“Mom, what is h*ly sh*t?”
This was the boundary he decided to push today? Cursing? We’ve been over this. It was really just a test marker to see whether I was being mild-mannered reasonable mom or rip your socks off freak-out mom. As luck would have it, for him at least, I was relatively docile. Perhaps the question was simply meant to test whether yesterday’s rules still applied. (They did.)
These are the kinds of behaviors that are slowly creeping into The Preschooler’s “test it at home” repertoire: back-talking, ignoring, public high-decibel belching, a mild version of cursing, a less mild version of physical violence, and verbal whining tantrums. Some days I’m good at handling it, and other days I just lose it and mimic the whining.
By the way, that will just escalate the violence. You know, in case you were wondering.
But I knew our time without Husband reached critical mass on Thursday when The Preschooler’s response to my nearly rhetorical “what do you say?” was a perfect belchese pronunciation of the burped-out words “par-don-me.” At least it made me laugh instead of contemplating the various ways to end any possibility of a future lineage through my second-born child.
By the way, that will just escalate the belching. You know, in case you were wondering.
We just need more boy time around here, that’s all. When male adult friends come over, The Preschooler goes through a little ritual. He watches them, then talks to them, then insults them (which apparently has something to do with normal male communication and bonding). Next he wrestles or roughs them up, and finally he climbs up on their lap.
His real need for male affirmation was crystallized for me this weekend when we were at the park and a horde of six and seven year-old boys arrived post birthday party. The Preschooler was immediately engaged. I lost him in the flurry of sneakers and balls and frisbees for a while, until I noticed him perched at the edge of a basketball game.
He was sitting alone on the black top, watching a dad teach his two young girls how to play basketball. He was just waiting quietly at the fringe for an opportunity.
As we walked home he explained, “The ball accidentally bounced toward me, and I reached for it, and that guy said I had fast hands. He said I had quick timing!”
Despite never having been invited to participate in the basketball lessons, The Preschooler beamed. A sharp jab made me suck in a quick breath of air, in an effort to hold my heart intact. One man’s momentary attention and those sparse words of admiration were gold to The Preschooler’s ears. I could have said those words a million times over, and they would have meant precious little in comparison.
That’s why the school’s annual “Doughnuts for Dads” breakfast was going to be a particular challenge. Sometimes making arrangements for a surrogate dad just bolds, underlines, and draws huge circles around the missing father in a child’s life. But I had an idea – one good thing about an 8am doughnut time was that it would be 7pm in Husband’s part of the world. And that wasn’t a bad time at all to try to Skype.
On the way to school that day, I spent a few minutes convincing The Preschooler that I was going to be his Dad at the breakfast that day, and have some one-on-one time with him and a doughnut. “You’re not a Dad,” The Preschooler protested. “But I’m kinda like a mom and a dad this year.” He seemed to buy it. As I premeditated the logistics of the set-up, the kids explored various morphed names for me from the back seat of the car. One of the first blends of MOM and DAD was “MAD,” and though I didn’t like the connotation I quickly (more quickly than them) figured out that “DAM” was next in the line of succession to the throne. Based on The Preschooler’s propensity for cursing I decided to adopt MAD as a peaceful and marginally less offensive alternative.
I sent The Preschooler to class and made a bee-line for the gym to set up my computer.
The gym was full of smiling tender dads and their own preschoolers. I’m sure there were a few little girls in the room, but I couldn’t really see them. I saw boys. I saw little boys, and I saw their fathers and/or grandfathers and/or step fathers. The dads weren’t talking to each other about sports or making plans for hunting trips or discussing work. They were talking to their kids, serving them food, and negotiating and laughing over the number of doughnuts to be consumed. They were dads that were focused on their children, which always warms my heart.
But at the same moment, I felt like I had invaded some sacred place. And so did they. I felt their eyes lazer down on me as I entered the gym. Surrogate Dads are one thing. Grandfather substitutes are acceptable. But moms? In an attempt to justify my existence I pulled the mini netbook out from its pursed camouflage. My face grew hot and my fingers flew as I entered passwords and logged in and adjusted speakers and tested the sound. There he was, his big smiling face filling the screen. And he was in his uniform. I knew he did that for The Preschooler. I knew he didn’t want to be in his uniform at 7pm on a Friday night after a 100 degree day. But he was. It made my heart swell a little.
I looked up, and I saw the faces of the men around change. I left Husband in the gym, and I took a deep breath and walked down the hall to retrieve his son.
As we returned to the gym, word of the kid whose deployed Dad was appearing via Skype had spread. Staff from all over the preschool were lurching around us like the Paparazzi with cameras and cell phones. The Preschooler looked a little bewildered as we entered the gym, until he saw his dad, sitting at a table, waiting to eat a doughnut with him. They both smiled and his dad greeted him with the familiar, “Hey Snoop Doggie-Dog!”
In no time at all the rest of the room disappeared for them, and my boys were doing what they usually do on Skype – making weird faces and noises at each other. The Preschooler fed him a doughnut or four, “helping” with bites to simulate dad’s presence. We talked pretty regularly this way so I started to think that this was just another Skype session for The Preschooler.
But then there was a moment – a moment where realization set in. The Preschooler looked around the room. He looked at the other dads, and he looked at me, and he looked at his dad. And he smiled.
One by one, The Preschooler’s friends (and their dads) came by. The shortest ones stared and jumped and waved as he introduced them. He raised one eyebrow and gave a wink to his Dad when he introduced Jillian. Obviously, they’ve discussed this “friend” before. He smiled at me, and there were deep happy creases in the corners of his eyes. I got up from the table in search of some coffee as father and son continued their conversation and introductions.
As I walked back toward the table another dad put his hand on my back to slow me down. I wasn’t expecting to talk with anyone, and when I turned he looked straight into my eyes. It was the same look that appears on the face of every person who learns my husband is deployed. I wasn’t ready for that either. He just stopped and swallowed and said, “Thankyou. Just thankyou.”
I swallowed hard, too.
I wish I had done or said something different. Something intelligent. Something touching. But I just nodded my head and walked on, because at that moment it was all I could manage. But it was such a beautiful thing to say: thank you. I wished Husband had heard it. I wished Husband had felt it. But I knew he did, more than I ever would, without anyone ever saying the words.
I glanced around the room, and I realized that many of the Dads were watching the little computer show. Some were quietly remembering. Some were appreciating and thinking of their fathers. Many were whispering to their children, telling them about bravery and sacrifice and protection.
It was a Fathers’ Appreciation Day we will never forget.
We eventually said goodbye and packed up the computer and cleaned up our crumbs and headed for the rest of the “regular” morning routine. I knelt down, in a hurry to get off to a doctor’s appointment, and I gave The Preschooler the obligatory goodbye hug. But he would not let me hurry; he grabbed my neck, and he squeezed, and he held on. Tight. He buried his face in my neck and he held me there, giving me a big whole-body squeeze and clamping on. I really think he was closing his eyes, and hugging a little piece of his daddy. When he finally detached from me he sprung to life and found himself amidst four boys who were precariously stacking wooden blocks for a round of impromptu car-crash bowling, probably at the expense of someone’s new matchbox car.
I watched him for just a moment longer, and I thought about the challenges we’ve had during parts of this journey. Although it would have been special to have Husband around to do ”Doughnuts with Dads” in person, it was a pretty incredible moment for us, and I think it was an important moment for all of the fathers and children who witnessed it, too. I hope that memory was imprinted on their lives, and that they cherished their time with their children just a little bit more at this years’ Father Appreciation event because of it. I know I did.
Now, I’m going to need to remember that love and appreciation – especially the love part - because I’m back to finding the remedy for five year-olds with a curse word perseveration. I’m considering charging 25 cents each.
I could be rich by Friday.