We are fortunate (perhaps even blessed) to live in a neighborhood where we know our neighbors, we know our neighbor’s kids, and they know ours. And on Sunday we found ourselves, for the first time in a LONG time, standing around outside chatting with our neighbors while our collective children played in the mud and, in the case of the youngest one, waddled back and forth across the cul-de-sac. I am by nature an anti-social son-of-a-bitch, but even I must admit that it’s a good thing to have nice people around you, and that the existence of a community in your neighborhood, instead of just a shared proximity, can be a heartwarming thing.
For my part, I took advantage of the nice weather to set the bike up in the driveway and give it a thorough cleaning. I hadn’t cleaned it up after the month of bike commuting last fall, so it needed it, and I considered a tune-up and spring cleaning to be a prerequisite to riding my bike to work again.
I never used to take such good care of my bikes. I’d keep them lubed, and keep the brakes tight, but I didn’t much care how they looked. Of course, none of my bikes ever cost as much as my recumbent did.
So, I took the chain off, and started soaking it in degreaser, then I mixed up a bucket of Simple Green, and started washing the bike. The wife and daughter were out delivering Girl Scout cookies, and it was just the boy and me. He was puttering a few yards away with some sidewalk chalk.
“Hey Dad!” he called. I was scrubbing my rims. “Look what I did.”
I looked over, to see he had written ‘I
LOVV LOVE YOU‘ in colored chalk.
“Thank you. I love you, too.” I said automatically. I was kneeling on one knee, and the cold water from the hose was slowly soaking my right pantleg. I wanted to get the dirt and grease off the bike with a minimum of water sprayed on it, to try and avoid getting any of the water into the crankset or any of the bearings. A few more minutes went by.
“Dad. Look at this.” I glanced over. He had amended his earlier declaration:
I was still thinking about what I was doing, and said “That’s very sweet. But how do you KNOW I’m the best dad? I’m the only one you’ve ever had. Maybe there are much better dads out there.”
No answer. I finished the wheel I was working on and reached for the hose. “Maybe you only think I’m the best dad because I’m yours.”
No answer. I looked over at him. He was sitting on the driveway, head down, eyes on the ground.
“Sweetie?” No response. “Honey, what’s wrong?”
In a voice full of tears he said “I j-just wanted to make you f-feel better!” and then the crying started.
I went over and hunkered down next to him, saying all the soft things you say to a child who is desperately unhappy. I pulled him over and held him close, and said I was sorry, and asked him why he was unhappy. All he could do was sob.
So I sat there and tried to hold him, with the cold concrete pressing into my hip, and my soaked pantleg getting colder and colder. He still had his head down, and his hot tears fell on my forearm as he cried. I don’t know why he was so sad. I don’t know why, out of all the times I have kidded with him, he took it so seriously this time. All I know is, I felt like the world’s most insensitive father. I looked over at the words he had chalked onto the driveway, and noticed that each letter had been painstakingly drawn in a different color. I had barely glanced at it before. My son had offered me a priceless jewel, had proclaimed his love and affection for me in block print letters, and I had barely glanced at it.
I know I didn’t do anything horrible. I realize he was probably tired, or stressed, or there was something else going on. Nevertheless, I felt like a very poor father, indeed.
After five or ten minutes, with no sign of him crying himself out, I told him he needed to stop. I asked him again if he wanted to talk about it. He didn’t. I apologized again. He just took off his shoes and went into the house.
I finished working on my bike, and by the time I went inside, he was acting as if nothing had happened. He wanted to play video games.
So, I will finish degreasing the chain and relubricating it tonight, and get it installed back on the bike. I will check the brakes and tires, and relubricate everything that got the oil washed off it yesterday. With any luck, I will ride to work one day this week.
And I will try, again, to remember how precious a gift my children are, and to try to be more aware of that every single day. I realize that I’m only human, and that I can’t always be loving and supportive and patient and sensitive. But I at least hope to never take them or their love for granted, no matter what I’m doing, or how busy I may be.