BY BJ HOLLARS
You are 21 and preparing to change your first diaper.
This is not how you imagined it might go.
You are a counselor at a summer camp in a Midwestern state, and the boy in need of changing is not your son. Years later, when you have a son of your own, you will better understand the intricacies of the process—how half the trick to diaper changing is keeping the kid from squirming.
But on this day, there will be no squirming. This boy could not squirm if he tried.
During the flag lowering, a fellow counselor whispers, The boy in the Med Shed requires assistance.
You nod. You believe you can handle it.
Already this summer, you have surprised yourself by handling all sorts of things—driving the tractor, the pontoon, the pickup truck. You have kept campers safe as they scaled towers, roasted weenies and cannonballed into the lake.
What’s so hard, you wonder, about changing a diaper?
Once the flag is folded and properly stowed you make your way toward the Med Shed. You enter, open the door to the room on the left, and stare at the 15-year-old boy lying limp in his bunk. Only he is not limp. He is the opposite of limp. Rigid. Solid. Statuesque. His eyes flitter toward you, and you wonder if he wonders if you know why you are here.
You know why, of course, and since you don’t want to embarrass him, you don’t try to act like this is nothing, like this is something you have done a million times before. You haven’t (this much is obvious to both of you), and you want to spare the boy the indignity of your act.
To your left are the diapers, and you feel your hand reaching toward them. Now one is in your hand. Good, you think, halfway there. You pull your hand toward the boy.
The logistics are lost on you, and while you understand that there is likely a protocol for this sort of thing, no one has ever filled you in on the details. There was no mention of this anywhere in your counselor’s training manual, and when you think back to the Red Cross-sponsored babysitting class you took when you were ten, all you remember is that the dolls in the instructional video looked as inflexible as this boy.
From your place inside the Med Shed you hear the voices of children whose bodies were not born rigid. As if to prove it, their bodies burst past the window, a stampede of limber legs kicking up dust. This is not cruelty, you know, just kids being kids.
But might it seem cruel, you wonder, to the boy on the bunk?
You could scold that stampede if you wanted to—Keep it down! Knock it off with all that racket!—but you don’t. You don’t even close the window.
Maybe, you think, he likes racket.
You will stay with that boy throughout the evening and much of the following day. He and you, you and him, you are inseparable.
After showers but before lights out, a smaller stampede of half-busted boys make their way to the Med Shed. When they enter—complaining of bites and bruises and poison ivy—the creak of the door makes sleep impossible for the boy who sweats stone-faced in his sheets.
One after another, the campers come in search of cures for their momentary ailments.
I was running through the oak grove, one boy tells the nurse, when I was attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes…
I was running, he repeats, which hardly sounds like an ailment to the boy in the bunk.
The nurse keeps an endless supply of calamine lotion, Goldbond, and popsicles, and somehow, these are the only cures these boys ever require.
Freshly healed (and with popsicles dangling from their lips) the campers begin their long walks back to their cabins.
Out your room’s window, you and the boy can just make out their small shadows pushing against the dark. Eventually, you hear what appears to be dillydallying (“Dude! Check out this bug!”), so you shout for the boys to two-time it back to their bunks.
"I’ll time you,” you call out the window. “1…2…3…”
The campers run.
You turn from the window to watch the boy staring hard at the wooden bunk above him, his twig legs crisscrossed at the ankles.
“Hey, want me to close this?” you ask, nodding to the window. He doesn’t answer. He never answers. He can’t.
“Maybe we’ll just close it,” you say, and when you see no reaction—not even the flittering of eyes—you reach your hands to the pane and press down.
The following day—your last day together—proves to be a scorcher. It’s so hot, in fact, that not even all the shade from all the oak trees in the grove can adequately protect you. All activities are cancelled. All campers are to report to the lake with their sunscreen.
From your place inside the air conditioned Med Shed, you and the boy hear a bleating “Marco!” followed by the “Polo!” You and the boy hear the aftermath of the cannonballs that break the lake’s surface as those campers effortlessly pull their knees to their chests.
You and the boy sit as still as you can for as long as you can, and it’s then that you learn that even stillness is somehow exhausting.
During rest hour—when the rest of the campers return to their sweltering cabins to write letters home (“The food is great! The lake is great! We love it!”)—you and the boy decide to go for a dip yourselves.
You follow one step behind as the boy hums his power chair down the path that leads to the water. He stops his chair just short of the sand and this is when you come into the scene.
This is when you lift his small frame from his chair and carry him toward the water, when you cup one hand beneath his knobby knees and the other beneath his back. In that moment, all you want in the world is to get that boy to the water. Somebody has told you that the boy likes water, so why not give him what he likes?
From his place at the shaded picnic table, the lifeguard spots you headed his way.
He asks if he can help, and you say sure, so you split the boy’s weight between you.
As the three of you enter into the lake, you convince yourself that a boy like him must like buoyancy. That a boy with his condition must like the way the water turns everything weightless. Removes friction, eases grating, allows a body to rock in the waves.
Years later, what you remember most is the changing. How you struggled to work the angles as you pulled that diaper down. How his knees had proven too sharp, and how each time you spread his legs they snapped back like a bear trap newly sprung.
Back in those days, you were just some boy and he was just some boy, but when you finally do grow up and have a son yourself, every diaper changing will seem easy in comparison. You will find that your young son’s legs are Play-doh, and for a thousand diapers you will squeeze his ankles together with a single hand and wipe. You will repeat this because it is the simplest way you know to show love, and because now you know the protocol.
But with each diaper you change, you will always return to the first one, and your body—against its instinct—will stiffen.
BJ Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction—Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America (the 2012 recipient of the Society of Midland Author’s Award) and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa—as well as a collection of stories, Sightings. He teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.