Baby steps and big smiles

Séamas O’Reilly
Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

He’s nearly there. With the walking I mean. It’s so close we can taste it, and we’re all trying not to put too much pressure on the boy at my in-laws’ house as he gets to the final hurdle of just putting one foot in front of the other, no hands, and making it across the upstairs carpet in two strides. His hands steady him on whatever’s near – a low shelf, a passing toy, or the folds on a pair of jeans. Where once they were urgent, these grasps now seem placebic, a series of crutches rather than the actions of a load-bearing hand. He is delighted, beaming, but never once looking at his legs to observe the motion that you, at first, presume is the source of delight. His mind is not on his body at all, but on us watching him.

It’s odd to see the things he’s asking of that body as he strains to achieve bipedal motion. Watch him for long enough and you’ll cease wondering why he can’t walk and start wondering how the rest of us ever learned. It seems preposterous; a squat barrel supported by flabby little legs, those tiny, squishy feet bearing everything above them. Stranger still to think your body was once so small, untested, so mysterious to even you, that you had to learn what it was and what it wasn’t. This is a struggle for my son every day. Even when crawling, he moves like a ghost who’s just been gifted corporeal form and is shocked to discover he no longer fits through cracks in the wall. He could never be described as a wisp of a thing, even compared to medium-sized dogs, yet he trundles through life with the cocksure arrogance of a much smaller, more easily manoeuvrable object, as if he is indeed a baby, only with the mind of a bee.

Buzzing through his home, he hates to be reminded that he has ears or fingertips, a fact that’s apparent any time he emerges, bawling, from a space which held only questionable demand for his presence. Multiple times each day he is affronted by the discovery that he does not fit in the 3in gap between the couch and floor. He will invariably attempt to slide under it in the hope that his entire body can, through force of will, contort itself into two-dimensional form and glide toward his lost object like a passive aggressive note popped under a neighbour’s door. Alas, his body is less ‘envelope’, more ‘cantaloupe’ and he ends up frustrated after each short stint of ardent exertion.

And yet here he is, on this landing in Dublin, surrounded by a thicket of giants cheering him to walk, just one little uncertain leg at a time, when he finally does it. He walks. Admittedly it is a walk of two steps in total, and those taken with the comical, bandy-legged gait of a cowboy with irritable bowel syndrome, but it is a walk no less. It’s two small steps for man, perhaps, but a giant leap for a bee.

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