There is an aching nostalgia I get, a bittersweet feeling only a parent could understand, when I think of my children at the age of 3—the age they started to shed their helpless babyness and long-term memory started coming online. It's an age where speech can often be both prescient and hilarious.
When my son Jackson was three years old and my daughter Samia was an infant, my (now ex) wife and I travelled to Thailand with them, where we planned to crisscross the country for six months with our babies in our backpacks, so to speak.
I was at that time practising Vipassana meditation daily. I had gone to painstaking lengths to make it clear to my son, the 3-year old grand inquisitor, that he was not to interrupt me while I was meditating. His understanding of "interruption" took the meaning of direct questions.
His habit became to seek me out when I was perched on my meditation cushion and ask questions which were meant to sound self-reflective or rhetorical, such as "I wonder where my dozer is?" Or he would make general statements about the weather, or (more often) Lego, as if he just happened to be in my office and talking to himself while I was meditating.
"This is cool," he said once. I couldn't help opening one eye. He was staring at his dirty fingernails. "My fingers have black stripes!"
"Pumpkins are amazing," he said another time. "The best thing about pumpkins is that they look like coconuts." But he wasn't asking me a question, so as far as Jackson was concerned, he had not interrupted my meditation. While the disciplinarian in me stirred with annoyance, I generally didn't say anything because another part of me clearly loved these non-interactions I could share with him. I loved that he couldn't help but seek me out during my meditation hour. Often he would cost his own eyes to get a glimpse of his own internal world—though mostly when this happened it would be both of us sitting with one eye slightly open as we pretended to meditate.
Once I just heard his young voice humming a tune he made up on the fly. It lasted for several minutes into my meditation and I drifted away in thought until he suddenly stopped. I opened my eyes. Jackson was lying on the floor with his chin in his hands, staring at me. "I'm so fond of that little song," he said.
Another time I was pulled from meditation / reverie by the sound of paper ripping. Unable to restrain myself, I opened one eye and Jackson sat directly in front of me, ripping an old magazine. "I'm just an angry guy," he shrugged, supposedly speaking to himself. "I like to rip pieces of paper."
While I was meditating the night before we left for Bangkok, Jackson wouldn't sleep. As I sat on my cushion I heard him bumping and groaning and stretching. I was determined to sit still and keep my eyes closed and remain equanimity but the noises Jack was making continued for so long I eventually opened my eyes.
He was crawling across the room in his tightly-whiteys. When he stopped he sat on his bum, then bent forward and grabbed for his toes. He sat up and did some belly-breathing before flinging his body around and popping into a pretty decent downward dog. His upside-down face caught me watching him.
"I'm doing yoga," he whispered.
The travel portion of our journey seemed to last an eternity. By the time we lifted off the Tarmac in Tokyo, I considered that we would have to stay in South-east Asia longer than six months in order to make all these flights worth it.
After a lunch of rubber fish in chemical curry served by ANA staff, the kids dozed in a kind of fog, sneezing at the recycled air. Eventually fatigue dragged the children deep into the realm of the unconscious. Jackson was so deep in sleep that he didn't even wake when he peed in his seat. He continued to sleep as I peeled his pants and underpants off with a wet shlok, then tucked one airline blanket under his bum while wrapping him in another. The accident was no surprise considering his juice intake while he'd watched about a dozen episodes of Pingu on a continuous loop, laughing manically throughout.
Eventually, we arrived.
The smells on the drive into Bangkok from the airport shook loose some olfactory memories of my experience of flying into - of all places - Nairobi, Kenya. Something about the scent of a foreign and lush land, with small bonfires burning in the distance, and the silhouettes of tropical vegetation, the shadows of foreign architecture. The palm trees, standing tall and strong, waved their leaves like pennants in testament to the fact that we'd arrived, in both our physical beings and our collective consciousness, in new and unfamiliar territory.
Samia was wide-eyed and smiling, happy as long as she was facing outward in the baby-bjorn and could hang onto a water bottle. Jackson was beyond exhausted, and would spontaneously wail "WAAAAAH!" with all the air in his tiny lungs the moment anything didn't seem to go his way.
Our hotel room, located in an alley off a back street near Khao San Road, was dingy and almost instantly demolished with our exploding luggage. But it was air conditioned and it was ours, and after 29 hours traversing the globe with 2 babies in economy seats, just resting my bone-weary body horizontally was immeasurably satisfying. We were all so tired we were giddy. I was seeing strange shapes in the ether.
It did not take long for jet lag to settle in and so at midnight, wired and tired, we hot-footed it to Kao San Road where there was still plenty of unsavoury late-night activity, drunk foreigners looking for food, for more booze, or for the remaining bar girls who would sell their bodies to pasty white farangs. Loud, predictable music blared from drinking stalls and makeshift bars.
We found a promising looking food cart and bought pad thai from an old woman. On a nearby tree, Jackson spotted his first gecko and his sense of amazement humbled me.
Our first morning in Bangkok we had a breakfast that made the horrible days of travel seem like a distant memory. A strong, kind Thai woman wordlessly served us coconut shakes, mango smoothies, bananas in porridge, muesli with fruit and yogurt, a cheese omelette and a tiny loaf of bread.
Jackson instantly fell in love with tuck-tuks the same way he had naturally become enamoured of dump trucks, tractors, trains and fire engines. We took a tuk-tuk to the Chao Phryn river and then paid 3 baht for a ferry crossing. We eventually made it to the train station to inquire about tickets North. On the tuck tuck ride back to the ferry boat, Samia's floppy sun hat blew off her head. Our tuck tuck driver turned to go back and retrieve it.
The hat lay in the middle of the busy road. A young boy pulling a cart ran into the street to pick up the hat and was running towards us, to bring it to us, when he got hit by a taxi. There was a sickening thud and my ex-wife screamed as the boy rolled into a ball over the hood and landed on his back in the dust and the gravel..
I jumped out of the tuk-tuk, already trying to remember the ABCs of First Aid, when up popped the kid and finished his sprint over to us. He bowed to Samia as he handed her the hat. He started walking away and then I noticed he was with his mother, who collected the cart. He favoured his right leg and had one hand on his back. I was extremely concerned. I tried to tell him and his mother that they needed to go to the hospital, that we would bring them to hospital, but they wanted none of it. I had horrifying thoughts of various injuries, internal bleeding, concussion - but I will never know, because they were set on leaving. I handed the boy 100 baht and he bowed to me and smiled as he accepted it. I felt like a cheap fool, a heartless dumb tourist, and tried again to get him to the hospital. But he and his mother disappeared into the crowd. What happened to him, ultimately? I hope he was okay.
As we were ferried back across the river I felt sick with a profound sense of alienation. I felt not so much out of my element as out of my reality. Questions like, "Where is Thailand, really?" occurred to me. "Where am I travelling to as much as the places I visit within the confines of my own skull?"
We all passed out before dinner and slept until ten. At 3:30 am Jackson was playing with his toy planes and his toy cement mixer. He peered into my face to see if I was awake. "Dada," he whispered, "Have you seen my dozer?" It was his favourite question of 2005.
We spent several days in Bangkok, eating and trying to get over jetlag together. I experienced my first genuine Thai massage and was forever altered in body and spirit. We walked the streets late at night and early in the morning, waiting for our bodies and minds to adjust to both the time difference and the culture shock.
One morning, just at the break of dawn, I looked over to see Jackson laying on his back, staring up at the pink helium balloon he'd been given by somebody the day before. He softly, slowly pulled it towards him in order to watch it float away again. He pulled it towards him again, thought about something for a minute, then quickly hit his sleeping mother on the head with the balloon.
"Hey!" she grumbled, half asleep.
"Jack," I growled. He started, not realizing until that moment that I was awake and watching him. "Didn't I tell you yesterday I'd pop that balloon if you continued to hit people with it?"
Then I felt bad about startling him. He was bored, perhaps. Due to the nature of our travel, we had to pack light, which meant very little room for books or toys. I relied quite heavily on spontaneous story-telling to keep him amused.
"You want a story about the greatest train mystery ever?" I asked him. I hadn't even yet made the story up, but his favourite theme at the time was anything related to the railroad.
"Yes!" He shot out of bed, let his balloon drift to the ceiling and cuddled next to me as I related a story of a train that went through a mysterious cave and disappeared, making it up on the fly. I stalled from time to time by asking him "And what do you think happened next?"
His capacity to listen to stories amazed me, as did his ability to sit for silent hours of travel in his own reveries. Sometimes the far-away look in his eye could spook me, and I'd ask what he was thinking about to draw him back, tether him to me where I felt he was safest. His answer was always the same: "I'm watching a movie in my head."
I tried to write but with two young kids I could barely find the time or space to meditate. I was still recently sober, and I hadn't yet decided wether the dream I'd held as a younger man—to be a self-sufficient author of fiction—was healthy or pathetic.
I wanted to forget all my old desires for recognition and just write spontaneously, for the pure, creative joy of it—to recognize that every little bit of it, even the mundane top-of-the-head shit, is somehow sacred. Because the intent is sacred.
Throughout the trip through Thailand I would vow over and over again—usually while inspecting my scoliosis or love handles in the mirror—to gather and build strength through self-discipline. Part of this vow was refusing to be a passive doormat with my (now) ex-wife, who wanted what she wanted when she wanted it—for example, she wanted our tiny family to subsist on cheap street-eats rather than real food.
The first time I confronted her over this issue was on Khao San Road, when I put my foot down and said we would all be better off eating a nice curry and rice at a sit-down restaurant rather than Petrie-dish noodles that had been sitting in the same bowl all day on a rusty food cart. Her insistence was based on two beliefs, both of which I knew to be fallacious. Firstly, she was under the mistaken impression that eating from a food cart in the area designated exclusively for farangs would somehow bring us closer to a less-touristy, more authentic Thai experience. This seeking out of "genuine" experiences was an obsession with her, and she seemed to miss the irony that trying to be "a local" was as inauthentic as one could get.
The second reason my ex-wife wanted to eat street food was that she'd come to believe that restaurant food was too expensive. true, it was more expensive than pad thai from a broken-down cart, but compared to the Canadian dollar it was practically free. She refused to relativize with me and became obsessed with not having to pay more for a meal than a Thai person would have to pay.
"I'm not going to eat shit and feed Jackson shit just because it's inexpensive!" I shouted at her. I immediately regretted both shouting and cussing, because at the time I was going through a somewhat naive phase where I believed that pretending to be calm would somehow make me a calmer person.
Later on Jackson woke up in the middle of the night and said he didn't like when Thai people kept touching him. Both the kids were routinely mauled in crowds, to the point where I had to fend off arms of strangers at times. There was something about their blonde hair that made the Thai people fervent in their quest for some display of affection from Jack, like he was an omen, or a lucky piece. I told him he didn't have to kiss or touch or hug anyone he didn't want to, and I taught him how to throw up a block and say "No" in Thai language—ไม่, pronounced "Myi".
"Boundaries," I said, "are the best. You set your own boundaries depending on what you are comfortable with." Later that got me into hot water when he didn't want to kiss his mother goodnight.
Jackson was rooting through the pockets on my backpack and found condoms—we hadn't had sex in months but I was thinking the trip might spark something, and I'd bought a pack for the trip—in fun colours: bright yellow and red and green and orange and blue. He walked in with a handful of condoms: "Guess what I found Mama?" He clearly took them for some kind of fruity sweet-treat, hidden candy treasure in Dad's backpack. A Thai lollipop, perhaps?
"Those aren't treats," I said.
"What are they?"
And then my ex-wife did something she always did, which drove me crazy. She made up a nonsensical lie. "Those are Durex," she said. "They are for Daddy when he gets a sore back."
Jackson looked at the condoms disguised as fruity treats. "Oh my back is sore," he said.
We drove around Bangkok for an hour in a smokey tuktuk and with grimy faces bought a sleeper train to the coast, ferry to the island of destination, and a few nights accommodation - all for 3000Baht.
Our last night in Bangkok, I woke at 3am and couldn't fall back to sleep. I got out of bed at 4:44 and walked around the muggy streets. People were still partying. I was making my way to a local temple when a hooker approached me and asked me what I wanted. I told her I wanted to meditate. She said I'd have to wait until sunrise for the temple gates to be unlocked.
"Maybe I can come to your room until then?" she said. I politely declined, but was surprised to see how the idea somewhat excited me.
"Hey Buddy," called a ladyboy from a nearby bar. "You want beer for breakfast?"
The jetlag and lack of sleep eventually caught up to Jackson and he turned into a savage just as we boarded the train for Surat Thani. Hitting us, biting us, throwing temper tantrums.
"I thought you loved trains?" I said. He growled at me. Then he wouldn't stop screaming for a treat. I slapped his hand to get his attention, and was immediately flooded with guilt and shame, and fear of my own ancestral potential for rage. As we shuffled along the tracks out of Bangkok my ex-wife fed Samia while fanning herself\. We were all grimy and greasy from the dust and the heat. I didn't win the argument to get an air-conditioned berth.
I stared into the impossibly impoverished huts along the tracks—endless shantitowns, though everybody had a cell phone and a shiny new moped. There were numerous small temples with gaudy golden Buddhas bracketed by ugly concrete aqueducts. Some night markets, big and small. We passed numerous small gatherings of people sitting around small fires, embers really. I wanted to join their conversations, if it meant getting off the stifling train.
Eventually the porter came around and put our beds down and gave us cleanish-looking sheets. Jackson passed out finally and I watched his angry face grow still and calm. The silhouettes of the endless palm trees were illuminated by dry lightening as a storm raged in the distance. I crawled in beside my son and slept too, only to be woken several times through the night in a full-blown panic attack, feeling as if we were about to careen off the tracks or hit an oncoming train. We passed so many trains travelling in the opposite direction, and each time I felt that if I stuck so much as a finger out the window I would lose it, we seemed that close..
Jackson woke up howling, and I raised my hand in the air, in a claw-like pose, and hissed "I'M DONE!" I felt my anger come out of me and enter him as fear. His face crumpled and he started sobbing. I held him close and said we were all tired but was already thinking of ways I could make amends to him. There was only one way: not to treat him the way I had been treated. I need to love him with the kind of love I've never known, and sometimes I worry that isn't even possible. Until I hold him and resolve that it is.
And like this, we unimaginatively made our way to the tourist-ridden island of Koh Samui. We stayed in a cabin on Bophut beach next to a pool belonging to The Coconut Grove. Our neighbours in the next cabin over were two Israeli men who went looking for love everyday in their unfortunate speedos. They had their own special peacock-walk which they'd obviously worked on together, consciously or unconsciously. They liked to swim up to young girls in the pool and tread water next to them while pretending they were bored, or shouting nonsensical bluster at each other. It was great entertainment.
The massage therapists on the beach fell in love with the children, as everybody seemed to. During their slow afternoon hours they would take Samia and hold her and rock her and play with her and bathe her and change her and rock her to sleep, which was a great boon for us. It was as if the baby had abruptly acquired half a dozen doting Thai grandmothers.
For possibly the first time on this trip, which would last another five months and see all of us in the hospital at one time or another and almost capsized on a ferry from Koh Tao—a story I won't get into here—I found myself capable of relaxing. This was my first sojourn abroad as a provider and, in my mind, as a protector.
I was recently sober as well and everything—every single experience—was new, filtered not only through tourist goggles but also through the lenses of sobriety and fatherhood.
Once, my father, with whom I didn't really get along as a boy, remarked to me: "I would die for my children, you know." It was part of a quasi-apology for acting as a pushy tyrant for much of my younger life. My first thought was that I'd never been in any danger of assassination. I never needed a bodyguard. What I'd really needed was someone to be kind and patient and to teach me things I needed to know about the world and about myself.
This is why my reactions of anger, when they occurred, were so distressing to me. I felt helpless at times, as if the operating system of my true nature had been hacked with a virus of helpless fear and rage. Through fathering I was understanding my father more and more.
Nobody knew or could guess at what I was capable of.
I joked with tuk-tuk drivers and haggled good-naturedly with shopkeepers. To outsiders, as I carried my daughter in a pouch on my chest and my son on my shoulders, I looked like any other middle-aged white Dad carrying his children across the smelly landscape of the Land of Smiles.
But nobody knew what I was capable of. At all times I knew where the exits were and who might be potential threats. Nobody could guess at how supremely ready I was to react to any threat—real or perceived. At a moment's notice I knew I was capable of whirling myself into an energetic onslaught of fatherly fury. Nobody could guess at how readily and easily I would—and I knew it was true—die for these children.
And I felt silly knowing it. It felt overly dramatic, carrying around this level of protective concern. I guessed that much of it was chemical in nature, wiring that had very little to do with me, personally.