Woods and I left for Vedauwoo, a rock climbing area in Wyoming, on a Friday afternoon. I slipped into the Woods zone quickly. “Dada, do mosquitoes have calves?” “Where do itches go after you scratch them?” The kid has great questions. I felt a little worried, and a little irresponsible that for the next few days I’d be thinking and talking about mosquito calves and itches, and a thousand other things like them, that weren’t work. But mostly I felt excited. I put a hand on Woods’s knee. Because the RV has no back seat, he was sitting right next to me, “facing sunwards,” as he says, like a big boy in his booster seat. He gave me a huge smile. We pulled out of the Whole Foods parking lot with a fridge full of food, our approach shoes and directions to Vedauwoo and the dinosaur museum in Laramie.
We broke down immediately, a block out of the parking lot. The RV ground to a halt right in front of an auto repair shop. A nice Mexican dude came out, looked at the engine, pressed on the pedals, and told us there was an air bubble in the brake line. He fixed it in five minutes with a box wrench by draining the line at the master cylinder. Woods climbed the ladder to the roof of the RV and watched earth movers clear a new lot next door.
Vedauwoo was a foreign land. Boggy, dark and thick with the incense of wet fir in the forests beneath the cliffs. Sandy, windy and otherworldly above, where the rocks were twisted and shaped by the wind. We ran across them where we could. Sometimes Woods climbed. Often he rode on my shoulders as we carried chocolate to the highest perches to watch ravens and buzzards drift past.
Woods dubbed himself the baby lion and me the daddy lion, and we walked through the rocks in search of things we could climb. “The daddy lion will spot the baby lion on this rock,” he’d say. And I’d put a hand on his little booty for moral support while he scrambled up things with a degree of skill he doesn’t even know he has.
Back at the RV we figured out how to live with each other. One hundred and twenty three square feet is not much for a two-year-old, especially at bedtime. Especially when that two-year-old is hell-bent on climbing everything in site. And most especially when the parent has his own insecurities and frustrations, which bubble forth despite his best efforts.
One evening Woods would not stay in the bed. He climbed down over and over, clearly looking for me to react. And of course with no door, no child gate, I could do nothing. I finally told him that his not being able to go to sleep was a “real problem” and that I was getting angry. I didn’t yell. I didn’t punish. I didn’t withdraw or become silent and angry. But it felt wrong right as soon as it came out of my mouth. “A problem.” Like he had a problem.
And sure enough, days later, when we were back home and he was trying to go to sleep in his room by himself, which has always been hard. I heard muffled sobs from under his blanket. When I pulled the covers back he was clutching “Whale,” which is actually a stuffed shark bigger than he is, but sharks are too scary so Woods named him Whale. He was sweaty. Worried. He looked at me and whispered, “the baby lion is havin’ a hard time goin’ to sleep by himself.” Then he was silent for a minute and said, “The problem is, Woods doesn’t know how to go to sleep.” His little brow furrowed.
I thought at that moment about how hard he was trying, how much it mattered to him to solve this "problem," how much he wanted to do good and right, just as he threw himself at the little rock climbs in Vedauwoo, or the imaginary carpentry projects he “fixed” with his tools. Or really anything he does.
And I felt that I hadn’t tried hard enough that evening in the RV. With all the resources and maturity I have, the strength and experience, the ease in my life, I still wasn’t able to be as generous and gentle as I’d like to be. As he deserved me to be.
Yet here was this beautiful kid, his little face lit by the night light, marshalling what few resources he had to do the best job he could, and reminding me that my best can always be better.
I gave him a kiss and told him it wasn't a "problem" that he couldn't get to sleep. I put on some music and gave a few words of encouragement. He managed to put himself to sleep while I went back downstairs to clean up the kitchen, inspired by my two-year-old to try harder in the places where I struggle.