Lunch...followed by his meltdown
Vaughn’s voice booms sonorously down the stairs. Even though I am in the kitchen, idly paging through Twitter on my cell phone, I know exactly what he is doing in his room- scrolling through YouTube videos on his tablet, propped up on his bed with two pillows against the headboard.
“What?” comes my reply from the dining room
“When are we going in the pool today……..?”
“Let’s do this…….why don’t you have lunch first? Then, we’ll do sunscreen, wait ½ hr for the food to settle, then go in the pool. Sound good?”
“Vaughn, did you hear me?....”
“Did you hear me?.......”
“What’d I say?.......”
“You said that we’d do lunch and then go in the pool…”
“Right. Good. Remember, acknowledgement. We’re working on acknowledgement, right?”
I give up. It’s a futile effort to do this kind of social coaching on two different floors of the house. We’ll work on this later - the acknowledgement piece, which has been a sticking point for me lately. I perch myself at the very bottom of the stairs.
“Vaughn, I’m going to make you a tuna melt for lunch. Is that okay?”
“Okay, just acknowledge when you hear me, okay……”
Making my way to the kitchen, I can hear myself huffing a bit, though I’m relieved he’s amenable to a tuna melt. The tuna’s already made, leftover from my own lunch. Now, I need only make it to his requirements - thin, a minimal and even spread of tuna on wheat bread, one layer of American cheese, only slightly melted.
It’s a beautiful day, 84 degrees, perfect pool weather. Heaving a deep sigh, I pull out a frying pan and recalibrate. I could hear the slight irritation in my voice at the lack of acknowledgement in my conversations with my son, which we’ve been working on lately. Now I’m irritated with myself, because I’m starting to take it personally, which makes no sense at all.
“Consistent, steady reinforcement…” his specialist has told me, “it’s the only way…….just consistent coaching”...... she said flashing a smile. I’ve grown impatient with my own impatience. I want to see progress and results immediately. “Oh well…..” I utter to myself, “it;s a beautiful summer day, good for some pool action”, as I spray the frying pan with aerosol butter.
After 5 minutes, I cherp up “Lunch is ready….do you want chips with your tuna melt?”
“What kind of chips?”
“What kind of chips?” I repeat the question intentionally with the exact tone -- no hint of irritation.
“Ummmmmmm….sour cream and onion”
Vaughn bounds down the stairs, tablet held high in his left hand, looking a little bit like a waiter. He seats himself at the breakfast table in our kitchen, carefully laying this tablet to the right of his plate. He takes a bite, his eyes glancing upwards and to the left. He is clearly thinking, maybe even evaluating. His focus turns back to the tablet.
“Is everything okay?” I ask him.
“I don't like it” his gaze never looking up from his tablet.
“It's too wet. I don’t like it - too much mayo”
“I made it the way I always make it…….”
“Do you want something else?”
“Do you want that leftover potato salad I made?”
With my son’s capricious eating habits, I'm always thankful for any leftovers we may have. I shuffle for the potato salad in the back for the fridge. Although he had it yesterday, he is not fussy when it comes to repeat meals. I scoop out a lunch-size portion into a bowl, and place it in front of him, swapping out the tuna melt.
“That will go good with your chips” I say, sounding like I’m trying to sell him on this second choice, rinsing the serving spoon. I look over my right shoulder at Vaughn. He has just taken a spoonful of potato salad, his eyebrows are curiously knit, the corners of his lips are turned down, a look of consternation across his forehead.
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t like it”
“Why? Why don’t you like it?”
“It has eggs in it”
“I know - I always make it with eggs.
“I don't want it”
“Vaughn, it’s the same potato salad yesterday”
“I don't like it”
“The eggs were in it yesterday. Nothing’s changed.”
“I don't want it! I don’t like the smell”.
“It’s the exact same potato salad as yesterday”
“I don’t want it. Can I have something else?
“Can I just have potato chips for lunch?”
“Then, I’ll have nothing!”
“Fine! If you don’t like these choices, then you can have nothing.”
“I’ll just starve!”. Bam, Vaughn pushes the bowl of potato salad hard, which careens across the table like a bowling ball down a bowling alley, slamming into the opposite wall, spraying potatoes, eggs, mayo, green onions in a flower-like pattern on the wall.
“FINE!!!, you can just starve!”
“I want MOMMY to make my lunch from now on!”
“I DON'T WANT YOU TO EVER MAKE MY LUNCH AGAIN!”
“GO TO YOUR ROOM!”
Vaughn lets out a shrill scream and pushes his way to the stairs. I can hear him on every step crying out, followed by the thunderclap of his bedroom door slamming shut.
“THIS ISN'T A RESTAURANT!..” I shout up the stairs…
I feel the adrenaline rushing to my temples, my brain humming, the resentment building as I survey the mess in the kitchen. “I should make him clean it up”, I think to myself “Oh, who am I kidding? He’ll be up there for ½ hr trying to calm down. I can’t just leave this mess.” I shuffle under the kitchen sink for a sponge, some rags, and some Ajax spray. This is going to be a wonderful story I share with Jen when she gets back from her Dunkin run.
I head upstairs and pause outside of his room, leaning my ear close to his bedroom door. He is no longer crying, all I can hear are the sounds of YouTube videos. I lean a little closer to the door. I can hear the huff of heavy breathing - a hint of progress.
Sitting in on the bed in the master bedroom. I focus on my breathing - through the nose and out through the mouth. Ten times. Remember what you learned, Paul. Give yourself the gift of ten cleansing breaths, the calming voice from Headspace replays in my head. Shutting my eyes, I can still feel my heart racing, adrenalin making my head a little dizzy. “Just a moment in time” I think to myself, “Just a moment in time…”
“Daddy?” the voice emerges cautiously from his room, door still closed.
“Daddy, I’m sorry”
“I’m really sorry…”
“I don’t like the smell of the potato salad”
“I know. You said that.”
There’s about a ten second pause before he asks “can you come in my room?
As I open the door, I notice how stifling the room is, smelling intensely of carpet and fabric. It is dark, Vaughn has closed the curtains and window shade in his room, the only light is the eerie incandescent glow of his tablet. I flop into the recliner that’s in the corner of his room, diagonal from his bed.
“I’m sorry, Daddy”
“I know. You said it”
“I’m sorry, I just didn’t like the smell”
Vauhgn’s face is flushed as I look at him. His glasses are off - forehead and cheeks are a splotchy crimson, the hair over his ears is sweaty and matted near his cheeks.
“I’m really sorry”
“I know. Can we not talk about it anymore?”
“Can you spoon me?”
As I slide onto his bed, Vaughn spins and turns to face the wall, tablet in front of him. I tuck my left arm under his left arm like a branch, and pull him in close. He is so warm that I am initially reluctant to hold him, but this is one of his recovery mechanisms. The tightness of a full-body hug is comforting, similar to how some dogs wear a heavy sweater on the 4th of July, the weight of the sweater alleviating the stress from the sounds of fireworks.
Chinning his left shoulder, I am able to glance at the YouTube video on his tablet- it’s two gamers in a fierce battle of NFL Madden 2018 - the Patriots / Chiefs game is full-on with the two gamers in smaller web cams in the lower corners of the screen. I hear some occasional profanity and decide it’s not the right time to address.
“I’m sorry, Daddy”
“I know. Can we not talk about it?”
Feeling the intense warmth of his body, I reflect on the times before I’ve been here, full body spooning my son, in the dark, after some kind of meltdown - the video game he lost, the Patriots game that went awry, a lunch that sent his olfactory senses into overdrive. This episode is over, and will likely be re-played at some future time. But for now, it’s over. Just a sudden speed bump on the road to an otherwise beautiful July day - and now just a Dad and his son in a dark bedroom. He is intently lost within the scene on his tablet, listening to the adolescent banter of the gamers. My left hand, tucked under him, is over his heart, and I can feel his heart rate slowly subsiding, like ink fading on a canvas. The battle in the kitchen is over, the deja-vu ness has evaporated - a valuable Dad-lesson for me. My son has returned - the son I love so dearly that this present moment will be savored, the prior moment a retreating tide, melting into the distance with assurances of another sunset, another sunrise.