My wife and I fight about anything. We fight about buttons. Our older child throws a fit in the backseat as we pass through the golden cornfields of southeastern Minnesota. Ivory windmills tower over the rolling humps of land. They seem a bit surreal to me and vaguely threatening, as if one might bend down and lop off my head. We are on our way to Grandma’s house. It is always called that despite the occasional protest from Grandpa. He sits silent as a throw pillow most of the time as he sips weak coffee, acting startled and confused whenever he is brought into the conversation. He has finally purchased new hearing aids that help a little. But it is Grandma they clamor for, Grandma who lavishes them with affection and cookies. They are both over seventy now. The clock ticks. The windmills churn. The wheels of the car hurtle us along the concrete ribbon. It is all inevitable—the wonderful and the terrible. But right now my child needs to shut up.
“Miles!” I bellow. “If you don’t settle down, I’m going to pull this car over!”
His tirade continues and I repeat my hollow threat.
“Just what are you going to do if you pull over?” my wife challenges.
I grip the wheel and refuse to answer. I am the dad—supposedly in charge, but in control of the car and little else. I want to spank my son. I want to end this. If spanking could fix this I would do it. I would do anything to help him. I let my higher functions and the will of my wife prevail. I do nothing. He is beside himself, strapped into his seat and screaming.
“I’ll never use my wheel loader again! Do you understand? I’ll never use it again!”
Theo seems happy enough, seemingly oblivious to his brother’s anguish as he holds the large toy in his lap. His pants have a button on them. It is this button which has contaminated the toy against any future use. Again, with the buttons! Emily coaxes the yellow machine away from Theo. She places a pair of headphones over our six-year-old’s ears. He stares out the window, lulled into complacency by the Okee Dokee Brothers. Combines mow down the fields as the husks blow in the wind and clouds of black birds make their way south. Everything is a preparation for winter.
The next day Emily and I jog together on the bike trail along the river. The water is olive, a polluted mess with the river dammed at every town and used as a toilet bowl by every cow living upstream. But the sky above is azure, in sharp relief to the colored leaves. We almost never run together anymore with the children. It would be a good time to just enjoy this, but I have things I need to get off my chest.
“I’m not saying no to the therapy, just back off for now until he can get the testing and we know what’s going on.”
“I already agreed on that. Why do you have to keep on harping on things over and over?”
“I’m just trying to talk things through so we know we’re on the same page.”
“Yup, same page,” she says, clearly annoyed.
The trouble started at our son’s first-grade open house. My wife complained to the teacher about the amount of homework. The teacher told her our son didn’t belong in first grade, that he couldn’t do the work. Emily asked what we should do. The teacher suggested we write the principal about getting him tested for a learning disability. But his grades were fine in kindergarten, Emily said. I can’t speak to that, his teacher answered. We were only a month removed from summer. We discussed it at home.
“He came in rusty,” I said. “He’s always been slow.”
“But why is he slow?”
“Some kids just are. He’s a boy. He likes to dig and build things.”
“I’ve always worried about that Sensory Processing Disorder.”
“It sounds like bullshit.”
“You’re a mailman. You know everything.”
“Can’t we just wait and see.”
“You deal with problems by pretending they aren’t there.”
I didn’t answer. My son’s not a puddle of water in the basement whenever it rains.
That night I Googled it. Some website pictured a child with his mouth open, a frozen scream with the caption: This won’t go away by itself.
Running alongside side her, I say: “I agreed he could see a counselor. I didn’t say he should be going to three different places.”
“We’ve been over this. The one said we didn’t have to go back.”
“I know, I’m just trying to talk through it. You don’t go to a doctor if there’s nothing wrong with you.”
“He’s going to get help. It doesn’t make him sick.”
“I just want to wait and see until we know what’s going on.”
“Agreed. Can we move on?” Her voice is on the edge of yelling.
“He’s a healthy kid. If we start taking him to these doctors, aren’t we planting a dangerous idea in his head?”
“What was the tantrum in the car about?” Emily counters.
“Buttons.” It was amazing that something so commonplace should have become so dreaded. At an antique store the other day, I challenged him to place his hand in a bin-full. He recoiled as if they were cockroaches or snakes.
“He was cooped up in a car with his brother for four hours. A tantrum is perfectly natural.”
“But it was about buttons.”
“All these kids have issues. Try taking care of any of them for more than two hours.”
“I just wish your first thought wasn’t always to dismiss.”
I clench my jaw at the comment which is loaded. His preschool teacher recommended we hold him back a year. I insisted he go. Money and pride drove the decision.
“Fine,” I say, “it will always be my fault. You’ve got me there.”
“You don’t listen. Do you know how many books I’ve read about raising children?”
“I’m the dad!” I declare in anger. “I don’t need some PhD telling me how to raise my kid.”
“Here we go.”
“Look, these millennials are living at home till they’re thirty. If we listen to them, Miles will be living with us till he’s forty. That’s the progression. I’m raising him to be a man!”
“A man? He’s six.”
“I don’t expect him to be a man now, but that’s the goal. We don’t need all this goddamn mollycoddling! It used to be you were raised to go to war at eighteen. Then you came back and worked in the factory. That was it.”
At this point I want to laugh at myself. I pause and think about my father. He was spanked as a child—“spank” perhaps being a kind word for the beatings he received—and he certainly never outgrew his tantrums.
“I’m just venting.”
My wife seems to realize this. I tell her to go ahead and schedule him at the one place. She doesn’t even answer, and I sense her roll her eyes at me. We continue our run together in the bright sunshine. I yearn for a time when it was simpler.
“He’s going to be fine,” she says.
Sometimes we talk about leaving the city, buying a hobby farm out in the country. It’s an escape fantasy. We could raise chickens and have a huge vegetable garden, maybe get a couple of goats. The responsibility of it all seems crushing sometimes. The car leaks oil, the furnace is shot and our son is afraid of buttons. The kingdom I’ve created—this house, these kids, the retirement savings and the college accounts, my marriage—it’s all held together by buttons. And there are moments of frustration and bitterness best not talked about, when it seems that it wouldn’t take much more than a loose thread to tear it all apart.
My son’s condition is called koumpounophobia. They say the fear is usually rooted in some early trauma. I held Miles in my arms when we received Emily’s cancer diagnosis. I distinctly remember dressing him in a button-down shirt, plaid shorts and a red sweatshirt. It was Emily’s last day in the hospital. I wanted him to look nice. So many things happened after that day that it’s hard to trace. But I don’t think he ever wore a button after that. Maybe I’m making too much of it by giving it a scary name with too many vowels. Maybe he just likes to be comfy.
I always hesitate at the wardrobe. I want to put on my flannel shirt, but I leave it on the hanger. Emily does the same thing. In creating a safe environment for him and avoiding his tantrums, have we in some way furthered some of these hang-ups? No one with buttons may sit on his bed. There are exceptions, I’ve noticed. He doesn’t mind a hug from me before or after work when I am wearing my postal uniform.
So maybe it is all my fault, this button business. To anyone watching in that hospital room, it might have appeared that I was holding my son. But truthfully, it was the other way around. He was holding me up. And that’s why I needed him there.
It’s painful to think of him struggling in that classroom.
My son gets off the school bus. I take his backpack from him and follow him home. He glides ahead of me on the Razor-brand scooter I bring out to him. He is confident of himself on the scooter, cocky even, joyous as he does his little tricks.
This is the moment around which I organize my day.
The meridian by which I set my clock.
The nail on which I hang my hat.
It is as my wife says. He’s going to be just fine.