Baby Boy is pensive outside a church in Ischia, Italy. © Photo by Francesca Di Meglio
Baby Boy’s little cousin calls him Dragon because he’s usually a spitfire without words. She builds tall towers with blocks for herself because she’s a princess, and Baby Boy comes running to knock them down. She yells, “Dragon, Dragon!” Then, the two of them giggle and fall to the ground together before arguing over one toy or another. It’s love and hate – but mostly love – with those two. On the day we left New Jersey for a nine-month stay in Italy, they had one last battle in which he tore out a chunk of her beautiful blond locks and she bit his back – and left a mark to remember her by. In the end, they hugged each other tightly. Baby Boy screamed when we tried to put him in the car headed for the airport. It was as if he understood he’d be leaving behind his best friend and worst, but favorite, enemy.
On the plane, the kind stewardess, who is a mom to a three-year old, tried to give him the kind of milk that comes from powder, so it lasts longer. He spit it in all our faces. Then, he cried – yelled actually – for about an hour while everyone else was trying to sleep. I could get him to calm down for a moment or two in the restroom, but we couldn’t stay in there forever. Finally, he cried himself to sleep. It wasn’t so bad after that. He drank water, not milk to which he has a serious addiction.
When we arrived at my in-laws’ home in Ischia, he was greeted by his three aunts, their husbands, his four cousins, and Nonna, all of whom live in the same house with us. Even though he met everyone and spent three months in Ischia last year, he wouldn’t greet them. He stayed in my arms, hesitantly smiled when one of them tried to kiss or hug him. He was, however, keen to grab the ball and start kicking it to everyone in the garden out back. And he really appreciated the colored pencils that his relatives had put in the playroom they set up for him, replete with kid-sized table and chairs, a toddler bicycle, and other various toys. Still, this 19-month-old wasn’t quite the Dragon yet. He wasn’t knocking anything down, and there was no fight in him.
We figured he was desperate for a fix of milk. When we handed him his cup full of fresh milk that my mother-in-law had purchased just for him, he took a sip, spit it out, and threw the cup at us. He did, however, eat up the yummy Nutella filled cake with a Toy Story design on it that his aunt made just for his arrival. But it wasn’t enough of an effort for him to go to her, even though she had bathed him a hundred times the year before. In fact, she was the one, who helped him – not to mention me – get through a month-long plight of diarrhea that he faced on our last trip. He didn’t seem to remember or he remembered and wanted to forget.
Maybe he was tired. It was a long, long trip, after all. So, we went to sleep. And Baby Boy slept an unbelievable and unprecedented 16 hours. This is the Dragon. He has never slept 16 consecutive minutes, never mind 16 consecutive hours. By the next week, he still wasn’t coming around. Whenever his relatives tried to make a move toward him, he would hold onto my husband and I as if his life were in danger. He would sometimes smack their shoulders or faces to get them to move away, and he would always say, “No, no, no, no, no…”
I was getting embarrassed and hurt for the in-laws. I could tell they were disappointed, too. They kept saying that he should be used to the Old World again already. I knew different. He was in a different country, where everyone spoke a different language (even if it is one he has grown up around), and he left behind all his stuff in his house where only three of us lived, and I was certain he missed his American relatives, too. It would take more than a few days to get used to so much change.
At the end of the first week, Baby Boy and I curled up in bed for a Sunday afternoon nap, and he began burning up. It was day one of a week of fever. The Dragon was on fire himself. As it turns out he had an ear infection. His eyes seemed to be infected, too, and he had puss on his throat. He began taking antibiotics, which would give him – you guessed it – more diarrhea. His bottom turned as red as the tomatoes that rise like Jack’s beanstalk around here. Now, he wouldn’t even get in the bath tub because it burned to the touch and especially when washing with soap. The only person he wanted, of course, was me, his mommy.
Despite having to work nights (keeping American hours for my editors), I was happy to hold him in my arms and dote on him. He seemed to need some coddling and cuddling. And I was sad, too. I missed our home for just the three of us back in N.J. I missed working days. I missed my own mommy and papa’, not to mention the princess and the rest of the gang in our American fairy tale. But I didn’t want him to suffer, and I was worried this would turn into another month – or even longer – of sickness in Italy. We were both heart sick enough. We didn’t need an actual ailment, too.
There was some good news. Baby Boy started to take to the Italian milk and we were putting probiotic in it to help his stomach deal with the change in country and antibiotics. Soon, he was drinking milk with pleasure, relishing every sip as he had the American version. A week later when the Giro d’Italia came to town, we took him outside for the first time since he fell ill. He had gone a whole day without fever. I put him in his Dragon shirt (see above) and we first headed to church to say a prayer for him and for us.
In the photo above, he was still a sad, little boy. Every once in a while, he would have a tantrum, and he would throw himself onto the cold tile floor with tears streaming down his face and scream. Then, he’d jump up, run into a dark room, lay his head on the bed, and cry some more. Often, nothing seemed to lead up to one of these episodes. We’d have no idea what set him off. Sometimes, he’d look as pensive as an adult trying to decide his future. Once he asked for Nonna and ran to the computer, signaling he wanted to talk to his American nonna on Skype. When she wasn’t available, he got angry. When she finally arrived, he wouldn’t talk to her and yelled, “No, no, no” to her, too. When his cousins, the princess and her baby brother, came to visit him on the computer, he would cry and run away or just ignore them.
Yesterday, we had a break through. He still won’t take a bath, so we’ve had to fan water from the bidet onto his fanny. While the odor he is now giving off is starting to get to us, he doesn’t seem to mind. But he offered a piece of bread to his zio and giggled when he tickled him. He played with his older cousins and aunts for hours and even let them feed him. And he let all his relatives kiss him good morning today. He ran through the house and laughed and babbled. Now, he sleeps peacefully in his stroller after a long walk in Ischia. The Dragon seems to have made a comeback. If only we could get the princess over here to build a tower!
Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press Travel, 2012) and the Guide to Newlyweds for About.com.
Baby Boy and his father say a little prayer for us. © Photo by Francesca Di Meglio