As we drove home last Wednesday evening, I performed the nightly ritual of wheedling information out of my four-year-old son, Zack, who protects the details about his time at daycare like they’re the nuclear launch codes. During this ritual, it is my job to find out how his day went, and his job to withstand the interrogation without surrendering any actionable intel.
“What was the coolest thing that happened today?” I asked. I’ve learned not to ask yes/no questions, since there’s no such thing as voluntary elaboration. If you want to know how a kid’s day was, you have to come at them sideways.
“I don’t want you to die, Daddy,” he replied, throwing me off the trail of whether or not he’d had a good nap that day. I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw him looking back at me, serious but not concerned, just voicing what was on his mind.
“That’s something we have in common, my man,” I replied, thinking that perhaps we shouldn’t have let him watch “Return of the Jedi” with his big brother, Evan, last weekend. (Things don’t go particularly well for Luke Skywalker’s father in that movie. I won’t spoil his identity in case you are also four years old and haven’t seen it yet.)
“I’d be sad forever,” Zack said.
“Aw, buddy, don’t worry about that. I’m planning to hang around for a long, long time,” I said. Zack doesn’t get sentimental too often, so I appreciated that he preferred me alive, even though I only let him have one piece of Halloween candy each night, so his stash will likely last until St. Patrick’s Day.
“But if you died, then I’d get a new daddy,” he said, perking up.
“Wait, what? A new daddy?” I asked. Luke Skywalker didn’t get a new daddy. Your dad dies, then you go to an Ewok dance party and whoop it up. That’s how these things go.
“Oh, maybe that’s not how it works,” Zack said, reconsidering after I didn’t immediately offer up another dad from the bullpen.
The discussion of my mortality stopped when we picked Evan up from school, but started again at dinner. My wife, Kara, recently took a new position at work that keeps her a little bit later and often puts the kids’ evening nutrition in my hands, so I use the term “dinner” here loosely.
“Thirty-nine is not that old,” Zack said, dipping his Pop Tart in ketchup.
“Yeah, it’s a good age,” I replied as my spoon hovered over the raisin bran.
“Forty is really old, though,” Evan said, blowing on his microwave pizza.
“Yeah, that’s REALLY old,” Zack agreed. Duly noted. I shall do my best to enjoy my remaining good months.
That night I tucked Zack into bed, wondering if I’d helped at all to alleviate his fears, or at least done my part to tamp down his excitement about trading up for a better dad. Sitting on the edge of his bed, I patted him on the head and looked into his eyes to make sure I had his attention.
“Zack, it’s a special thing, being your dad. I love it, and I love you, very much. And I’m not going anywhere,” I said.
He thought about it for a minute, his little-kid brain doing some heavy processing on some grown-up subject matter. I gave him all the time he needed to put his emotions into words.
“Daddy?” he said after a moment, holding out his finger toward me.
“Yes, Zack?” I replied.
“Where can I put this boogie?” he asked.
Sometimes, just when you think you’ve got your kid figured out, you realize that you’re actually in a galaxy far, far away.
You can make the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs with Mike Todd at email@example.com.