Ten minutes earlier he had disappeared into the bathroom to poop (yes, he announces these things), and I had just poked my head in to make sure that he wasn’t embarking on one of his potty-related craft projects, like the time he unraveled enough toilet paper to wrap a mummy. When I left, he had been sitting quietly on the stool, waiting for something to happen.
“Mom, I peed on my face!” he yelled again. “Come see!”
My sense of motherly duty begrudgingly kicked in, and I headed for the bathroom. I found Riley seated on the toilet with a few sprinkles of urine scattered on a step stool under his feet. Much to my relief, his face appeared to be dry. When he saw me, he broke open a huge grin.
“I was trying to poop,” he said, leaning over his knees to reenact the drama, “and some pee came out of my penis and went through here.”
He pointed to a wisp of space between the seat and the toilet rim. Apparently, the urine had magically threaded its way through the tiny gap, a space so small that even a germ would have opted to go the long way around.
“It hit me right in the face!” he said, poking himself in the forehead.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, this was the kid who had compiled a long rap sheet of misdemeanors in his relatively short history with the toilet. Once he entered a bathroom, it took forever and a crowbar to pry him out. For Riley, the bathroom was a charismatic place where practical matters like wiping and washing quickly disappeared under the avalanche of his imagination.
From a physical standpoint, he had been an accomplished potty-goer for quite some time. He could take care of business and wash his hands as fast as a steer roper downs a calf if – and only if – we dangled a treat over his blond head. However, without the lure of a sweet incentive, there was no telling when he would emerge or what detours he might take.
Often he would disappear into the bathroom, and minutes later I would hear nothing – no talking, no flushing and no running water. That kind of four-alarm silence meant the boy was conducting a clandestine operation. One time he had dipped his bottom into the toilet water and spent half a box of tissues drying it off. Another time, I found him standing naked in front of the toilet “fishing” with yards of soggy toilet paper, “just like in Grandpa’s pond.”
Sometimes that eerie silence meant that Riley was merely basking in his daydreams. More than once I found him standing in front of the toilet with his pants and underwear collapsed around his ankles, staring at the wall.
“Are you done?” I ventured on one such occasion.
He nodded emphatically but continued to stand there as if he had been switched off for the day.
“Honey, why are you still standing there?”
Long pause. “Mom, when a volcano erupts, the lava shoots up out of the top like a rocket!”
“Yes, it sure does. Would you pull up your pants now, please?”
“Mom, a volcano that looks like a cone is called an ash-cinder volcano.”
We had already discussed this tidbit many times after reading it in a book. “Let’s get those pants on,” I prompted.
After a flash of consideration, he wiped his penis, flushed the toilet, and then launched into a detailed explanation of how a space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters and external fuel tank break away after it takes flight. Meanwhile, his shorts and underwear still lay crumpled on the floor, waiting, while I leaned against the door frame, waiting.
Why couldn’t he simply go to the bathroom, wash his hands and be done in one fluid sequence? In my mind, those plot points are so thoroughly fused that they might as well be a single event. Once I’ve started toilet-related activities, I don’t stop to enlist an unsuspecting flat iron as a lightsaber in an imaginary duel against Darth Vader, as my son does. I also don’t pause for five minutes to debate aloud why small poop comes out quickly and big poop comes out slowly. Such diversions should be saved for after the hands have been washed, according to my inner freak.
Initially, Riley and I butted heads over his diversions, mostly because a 4-year-old left alone for too long in a bathroom makes me nervous. There are plenty of germs that can be spread by a little person who wipes his bottom and then touches five different surfaces before he washes his hands. Riley also has no qualms about rooting around in the shadow of the toilet tank, which is often the unintended target of his “Look, no hands!” peeing technique. I’m also concerned that he’ll try to flush something down the toilet that shouldn’t be flushed, like my toothbrush. Or his little sister.
Ultimately, I simply couldn’t understand why anyone would want to hang out in a room so completely devoid of comfort and entertainment. Sure, the running, swirling water is a big hit with the preschool crowd, but many of Riley’s dalliances didn’t involve water. There are no TVs, refrigerators, wet bars or other frills in our bathrooms. On a good day, there might be an extra roll of toilet paper stashed within reach, but even that’s not a guarantee. Yet Riley clearly needed none of these incentives to find the bathroom an enchanting, inspirational place.
So I found myself growing increasingly frustrated as I hovered and nagged and shook my head, trying to cajole him out of his eddy and back into the mainstream.
My breakthrough finally came one day when Riley disappeared into our kitchen bathroom while I built turkey sandwiches for lunch. Soon after, I heard him chanting something but couldn’t make out the words. Like any good mother, I tuned him out and went back to slathering mayo on whole wheat.
Riley continued to chant. Was he conducting a sacrificial ceremony in there? Curiosity finally nudged me closer to the bathroom door. This time, I recognized the words: “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho, nueve, DIEZ!”
He was counting from one to 10 in Spanish! I was stunned, unaware that my son knew the language. His preschool teacher had mentioned that the kids were learning it, but we had never heard Riley utter a single adios.
I yanked open the door and found the little boy standing – once again – naked in front of the toilet. He was staring intently into the bowl and holding his right hand aloft in front of him, rhythmically tapping the air with his index finger. Startled, he jumped within his own skin and quickly hid both hands behind his back.
“Were you just counting in Spanish?” I said.
He smiled sheepishly and shrugged.
“I like to count the bubbles,” he said, pointing to the froth of urine in the toilet.
I was speechless. Riley had been silently stockpiling foreign words in his head but had seen no reason to set them free until the bubbles in a pool of liquid waste inspired him to open the vault. It just didn’t make sense.
I realized that it didn’t really need to make sense to me, as long as it made sense to him. I had to accept that for reasons I simply couldn’t grasp, Riley found the bathroom as ripe for dreaming and exploring as a garden or a riverbed, an inspirational place for taking those mental journeys that many adults no longer take. I could hide my toothbrush and methodically bathe every surface in disinfectant if it made me feel better, but I had to indulge him in his adventures whenever possible. I simply had to let go.
On the day when Riley came face to face with his own urine, I suggested that maybe he shouldn’t lean so far forward over his knees when he sat on the potty. Then his face wouldn’t be in the way of a urine stream that could so adeptly defy the laws of physics.
“Mom, I have to lean forward,” he said in his “Duh!” voice, “so that I can watch myself poop!”
Of course you do, I thought, swallowing a good dose of revulsion to marvel at his desire to soak up every moment of every experience, even the not-so-pleasant ones.