“Take my shirt off! Take my shirt off!” Big E jumped while pleading with me. He wanted to be like the older boys running across the grass as shirtless savages of summer. Normally, he does not let it all hang out.
So I took off his shirt, cursing myself for having left the sunscreen at home. It was already 4:30. Post-PTH, hopefully. (*peak tanning hours.)
I knew one of the boy’s parents and we’d all met at the park for an early summer picnic. I needed adult contact since my one-year-old was near the peak of his incessant whininess.
Upon arrival, the parents offered me a beer. I almost downed it in one sip.
Seconds later, I noticed Big E and the older kiddos were missing. I said as much.
“Oh, they’re over behind that brick wall playing in the fountain,” the mom said as she handed me a second beer. “They’re fine. Don’t worry.”
I’m sorry. What part of that statement should not have made me feel apprehensive? Our kids were out of sight, in New York City, playing in a fountain hidden by a stone wall. I was fairly certain the 5-year-olds weren’t trained lifeguards.
I tried looking calm with a frozen smile. I took a sip. I stood up, carrying Little C (who whined with the movement), to go investigate.
At the stone wall I saw that the fountain was “only” a 12-inch-wide ring of water surrounding a 10-foot sculpture by Tom Otterness. (Cool fountain) The water flowed in a circle around the sculpture. True: I needn’t worry. Too much.
Big E joined the boys dropping items (trash, really…broken balloons, styrofoam) in the “upstream” part of the fountain, and chasing it around the 10-foot circle.
As I approached, Big E reached into the water, jumped up with his hand clenched and said to me, “I got one!”
“What’d you get, buddy?”
“Yeah!” he beamed. It was new for him to play so imaginatively.
He was so happy. I was so happy to watch it.
I took a step back and followed Little C toddling around.
Some big kids around nine or ten years old had entered the scene at the fountain. They sat on benches nearby. They held skateboards and sported baseball caps over shaggy hair.
The 5-year-olds stuck tongues out at the skater boys and sang “nanny, nanny- boo, boo.” The skater boys didn’t exactly take the bait. They minded their own business and joshed around like 10-year-old boys. They occasionally laughed or pointed at the little kids. It was innocent, but it also looked like gangs forming.
Big E still jumped and splashed, squealed and laughed. He kept grabbing items (trash) at the “top” of the stream and watched it float with the current. He dipped his bloated diaper in the water. He looked at me and enthusiastically screamed, “Daddy!”
It was a juxtaposition of innocence (and innocents): Big E and the gangs. I whipped my phone out to video him in his boyish bliss. He hadn’t a care in the world, least of all the chiding of other kids. Not a speck of self-consciousness informed his actions…no insecurities about clothes, his two daddies, his vocabulary, his nothing. He just played.
How can he know the joy that brought me or how precious that time was for him? The only thing existing for him was imagination and water (and trash).
If I could endow my boys with only one gift, just one, I’d make them impervious to judgment. I know that’s impossible. But couldn’t he always play in his own world in the water and ignore the others? Kiddo: don’t modify your behavior or preferences or speech. Just play in bliss.
I hope I’m able to show that video to him one day (assuming I don’t drop my phone in the kids’ bathtub a third time) and help him reconnect with a paradigm free of self-consciousness.
May there be many, many, many more moments of pure childhood bliss.
And please: let me witness a few more of them.