Isaac discovered there’s candy in those shiny scraps of paper the boys are hoarding. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a toddler new to walking try to run from you, but it is a tragicomic sight: little hips wiggling to get the wary legs to flop faster, arms out like a wader in a lake, and in Isaac’s case, a chubby hand desperately clutching a Tootsie Roll with one end of the wrapper gnawed and partially embedded in the exposed brown sugary goodness.
And the wailing when he was caught and disarmed, oh, the sheer misery of it all. You’d think we’d told him the breastfeeding won’t last forever.
He was bound to figure it out I suppose, what with all the excitement Halloween night, the boys dressed up more than usual (Caleb: a centurion — though he insisted he was a gladiator; Eli: Buzz Lightyear — though he has never seen the movie so far as I know — complete with homemade rocket pack), the doorbell ringing, creaking open, gaggles of freaks on the stoop with bags and satchels and baskets and buckets and pillow cases, Mom and Dad and Caleb (until his generosity threatened to impoverish us) dropping handfuls of color into them. The boy is ours, after all, related to his brothers, who can smell on your breath if you’ve had a single 13 letter-13 letter (our code for M&M’s, rapidly becoming useless as the oldest knows his letters and can count to fifty) three hours before.
So now the hiding of the candy has become not just a delightful and innately inspired ritual for the boys, an avatar of our pirate-and-plunder heritage as men red of tooth and dagger, but a necessity, and by golly you’d better hide it well, because the little imp is relentless.
An imp would have been the perfect costume for the boy, had we dressed him up, had we tolerated ghoulish and devilish outfits, which we don’t, and shame on you if you let your twelve-year old go out looking like Linda Blair midway through make-up, and shame on her parents while we’re at it, and on anyone associated with that film, which is based on an excellent story and certainly powerful on celluloid beyond the fact that it was tantamount to child abuse.
But I digress, which I do from time to time, as licensed by the address above and expected by the reader, if not always the writer.
The point is, we did not dress up the imp. Instead we put him in a red wagon and pulled him behind, stopping every five feet to sit him back down, because there is some sort of defect in the boy that produces an anti-gravitational instinct — wherever he is, he wants to be higher. Last weekend I stood behind him as he climbed a step ladder to the top rung, and then tried to climb atop the curved bar at its pinnacle, and all the while I thought: he’ll fall and I’ll catch him but on the way down he’ll learn a little something about not risking life and limb so readily.
But of course he didn’t fall, instead he twisted around to see me standing there and hooted and wiggled in his triumph over Mt. Stepladder, until the hubris was too much and I had to extract him, to wails of protest, followed by the stubborn set of chin and deliberate stomping crawl back to the bottom rung. And I thought, this is what God has to put up with, every single day. This is the point of parenting, from his perspective, his way of saying See? Do you see what you people are like?”
I suppose it’s good Isaac didn’t learn so readily the lesson I intended him to learn. I want no harm to befall these children, but the world wants different, and the sad truth of it is they cannot conquer life and certainly not death without risking all that I would keep safe forever. This is the sadness of parenthood, knowing that suffering is coming, hurling at them like a bullet fired purposely, and though everything in us would dash in front of them to stop it, we must stand still, though close, as close as they’ll have us, and let it strike their sweet innocent hearts, and watch some of the sweetness shrivel, and the innocence retreat, and see them become warier and wiser. This is, Buechner would say, the tragedy.
And the comedy is that they learn, if God is as present as we beg him to be, when we aren’t ignoring him in hopes that he won’t be present at all, at least not until we’ve finished worshipping our latest idol, that all wrongs are set to right, that they are loved beyond measure in spite of what the world does to them, regardless of the fatal weaknesses into which they were born. And the fairy tale, to complete my reference to the lovely collection of sermons disguised as speeches pretending to be somewhat distant from the sermon, so that people would hear it, is that one day the sweetness and innocence is returned, partially as they weather the storm of the world and find God at its eye, and totally in the great transfiguration, the final realization of the hope we nurture and don’t always believe but are too desperate — and thank God we are desperate — to abandon to the soul-melting ravages of common sense and worldly wisdom.
Again with the digression, but as in any conversation if you listen closely, the digressions are often the point.
So the boy rolled along behind in a wagon, and the older two charged ahead, Caleb somewhat more suited to that role, sword leveled, face sometimes gleeful, sometime serious as the parts in him ready to kill dragons come to life more and more everyday, Eli running behind, his little legs churning and churning, and me praying and praying that he would not fall, because he runs so fast, and the ground waiting for us is so unforgiving. He did fall, and then I carried him, arms holding him tight, his cold soft cheek pressed against mine, and I set him in front of each house and let him charge across their yards to retrieve his prey, and then back to the arms of his father to be carried to the next conquest, and I could have carried him all night, forever, even, if he would just stop growing, but he won’t.
“I wonder what this next house will have, Eli. Maybe bubble gum, or a candy bar, or some Hershey’s kisses…”
“A kiss like this.” (smooch)
A kiss far better than chocolate. If only I could wrap it in foil and save it for later, hoard it like they guard their candy, taking out one at a time when the dress-up time is past, when the boy is a man and it is me slowing us down, and I can no longer carry him though I would, though I would.
Maybe that’s what all these words are, tin foil saving hints of what will not last, stowed away for the day when they are not so plentiful. But for now the kisses are fresh, like their hearts, and before I go to work I will tip-toe upstairs, to their room, and kiss them each, breathe in their little-boy smells, and wonder again at the marvelous unmerited grace that leads them to sleep safe, all of them under my roof.