WHEN WE LAST LEFT OUR FEARFUL FAMILY, THEY WERE STANDING ON A ROCK, FEELING PRETTY GOOD ABOUT THEMSELVES:
Our descent was unremarkable and took five seconds. Keir lifted the boys down and they loped ahead, leading the party down to the boats. The moment on the rock had been so perfect that I didn’t even feel anxious about negotiating the angry rapids around the bend.
Murphy stopped abruptly, turned, and said, “Dad…”
His tone was plaintive. I wasn’t aware of what was happening but Pat leapt ahead, barking, “Yank ‘em down. Yank the pants down.” He made exaggerated pulling gestures in the air as he hurtled down the hill. Murphy had been suffering the unavoidable intestinal distress that attends almost every foreigner in India.
I sprinted ahead, only to find Murphy staring up at both of us, his legs already wide apart. The look of misery on his face was so complete, so unguarded, it could only be owned by a seven-year-old boy.
He looked up at us and whimpered apologetically, “I pooed.”
“I know, Buddy. I know,” Pat said, leaning down.
Keir caught up with our Indian guides in tow, the sides of his mouth twitching. Keir loves a good story about events going horribly wrong, and I could see him already drafting this one. He turned to the men and said, evenly, “There has been an incident.”
They nodded formally and stepped back a polite couple of paces as if they had just served our meal at a five star restaurant. I squatted next to Pat, “Buddy, we’ve got to take your pants off.”
Murphy squeezed his eyes shut, “No.”
“Honey, you can’t keep them on,” I coaxed.
He stood rigid, like he was growing roots into the soil. As if the very act of staying completely still with his eyes clamped tight would transport him somewhere else. I inferred all of this because I was familiar with the state. I have never been successful at astral projection, but it isn’t for lack of trying.
“Honey,” I said, “you will feel better when we clean you off.”
Without opening his eyes, he whispered, “I’m so embarrassed.”
“Oh, my love,” I said, “things like this happen to everyone. Even to grown-ups. No one thinks anything about it.”
I didn’t know what else to say. Anything further would highlight the fact that there were ten people simply standing around waiting for him to make a move. I breathed in and stared into the distance. Spencer was looking away respectfully, sympathy in the curve of his shoulders. I felt stuck. How could I move Murphy from this spot without making him feel worse? I could see Pat sifting through options in his head and I hoped that he had better ones than me. None of us even had a sweater to tie around his waist.
Murphy’s despair made the back of my eyes hurt. First the endless night of purging at the tiger park. Now this? He was the littlest. It wasn’t fair. He knew it wasn’t fair. Spence got to conquer a mountain and he got to shit his pants. Where was the justice in that?
Pat put his hand on Murphy’s shoulder. “We’re going to walk down to the river,” he said. “Then we’ll take off your pants and wash them. And we can clean you up too.”
Murphy squeezed his eyes tighter, “NO! I can’t move.”
Spencer shifted his weight. My legs were beginning to feel the stress of squatting but I didn’t want to move. I thought that standing would indicate impatience. It seemed important to let him know that we understood how difficult this was. The men behind me waited. We all waited.
“Buddy,” Pat said, softly, “I’m going to hold your hand and we’re going to walk down to the river.” Pat sounded sympathetic but firm. I, myself, had always responded well to this tone. It allowed me to abdicate all decision-making and leave it in the hands of someone who sounded more rational. More capable. The fact that the tone might not match his actual problem-solving capabilities was irrelevant in the moment. Someone had to take charge.
Murphy opened an eye, “OK.” He slipped his hand into Pat’s. Pat stood up and they started their slow progress toward the river’s edge. Murphy would not bend his legs or alter his stance. He moved as if he were walking on a tripod, leaning on one leg so he could swing the other stiff leg forward. The rest of us inched along quietly, not wanting to affect the delicate balance of trust and will that the task demanded.
When we got to the water, I slowly inched down his pants and underwear. Pat and I kept murmuring, “You’re doing great, Buddy. You really are.” When we finally wormed his unbending legs out of the soiled clothes, I rinsed them in the river while Pat held Murphy’s hand and led him into the river, splashing water up to his waist to get him clean. Murphy gritted his teeth, enduring the cold, not looking at any of the bystanders. “You’re doing great, Buddy. You really are.”
I wadded up Murphy’s wet pants and stuck them in the boat. Murphy, helmet and lifejacket still in place, was completely naked from the waist down. Except for his shoes, which Pat slipped onto his feet when he emerged from the river.
“OK,” said Pat, “I think we’re ready.”
Murphy turned to the assembled pokerfaced group and fixed his own face with an expression that looked almost regal – dignified and aloof. As if in response to an unvoiced command from the boy king, everyone jumped into the boat, took their positions, and grabbed an oar. The two guides in the banana boat started rowing ahead of us. Pat led Murphy to the boat and lifted him in. Wordlessly we all adjusted our positions. Murphy picked up an oar and we pushed off.
“Row,” said Vinod.
I could hear the rushing rapids ahead, but the fear did not return. I didn’t feel brave, exactly. I simply felt spent. Empty of anything but ache for the boy.
The guide in front of me started rowing faster. We kept pace. I didn’t look back. We hit the rushing water and used the oars to steer between the rocks. We bobbed and I could hear Spencer whoop. It felt good to focus on the endeavor. I felt strong and competent. After a minute or so, there was calm.
“Stop.” Oars out of the water. Keir, Pat, and Spencer smiled. I looked back at Murphy, smiling too, his bare legs soaking wet and goosebumped.
Vinod said, “Does Spencer want to go into the banana boat?”
I looked at Spencer, reflexively anticipating resistance. “Sure,” he said, tentatively.
“I want to go,” interjected Murphy.
The adults all eyed each other. I had to stop myself from stating the obvious, “But you have no pants.”
“Yes,” said Vinod. “Spencer, then Murphy.”
Vinod maneuvered us closer to the banana boat with his oar. I looked at my boys. Yes, I thought. Spencer, then Murphy. Climbing mountains and working through their own shame and all I can do is stand by. Spencer, then Murphy. My fear cannot protect them, so what use is it?
The banana boat pulled up beside us and one of the guides stepped onto our boat effortlessly. We bobbled slightly. Instead of feeling anxious, I felt my body give in to the rocking of the boat. Then Spencer stood stiffly. Conducted by two of the men, he made his way haltingly to the front of the raft and was lifted down to the smaller boat.
The many of pictures I took of Spencer in the banana boat substantiate my zeal to capture his awkward grace and determination. When it became Murphy’s turn, however, I slid the camera into my pocket so he wouldn’t be self-conscious as he was lifted up -- sunlight bouncing off of his bare ass like a beacon to terrified adventurers everywhere.
|Spencer in the banana boat|
|Murphy negotiating zero difficulty rapids, his bare knee peeking out|
|Spencer asked me to take this picture of him "looking cool"|