I got back Monday evening, and to her credit, the wife showed up at the airport to retrieve me. This could be less a consequence of love than an indication of her pressing need for reinforcements, but I’ll take what I can get. Does the cavalry captain ever stop to ask why the besieged settlers are so excited to see him? Of course not — he just cracks out his Winchester and starts shooting Indians, thankful to have gainful employment.
Me too. And being the considerate husband, I suggested we stop at Chic-Fil-A on the way home, the one with a playset that appears to be produced by the same company that makes those plastic tubes for gerbil gyms. The kids love it, and the wife looked like she needed a break, and Lord knows after an exhausting weekend of dealing with people — which you know I so dearly love — I wasn’t going to entertain them. So we stopped to patronize a place that everyone should visit at least once, if only because they close on Sundays and may very well be one of the last corporations where putting principle over profits is not a laughable concept.
Apparently there had been an upchuck episode in the high recesses of the kiddy castle, because there was an ominous sign announcing that a cleaning was underway, and a chair blocked the door to the play area. This meant that we had no choice but to make the boys eat before playing, which is a task roughly equivalent to making a puppy sit still through a reading of Proust.
I think that older forms of travel served the unintended but essential purpose of affording our minds the necessary time to transition between highly varied environments. Only an hour before, I had been reading on a jet, ensconced in quiet music from my headset. Now I struggled to get the bare essentials of an update from the wife. “So, did you hear back . . .”
“Dad, when can we go play?”
“I told you, Caleb, when they’re done cleaning up.”
“Are they done?”
“Not yet. Please eat. So, did you hear — Eli! Get down from there!” The boy was hanging by his fingers from the top of a high bench, struggling to pull himself to its pinnacle. With his knees tucked up against either side of his abdomen he looked very much like a fat frog doing pull-ups. He grinned, but his smile turned into a squawk of protest as his mother yanked him down.
“Did you hear — Caleb, don’t flick milk with your straw — from the — Eli! Get down!” The boy was now making a bridge with his body by putting his hands on the table and his feet on the bench, so that his little behind arched high in the air. Once again his mother, who had Eli-duty by virtue of where she was sitting, returned him to a seated position. Again came his bitter protests.
“Dad, now can we go play?”
“When they’re done cleaning.”
“Are they done?”
“No. Eat. Now.” I turned again to the wife, who was engaged in an elaborate game of speed chess in which Eli rearranged his food and drink cup so as to maximize the opportunity for tipovers, while she worked just as diligently to minimize this risk. “So I was saying, have you heard back . . .”
“I have to poop.” I looked at Caleb, as did the customers seated around us. He had that deadpan, like-it-or-lump-it expression that is common to Division of Motor Vehicles bureaucrats and airline attendants. “I have to poop,” he insisted, louder.
So off we went. Two conversations with surprised bathroom patrons and a series of vain threats later, we were back. “Did he poop?”
“No, Mama. I didn’t have to poop.” He said this as if the whole poop idea was mine.
“Can we please talk about something else? Hon, did you hear back . . .”
“Can we go play?”
“When the playroom opens.”
“Is it open?”
“Yes it is.”
“No it isn’t. Eat.”
“Yes it is.”
“No, it . . . well praise the sweet Lord, it is open.” Displaying a speed that is never evident at bedtime or when toys need to be put away, both boys raced into the playroom.
Blessed peace. Sometimes they are much cuter behind a thick glass wall, as is true of many zoo animals. Other times I just want to squeeze them and never let go, because every day they get bigger. I sat with the wife and we watched them scramble and climb and slide. Every so often one of them would remember us and wave heartily.
I wish life were that simple for them, and that safe. Joyful work, soft surroundings, Mom and Dad close by. What happiness wouldn’t I surrender to guarantee them that?
But I can’t, and they wouldn’t take it anyway, because one day they’ll want to have munchkins of their own to love so fiercely that their hearts will feel like bursting. The lives they will build are outside the playroom, outside my protection. So I hold them and teach them while I can, and pray that they become better men than me.
I think they will. But today they are just my little boys, and life can only get so bad when something as wonderful as that is true. In fact, they tend to make it downright joyful, despite my best efforts. I think in the end my children will teach me much more than I teach them.
Perhaps this is as it should be, with each of us only really learning the important lessons when we have little ones to shepherd. Maybe not — I can feel the twenty-somethings and childless professionals reading this and gritting their teeth. All I know is that I was much smarter and wiser — and life much simpler — before I had children. Funny thing is, now that I’m dumber and slower, life is much better. Who would have thought?