“Whoa, whoa, whoa, buddy, I think you forgot someone,” I said to my four-year-old son, Zack, and he looked at me with despair.
I pointed to the baby on the far side of the living room, whom Zack had conspicuously skipped during his round of good-night hugs. Zack froze halfway up the stairs, contemplating his options, looking as if I’d just asked him to hug a flaming cactus. Conrad, the neglected baby in question, tried to clap his hands together and whiffed, performing the infant version of a flubbed high-five.
“Come on, go give your cousin a hug,” I said.
Zack sat on the steps, defiant. He would not hug that baby. Whatever Zack may decide to do when he grows up, a career in politics does not appear likely.
“Aw, it’s okay, really,” said Aunt Jill, hoping to avoid the scene that Zack and I were intent on creating. Conrad gurgled and smiled, bouncing on his mom’s knee, unaware that he was playing a pivotal role in the Shakespearean power struggle unfolding before him.
“Zack, if you don’t give Conrad a hug by the time I count to three, you’re getting a timeout,” I said, dispensing with any notion that a nice family moment was still a possible outcome.
“Hmmmph,” Zack replied.
Ever since Aunt Jill, Uncle Kris, and Conrad had arrived at our house a few days prior, visiting us from Anchorage, Alaska, Zack had been giving his eight-month-old cousin the kind of berth you’d normally reserve for an angry moose.
Conrad is a good baby, too. Mellow, as far as babies go. He didn’t even scream during his dozen-or-so hours on the plane.
“He was great,” Jill reported.
“You had to entertain him the entire time, right?” I asked.
“Yep, he didn’t sleep a wink,” she replied.
Everyone complains about babies screaming on airplanes, but nobody mentions the quiet ones. You’ve been on airplanes with plenty of babies who didn’t scream at all. The only reason those babies didn’t scream on your plane is because there were parents like Jill and Kris there desperately bouncing, cooing, and cajoling every second of the way.
“Oh, you have such a good baby,” relieved passengers from nearby seats will say as they prepare to disembark, and, as a parent, you will smile and say thanks. But really, you’re thinking that the baby deserves about 15% of the credit.
“One,” I counted, meeting Zack’s gaze as we faced off like Wild West gunslingers. In the distance, a crow cawed. A horse neighed. A clock struck the seven chimes of bedtime.
“Two,” I said. Zack sat still. His jaws clenched. His eyes squinted. The room went perfectly silent.
“Thrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr,” I said, giving Zack the chance to do the right thing before I rounded the corner into a vowel.
Zack’s eyes went over the Conrad, his only ticket out of a timeout.
“…rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr,” I said, and Zack finally jumped up and ran over to his cousin, leaning ever-so-slightly into him to stop the count.
I understood where Zack was coming from. Babies are kind of scary. Zack had been regarding Conrad as if he might detonate at any moment. Really, could we promise that he wouldn’t? You never know when something might come out of a baby where you’d need to use the word “projectile” as an adjective to properly describe it.
“A real hug,” I said.
Zack reluctantly put an arm around his cousin. Conrad, for his part, swung his arms up and down and scooched all over the place, because that is what he was already doing.
“Awwww,” everyone said, encouraging Zack’s newfound, if somewhat involuntary, appreciation for his cousin. Zack may not be a natural politician, but he may just earn our votes yet.
You can refuse to hug Mike Todd at email@example.com.