We’re at the library this past Sunday.
It’s around two in the afternoon and we’re there more out of necessity than anything else, I suppose. January offers very little in the way of mercy for newly-divorced dads with three young kids. The natural world is boarded up. Sledding is out since there’s no snow. Fun nature walks are out, too, as it’s too damn cold and — I don’t know about you, but — my kids aren’t the kids who revel in looking for acorns or pine cones when the forest is a frozen Hellscape.
“Dad!” Henry is talking at me now.
“Dad, look!” He’s holding some sort of puzzle, something where you change outfits on a little boy’s body. Make him a pirate or a cop, that sort of thing.
“Oooh,” I tell him. “That looks awesome!” It doesn’t. Not to me anyway. But to him it must because he’s waving the big plastic bag of pieces at me and I can tell he wants me to sit down with him and play.
We don’t do enough of that. We don’t play together enough anymore. It isn’t his fault, of course, it’s mine. But life has gotten weird this past year, a year when my marriage died and took a lot of my monuments to happiness down with it. There isn’t much you can say to me that will make me feel any better or worse about not playing with my kids enough. You aren’t me. You have no idea how my head seems to spin out of control so often, with so much force.
These moments are rare. Like this one even, it’s kind of unexpected. I wasn’t expecting to find myself in this situation at the library. I wasn’t thinking I could end up with things aligning in a way that I could play with one of my kids, just me and him, and give him the sort of attention he deserves. It kills me that I rob him of that in my new role as chaotic single dad.
It doesn’t matter now though, because there’s Hank the Tank and here’s me.
I plop down next to the stroller, down on the floor.
Funny enough, on my way down, I notice I’m about to be the only parent getting my hands dirty. There are lots of moms and dads here together, but every one of them is parked away from their kids. Maybe they’re all played out. Or maybe they’ve lost the plot a little, just like me.
We hammer away at the simple game Henry had pulled out of the toy cabinet and I’m happy and Henry is happy and all is right for a while. Before long we switch over to a sack of plastic dinosaurs he found lying around and almost right away a little girl, maybe six, approaches us and kneels down right beside me, her brown eyes beaming into Henry.
“Hi,” she says. “Can I please play with you?”
I’m impressed by her manners and I’m instantly into the idea of kids just walking up to other kids, unfamiliar kids, and asking to play. My kids do this a lot too. They’re social animals for certain, so just as I tell the girl we’d be happy to have her join us, Henry’s reaction floors me.
“NO!” he hollers.
The girl’s jaw drops.
Henry pulls all of the dinosaurs desperately into his chest, leaning down over them like a mother hen protecting her eggs.
“Henry,” I hiss. My immediate thought is all about myself. I’m ashamed that other parents are starting to notice some activity over in our realm.
“NOOOOOO!,” Henry barks back. He looks right at the girl who seems caught off guard, understandably. Poor thing. Her parents taught her the ups of joining in. But they didn’t teach her the downs of absolute decline.
“Can I play?” she mutters again, faintly, a tiny lamb in the mouth of the wolf.
“No,” Henry cuts her off, his eyes begging me to back him up.
Then he drives it home.
“If you twy and pway with us my nipples will gwow this big (holds his fingers apart a good two inches) and I will Hulk out!”
The stunned silence that follows is one I will remember for a long, long time. I can almost taste the singe coming off my hair as it burns up in the glare of some excitable parents. They must be eating this up so good. Nothing makes you feel better about your parenting skills than coming across a dad who obviously has none and watching him go down in flames.
“Henry …” I try my calm voice of reason, which never works with kids or grown-ups, actually. But the girl cuts me off.
“You’re RUDE!” she tells Henry as she stares deeply into my eyes, tickling my brain with the edge of her switchblade. “And you’re a bully!”
I nod at her. I’m just going along with everyone. I have no idea what’s happening. In a way, I wish I was dead.
She’s gone then, just as swiftly as she appeared in our lives, the little girl disappears, probably forever. She’ll go on to find love and travel and study and start a career and any slight chance that me and Henry ever had of being some kind of part of that is just a wisp of sour smoke rising up from this library carpet.
I start to look hard at my son but he stops my bullsh*t at the gates of my teeth with his sucker punch smile.
He’s smiling; he’s ecstatic and it’s genuine and I can tell right away.
I struggle for a sec. What just happened?
And then it hits me.
Henry, my lad. Henry, my boy/my son. Henry, my beautiful son, born with the heart of the fiercest lion, born with the soul of the kindest king. Henry Bielanko, born with love stacked ten crates high, five crates deep down in his warehouse, he wasn’t trying to be mean to any little girl on the wintery Sunday afternoon. It occurs to me that I don’t even think he caught what she looked like at all.
Not at all.
My kid just wanted his daddy. All to himself. Just like he wants all the time, everyday, every minute of any friggin’ day he is with me and probably a lot of the time when he isn’t, when he’s at his mom’s house, for nights on end.
I almost cry right there, man. Not for a startled little girl who will learn from the experience somehow. I don’t how. But she’ll be alright. I bite my lip now because I’m seeing the truth right here where I’ve been hiding from it for a while now.
My own son, my flesh and blood, he wants me more than anything. He wants my undivided attention. He craves it. He needs it, like a junkie needs dope, and he will stop at nothing to hold onto it on these rare days when it suddenly appears in his tiny fist, unexpectedly, like a gift, like a prize.
I almost cry because I’m not a gift, dude. I’m no damn prize.
I’m just his dad, you know?
He’s the gift.
He’s the prize.
And him telling that little girl to get lost?
I’m thinking it might be the most kick-ass part of any story you or me are ever going to read in this lifetime.
Image: Serge Bielanko PrivateMore On