By Billy Renkl
My son Will had just turned 16 months old when it occurred to him that he had some say in where he was, in what specific corner of the world he found himself. Until then, he had responded to all instances of relocation with the same Zen-like equanimity. Time for a bath? Great! Ready for a walk? Sure, Dad! No matter where his mother or I decided he needed to be at the moment, Will was fine with it, placidly waiting to discover where the river of his life might next deposit him.
Susan and I adopted Will from Guatemala, and we liked to think that his adaptability and agreeable nature were the direct result of that single enormous relocation, at seven months, that had been turning out so well for all of us. Except for an occasional and predictable unwillingness to be crib-bound, he was pretty much happy to be wherever we wanted him to be.
Then, his first January in Tennessee, all that changed. I didn’t precisely note the first moment of Will’s revised attitude toward location because I’d been knocked off my feet by an intestinal guest that followed him home from playgroup. It was while I was tossing fitfully in Phenergan dreams that Will came to terms with the notion of geography.
First, he spent the entire day of Saturday, Jan. 6, wanting to be anywhere other than where he was. At the time, our house was split into two basic territories: the Will-safe zone and the Will-free zone. The two were divided by a complicated system of gates and doors and hook-and-eye closures. Until then, these had been a terrific inconvenience to our dog and two cats, but they seemed simply to be the way of the world to Will. On that day, however, Will saw that there was grass on the other side of the fence (figuratively speaking: he was looking over it into the dining room).
Despite rooms knee-deep in toys, all that five cousins and a neighbor could hand down, as well as those showered on us by grandparents and godparents and colleagues, the Will-safe zone would not do. He wanted to be on the other side of every barrier that he encountered. “Engh!” he would say, and point to the closed bathroom door. “Ungh!” he would insist, pointing over the barrier to the dining room.
“There is nothing you want in there,” I said to him. Triumphantly, he threw Bunny over the gate, proving me wrong. More of the stomping and pointing. “Enthgh!” he insisted, as if there could be any doubt about what he wanted, as if inflection alone would win this extra-verbal argument for him.
My boy having grasped the notion of denied access, things deteriorated rapidly. Will spent the next day, a Sunday, wanting to be outside. He pointed out of every window we passed. He stood at the door and pounded on it. He balanced on tiptoes to caress the knob. I even offered a few exciting minutes in a Will-free zone, the object of his every desire only 24 hours earlier, to no avail. Will had set his sights higher.
“Outside,” he kept insisting, making me sorry we’d foolishly added that word to his vocabulary in late December. Only, the way he said it, it sounded like “Southside,” which made it seem as if he was asking to go to the other side of the tracks (the toddler version of which was pretty much where he wanted to be). So we went outside to play and watch our hands turn red.
Only, being outside wasn’t exactly what he wanted; what Will wanted was to go outside. Repeatedly. Once there, he wanted to come in and do it all again. To his delight, I finally just propped the door open. He walked through, onto the front stoop, laughed with glee and toddled back in to do it again. He seemed to be relishing the new realization that there was this specific point of transition offering access to the wide-open world. He seemed just as delighted with the discovery each time, delighted to learn that no matter how many times he went outside, the inside was still there for him to come back to.
“Outside?” he queried the dog who had curled up against the heating vent in the living room. When she opened one eye darkly, Will leaned over and pointed out the front door, before making his way to the stoop again. “Outside!” he crowed with wide-open arms. I finally drew the line when the houseplants started to curl up in the chill.
Monday was easier. Already bored with the threshold, Will was content to stay outside once there and gladly chased a ball around the yard. The next day, though, he realized what fun it was to toss the ball out of the yard and watch his mother chase it down the street.
When all of us are properly dressed for staying outside, the front yard is a fine place to be. I think I would have enjoyed being outside in the brisk, clear light of a sunny January afternoon—even if I had to spend a good part of it chasing an errant ball. The following day, however, Will tossed the ball aside and made straight for the street on his own.
As I watched him toddling determinedly away from me, moving in a direction entirely of his own choosing, I had my own flash of insight: this is what the rest of my life will be like. It will be my privilege to watch him find his own way—to the cafeteria when he starts kindergarten, to a friend’s house on his bike, to a major in college, to Prague, to love, to his full life—himself.