The Mischievous Life of a Little Quarantined Toddler Tyke

Our 19-month-old son is playing a version of indoor bocce with a set of balls from what is sometimes referred to as a “toy hammer pounding set.” Wow — what a name! In this version of the game (which he came up with all by himself), Jack masterfully chucks each ball across the room at a velocity that you would not guess a 19-month-old to be capable of velocitizing. These makeshift bocce balls from the toy hammer pounding set seem abnormally solid, heavy, and substantial. Enough so that when a ball makes contact with a wall or chair or anything at all, it makes a very terrifying noise — the kind that indicates that, without a doubt, something just broke.

THWACK!
THWACK!
KABLOOM!

Using a stern voice and a serious face, we say things like:

“No, Jack!” and …
“Those balls aren’t for throwing” and …
“That’s not how we use those, remember?”

In response, Jack scans our faces for a split second as if he’s calculating the probability that he can still get away with another chuck. The calculations all check out.

THWACK!

Nothing is broken … yet. But when the bocce balls are taken away and hidden out of sight, Jack moves on to a muscle roller massage stick that is almost brand new while also being several years old. He struts along his usual route, waddling round and round through the kitchen and back to the living room slash dining room slash playroom slash office. He wields the muscle roller massage stick like it’s a staff, and him a tiny wizard Gandalf striking it over and over again on the faux-wood floor while telling some imaginary foe that they “shall not pass!” Except it sounds more like “blash gabiddle blum,” in Jack’s language.

A quick glance at the clock shows that it’s 8:37 am. My best guess is that it’s probably a Thursday. It’s been approximately one hour and thirty-seven minutes since Jack woke up for the day and ate a hearty breakfast consisting of a crunchy waffle covered in almond butter, many scoops of delicious applesauce, and half of Mom’s cereal bowl. Like a proper gentleman, he enjoys taking his post-breakfast snack of yogurt crisps at his little toddler table in the living room. We sometimes call this “breakfast dessert.”

In approximately ten hours, Jack will go back to bed, and I wonder if it’s possible to live an entire week in a day? Yesterday felt like a week, and I think the day before that did as well. Quarantine life is a hard life. As I ponder this, I also think to myself that while I thought we were paying too much for daycare, it turns out we aren’t paying nearly enough. God bless those humans.

It’s not as if I don’t enjoy spending time with my beautiful son. On the contrary, this new period of social and physical confinement is partially a gift that we get to spend together while we laugh and read and giggle and walk and wrestle and play … to learn a little bit more about each other as a new routine rises to the surface.

But a toddler’s day is a busy day. And as two non-essential workers still working away remotely, my wife Amanda and I still have not found a proper magical spell capable of preventing Jack from investigating every nook and cranny of our apartment. Ideally, one such spell would confine him to a safe space nearby while sending messages to his brain about how sitting quietly and reading books all day would be a very excellent idea indeed. Instead, Jack’s daily agenda reflects his age as a studious new human exploring his world for information and knowledge through first-hand experimentation. His agenda moves swiftly from one critically important task to the next, as if he’s always running out of time and has a thousand to-dos left to do. And while our two-bedroom apartment is packed with books and toys and wagons and mini-bicycles, baby automobiles and stuffed animals, sometimes he just wants to sneak away and find the pack of seltzer cans hidden from sight next to the Ikea buffet table slash work desk and throw one of the cans on the ground as hard as he can.

Somewhere upstairs in the penthouse of his tiny toddler brain is a cluster of neurons huddling together saying: wouldn’t-cha-know, we have no idea what happens when you smash one of those cans on the ground. Sending instructions ….

Instructions received! Those tiny toddler neurons check in with another cluster in the hippocampus-amygdala-frontal lobe region in charge of facial expressions and communication. It turns out, those are the ones that know exactly how to create a mischievous face whenever a concerned parent wanders over. That mischievous face says: “I hear you telling me NOT to do it … but I’m going to do it anyway.”

Say it with me:

All hail daycare teachers.
All hail daycare teachers.
All dail haycare bleachers.

PASHHHHHHHHHHHHHHEW.

That is the sound a can of grapefruit-mango seltzer makes as it hisses away its essence onto the floor and all nearby objects, including the small child responsible for its escape. Jack checks it off the list but notes that if he gets the chance, he should definitely try it again just in case, and also because it was pretty cool.

Once breakfast dessert has been chomped, chewed, and crunched, Jack waddles over to the kitchen to lean against an antique armoire to take care of some urgent business. The armoire is a third-generation family heirloom Amanda inherited from her Nonna, and it stores our vast collection of herbal tea. Recently, it’s become clear that Jack feels most comfortable doing his urgent business (that means ‘morning poop’) while propping himself up with one tiny toddler arm gripping the armoire. While this process doesn’t appear to be painful, sometimes his face does turn a shade of red that would indicate he’s having a rough go of it. As business concludes and the shade of red subsides, Jack waddles full-speed ahead, laughing and pointing and giggling as he rushes back to see if he missed any pieces of his breakfast dessert. Standard protocol dictates that we let Jack “work it in a bit” (the urgent business) and wait at least until we can no longer withstand the power of the poo poo’s pungency to change the contaminated diaper.

While I do get dressed in normal clothes each morning, I’ve also implemented a rule that allows me to wear the same outfit for three straight days before it can be considered for the laundry basket. I take a moment to review the state of my pants and make a mental note that today’s the day. Jack nods his head in approval.

Gripping a new-ish sippy cup the size of his head, he gulps down some water as if he’s been stranded on a desert island for three days. He then begins shuffling through his collection of literature on this tiny toddler table. I ask him if it’s OK if I fire up my laptop and check some emails real quick. He looks at me as if to say, “of course it isn’t.”

So instead we read an excellent book called Moo, Baa, La, La, La! five times in a row. The plot involves a variety of farm animals and the various noises they each produce. For instance, the duck goes “quack,” and the cow goes “moo.” While this seems pretty standard, there are some discrepancies over whether or not three local pigs were, in fact, dancing and singing the lyrics “La, La, La.” The realist narrator is hesitant to believe these pigs capable of such a performance (them being pigs and all) and claims the only sound they could have possibly made is along the lines of the typical oink, oink, oink. There’s also some hullaballoo as to whether or not they can tap dance, which now that I have the time to think about it does seem rather suspicious.

The book concludes with a request that the reader, in this case, Jack, comes up with a noise of their own to complete the ritual of becoming a fully integrated farm animal. Luckily, being a squeaky little rugrat, Jack has plenty of noises to contribute.

Laptop. Check.
Earpieces. Check.
Phones charged. Check.
What day is it again?
When did this happen to the world?
What are we going to do?
Eighteen rolls of toilet paper left.
Why are there hundreds of people on a beach somewhere?
Who goes on cruises?

Amanda’s phone stays busy for most of the day, and Jack helps her on conference calls and is able to assist with some emails and minor office memos. We pass him back and forth … or rather, we take turns chasing him around, monitoring his explorations to make sure he’s not leaping off a couch or tumbling into a door or raiding the pantry for more snacks. He seems oblivious to the fact that there are two enormous boogers lodged respectfully in their natural habitat, one to a nostril. While this also occurred the day before and the day before that (and so on), I’m absolutely sure those were already expertly extracted. This pair must be a new, even stickier batch clinging for life and stronger than me by far. The boogies remain.

All hail daycare teachers.

I’m holding Jack, and he says something like “outside” that actually sounds like “outside” in his tiny toddler language. He points toward our side door where his magnets of narwhals and watermelons, soccer balls, giraffes, and pieces of fruit hang steady. We open up the door, and he says “hello trees” and “hello world” and waves and waves and waves. An airplane flies overhead, and his mouth opens wide in excitement as his eyes follow suit. He points a finger up into the air. He extends his neck out the door as we stand on the little apartment stoop, and he gazes outward in amazement as if it were not an empty street but a road busy hosting a traveling circus parade. “Look at all this!” his eyes say.

Jack’s neurons begin busily explaining to him that while although it may seem as if he recently devoured a large, nutritiously delicious breakfast, that it’s already time for First Snack. A tummy rumbles and a tiny toddler finds his way into the food pantry, pointing at puffs and fruit gummies and cereal bars and yogurt crisp crackers. It occurs to the neurons that the parents should have anticipated this moment, and while it only just occurred to Jack that he’d like to eat something, it’s a real shame those very same parents couldn’t have a snack ready by now.

Sending instructions …

Instructions received. Commence with devastating sad lip and scrunchy pout face. Give Mom and Dad ten seconds to fix this, then proceed with tears and turn the crying up to medium-high. Standard protocol.

The day moves along. Sometimes time does too, and sometimes it stands still for what seems like forever. Calls are made, and work is worked as much as it can be. Family and friends are checking in to make sure everyone is all right and also to compare grocery store stories. My best line is telling everyone that I saw a man with an entire shopping cart filled with liters of Coca-Cola. I wonder how many he has left. We talk to Nanas and Papas and Nonnas and Peppers and Voos and Aunties and Uncles and Cousins. To friends still working and those already laid off, kicked to the curb even though this whole fiasco has just begun. Takeout delivery drivers buzz up and down the street shooting pad thai, burritos, and large pizzas out of a cannon as they drive the deserted streets. No touch. We are a touchless society … for now.

Our freezer is packed.
Our pantry is full.
And our toilet paper stock … isn’t terrible.

In times likes these, it feels like we’re always making the next grocery list. Just in case. Not in a panicky, I need 30 full liters of Coca-Cola kinda way, but more like we’d all feel a little bit better if the freezer was full and we had some canned beans we could dust off someday and have a good laugh.

“Do we need eggnog?” Amanda asks me while looking at what’s available on an app for the city’s local market. “We could get a bucket of ice cream. A dozen bagels. Or six crab cakes for thirty-five dollars?”

We provide Jack with a bowl of stir-fry for lunch. Unfortunately, the neurons are not cooperating. You see, we have entered a phase where the only acceptable meals are either a quesadilla or macaroni and cheese. What those pesky neurons haven’t figured out yet is that the quesadillas all contain pulverized vegetables, and the macaroni is made out of chickpeas. The thing is, I know Jack likes rice. I’ve seen him eat an entire bowl by hand at a restaurant not too long ago back when restaurants were a thing. And if I threw those same vegetables sitting on top of the rice into a blender and stuffed them into a tiny toddler squeezable food pouch with the right branding, he’d be gulping it down like it was toddler tiramisu. “All done,” Jack says after only trying a bite. Two hands in the air waving back and forth. “All done.”

One quesadilla later and it’s time for Jack’s post-lunch snack we sometimes refer to as lunch dessert. A few minutes more and I look up from my laptop as my ears recognize a familiar sound. It is the sound of a tiny toddler tambourine smashing against the glass of a TV stand cabinet. Over. And over. And over again. He’s off to the races now, circling the kitchen and riding his bicycle. His sweatpants are rolled up like he’s been wading into a lake with his fishing gear to catch a bass. His socks have been discarded, and his indoor slippers are probably in the trash.

Now he’s sitting in his toy Radio Flyer wagon and absolutely flummoxed as if he has no idea how he got in there and certainly no idea how he’s going to get out. He removes each wagon item one by one, performing an extensive inventory to make sure he hasn’t been looted.

One snuggly sing-along-bear. Check.
One pair of tongs from Mom’s ice-cube party set. Check.
One extra-large squishy baseball. Check.
Two packets of chamomile tea. Check.
One light-blue octopus (stuffed, not real). Check.
One Beanie Baby pug named Wrinkles. Check.
Two flashlights for emergencies. Check.

All of a sudden, he’s sitting in a crate inside the food pantry lounging backward as if it were an easy chair. “Outside,” he squeals. We watch a large impressive truck from the stoop while it collects a dumpster because that is a good way to pass the time. We walk the halls of our building; an old middle school repurposed and renovated thirty years ago. I ask Jack if he’d like to go up or down, and he points. I count the stairs because it seems like something that someone in isolation would do. Amanda holds Jack while taking a call, and he listens intently for a chance to chime in. We stroll around the neighborhood, and Jack looks for doggies and fun people to wave at from an appropriate distance. We play on the bed. We play in his room. We run around in circles while I make dog noises and Jack makes high-pitched squeaks like a dolphin.

From one task and activity to the next, Jack bounces from wall to floor to furniture. Not because he’s secretly hopped up on sugar, but because that’s what toddlers do when they’re figuring out that whole walking-around-on-your-own-two-feet thing.

He runs.
He falls.
He gets up.
He falls the other way.
He runs again.
He falls again.

When your head is the size of a bowling bowl, and your skinny little legs and torso don’t have enough weight to slow your momentum, it doesn’t take much to fall on your face a million times an hour, approximately. Right now, Jack is upset that I won’t let him use the collapsable footstool and so he cries a bit while I take it from him. Except that I don’t realize his finger is stuck in the corner of the stool and so he cries some more. Thankfully, it’s time for Second Snack, which used to mean oranges and apples but now is more like crackers or more yogurt crips and fruit gummies. I take each snack out one by one and wait for a nod of approval.

No.
Nope.
Keep going.
That’s the one.

Jack’s nod of approval indicates that fruit gummies will suffice for now, but that I better not skimp and only give him half the bag, or there will be heck to pay. Together we all sit on pillows in our proper positions, and Jack touches our noses, and Amanda and I both say “nose” when he does it. He touches his own nose and then points to us to follow along. Amanda asks Jack if he has seen my belly button recently, and a full-scale investigation is launched. Once the case has been closed, and a proper belly button has been found and beep-beeped well and good a few times over, Jack extends the investigation over to his Mom. Another belly button. “Damn,” he thinks to himself, “am I good at finding belly buttons or what?”

Calls come in, and messages are received. The corporate entities of our life trudge along. At some point, the adults in the room eat actual food and take turns walking around the local park in hazmat suits and armed with samurai swords. An orange-faced reality television star pops up on the tube to tell everyone how well he is handling the first worldwide pandemic of this caliber in quite some time. He assures us that non-American affiliated cruise ship companies require our immediate help. Off goes the tube before our brains fizzle away into blah blah blah or explode and call it a day forever. This alternate timeline of reality we wandered into recently is not working out well.

I stress clean, as is my way. I wipe the floor with wet paper towels to remove the dust and the crumbs and the rubble from everyday life. Jack waddles over and lays on the ground with me to watch. I let him wipe a few spots. He takes a piece of something and walks it over to the garbage can. Smart kid. He sweeps with the broom and swiffs with the Swiffer — although not very effectively, that will come in time. His pants are gone, and it’s possible we haven’t changed his diaper in many hours. I’m pretty sure it’s a Tuesday now, and that time is no longer linear, but it could be I just need to eat dinner. I click on a million websites to see what’s going on — a lot and also nothing at all.

It’s dinner time, and we can’t remember if Jack had a quesadilla or macaroni and cheese for lunch, but we’re pretty sure it was a quesadilla, so we make him macaroni and cheese. He approves. The neurons in his head tell him it’s time to wind down. The laptops are closed. The parents are picking up toys and clothes along with pieces of their sanity here and there. Jack plays with turtle and octopus (plastic, not stuffed) and Nemo and Dory and whale and crocodile and a pig that sings La, La, La in the bathtub. “Bath time,” he says, and it sounds like “bath time.” Splish splash Jack is taking a bath. We read his bath book, and without warning, he transforms into a Splashosaurus Jack — a terribly dangerous splash monster whose only satisfaction comes from creating massive bathtub wave pools and soaking the closest available parent.

While the tiny toddler tyke puts up a good fight, the jam-jam-pajama-jams are successfully wrestled onto his body along with a globiddy-gloo’s worth of moisturizing baby cream. Phew. The lights are low, and the rain is falling now. The TV is off, and an adult dinner is simmering on the stove. We read pieces and parts of a book called Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, and then something a little more serious called The Pout-Pout Fish Goes to School as Jack rifles through at a furious pace. We spend a few minutes staring at his favorite page in That’s Not My Dragon, for which the neurons will not allow the page to be turned in fear that it will never appear again. He is smiling and giggling and squealing and jumping from Mom to Dad, who each sneak in a few tickles here and there because they just can’t help hearing that laugh. Jack is a rambunctious, wild little man, and his little toddler belly is full of laughter and joy. ”Bloooobiddy blummmm blum bladumdoo,” he says quite seriously while pointing at a wall. “Of course,” we say, “what an excellent observation.”

With a kiss and hug and a song and cuddle, Jack is snug as a bug in his cozy sleep sack suit, clutching his blankets and ready to dream about whatever a tiny toddler tyke dreams. We can’t complain … not even a bit. Not even at all. Jack is a happy little guy. In the morning, he will find his bocce ball set once again, and we’ll play this record back. And for now, in the midst of all this strangeness, we are content that our family is safe, and we thank those who make sure the world goes round even when the world itself seems a most frightening place. Goodnight Jack, see you in the morning.

Matt is a writer living in East Boston. You can visit his website www.matthobin.com to read his ongoing collection of non-fiction humor stories.

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