One day last week we were having a BBQ in my yard when my 4-year-old son Henry accidentally threw a Frisbee right smack into the back of a baby’s head.
She was fine (babies love Frisbee), but in the heat of the moment I responded without thinking, as grownups tend to do a lot but never like to admit.
“Henry!” I yelped. “Oh my God! What are you doing?!”
At the time, and even looking back on it now, it all seemed like a natural course of events. Henry had bopped a baby with a flying saucer, his dad reprimanded him with a sudden burst of raised voice and eyes of stern.
But what happened next kind of changed my life.
Okay, not kind of — it did change my life.
The baby was okay, the grownups went back to their drinks and their chips and salsa. Back to their cutting each other off mid-sentence with another one of their own brilliant anecdotes. I checked in on the burgers.
And maybe two or three minutes later, I glanced over to see what Henry was up to and I noticed he wasn’t anywhere to be seen. I strolled over to where he’d tossed the Frisbee from. And there up on my neighbor’s back porch, hiding deep behind a lawn chair, I found my son whimpering alone.
I was at his side in milliseconds.
“Dude. Buddy. What’s wrong, man? What’s going on?”
But I already knew.
We know things, parents do. I’m a divorced daddy with three little kids, and I have them with me a lot. Their breaths, their dreams, when they want ice cream instead of cake — I feel those tiny subtleties shift down behind my ribcage long before they even really happen. I’m a banged-up clairvoyant. I’m imperfectly magical. I’m their dad — I know stuff.
Henry was mortified by what he’d done, by his mistake with the Frisbee. But way beyond that, he was gouged deep into his guts by the reaction I’d had. I’d scared him hard, simply because I’d added to his own sudden hard fear the moment the deal had gone down.
My reaction hadn’t been too over the top; if you’d have been there, you wouldn’t have thought, “Jeez, Dad. Re-LAX!”
But none of that mattered now. The damage had been done. And in a flash of living, right there in my tiny slash of rented backyard, my heart broke open for my own boy.
He was inconsolable and, trust me, that’s putting it lightly. He was shaking, his little brush-burned grubby frame shivering with upset chills. I tried to pull him to my chest right away. I needed to kiss his hair and tell him everything was okay, but Henry wanted none of it. I’m thinking that for a second or three there, he probably felt more alone in his life than he ever had before.
“Buddy, it’s OKAY! No one is mad! I’m sorry if I scared you! I’m not angry! It was an accident!” I tried pleading with him.
“NO! Go away, Dad!” he sobbed.
And then he let it out.
“I hate you!”
It wasn’t the first time he’d ever said that to me, of course, but it was the first time that everything clicked for me. We can never pick and choose the right moments for epiphanies of realization in this world; our lives are dictated by the unexpected and the inconvenient, to say the least. But right then and there, I understood to the fat of my heart what Henry’s I hate you thing was all about. And what it had always been about.
His I hate you means I love you.
And it means I’m so confused.
His 4-year-old lisp saying I hate you doesn’t mean I hate you at all. It means the opposite, you see. And it dawned on me, as I stood there ready to cry myself, stood there looking down at one of the greatest humans I’ve ever known, a human who was more upset than I had ever seen him, and I realized that I hate you, when it comes from these kids of ours, also means a bunch of other stuff too:
I hate you means I’m about to cry.
I hate you means I wish I could change your mind.
I hate you means I need you to need me right now, but I’m not exactly sure how to relay that information to you.
I hate you means I need you, you goofy bastard, even though you’re too thickheaded to get it.
I hate you, even though it sucks to hear it out of your own child’s mouth, and even though we’d prefer not to be ashamed by such uncivilized talk when we’re standing there in the middle of the frozen foods aisle of the grocery store being judged by other parents (whose OWN kids, incidentally, will more than likely be swinging their own little I hate you sword sometime very soon), so much of the time those three little words really mean this:
“I love you so friggin’ much and I’m so upset right now and I’m acting like a rabid raccoon because my heart is messing with my head and I don’t know what the heck is going on and please help me figure that out.”
I scooped Henry up into my arms and pulled him close, even though he fought me on it. We went into the house and I got him on the couch and the whole time he was saying the same thing over and over:
“No, Dad. Leave me alone. I hate you.”
And the whole time he was crying hard.
And the whole time, I finally understood what a powerful effect some random fleeting moment can have on the very best hearts and souls in this world.
We settled things down then. Popsicles help more than I can tell you. And we talked it out later as we snuggled in bed.
But I learned a lot that day last week. I hate you means I love you. Remember that, okay? We all need to remember that. It’s huge. In so many ways, it’s everything.