Growing Up

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.

18 Responses to “Growing Up

  • This tapped into a lot of agreement and head nodding. The older I get the more I want that imagination back. As a parent, I know I wanted my kids to be ready for this world. As a grandparent, I want that imagination nurtured and encouraged.

  • Lovely piece Mark. Nothing has taught me more about being a human/grown-up than being a parent.

  • You know Mark, I can still remember moments in my childhood when my ‘balloons were popped,’ so to speak. It’s an injecting of reality, a losing of innocence that at time is the hugest disappointment ever! Poor little gaffer. <3
    Diana xo

  • I am with you on tantrum handling, Mark. I am terrible. Well, I have my moments, but like you, my wife is the miracle worker. She can deescalate like a boss. Maybe it’s a mom thing. I have a black-and-white way of looking at things, and like many men, I am all about FIXING things. I can’t fix things at home the way I do at work. Any time I have tried to bully my way through something at home, it backfires. Even my ace in the hole, the Yelling Dad, is ineffective. They giggle, which makes me even battier…lol. Anyways, I love what you say here – I have to remember that they view the world in a different way. I remember this at times when I think my kids are much older than they seem and I try to share the dark scary with them piecemeal, but then I see them still carry their stuffies and cuddle with them and wonder to myself – what’s the rush?

    Thank you Mark – love this.

    • Thank you Paul for your thoughtful reflection on this post. I’m so grateful that you take the time to comment. It makes it all feel worth it.

      I’m like you. The ultimate fixer. And so often, that’s not what the situation calls for. But I can’t seem to turn it off. I wear the yelling dad often too. They don’t laugh back, but once they’re old enough, I’m sure they will.

  • I love the descriptions and language you used in this post, it really made me smile!
    It’s amazing how even a few simple words can affect a child. As adults we really do forget because we’re constantly brushing these things off and ignoring them so that we can get on with being ‘adult’ and not over-sensitive…

    Meno

    • I’m so glad! Thank you for your comment. Yes, it’s like words is all he has sometimes and he clings to them. And I realize I wished I still cared about words and imagination as much as he does.

  • I loved this, the way you laid out the story and how it started sweet, as birthdays do, and ended real, which isn’t bad but it isn’t two-dimensional sweetness either. Some days I’m just not in the mood to talk my youngest off the ledge. She’s not little anymore but she still whines with the best and negotiates like a lawyer. I don’t always have it in me to acquiesce and delude, and I do feel like it has something to do with being sober. We do the best we can most of the time (certainly because we’re sober).

    • Yes! Doing the best we can with what we’re given is a life mantra of mine!

      Thanks Kristen for the visit. Always brightens my day to read your thoughts.

  • This is an excellent piece of descriptive writing Mark, I felt for you, for your son and for your dog….

  • Interesting ideas here Mark. You know my entire life has been affected by others addictions…I was conceived into multi-generations of addiction. I was raised very stuck in reality. When my kids were babies we moved next door to a family where the mom was the queen of nurturing imaginations, creating memories, and allowing freedom for kids to be kids. I was fascinated and in awe as I watched her in action. I learned so much from her and the best I could do was emulate what I saw her do. I wonder why those who are filled with the “isms” are so rooted in reality…and in my case, control. I mean I have a good idea why, of course, but gosh to be free of that and let things flow. Tantrums, pretend play, messes. You know I’m going to be a g-ma….maybe that’s my second chance to do it differently. What an insightful post…very thought provoking.

    • There must be something connected with the -ism! I agree totally. It’s like, I want to keep him grounded because in some deep part of me I think it could save his life one day.

      You’re going to be an amazing grandma Annette!

  • I love the dog descriptions! One of my favorite books of all time, The Accidental Tourist, has a really memorable dog in it as well.
    I remember the day my son describes as becoming an adult in full costume. He was wearing a trench coat from the movie The Matrix and hiding and spying on people while we were at a restaurant. Suddenly he was deeply ashamed and wanted to go home. He said he knew he didn’t look like the guy from the Matrix. And he was wearing his mother’s trench coat. It was such a sad day for both of us.
    Thanks for the beautiful story, Mark. ; )

    • That’s so similar to my experience! I should treasure these innocent moments instead of Trina to fast forward him.

      Thanks for your kind feedback. Riley is a character all right! I’m adding the accidental tourist to my reading list!

  • The movie Accidental Tourist is not as good because it misses the humor. I would love to hear what you think of it. ; )

  • A really enjoyable write for me this morning.

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