There were plenty of birthday balloons to choose from at the Grocery Store. But my son knew right away the one balloon that stood apart from the others.
“I think Daddy would like this one,” he said to my wife.
He turned his back on the colorful array of birthday-themed balloons. The black spotted doggie was already in his hands.
“You sure? For his birthday?”
My son was already taking him for a walk through the pastry isle.
“Can we get my doggy some food mommy?”
I remember when he gave it to me on the morning of my birthday a football season ago.
“Here you go Daddy!”
“Thanks bud! Wow, for me! I love it.”
His eyes never left the balloon.
“Arff Arff. He’s a good boy Daddy. Watch.”
He walked him out of the kitchen and into the living room.
“How about we take doggy for a walk? I’ll take Riley,” I suggested. Our dog Riley, in giddy-up fashion, whimpered by the door.
“Yayy, OK, Dad.”
Our shepherd mix Riley has two great passions in life: food and walks. That makes her like most dogs. But Riley is not like most dogs. When a veterinary X-ray came back 3 years ago with cloudy amorphous blobs clogging her intestinal tract, surgery was required. 6 pacifiers were lodged in her system.
“Do you want them back?”
“No. No doctor, I do not.”
Riley is difficult. Aside from her mistaking pacifiers for food on 6 separate occasions, she is afflicted with MMM, a rare autoimmune disorder that wears away her jaw muscles. This helps curb her attacks on women and children — wish I could write that in jest — but makes her breath smell like the dead animal whose aroma reveals its crawl-space location.
Love and hate divide Riley’s heart, and she separates friends from enemies quickly and permanently. When she realizes she’s going on a walk, she’s been known to knock over our kids in her blind enthusiasm to reach the door.
As Riley pulled me down the sidewalk I looked back to see my son jumping up and down and tugging the string to his dog balloon near our front steps. I lugged Riley in a backtrack to him.
“What’s the matter?”
He moaned a long line of incoherent syllables, sounding a bit like a small engine failing to start.
“Do you want to walk Riley instead? She’s a real dog?”
He violently declined; his 2 hands jerked the string, bobbing the balloon in the light breeze.
“It won’t waaaaaaaaaalk.”
His face was dejected. So was Riley’s as she stared at the open road.
“Well dude, it’s just a balloon after all. It’s not meant to walk along the ground. If you’re not enjoying it, why don’t we just go home?”
The small engine sputter continued until I had no choice but to leave him in the front yard with his disobedient piece of latex — his birthday present for his dad.
I handle tantrums poorly. I try to reason with him which is like negotiating with terrorists. Or I attack the tantrum head on and threaten to put him in timeout which adds kerosene to previously manageable fire.
My wife is a tantrum miracle worker. She plots a genius line of concessions to talk my son off the ledge, without giving him the thing he is throwing the tantrum for. If her passion wasn’t occupational therapy, she could have a seat at the UN.
“What’s wrong pal?” She asked.
“My doggy won’t walk.”
“Oh but I bet he can climb! Why don’t we take him up the rocks?”
“Doggie can’t climb the rocks!” Tears are streamed down my son’s face as he double-gasped in his moment of defeat: “He’s just a balloon.” His shoulders slouched with his disappointing realization.
The reason I used as triage for his tantrum broke his imaginative play. It’s not a doggie now; it’s only a balloon. I gave him a blunt bandage, a coping dose of reality.
Watching my son grow up helps me understand grown ups better. Maturing can be seen as a gradual surrender to reality. And then, once we’re old, we long for the days when our imagination ruled our lives. Most human discontent falls in one of these two camps, it seems.
Is it the recovering alcoholic in me that wants reality to crash his party, knowing how devastating delusion can become? Is it the father in me, hoping to prepare my son for the colder realities of life?
One thing is for certain, my son’s imagination is a beautiful thing. And while I try to press the fast-forward button on my son’s journey to manhood, my wife is his imagination archivist, preserving the tender play he enjoys for as long as possible.