A father and his young son face the rush of time.
“Higher, higher, higher!”
I push with all my might and am immediately gripped by an irrational fear that the swing chains will snap and send my precious 4-year-old son careening up into the blue sky.
As he swings through the air, I think of the trajectory of his expanding consciousness. He has always been perceptive and sensitive. At 2 and a half, he had the adults in a store rolling with laughter when I tried to move him out of the flow of traffic and he loudly proclaimed, “I’m not a stroller—don’t push me!”
At age 3 he asked how my day was at work and whether anyone had given me a sticker for doing a good job. Genuinely shocked when I responded no, he put his hand on my shoulder, gave me his sticker, and told me that I was doing a good job.
Three weeks ago, while I was putting him to bed, he asked, “Dad, Superman is the Man of Steel, right? So how does he shave?” I shook my head and laughed, but then wondered: If I could not provide answers to his questions at 3 and 4, how would I fare at 9 and 10?
I did not even get to wait that long. Last night, we were reading a fairy tale in which the father dies. I wanted to move on with the story, and he wanted to know where the father had gone. It was alarming for him to learn the father would not be returning. “Don’t worry,” I explained. “He was old; that only happens when you are old.” He immediately burst into tears. “Grandpa is old” is all he could say.
The shadows are getting longer. It’s time to go. “That’s enough, let’s do something else,” I suggest. He won’t come willingly. The swing is too fun, the fluttering in his tummy too delightful. I scan the sidewalks around the playground for a distraction and find it on the far side of the field. A man stands with a bright bouquet of balloons.
“Do you want a balloon?”
“Yes! Can I have the red one?”
“Let’s see if we can get it before someone else does.”
He allows me to lift him from the swing and puts his hand in mine as we begin the walk across the field.
“This was a beautiful day,” he says. “Will we do it again?”
I carefully consider his question. “Yes, we can go swimming and play on the swings and have a picnic and count clouds and lie under the trees. We can do it again.”
He stops and looks at me.
“No.” He says it slowly and deliberately: “Can we do this day again?”
I look into his inquisitive eyes and weigh my words carefully.
“Not this day, Sweetie, but it was a beautiful day that I will always remember and be happy that we enjoyed it together.”
“It was a beautiful day,” he repeats with tears in his eyes. “I will remember it too.”
We begin to walk again in silence.
“I sure did enjoy being 3, but I am enjoying 4. Are you enjoying being 33?”
I smile and squeeze his hand. “Yes, especially because I get to spend it with you.”
We reach the man with the balloons. The bright shiny red balloon in hand, we begin the walk home. The sun will set soon.
He is a flurry of excitement and sound. What will Mommy think about this treasure? He is talking about something funny and laughing and suddenly the balloon is in the air.
“Oh, my balloon!”
I jump and clumsily grasp for the string, but it is too late. The balloon flutters above us for a moment and then begins its rapid ascent.
I hoist him into my arms and hold him tight as we watch the red balloon rise into the baby blue sky—higher, higher, higher—becoming a freckle, a pinprick, and, then, only a memory.
Jack Haake is a father, gardener, and bankruptcy attorney in Washington, D.C.
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