I read once that some potty-training children emotionally invest in their first crap, as if it were a part of them they don’t want to lose. So in the gas station bathroom, my wife sobbing in the car, I try to show patience as Campbell frets over his poop bobbing in the toilet. But my watch’s tick echoes off the tiled walls. He’s not clinging to the object, I know, but to the idea of himself, like a college acolyte cleaving to ideals that defined him but which seem increasingly beyond his grasp: perfect professors, socialism, world peace, balanced news; unlimited medicinal power. Parents who live forever.
Still, we have no time. I reach to flush, but my son protests.
He slaps my wrist. “No, Daddy!”
“But this is the way it works.”
“Why?” Tears inflame his eyes. He juts his bottom lip, which quivers.
“I don’t know.” I want to end this. I don’t pretend to know the mind of God, but to my son, this is worth the fight. “Some things we just can’t keep,” I say, my voice cracking. I know my wife. She is worrying that Campbell’s first experience, attempted on the go because we forgot diapers in our rush to the hospital, is deteriorating to disaster. Another anxiety she shouldn’t have to deal with.
“No!” Campbell shouts, pumping his legs in an activist’s march. “No!”
I guide his hand to the handle. He resists, trying to wiggle free, but it lasts only seconds. Trembling, he rests his hand on the chrome. He glares at me and sniffles, then slams down the handle. When the roaring swirl sucks away his notions, he stumbles back into my knees. “Get used to it,” I want to say, but I teach him to wash his hands instead, knowing they’ll only get dirty again at the doorknob.