rectangle building with a church on one side: Hospital de Clínicas Nossa Senhora da Conceição.
Calvin still asleep in my arms, we walk into an empty reception area. Luana knows the woman at the front desk. This isn’t surprising. Luana’s hometown is small and Luana used to be a nurse. Luana knows almost everyone at the hospital.
The receptionist asks if we would like to pay to see a private doctor, or use public health. The question is disorienting. American hospitals never asked me that. I want the best medical care possible for my son. What’s the difference?
They’re the same, the receptionist explains, which leaves me more confused.
Luana helps move the decision along. We’ll use public health. The receptionist guides us back out the main hospital entrance, around the building, to a side entrance of the hospital. The side entrance is marked “public health”.
In a new empty reception area, we’re greeted by new receptionist friends who check us in.
Quick wait. Quick triage. Quick consult.
Everything in the hospital is very professional. Everyone’s uniform is pristine. The nurses and doctors smile when they see us. Their faces tighten sympathetically when they peer at Calvin sleeping in my arms and we explain what happened. They nod understandingly. X-rays are prescribed.
We sit in a waiting area while a technician prepares the x-ray room. Down the hall, I can see the reception area – the one we first entered, at the front of the hospital. It dawns on me how public and private healthcare can be the same. The difference is the door you enter.
The x-ray room is ready. Calvin wakes up as we enter.
It must be very alarming to be 3 years-old, fall asleep in the backseat of a car, and then wake up in an x-ray room for the first time. Especially when everyone in that x-ray room is wearing masks to prevent the spread of an invisible disease. Especially after you’ve fallen on your arm.
Calvin does not handle waking up well. He screams and cries again. I can’t tell if it’s more because of his elbow or our new location. I hold him in my lap, try placing his arm on the x-ray plate to take the image. He is having none of it and refuses to sit still. I try to calm him down.
“No need to be afraid. This is a big camera, just like your toy camera at home. Can we take a picture of your arm?”
“NO PICTURE. NO PICTURE! NO PICTURE!!!”
Calvin sobs and wiggles off my lap. He bolts for the door.
“OUT. OUT! OUT!!!” Calvin cries.
Calvin tries jiggling the door handle. He tries yanking it with all his little might. The heavy x-ray room door won’t budge. Finally, he hangs from the door handle and tries kicking off the wall.
The x-ray technician and I look at each other. Calvin is hanging from the door handle – supporting his whole weight – with the arm we are concerned might be broken. X-rays won’t be necessary. Calvin will be fine. Maybe he just needed some time and a nap.
Is this answered prayer? Is this our miracle? Is this the first patient cured by x-ray machine?
I think so. I don’t know.
Luana and I hug Calvin and comfort him and calm him down as we leave the hospital. We call a cab to go home.
The sun descends. The winds pick-up. Colored shapes rise above the rooftops.
Each shape has a name: The squares are raias. The pentagons are piões. The diamonds are pipas or papagaios, depending on their size. Tie a ribbon tail to any shape and it becomes a rabiola. In English, we just call them all kites.
“Kites look like they’re for kids, but they’re for adults.”
My neighbor, 30 years old, tells me this with great confidence as he tosses up his papagaio. A set of quick jerks on the line and the kite is 50 meters above us, coasting in the breeze.
“The kite follows its nose”, he explains, “pull the line, and it moves in that direction. Give it slack, and it will spin.”
He hands me the line and lets me give a few tugs. There’s an art to pulling the kite-string for lift, then quickly releasing to let line out for the kite to sail higher. Most kids do this with their bare hands. Those with money, or most adults, use geared wheels for spooling kite-string. The wheels have a crank to pull and release the line with leverage. My neighbor’s kite wheel has the Flamengo football-club banner etched into the side.
“Have you ever seen a more beautiful flag?” he asked when he first showed it to me.
Kite-flying is the opposite of fishing. Fishing looks down in the water. Kite-flying looks up in the air. Fishing pulls a swimming thing to land. Kite-flying sends an earth-bound thing to soar.
They do share the same mechanics: pull in when there’s slack, release when there’s tension.
A small crowd gathers around us. Everyone flies kites here, but it’s not everyday you catch a gringo doing it. I’m the only gringo in the neighborhood.
Down the street, another neighbor’s little red kite lifts into the air.
My neighbor takes back control of his own kite, working it across the sky. He pushes to make the kite spin, pulling hard as he catches the nose parallel with the horizon. His kite dances in bursts toward the little red one. Another push/pull and his kite rises up above the little red one. One more and it darts down, down. My neighbor shakes the line with the ferocity of a graffiti artist warming up a can of spray paint.
The little red kite thrashes. It tries to climb, realizes it cannot. Its line is pinned under my neighbor’s line. Tension builds. Then suddenly, there’s no tension at all. The little red kite spins free, severed from its line. It lilts in the wind a little more, drifting out of the neighborhood, descending beyond our view.
My neighbor has cut down the other neighbor’s kite. The little crowd around us cheers.
“Kites look like they’re for kids, but they’re for adults,” He reminds me.
In Brazil, kite fighting is part of kite flying. Kite flyers buy their paper kites in bulk, anticipating multiple losses on a given day. They master fine techniques in preparing and positioning kites for battle. Kids used to coat kite strings in glue and run the lines along broken glass to make better cutting instruments. The modern practice is to buy string coated in aluminum oxide. The wonders of industrialization.
“Feel this – the aluminum oxide is sharp. It can cut you”. My neighbor explained.
Aluminum-oxide coated string is expensive. My neighbor attaches 50 meters of it to his kite “where the action is” so he can slice the lines of other kites. The fortified line is then attached to 500 meters of regular kite string, spooled around his kite wheel. 550 meters: at that distance, a kite is just a dot. It’s impossible to tell its nose from its tail. I wonder about the range at which 550 meters of line can attack another flying kite. It’s a math problem with the area of a circle, and maybe cosine, but I can’t figure out the angles and inverted cones.
Aluminum-oxide coated string is dangerous. Luana worries about our kids getting too close and cutting themselves on it. Abandoned kite strings pose a community risk when they get tangled in fences or overhead lines. My neighbor’s motorcycle has a special antennae to deflect errant kite-strings from clotheslining him while riding through the neighborhood. WWII Jeeps were outfitted with similar apparatuses: “wire anti-decapitation devices”.
Aluminum-oxide coated string is also illegal. A point my neighbor emphasizes several times in the process of learning me up on Brazilian kites.
“If it’s illegal, where do you buy it?” I ask. “Everywhere” the crowd responds. “Like weed,” someone suggests in a tone that seems to be part statement-of-fact and part solicitation.
Kite flying and kite fighting are tethered in Brazilian culture. Craft and technique in building and operation. Style and flair in colors and shapes. Sidestepping inconvenient rules for advantages. Games of bravado and status as flyers risk their own kites to cut down those of others. Beauty, Joy, Daring, all tied in one hobby.
Kites look like they’re for kids, but they’re for adults.
There should be a word for the awareness, in moments of joy, that your memory of the moment won’t last.
I’m holding my son. He pumps his chubby legs. He can’t walk yet, but he wants to jump. I throw him in the air. The corners of his mouth stretch wide as he floats. Eight tiny teeth peak through 11-month-old gums. Laughter gurgles from his tiny frame, filling my body with delight.
I won’t remember this.
Luana says Lawrence looks like Calvin when Calvin was Lawrence’s age. Moms must be better at that. The boys look similar in photographs, but I don’t have a photographic memory.
Calvin is 2 ½ now. We don’t even count the months anymore. I don’t have a memory of Calvin at 9-months, 10-months, 11-months in my head. When I close my eyes, I mostly see the same 2 ½-year-old Calvin I do when I open them. Did I play with Calvin the same way I’m playing with Lawrence now?
Last fall, my family watched Buddhist monks make a sand mandala. The monks spent weeks laying geometric shapes on the ground with colored grains of sand, tapping the sand through slim funnels to form vibrant fractal patterns.
A sand mandala’s beauty is temporary order. It’s the same sand arrayed on the floor, or in the urn, or in the river. But we wouldn’t have driven to see it in the river. We wouldn’t have made the trip if it was glued to the floor. We appreciated it because of its impermanence.
My mother-in-law took a selfie with the mandala. I’m not sure we all left with the same lessons.
The Romans had the expression Memento Mori. When a Roman hero paraded through the streets, his servant would ride in his chariot whispering Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori. [Look behind you. Remember you are human. Remember your death.] It’s a reminder to be humble, and also recognize our days are precious.
Memento Memoriam is more mild than this. No need to fixate on our mortality. Just recognize that memories are fickle. Memories are fragile. The act of remembering changes our memories, like the wear and tear on a photograph repeatedly pulled from a wallet.
When I close my eyes, I can see Lawrence sailing through the air. But his 11-month-old smile isn’t as vivid as it was. Tomorrow it will fade a little more.
My sons won’t remember this.
In several years, we’ll look at pictures from this time. Our family will huddle together on the couch, and point, and I’ll tell them the stories as best I can. And we’ll smile too.
But for today, if I hold my camera with two hands, I can’t hold my sons at the same time.
There should be a word for the joy of having moments worth remembering, whether or not you do.