I Was Trying to Force Him to Smile.
When Dylan was small, he smiled all the time. He smiled at six weeks old, and just never stopped. He was lit up like a Christmas tree all the way till he hit middle school, when he discovered that life wasn’t always as glorious as he wanted it to be.
So I have no shortage of pictures of Dylan smiling as a child. But one photo stands out in my mind, because I had to make him smile.
He was almost two years old, and I had dressed him in his best Christmas sweater to get a photo for all of our friends and relatives.
But when it came time to take the photo, Dylan just stood there and looked at me. He sat down on the floor. He walked around a little, but mostly, he just didn’t do anything. He wasn’t exploring and laughing, like he usually did. And it’s not easy to force a non-smiling toddler to smile.
I tried every trick I knew. I wiggled and danced. I waved toys around. I made funny sounds. I jumped up and down. But nothing happened.
Dylan simply would not smile.
For a moment, I forgot I was talking to a toddler. “Dylan,” I said. “You always smile. Why aren’t you smiling? Don’t you want to smile for the picture? Do you know how to smile? Here, look! I will smile and show you.” I smiled.
Dylan didn’t even speak well at this age, so he didn’t respond to this attempt, either.
Finally, I got a picture of him almost smiling. The corners of his mouth turned up briefly, and I used that photo for every Christmas card.
A couple of hours later, I was holding Dylan – who was, of course, still a baby – and I realized he felt warmer than usual.
In fact, he was burning up. He had a fever, and was sick for several days.
And I was trying to force him to smile.
I’ve never forgotten that, because I felt like an abusive parent. How could I not know he was sick?
Then … it happened again – last week. Dylan was 16, though, so he could talk. And he said, repeatedly, “Mom, I am sick.”
“Go to school,” I said.
“Do your work,” I said.
“Call me if you need me,” I said.
Then I left him to fend for himself. He did need me, and I drove away. I forced him to wander around, sick, until he actually got a fever. Then I patted his head and got him some water and did all the things I should have done for him in the first place. And I wished I were a better mom.
Two days later, I got sick. I woke up miserable, achy and scratchy, yet fever-free. I canceled my day and went back to sleep, because that’s what sick people should do.
But Dylan had to go to school, because his mom made him do it – just like she made him smile for the camera, all those years ago.