When I woke up Sunday morning, I decided to be a good daddy and take my daughter to the movies.
“We’ll see that live action Dora the Explorer movie,” I told my wife. “She’s been asking me to take her.”
“Great,” my wife, said. “Keep her out of here for a while. I’ve got so much to do around the house.”
So, at two o’clock, Natalie and I were sitting in a darkened theater with a small popcorn, sans butter and salt, and a bottle of water. As the endless parade of commercials and previews flickered across the screen, my daughter grew restless. “When’s Dora going to be on?”
“Soon, dear,” I said, trying not to eat too much popcorn. I’ve been dieting and exercising lately. Down nine pounds. Quite a few more to go.
The movie began and we watched as Dora and her friends tried to find a lost city of gold. It was cute movie and it kept my interest – especially since they threw in a few gags for the adults. I especially liked when the characters all got dosed with hallucinogenic pollen and turned into their original cartoon versions. I have to ask my friends who’ve visited the psychedelic candy store if morphing into animated avatars ever happened to them. Probably a good trip.
Movie over, Natalie said, “Can I get another snack?”
“We can get something on the way home.”
“Sure.” But when we got to the car, Natalie detonated into an explosion of tears.
“I want Skittles!” she cried.
“Okay.” I said, bewildered. “We can get some at the 7-11.”
“I want Skittles in there!” she said, pointing to the movie theatre.
“No,” I said, matter-of-factly. “They’re very expensive in there.”
“Get them for me NOW!”
Kids are strange. You can take them to do fun things like an amusement park or movie and they’ll freak out if you don’t get them some little do-dad. When we went to Disneyland, Natalie threw an epic fit because I wouldn’t buy her a sixty-dollar Elsa outfit at the Frozen Store. (Then again, I’m convinced the Disney Corp beams acquisitive impulses via microwaves into the brain of every kid in the park. Cue the tin foil hats.) I often wonder if children do this to assure themselves that you still love them just a little bit more.
Lately, Natalie’s been having a hard time when fun things come to an end. When her day camp ended last week I had to pry her from her counselor’s arms. Whether leaving the county fair, the swimming pool, playdates or from visiting my mom and dad, she’s pitched varying levels of fits. My wife always tells her to remember the good times and that there will be more to come. But today, Natalie’s upset got me upset. Normally I’m quite patient with this stuff, but now all I wanted to do was soothe her and give her whatever she wanted. Acquiescing to a five-year old’s temper tantrums, however, will set you up for problems later. So I gritted my teeth, buckled Natalie into her car seat and drove off.
“I want Skittles from the movies!” Natalie wailed.
“We’ll get some later,” I said. “Try and relax.”
“You’re the worst daddy in the world!” Natalie seethed. “The worst ever.”
And, like that, I lost the title belt. Keeping the hurt of my face, I drove on in silence. There’s no reasoning with a person having a meltdown – adult or juvenile.
Figuring Natalie was probably suffering from low blood sugar, I went to Burger King and got her a kiddie meal and a plain grilled chicken sandwich for myself. Only 370 calories without the mayo. I eyed her fries with something akin to malice. After she gobbled her nuggets the rage faded. Fast food isn’t the healthiest thing in the world for a child but you can’t give them Valium. At least not regularly.
When she was calm, I bought a packet of Skittles at a gas station and handed them to her. “Daddy keeps his promises,” I said. “I told you I’d get them later and I did.”
“Okay,” she said, meekly.
“Want to go to the playground?”
“Let’s go.” Of course, I had an ulterior motive. I wanted to tire my daughter out. Maybe get some quality time with my wife later that night. You know what I’m talking about.
No sooner than Natalie had ascended the jungle gym, the ice cream truck drove jingling into the parking lot. Natalie asked if I’d buy her an ice pop. Part of me was like, “No way in hell.” but I was tired of fighting. “Okay then,” I said. “But you can’t have Skittles later.”
“Too much sugar,” Natalie, said.
“You got it.”
As Natalie cavorted with her friends, I sat back and thought about her recent meltdowns. My daughter is starting kindergarten in a few weeks. Her new school is huge and, even though she attended a multi-day orientation program and made new friends, she’s both excited and nervous at the prospect. It’ll be good change but, like any change, it comes with an element of loss. I think Natalie senses a page of her childhood is turning, that she’s entering a larger world. And, after a few weeks at camp playing with older kids, she’s come home with new expressions and attitudes. When she said, “Don’t freak out Dad,” I did a double take. “Where’s my daughter,” I said. “And what have you done with her?”
To be honest, however, keeping Natalie busy today was therapy for me. For the past week I’ve been keyed up and on edge; a low grade nervousness inhabiting every moment of every day. Part of that was because I was dreading today – the six month anniversary of Buster’s death. But I was also processing a shock I got on Tuesday. An old girlfriend of mine died. After hearing the news, I looked up her Facebook page and was stunned at the picture staring back at me. Numb, I sent the picture to a friend and asked him to guess the her age. “I’d say this woman was in her mid-sixties, easy.” When I told him she died at fifty he said, “Could have been illness,” he said. “But I’d say she had a very hard life.”
I remembered this woman when she was young – a sexy blonde with killer legs and an infectious devil may care smile. I remembered how we had walked arm in arm in the rain, making out in her doorway as water dripped off our clothes, how the moonlight danced off her naked skin. I also remembered how it ended – her calling me and saying she was too messed up to be seeing anyone. My refusing to accept her answer and banging on a door that would never open. The intersection of our lives was brief, hot, and painful – sweaty but not sweet. I’ve always wished it had ended better. Now she’s dead. From the look of things, life did not go well for her. That saddened me. I guess the pages are turning for me too.
After an hour and a half of monkey bars and see-saws, I told Natalie we had to depart the playground.
“Can we stay just a little bit more?” she said.
“No.” Cue the waterworks again.
After carrying Natalie off the field and into the car, I wiped the tears off her face. “I know you’re upset Natalie,” I said. “But all good things come to an end. There’ll be more fun tomorrow.”
But part of me felt like I was lying. That’s because I knew the fun always ends, that we will all run out of tomorrows. Buster. My old lover. Me. Everyone.
When we got home, Natalie nagged me to take me for a ride on her new bike – a purple affair with a wicker basket on the handlebars, tassels and bell. After five hours of wrangling a headstrong kid I managed not to say, “Yes, the freeway is right over there!” and got her mother to do it. Wiped out, I collapsed into bed and slept for two hours.
When I woke up I was thirsty and asked my wife to get me some water. As I lay in bed, waiting, I heard the patter of little feet. Then I felt a cool bottle pressing against my head.
“Here’s your water, Daddy.”
“Thank you, dear.”
“And thank you for taking me to the movies, Burger King, and the playground. You’re the best daddy.”
I knew my wife put Natalie up to it – but I didn’t care. I picked up my daughter and gave her a big kiss.
“Daddy loves you, Natalie.”
“I love you too.”
Hugging Natalie tightly, I knew all we have is today. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. I knew I had spoiled my daughter this afternoon but, from time to time, we all need to know someone loves us just a little bit more. Maybe Natalie will remember today for the rest of her life. Or not. It’s tough to know with kids.
Shuffling downstairs, I ate the healthy meal my wife made for me. As I munched my salad, I looked at Buster’s ashes on the mantle and wondered if I had loved him enough – or my wife, my child, my old girlfriends, my friends, parents, brother, in-laws, nephew, co-workers or the clients who walk though my door every day. They all want just a little bit more. And they deserve it. But I knew I had failed them all, somehow.
Later, as my wife and I got into bed, I said, “Do you think we spoil Natalie?”
“No,” she said. “No more than any other parent.”
“It’s like she wants constant reassurance that we love her. I wonder why that is. Are we doing something wrong?”
“No,” my wife said. “We discipline her. We don’t cave into her often. We tell her when she’s wrong. I think we’re doing as good a job as we can.”
“Don’t worry so much,” my wife said, turning off the light.
After a minute, I heard my wife’s voice in the darkness. “But I do know someone else who needs spoiling.”
Just a little bit more. Yowsa!