Every night between 8 and 8:30 p.m., our 3-year-old son takes us on a time-traveling adventure. Our queen-size bed is the time machine. Our son gives the commands.
“Me and Dada will go in the time machine. Mama, you’ll be Future Tomato.”
I wait at the foot of the bed, internally panicking and wondering how to embody a Future Tomato, while Jin and our son “enter” the time machine by pulling the duvet over their heads and pretending to press some buttons. “Beep boop beep boop.” They uncover themselves, and I have my arms over my head in a circular shape.
My little time-traveler will greet me, and sometimes he’ll shoot me with spiderwebs for no reason, trap me in a jar, or bulldoze me off the bed. When our interaction ends, he goes back in the time machine with his dad and gives out another command. “Now we’re going to the past! Be a Medusa.”
While I wait with fingers mimicking snakes on my hair, I start to wonder how I got here. I have a Master’s degree. I used to have a job with interns under me. When I was a Freshman in college, I dreamed of working for the UN. Yet here I am, at the end of a long day that consisted mostly of cooking, cleaning, driving, and saying “No,” performing exclusive improv to a boy who can only be coaxed to sleep if his parents travel through time with him for 5 or 6 iterations.
It’s exhausting. We’re probably failing on sleep training, discipline, boundaries, etc. But I realize how fleeting this phase could be, like all other phases in his life so far. Sometimes, I look forward to getting on his time machine, wondering where he’ll want to go next, or who he’ll want to see.
He got this idea of time travel through none other than the 1985 film, Back to the Future. It’s one of Jin’s favorite films, and though it may be inappropriate for young children, we’ve watched it with him many times, sometimes skipping over the violent parts. Our house is filled with DeLorean Hot Wheels, many of which have been gifted to us by our friends. When I take the kids on a stroller walk, our son will sing the theme song at the top of his lungs and pretend to chase us on a hoverboard.
Maybe it’s just the DeLorean that he likes, with the gullwing doors and the Flux Capacitor (which he calls the Flux Capacitator). I doubt he understands much of the movie. The idea of traveling through time is magical, even to adults—but for our son, there’s another layer of magic to it because he’s still learning about how time works in the real world.
Our toddler time traveler—who can instantly tell the difference between a Subaru Outback and a Subaru Forester—cannot tell the difference between yesterday, the day-before-yesterday, or last month. Everything in the past is lumped into “yesterday.” He’s still learning how to read clocks, let alone numbers. “It’s 8-o’clock” means nothing to him. “We’re leaving in 10 minutes” is even more confusing.
And yet something about time travel makes perfect sense to him.
In previous newsletters, I’ve written about my relationship to time, how warped it’s all felt because of the pandemic, parenthood, or grief—or all of the above. These days, my own sense of time has become more settled, structured, and predictable, thanks to, well, more time. Our son’s nightly game is maybe a way to remind myself that, at least when it comes to parenthood, nothing will ever be settled, structured, and predictable. The only way forward is to play along. For now.
Reckoning: Tennessee Writers on 2020 is now on sale! This anthology was created by Susannah Felts of The Porch (the organization where I teach), and it was funded by the Tennessee Arts Commission’s Arts Resilience Grant. I’m honored to have a short story in here, in the company of Tiana Clark, Jamie Quatro, and Margaret Renkl.