A lot to mull over here, as most of you know. Much to digest. I can't help but wonder if by the time I know what to say about all this, my fifteen minutes of fame as the latest wild-eyed politician's wife standing behind her scoundrel husband as he confesses his lifetime of lies will be over. We must be at least to minute eleven by now, right? I think it will be okay though if everyone else has moved on by the time I know what to say. Who wants to be that politician's wife? You feel sorry for her, but you can't help wondering if she is a complete moron.
I will never look at those poor women the same way again. Once you've ignored the first misgiving, the others flow more easily.
Tee-Tee carefully felt for my hands, as he stood on the edge of the pool, wanting to make sure he knew where they were before he 'jumped' (that is, carefully fell) into my arms with a splash.
"More!" he cried, big brown eyes shining, those impossibly long eye-lashes only increasing the baby seal effect he had going on.
We'd been playing this game for quite some time. I'm not sure which one of us loved it more.
"If you're starting to get tired, just say 'one more,'" Jo said from the bench nearby. "He understands that."
"Thanks, I'm fine, no worries."
I'd been looking forward to meeting this little guy, and his brother, and his adopted dad for weeks now. There had even been another plan back around Easter that had had to be cancelled. This trip had been changed several times but never actually cancelled. To be fair, Nicky had tried to talk me out of it at one point, and I had steam-rolled his objections, thinking they were the simply the fears of a 26 year old coming to the surface. I'd been invited out here, yes, but I'd gotten here by my own choice.
The reasons I'd been given for why big brother couldn't join us today at the pool made good sense. The reason Dad wasn't in town also were believable; every stranger in town I spoke to (and the folks in this town are very friendly) had confirmed that people in his line of work put in ridiculous hours this time of year, and were rarely home. I still had some serious qualms, but for now the story all held together. My worries were too vague to be articulated. The warmth and friendliness of Nicky's babysitter, her willingness to come and meet a complete stranger on her employer's behalf just so I wouldn't feel lonely, okay yeah, that had seemed a bit odd, but when I thought of the passionate devotion Nicky inspired online from hundreds of us, when I saw the very real love there was between Tee-Tee and the woman he called 'Nana', it didn't strain my credulity that this lovely woman might have fallen under the Cooper spell herself.
My first day in town I had met them at a bookstore/cafe for coffee. The only way I knew which woman to go up to was because I recognized Tee-Tee when he came striding in like he owned the place. He was unquestionably the boy from the photos. I had already gotten my coffee and a blueberry muffin. I got Jo some coffee as they got settled. When I got back to the table, Tee-Tee let it be understood he wouldn't be adverse to sharing my muffin, were I so inclined.
"Sure, do you want some with blueberries in it?" I asked.
"Yeah!" he said with conviction.
As we split the muffin between us, occasionally taking tickle breaks so I could hear that giggle...oh, that giggle... Jo told me about their time in Stuart Lake, how Nicky had been doing with the new job, how frustrated he was to miss me. She also told me about her own life, her husband, three children, her job as a nurse, her British father, Canadian mother and siblings scattered in both countries. Like I said, I had met many locals by this time, and was no longer surprised at the warmth and openness. Sure, none of them had told me their life stories, but I bet if I had sat down to have coffee with them, they would have. Besides, I assumed she was also interviewing me, however casually, in order to make a full report to Nicky (or Nico, which was my nickname for him). She had been pressed into Yenta service, but I suspected she didn't mind. I was enjoying her company; I thought she was very sweet.
Meanwhile, Tee-Tee was charming my socks off, as he'd been doing for over a year now on the blog. At one point he grinned at me and said "BRAPPP!" Naturally I echoed it back to him. That's how I respond to such things (well, what would you do?). I then learned this was his imitation of Big Brother, who is at that stage where bodily functions are the height of comedy. This apparently was a burp. "Nicky calls that outside behavior," Jo told me. I was relieved he hadn't witnessed my encouragement of his son in this behavior.
Tee-Tee sat still and quiet for close to thirty minutes, I would say. When he was given a bag of goldfish crackers he made sure to share those with me as well. Soon though it was clearly time for small boys to get some activity. I was pleased to be included in the walk, even to the point of having him hold my hand, Nana's hand on the other side, as we set off to explore the town. When he got tired, Jo carried him for a while; when she said she was beginning to get tired, I offered to take a shift.
"Do you want Patrick to carry you?"
It's been years since I've carried a two year old. Oh yeah... this is what it feels like. This little fellow nestled into my right side, head resting on my shoulder. He seems to be falling asleep. I could get used to this. Not sure I'm ready to take this on for the rest of my life (holy sweet mother of god) but oh, this is nice.
"That's amazing," Jo whispered. "He rarely lets strangers touch him." I didn't buy it. I suspected this was a sweet white lie on her part, meant to make me feel special. I've seen plenty of stranger-shy children. I've even had a few of them take to me unexpectedly, but there is always that hesitancy at first, the timidity of a wild creature edging warily within your reach. Children, animals, it's much the same process if they're scared but want to trust you.
I never saw the slightest hesitation from Tee-Tee in, well, anything he did. I didn't (and don't) doubt he had been through some very rough times, but I seriously questioned the "he won't let strangers touch him" story. I thought it was a sweet gesture on her part though. The fact was, he did make me feel pretty special.
We went to a local pet store to look at the cats (or 'num-nums' as Tee-Tee calls them, no one knows why, except that he loves them), fish, and birds. Jo commented again on his willingness to let me lift him up to the higher windows, or snuggle into me when I crouched down with him to see the lower windows. Outside at one point, I lifted him up to sit on my shoulders.
"Do you like that?" Jo asked.
"He's grinning from ear to ear," she whispered.
When it was time for them to take the bus home (Tee-Tee is mad for buses, just as Nicky had told me), I set them on it, and waved goodbye to them both through the window. Kisses were blown. I was smitten.
Days later, back at the pool, we had swum about at first -me holding him and moving around while he kicked and splashed joyously- then we discovered (or did Jo suggest?) the jumping-in-from-the-side game, which rather naturally evolved into the let-me-climb-down-the-ladder game. I'd put him back on the side of the pool, trying not to let my restraint (to keep him from slipping) be too obvious, as he marched purposely to the ladder, grasped the rails, felt carefully with one foot, then slide down to sit on the first step. After he'd done this a few times with me hovering close he made it clear he was ready to fly solo.
"Tee-Tee!" he said, patting his chest with his hand. ("Let me do it!")
"Okay, yes, yes, I understand. I'm here just in case."
It was fascinating watching him work through this process. I could SEE the wheels whirring, the links being made, the synapses forming then firing. He methodically and repeatedly worked through each step of the process. "Tee-Tee!" chest pat, "yes, yes, I will." Each time the slide into sitting on the top step was executed with more confidence, though the moment of free-fall always made me nervous. I tried to protect his head from the side of the pool without him noticing. When we briefly returned to the simpler jump-into-my-arms exercise, he was truly leaping now, with actual moments of flight between leaving the edge and landing in my arms. We were all excited.
Eventually, this new skill mastered, he began exploring sitting on the step facing the side of the pool, something that only a person with very tiny legs could have managed. I was less fond of this experiment, and it was to prove the one that would bring today's explorations to an end. I'm not sure what happened exactly. Suddenly he started crying, and when I tried to pick him up, he couldn't move. I felt for his feet, and found them braced firmly against the second step. I think he had gotten them jammed there, and couldn't understand that if he wanted to move, he had to relax instead of brace them. Eventually I managed to get him dislodged while Jo pulled him out by his arms. She wrapped his shivering body in a big towel, and nestled him against her body.
"Where does it hurt?" Jo asked.
"Dee (here)!" he replied, pointing one foot.
"Oh here?" we both asked, administering kisses on the offended (though unmarked) limb.
"No, DEE!" seeming to indicate the other leg. More kisses.
"NO, DEE!" now his belly. We looked for cuts or bruises, found none, rubbed and kissed it anyway. Finally it seemed the idiot adults had gotten with the program. There were a few more half-hearted moans (the kind that always sound a bit 'performed' to my actor's ear), but the tears were done. He seemed to have bounced back, but we agreed swimming was done for the day.
Jo asked me about my tattoo (nice touch that, Nicky knew all about my tattoo), then we got Tee-Tee all dressed. The hotel Nicky was putting me up in has a South Seas theme; the courtyard with the pool also had a small 'creek' running through palm trees and tropical plants. Small foot-bridges arched over the stream at two points.
"Toot-Toot!" he exclaimed, pointing to the bridges. Jo explained that he was mad for trains -Thomas the train, specifically- as well as buses (clearly unaware that Nicky had filled me in on all this ages ago), so anything that looks like it might go with a train, such as these bridges, was by association wonderful. We spent some time running back and forth over them. I got a bit anxious at the momentum he built up sometimes on the downsides, but he only fell once, and it clearly hadn't upset him, (by unspoken agreement, neither Jo nor I made any sudden 'uh-oh' faces or gasping sounds; I think that helped).
Then again it was time to go.
"Do you want to give Patrick a hug and a kiss?"
To be honest, I'd been secretly hoping he'd decide to do it on his own, but I was still gratified by the lack of hesitation. What's more, I got not one but two kisses, and this despite the fact that I hadn't shaved in a few days, and was pretty bristly.
Our leave-taking finished, he was clearly ready for the next adventure, once again getting to ride the bus home, baseball cap at a jaunty angle.
"Wait a minute, I want to say good bye to Patrick too," Jo said. We also hugged and kissed.
After they left I realized I'd forgotten to ask Jo to take a photograph of me and Tee-Tee on my camera. I'd wanted it for my own sake, but I also knew Nicky would want to see one (he did ask later if we had taken any; yup, she was very good). I was sorry not to have records of these early encounters, but I felt some cautious comfort in the idea that maybe it wouldn't be the last time I got to see the little guy.
I don't feel any anger towards Jo, at least not yet. I reserve the right to go apeshit in the future, but so far it just hasn't felt necessary. I just feel sorrow, yes for myself, but also for her. If I'm inclined to feel resentful though it's for this; she must have realized my time with Tee-Tee was going to be short, but she never took any photos either. Nicky was the photographer of the family, I knew that. It would have been so easy for her to take some photos though, claiming to do it, as she did so much, on Nicky's behalf.
I really wish she had.