We’re rolling down the valley road past the farms and the mountains and Henry is on one of his talking benders.
He’s talking about Bigfoot, about the true size of a Sasquatch’s feet, and he’s not messing around at all.
“Dad. Does Bigfoot’s feet have like … like … tough skin on the bottom of them from walking on like acorns and nuts and sticks and stuff, or does he have soft feet like … like … like a baby? Like Charlie’s feet?”
He throws a passing glance at his little brother, Charlie, who is strapped into the carseat beside him and for a brief horrifying moment there, I am throat-punched by the notion that someday before too long, both these guys might be pummeling me with simultaneous conversations that melt my face like a lava spritz.
Oh God, no.
How would I survive that? I’m not trying to be a jerk here, but I honestly don’t know how I could live through two young dudes backseat filibustering at me at once.
Now before you think I’m some kind of heartless jerk who never talks to his kids, let me straighten you out here. I talk to my kids a lot, all the time you could even say. Henry and I have long meandering discussions about everything under the sun that can possibly occur to a 5-year-old. And about a bunch of stuff I never dreamed a kid his age would or even could go on about for like two weeks at a clip. And his older sister, Violet, 7, she’s never been tongue-tied in her life, except maybe when she was eating ice cream under a blazing sun and wasting time talking meant certain ice cream soup.
I love talking to my three kids. I really do.
But sometimes, I don’t. Is that okay? Please tell me that you feel that way too, sometimes. Even if you don’t have kids, you still know what I’m saying here, right? Kids talking to you is magical. Kids talking to you until the moon is whittled down to a speck of dust and the sun burns out and the Earth is ruled by battling armies of squirrels and moths is not.
The thing is, there are simply times during the course of any given day when Henry is coming at me so long and hard with questions and ideas (all of them valid! but still …) when I can feel my brain shutting down beneath an unstoppable landslide of my own skull collapsing in on itself.
Oh man. It’s a quagmire. I feel guilty about this kind of stuff. I really do.
I get to thinking about nature shows on PBS or Animal Planet. I recall seeing this thing about mama black bears, about how they’ll basically clench their young in their jaws and heave them by the back of their neck into a pile of dead forest leaves if the cubs start getting on their nerves.
Why isn’t there something like that that single dads can do judgement-free?!
It would feel so good sometimes to just gently scoop my motormouth up and lightly heave him into a leaf pile. I swear he wouldn’t even know! He’d never stop gabbing! But oh, the sweet silence brought on by a kid babbling under a deep pile of leaves.
“Yeah, bud.” I say, but behind my face, I feel a tiny man with a sledgehammer cracking away at my smile bone.
“How do you know if it’s Bigfoot poop that you find in the woods? Like … like … what gives it away that it’s Bigfoot poop?”
I take a deep breath. I take a gazillion deep breaths a day now, always trying to steady my mind, to remind myself that this, that all of this ceaseless chatter, it’s all brain waves poppin’ and tiny connections being made up in my kids’ heads. I pop a mint in my mouth, hoping it’ll give me the strength to be strong and gentle and kind.
I lie my ass off for sanity, for fun.
“You have to taste it,” I tell him matter-of-factly. “The only way you can know if it’s Bigfoot poop you’re looking at is to give it a little taste. Bigfoot poop tastes like cucumbers.” Henry’s eyes light up in the rearview the way they always do if he’s not sure if I’m messing with him or not. Also: he’s quiet for the first time in years. I run with it.
“Like cucumbers …” I say,”… or like anchovies.”
Henry stares at me in the rearview. For a second there he’s a ball of confusion. Then it hits him all at once. I’m bull-crapping him. His face erupts in that smile of his and my heart soars. Our eyes meet in the rearview mirror.
All this talk, it does my head in.
But I wouldn’t change a thing, you know.
There is a price to pay for the best moments in your life. Nothing comes for free in this world. If you want to withdraw joy, you have to deposit a couple of slivers of your mind or your heart or your soul. Love is proof of all that. You love someone, you will feel the aches and pains and blues that come along with the privilege.
You love a kid, you will find yourself confused at times at how many deposits you truly need to make.
It’s easy though. I want to watch Henry shine. And his brother and sister, too. I need to hear their voices as much as humanly possible. They spend half their lives away from me — half their week with me and half their week with their mom. I’ll never get over that. I’ll never be okay that that’s the way things are. But I have to carry on. We all do.
So I remind myself even as it’s all going down. Henry starts in on some storytelling bender and I poke myself in the temple. “Soak this in, dude!” I tell myself. “Bottle up his young voice and stick it in your mind!”
Tomorrow he’ll be away from me and so I’m going to need to dig back into yesterday’s ishkabibble just to survive my day without him. Without any of them.
That’s pretty cool, I think. Kids can talk a hole in our head or cry a sea all over our petty evening plans and yet we can never really regret any of it. Because it’s money in our bank.
Because every word, every crayon drawing, every burst of smile in the rearview mirror, it’s like money in the bank.