How does a three-year-old make sense of viruses, social distancing, and talking pandas? Ira Sukrungruang on caring for his son while sheltering in place.
I write HAPPY in big capital letters—in pink chalk—over the faded image of the one-eyed monster I drew two nights before, when we were able to get ice cream, when we perused the toy aisle at the grocery store, when there was toilet paper to spare. I point to the word and say to my son, Bodhi, “This is the word of the day. Happy. H-A-P-P-Y.”
Bodhi is three and the world doesn’t make sense anymore. He doesn’t know why I’m not taking him to preschool. He doesn’t know why he can’t go into stores with me but has to sit with Mom in the car. He wears his pajamas, light blue with puppy dogs all over. He’ll wear the same thing for the next two days.
“What makes you happy?” I say.
“What does happy feel like?”
He ponders this. When he ponders, he aims his eyes up, as if looking at the wonder of the stars. “It feels like this.” He dances, contorting his body in weird positions. A dancing toddler looks like performance art.
“Awesome,” I say. “What does happy look like?”
“Like this.” He smiles too wide. Too toothy. Forced. Like me in public situations.
“Are you happy?”
He nods and looks through a sliding glass door leading to a quiet world. The day is gray, clouds heavy with rain. He turns back. Smiles too wide. “Can I have another toy?”
To explain what’s going on I upload a cartoon onto a tablet. The cartoon speaks of germs and viruses. In it a panda converses with another animal friend about why they can’t go outside and play with the neighbors. There is the amoebic blob of germs, the crowned sphere of viruses. Germs and viruses have angry faces and sharp teeth. The panda talks about the importance of washing hands. How you should do it for a long time and with soap, scrubbing front and back, humming “Happy Birthday” twice.
Bodhi is transfixed. He watches it once, and then watches it again, and again, and again. Afterward, I ask him what he learned.
“Coronavirus is bad.”
I ask him what else.
“Wash your hands.”
I ask him what else.
“Pandas know how to talk.”
At the end of the upstairs hallway, on floating shelves, are buddhas. A couple of them are standing, hands held out in front. One shelf is occupied by a replica of the Emerald Buddha—Thailand’s most revered icon—skin jade green, body shrouded in robes of gold. When I was six, my father bought it for me from an alleyway in Bangkok because I was so enamored of his peaceful beauty. My ajahn, my teacher, gave me a heavy bronze Buddha after I spent time in the monastery; it’s a smaller version of the Buddha I used to meditate in front of.
Eight months ago when we were visiting Thailand, Bodhi never wanted to leave temples. He would kick and scream to stay. He sat, legs crossed, in front of looming statues, staring up at the gold shine of Buddha’s skin. He was like me when I was a boy, transfixed by Buddha’s gaze, his dream-filled eyes, his slight smile.
Now it’s morning. Bodhi’s mother goes downstairs to work remotely, and I stay in bed with Bodhi and play with him until it’s my turn to work at noon. Sometimes he wakes with a smile. Other times—like today—he wakes in tears, grasping for his mother who held him most of the night. He is frantic for her touch. But she’s gone, and Dad isn’t good enough.
“Mommy,” he cries. “Mommy.” Before I can still him, he jumps off the bed and opens the bedroom door. The dark of the hallway swallows him. He runs, his feet thumping heavily on the carpeted floor. I don’t see him. I hear him. His rushed steps. And then a scream. One I have never heard before. One born from complete terror. One that sends Mom up the stairs in a panic.
“What is it?” she says. “What is happening?”
He cries and cries. Hyperventilating. Sound gets caught in his throat. “M-M-M-.” She picks him up. I can hear his cries muffled by her shoulder.
“Breathe,” she says. “Deep breaths.”
I turn the light on in the hallway.
He looks up. Points to the Buddhas. “M-m-monsters,” he says.
The sun arrives. And like flowers, the neighborhood rushes out to greet it. Bodhi runs and runs and runs. The grass is green, and the spring brings the crocuses and daffodils.
Our neighborhood is full of families. Brothers and sisters play on backyard playgrounds. They jump and scream and laugh on trampolines. They toss a football around. Bodhi runs and watches them. He wants to go to them. It’s tough being at home with Mom and Dad.
Our neighbors are out. They have two girls, one Bodhi’s age. Before this, the two would hold hands and play and dance and laugh. They would blow bubbles and giggle. “She’s my best friend,” Bodhi would say. And we, the parents, would laugh and say we need to set the date for the wedding.
They say hello from their yards. We say hello from ours. Bodhi waves. Their little girl waves back.
Bodhi asks if I can draw his favorite Pokemon, Pikachu. It’s not a good Pikachu. It’s too round, more like a teddy bear than a cute yellow electric creature with red dots for cheeks. Bodhi looks at the drawing and puts his hands together the way I taught him in temples. Then he brings his hands up and bows his head. “Oh, Buddha,” he says, “please make my friend Pikachu come alive.”