Part 1: Early Days
“Mommy, when does William play?” Emma asked as she scooped another bite of her massive chocolate sundae.
I scanned the Hard Rock Cafe for William’s blond hair and the other preteens in his group, but I couldn’t see through the thick crowd. I was dying of thirst and relieved to be in air-conditioning, given the ninety-degree Chicago heat. Bill had gone to the bar to get us a beer.
“Who knows,” I said with an apologetic shrug. A week earlier, we had driven from our home, Saint Paul, to Chicago so that William could attend Blues Camp, a nonprofit organization with a mission to promote blues among youth. We had heard about the camp one evening after William performed at Famous Dave’s Blues Club in Minneapolis. It was a Tuesday, open mic night, the only evening amateurs could perform with a real blues band.
Thankfully, Emma, now nine, loved bar food. She had been to a handful of blues bars by now, something I could never have predicted. During her adoption process, the Chinese government required Bill and me to sign documents professing our strong moral character. We promised to give our daughter an excellent education and rich family experiences. I knew the Chinese wouldn’t have considered bringing Emma to blues bars a rich family experience, but we couldn’t get too stuck on details. We were doing our best.
Bill joined us at the table a few minutes later with two well-needed pints of beer.
“I just saw William. His group plays last,” he said with a frown. We both knew what that meant. There were at least five groups of blues kids slotted to perform. It had been a long week, and we had a six-hour drive ahead of us. That’s when William’s group instructor, Franki, approached our table.
“Your boy’s a natural front man,” he said with a wide, joyous smile, sinking his hands deep into his pockets.
“Thanks,” I said, semi-surprised he knew who we were. I had no idea what a front man was, but it sounded good.
“William’s got the high energy and talent of a front man in a band; he’s our lead singer and guitarist this week,” he said, tapping his fingers on the table.
Then he disappeared into the crowd.
Franki’s words lifted me up. The night before, I’d looked him up on the internet, curious about his background. Images of Franki’s smiling face filled my computer screen. He had turned professional at fifteen and played with blues greats like Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield, and Bill Withers. I knew that William had a knack for music, but hearing it from a seasoned musician gave me hope that William would land on his feet. He hadn’t been your typical child.
I Think I Can
Unlike other toddlers, who cried the first twenty minutes of flights and crashed in their parent’s arms, William remained as alert as an army officer on night watch. His blue eyes scanned his surroundings and then landed back on me, his main source of entertainment.
I stared back at him, searching for the normal signs of fatigue: a drooping eyelid, bobbing head, or long stretch of quiet.
Please, God, I thought. Make him sleep, stop talking, stop moving.
One flight, William sat wide-eyed next to me in his throne. “Mommy, read it again,” he said, holding up The Little Engine That Could, whacking me in the forehead with the spine.
“Okay, one more time. Then it’s time to close your eyes and rest.”
William crawled into my lap and swept his fingers through my long blond hair as I read the book one last time. When I tilted him back in my lap for a snooze, he squirmed out of my hands, onto the floor, and into the aisle.
“Get back here, buddy,” I said, unbuckling, booking after him.
“No, Mommy! I’m running!” he yelled, arching his back.
When he tried to break free again, I brought out plan B: Tupperware of all sizes packed with treats. As he flung Cheerios and raisins into the aisle, I tried to avoid eye contact with the passengers in our vicinity. Why did I fly solo across the country with an eighteen-month-old?
“Read to me, Mommy,” William said, slipping the book into my hands.
I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can, I repeated in my head.
William was my little engine that could.
The question was, could I?
The next time I flew with William, Bill and I had a better plan.
“Here’s some yogurt, buddy,” I said, blocking William from running yet another circle around the gate area.
William opened wide, took a bite, and paused mid-chew. “It’s not my yogurt,” he said, eyes watering.
“Really? It’s your favorite, Yoplait vanilla custard.” Bill and I glanced at each other, holding back grins. The pediatrician had recommended half a capsule of Benadryl for the flight.
My in-laws paid for the whole family to fly to Ireland for their fiftieth wedding anniversary. We were jazzed about sightseeing, meeting quirky locals, savoring fish and chips, and of course, the party. But we cringed at the thought of bringing our two-year-old.
Fifteen minutes later, as we waited in line to board the plane, William sat down hard at our feet.
I raised my eyebrows at Bill. “I can’t believe this.”
“That he isn’t running. That we drugged our baby. Who does that?” I whispered.
“We do,” Bill answered with a smirk, scooping William up in his arms.
That’s why I married you, I thought. You don’t second-guess. We were on a red-eye, and now we could sleep all the way to Dublin. We’d brought our own blankets and tiny pillows. I couldn’t wait to relax.
“Mommy!” William screamed, pinching the crap out of my arm within minutes of takeoff.
“What? What’s the matter, buddy?” I asked, rubbing his back.
“Let me go!”
Bill and I looked at each other in confusion.
“I NEEED TO GET DOWWWN!” he screamed, thrashing like a bucking bronco.
Bill reached to pull William into his lap, but he lost his grip.
My hands shook as I tried to unbuckle myself and chase after him.
“What’s the matter? Are you hurt?” I asked, holding him, forcing eye contact, searching for the boy I knew.
“I want DOWN!”
My only choice was to walk him up and down the aisle. Some passengers pretended to read, others whispered to their spouses and shook their heads in disapproval.
Some offered suggestions: Milk to clear his ears? Nilla wafers to settle his stomach? Gingerroot? One mother waved a bottle of Children’s Tylenol overhead.
“NO THANKS, WE TRIED IT,” I yelled over William’s screams. Bill and I had squirted the purple goo into his mouth, but he spit it out like poison.
Two hours into our eleven-hour flight, a platinum-blond flight attendant approached me near the bathrooms. “You have to do something,” she said.
“What?” I asked, pushing William’s gaping mouth away from my ear. Rings of sweat had formed under my arms. Couldn’t she see I was in the middle of a marathon wrestling match?
“Your child. You have to do something about his crying.”
“Here, you take him,” I said, shoving him at her.
She thrust her arms forward, wide-eyed.
“AHHH,” William screeched, grasping for me.
This behavior continued over most of the Atlantic.
The next morning, I scanned my surroundings. Bill, his sister Katie, our teenage nieces Jana and Krista, and our five-year-old nephew Luke asleep in their seats. William lay on his side with his legs curled up in the rebirth yoga position. He had fallen asleep on the floor of the plane by my feet around sunrise. Red cheeks and puffy eyes were the only remnants of his monstrosity. I had a few too: scratched arms and a pounding headache.
Draw a Snowman
Our plan was to caravan from Dublin to Killarney, a quaint town known for its national park, castles, and medieval forts. My in-laws had rented villas for the family there. Who knows why Jana agreed to join us in our car. Maybe she thought William’s sleeplessness on the flight was a one-time thing. She’d only met him a few times.
I admired Jana’s pluck. She was quick to smile and wise for a teen. She’d helped raise her younger brother, Luke. She cooled his soup and encouraged him to climb up one more rung on the jungle gym.
“Jana, draw a snowman,” William instructed a few minutes into our drive.
“Sure, William. What color snowman do you want?”
“A red one.”
“Okay, here’s a red one,” she answered sketching a few strokes on the paper.
“Now draw a hat and buttons,” he added, thrusting the notepad back.
“Now draw a baby green one.”
“Now make a snowman family.”
I visualized each circular stroke. I’d drawn over a hundred the last few weeks. Snowmen were William’s latest obsession. Before that, it was Buzz Lightyear. Before that, the Teletubbies.
“Does William ever sleep in the car?” Jana asked forty-five minutes into our drive.
Bill and I glanced at each other and smiled. “Not much,” I answered.
I’d rarely witnessed William burn someone else out, and the fact that he was tiring a seasoned teenager felt validating. He’d only been with Anoop, his day care provider, and us. We rarely hired babysitters. Bill’s salary in private practice as a defense attorney was unpredictable. I had no income. Cost of living was high in Seattle.
Anoop had known William since he was eight weeks old. When I dropped him off at her home on my school days, she’d smiled at him and knelt down open-armed in one of her colorful saris.
“Will-iam,” she’d say, in her thick Eastern Indian accent. “Let’s go read Buzz Lightyear. He’s still your favorite, yes?”
William released me and toddled toward her without looking back.
If I complained to Anoop about his nonstop movement or lack of sleep, she’d pause, a knowing look on her face.
“Katherine, I think I knew him in past life,” she’d said. “He has much to do in this life. He’s a special boy. My husband says this too.”
He’s special all right, I thought, appreciating her kindness.
That evening, the whole family met at a pub in Killarney. The musty gray cobblestone building built in the 1600s resembled a mini prison. On the inside, round mahogany tables and sturdy chairs brought the place to life. Large colored-glass, Tiffany-style fixtures hung from the ceiling over each crowded table, giving off a warm hue.
I pulled my chair up beside Bill and his family. Luke colored in his seat, flanked by his older sisters. I bounced William on my knees to distract him from his ultimate desire: freedom to roam. The bar was loud and packed with people.
Please don’t let him go into freak-out mode like he did on the plane, I prayed. A waiter tucked a wooden high chair at the table beside me. “Thank you,” I said, catching the man’s eyes before he whisked off.
“Look, buddy, the nice man brought you a seat,” I said, hoisting William into the chair. I brushed my hands up and down the legs and back of the chair. Then I got down on my hands and knees and visibly inspected it.
My heart sank.
“There’s no seat belt,” I told Bill.
“He’ll be fine. Stop worrying,” he said, squeezing my hand. “Check out the beers on tap. What do you want?”
My instinct was to pout. Or cry. My husband was a rat. It was 2001, not 1950. Who the hell did he think he was, enjoying himself with his family while I was drowning with our son? Situations like this triggered my pent-up resentment about the injustices between men and women.
But I couldn’t crack.
I was surrounded by Lutherans.
When things got tense, they packed up their emotions into a tight ball and swallowed them. They focused on the good things. They didn’t complain. My father-in-law, Dr. Paul Quie, grew up farming in Northfield. He described Yale Medical School as a breeze compared to farming. He’d finished in three years. My mother-in-law, Ms. Betty Quie, a Wellesley graduate, raised four kids nearly solo given Paul’s all-consuming career. She rarely lost her cool. It just wasn’t in her blood.
My parents were the opposite. As a Texan litigator, my dad literally fought for a living. Young lawyers lined up to watch him tangle people up in their own words in court. My mother was a Unitarian artist who bucked authority. I was mild-mannered compared to my parents but fiery compared to the Quies.
As I scanned the beers on tap, William stood up in the high chair and teetered forward.
“Sit down,” I said, holding him by the waist.
“Mommy, look!” William said, pointing to the bagpipe players.
I nudged Bill. “Will you take William?”
Bill reached out his arms with a smile. “Come here, buddy.”
“NOOO! MOMMY!” William yelled, burying his head in my chest.
Bill and I exchanged a look. His eyes said, I will rip William from your arms if you want me to, but it could get ugly.
I couldn’t do it, not after the plane ride.
William and I waded through the crowd to check out the Celtic band, his warm cheek against mine. A harpist lightly plucked a simple melody in the background along with bagpipes and a quick fiddle. I stood on my tiptoes to peer at the band over the crowd. The men wore pleated red plaid kilts, black blazers, and black tweed caps. The harpist wore a traditional Celtic dress with a tight black bodice and a long flowing red plaid skirt.
I’d grown up hearing tales of my father’s Irish Catholic relatives, the Sheehans and Horrigans. I had been Katherine Horrigan for twenty-three years before I became a Quie. I wondered if my ancestors had ventured here years ago.
“Let’s go, Mommy!” William yelled, pointing to the musicians, his eyes wide. “I want to be with them.”
“That’s their stage, buddy. We have to stand back here.”
“I want to be up there with them,” he said, pointing center stage.
For the next half hour, William remained still in my arms, transfixed by the music.
When the band took a break, William and I returned to the table. Bill reached over to pat my leg, a pint of Guinness in hand. I made out bits and pieces of the family conversation; someone made a birdie on a par four, someone duffed the final hole and landed in a sand trap.
I sank into my seat and closed my eyes. This was not what I expected for our first big vacation. I’d fantasized about Bill’s parents and siblings taking William off my hands.
“Mommy, they’re playing again,” William said, pushing my eyelids open, pointing to the stage.
“William, sit down,” I said, slipping his legs out from under him.
“Let’s go, Mommy!”
This time, I pushed him down hard like the strung-out mothers I’d judged at Target. The look of surprise on his face jolted me out of my anger.
“WE’RE GOING FOR A WALK!” I yelled in Bill’s ear. I slung William on my hip and wove through the crowd. Energy surged through my limbs.
I walked out of the pub and set William down. We walked hand-in-hand at a clipped pace. He toddled beside me in his navy Keds, the only shoes that he could tolerate.
William and I passed a neighborhood grocery, a tiny bookstore, and pubs on each corner, dark green with red doors. The cobblestone streets gave me comfort. They’d been there for hundreds of years holding people up. I envisioned horses pulling carriages of Irish folks into town, men in their top hats and overcoats, women in their embroidered velvet dresses with fur wraps.
We passed scruffy, kind-faced men in thick cream-colored sweaters. They sipped beer with their friends on street corners and tipped their hats at me and my wide-eyed boy. William didn’t seem to notice. He was drawn to bigger things.
“What’s that, Mommy?” he asked, pointing at a musty, ancient church and then even higher at the slender steeple at the tip-top. I crouched beside him and followed his tiny finger.
“That’s the steeple of the church,” I answered, tucking a wisp of his hair behind his ear.
“What’s a steeple for?”
“Maybe it’s to help people find their way to church, to God,” I answered shrugging my shoulders.
“Who’s God?” William asked, leaning into me, rubbing my hair.
My brain froze. He might as well have asked me to describe hybridization in organic chemistry. I’d never even read the Bible. But if there were a God, now would be a really good time for her to show up.