Michael is the lucky recipient of my sleep-walking and talking genes. It’s been completely entertaining ever since he first called me into his room demanding an answer to, “Do fish swim in your butt?”
“Um, luckily, no. But that is a good question.”
I had to admit, it was a higher-level kind of question, especially for a sleeping three year old. He added a request for ketchup right before his head flopped back onto his pillow.
My husband, Rob, tells me this morning that Michael came in while sleeping last night asking about the jumpsuits. “With the numbers. The orange jumpsuits. Do they have their names? What do the numbers mean? What if they get away?” Rob fielded the questions and luckily, he went back to sleep for another hour before waking up with another nightmare. “I can’t even tell you it’s so bad, Mom.” Ok then, please come here and never leave so I can protect you forever. Ugh, so tempting!! But life is fantastic when you don’t think about escaped convicts so let’s just snuggle and talk about puppies. Or farts. Whatever makes that scared look on your face go away.
The day proves he really is stressing over prisoners and the possibility of their escape. Or worse, that there are bad guys all around without orange jumpsuits and how in the hell do we know who they are?! Nothing like a little light conversation. Michael is a smart kid and he picks up on everything. In most moments, he lives in the lightness of things; sees the simple joy that others don’t see. He’s a silly kid, loves to be funny. But, he also knows that every rule or caution is given for a reason, and he needs to know details about that reason in order to move past it. Figuring out how to satisfy that need for information without giving him more to freak out about is dicey. I’m sure I sound like a moron most times I’m answering him. We usually have the kids watch their shows on Netflix and they don’t see much of the news or even commercials for it. Clearly, we stumbled upon some of the news this week. I vaguely remember answering him that the orange jumpsuits are the uniform for people in jail. That was few days ago.
We had an awesome day today, the kind that erases all the crummy half-sick, too many errand days of the week prior. We laughed a ton. All of us. But I can see the thoughts creep in and feel more questions coming our way throughout the day. I’m happy he asks. And I want to make sure he keeps asking. I’m kicking myself because I’ve caught myself saying to him, “this is nothing to get upset about” over an explosion like tying his shoes or not getting something when our kids are clearly bathing in enough “stuff.” We’re in a super-meltdowny phase right now and my husband and I are both struggling with how to approach it. It’s over bizarre stuff that baffles us, and none of our usual tactics are working. But I know these are the times when the kids need more of our patience; when it’s time to unearth those superpowers and resist the urge to sell them. Regardless of the irrational (to me) breakdowns over slurpees and unicorns, I have no right to tell him he doesn’t have a reason to get upset. How do I know? I can think it shouldn’t make him upset, but if I decide that for him I totally dismiss his voice. It’s easy to forget how small their world is, and that they have exactly zero sense of perspective, making shoelaces a big deal. I need a new go-to line, because I can feel the words “you have no idea how good you have it” rising up in my throat and we all know how effective that is. If I want him to keep trusting me with his fears and frustrations, I have to value his words, even the ones I don’t agree with.
Michael goes to bed but then gets up and asks to be re-tucked in. He usually wears a halo to bed so I don’t mind obliging him in a few bedtime games a couple times a month. I tell him to wait until Jimmy quiets down and I’d sneak back to tuck him in. When I do, he has the blanket up to his chin and I can tell by the look on his face he’s worried. I ask him if he wants to talk about anything and he says no. “Why did you ask me that, Mom?”
“Your face looked like you were thinking hard about something.”
“No, I wasn’t. But what do I do if I see a bad guy in a orange jumpsuit?”
“You probably never will see one in real life, only on tv.”
“How do you know? Do they have a face like in the kids’ shows with the big eyebrows?” oh gosh your sweet little artist eyes are totally picturing the trench coat and crooked smile, too.
“Because there are MILLIONS of police officers in our country and just a small amount of bad guys. The orange suits mean that the police already got ’em and they’re in jail.”
“What if they escape?”
“Well that’s where the orange suits come in handy because if they escape jail, everyone will know because they’re either wearing the jail uniform or they’re naked. Either way, everyone who saw them would call the the police and they’ll throw ’em back in jail.”
“Like 50 hundred people will probably call I bet.”
“At least 50 hundred.”
He needs more info. Though preschool statistics make him happy, 50 hundred calls to the cops for a naked or orange-suited escapee aren’t going to help him sleep.
“You know, God also gave you instincts. (I can see the smile start to crack.) Not “stinks”, instincts. Instincts are like your secret weapon. You may not know why you don’t want to be near someone, but there’s a voice in your head or a feeling in your gut that tells you to stay away from them. You should listen to your instincts. If that ever happens you just tell me or Dad or someone you love.”
“Or the polices,” he says shaking his little finger at me like a cartoon teacher. I can’t bring myself to correct the plural police because it’s the last shred of his baby talk and I’m savoring it.
“Yes, or the police.”
“haha-Stinks. Did you ever see a bad guy in real life?”
Um, oh yay. I kind of have an answer. When I was little, my brother and I were with my mom at a mall when we spotted a woman getting arrested for shoplifting. Never one to pass up a life lesson, my mom literally dragged us through the mall behind this flailing woman wearing a dozen layers of clothing under her jacket screaming, “I didn’t steal nothin’!” If she didn’t, she was about to give birth to quadruplet pant suits. I was sure we were going to get in trouble for eavesdropping, but we followed the police and her until they disappeared into the security office. I very clearly remember it was an unmarked door on that slanted wall underneath the escalator. Now my adult brain knows that there was probably more to the office than the door on the slanted wall, but I spent my childhood thinking that mall offenders were immediately sentenced to a lifetime of standing crooked in the tiny triangular space under the escalator. Perhaps I should have asked my mom more questions. Anyway, I was never, ever tempted to lift anything from Spencer’s, so I guess my mom’s plan worked.
He needs to know the shoplifter went to jail. He is very curious to find out if the police used their sirens when they dropped her off at jail. He wants to know about the washing of the orange jumpsuits and if televisions in jail only show boring shows. As I share my first brush with crime, I leave out the dragging and the screaming and the tiny slanted mall jail, but choose to play up the amount of clothes she was hiding. “She looked like a snowman! No, a giant snowBALL! They could have rolled her to jail.”
“Maybe they did roll her, Mommy! They rolled the giant snowball monster farthead pooped her eye out!!! Aaaahhhhhhhahahahahahahaha!”
And just like that, my boy cracks up, returning to his rightful age of five years old. So glad I had all that internal debate about how to walk the tightrope between dismissing and fueling his fears. There is a good chance some armpit orchestra would have done the trick.
By the way, we are going back to vhs tapes for our sole television entertainment. Because I’d much rather answer questions about fish swimming in butts than about crime. And can we all say a prayer that we don’t come across a group of inmates cleaning up the side of the highway this summer? Yikes.