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As if Ben at nine months, with his irregular waking, monomaniacal crawling, and two dastardly teeth, weren't challenging enough, I've come to realize an alarming truth: Four years old is trying to kill us all. 

There is, of course, the figurative sense of that statement, the nerve-pinching spine-twisting what-the-fucking whiplash we sustain when four decides to swerve from mood to mood.  In any given day, we experience...

Charming: "Your breakfast sure looks good.  [Pause.]  I finished my pancakes.  [Pause.]  I wonder if you know I like bacon, too."

Infuriating: A full-on rage breaks out over my uncompromising stance on handwashing before supper, culminating in my carrying a thrashing, shouting Charlie over to the stairs for a time-out, where he continues to roar, "You are not a very good mother."  (My sotto voce reply: "Oh, I'm an excellent mother.  A worse one would snatch you bald-headed.")

Tender: We're reading Charlotte's Web — spoiler: Rosebud is the name of Lurvy's sled — and Charlie's relaxing against my shoulder.  He absently pats my breast.  I take his hand and hold it instead, reminding him that it's nice to cuddle, but copping a feel should wait until you're joined with a member of the opposite sex in holy American matrimony.  Or, you know, words to that effect.  "But my hand was so comfy there," he sighs, and scooches down so that his cheek is resting where his hand had been.

Exasperating: Charlie is suddenly convinced that the sound of the flushing toilet — any toilet, not just the pressure-assisted ones that do, in fairness, sound like the space shuttle lifting off  — is too loud.  He approaches the commode with his hands clapped firmly over his ears, planning to operate the flusher with his elbow.  Should anything interfere with this ingenious plan, like his mother, who at the end of a long day is rolling her eyes muttering, "Oh, for God's sake," the ensuing wailing will be louder than any dozen whooshing Flushometers.

Considerate: We're trying to hustle him along at breakfast, eager to get him to day care before morning meeting.  (This, I assume, is where the preschoolers are given their assignments for the day.  "Henry, eat gravel.  Max, call someone an idiot.  Charlie, you just stand here and make that noise a lot until it's time to go freestyle with a glue stick.")  He's no longer actually eating, but he's still sawing away at a pancake with the side of his fork.  I harass him mildly.  He says, in a tone of gentle reproach, "I'm cutting this up for Ben so that he can have some, too."

Hilarious: He asks what's for dessert.  "Nothing," we tell him blithely, and instead of succumbing to grouchiness, he turns to humor, asking us for a big brimming bowl of nothing.  Which we deliver with no small degree of ceremony.  Which he devours with theatrical gusto, down to slurping the last few drops with relish.

Terrifying: Charlie comes into the bedroom in the morning already dressed.  He's walking with an unusual swagger, possessed of a barely contained excitement.  Finally he can't keep it to himself any longer.  "Mama," he tells me, proudly shoving down the waistband of his pants, "I'm wearing two pair of underpants...Just.  In.  Case."

But all hyperbolic metaphor aside, I really do fear for our lives.  A couple of nights ago, I called Charlie in from the playroom, asking him to join us for dinner.  He came out crying.  "I wanted to play with my windmill," he sobbed, "and I tried to get up to get it, but it's too high for me to reach."

"We'll help you after supper," I soothed, knowing that the windmill had been exiled a few months ago to the top shelf, well out of his reach, and assuring him that when he needed help, all he ever had to do was ask.  Now wash your hands, and please, God, please, I will build you a thousand kickass windmills if you can do it without arguing.  And then we sat down to eat.  After the meal we'd both forgotten about it.  It was a night no stone would grind.

The next morning, I was doing general a policing of the playroom before putting Ben down on the floor.  (I don't like him to eat Legos between meals.  If he does, then I find he's not hungry for his healthful lunchtime Scrabble tiles.)  I found Charlie's mop, a yarn-headed Little Tikes affair that he brandishes with a little too much enthusiasm, especially near the kitchen's glass door, and went to put it in its place, inside its companion bucket.  The bucket was missing, but that's not unusual, so I propped the mop in its designated corner and moved on with my cleaning.

And then I found the bucket.  At the top of the heap in front of the very tall shelf where the windmill sits neglected.


See what I mean?  Four will be the death of us, or at the very least, the maiming.