As we turned the corner in the grocery store, my five year old son walked a step ahead of me, clear about where he was going and full of intention.
Making trips to the grocery store isn’t my favorite activity, and the number of cars in the parking lot told of a large crowd inside – but I didn’t mind making this Christmas Eve outing. As we drove to the store, I watched my son clutch the dollar bill that he had pulled from the old tea container on his dresser, preparing to contribute it towards his big brother’s Christmas gift. I listened to the assured way he spoke, without revealing everything to me, about what he had decided to give to him.
He marched confidently most of the way down the toy aisle and stopped. This one, he said, pointing towards the shelf. I followed the direction of his hand and saw the blue box of eight matchbox cars. He pulled it from the shelf with both hands, bringing it to rest against his winter coat as he examined it closely, then turning towards me as I caught up, hopeful I would approve his choice.
It was the same gift his brother had gotten for him the year before. The same gift he had loved. I remembered him opening it Christmas morning, how he couldn’t imagine his good fortune at receiving a box of eight new cars, all at once. What could speak more clearly of his love for his brother than wanting to reciprocate, a year later, with the same?
Yet, as I stood there with Robin looking up at me, all that ran through my mind was how to get him to choose something else. His brother True is seven and a half, and hasn’t played a lot with cars and trucks in the last year. I knew he would be gracious in receiving the gift, but it seemed an awful lot of cars if he wasn’t going to spend much time with them. And at $12.99, well, it felt like a lot.
Let’s look around, I said, see what else is here. I suggested the small Lego sets that were in the same aisle – True loves Legos, doesn’t he? I suggested card games and even some smaller sets of cars. Robin dutifully obliged and examined that the alternatives I offered, but his heart wasn’t in it, and I knew it. I could feel the way the big set of cars pulled on him, even as we stood at each different shelf, motionless. He dismissed all the other options without words and returned back to pulled the box off the shelf. As he did, I thought I saw my opening in the form of a box just behind, a sort of combination track and ramp for matchbox cars that could be set up from a table to send cars flying. He’ll go for that, I thought, as I pointed it out it to him.
He looked, but didn’t take long. No, he said, I want to get this one for him.
He wasn’t demanding – just trying desperately to show me his sincerity, sincerity born from the warm feeling that still lasted from the previous Christmas, and his desire to share that with his brother, to get him the perfect gift, just like the extra large box of tea he had picked out for his mother.
Every bit of me could see that, could feel it, yet for some reason still struggled against it.
You don’t want this? I asked, holding up the track again. You could have races to see which of the cars you already have goes the farthest. I tried to paint a different picture than the one he had composed, the one he was holding dear. No, he replied, this one. Don’t we already have those cars? I flailed. No, he pointed out, these are different. He’ll love these.
There was nothing left for me to say. I could have flatly said no, that the set was too expensive. Or told him I didn’t think True really wanted eight new matchbox cars. But I couldn’t do either.
So instead I did something worse.
I stood up, sighed a quiet response of okay, and walked towards the checkout, with him trailing two small steps behind. We covered the few yards quickly, but I felt stuck even as I moved along. It was when I turned, at the head of the self-checkout aisle, that I began to understand what I had done, that his gaze cut through the illusion of separation that clouds our lives. I began to see this moment through his experience, our experience, rather than one I could convince myself was my own.
Normally when we use the self-checkout, Robin hops up onto the small shelf intended as a resting place for your shopping basket (I’m not sure the store is too keen on small children standing there, but I always let him do it just the same). He loves to press the buttons on the touch-screen checkout, and to run some of the items across the scanner.
But he didn’t this time. He simply stood his two steps behind me, looking down at the box in his hands. Looking, perhaps, for a way that this trip could have gone differently. I reached my hand out, maybe for the box, maybe to help him move towards me or up onto the shelf. He simply looked up at me in return. The joy he had anticipated, lost.
He had been so sure of himself, knowing he had made just the right choice. Why couldn’t, why wouldn’t, his father share that with him?
What had I done?
C’mon, I said, come do the buttons. He climbed up and help run the box through the checkout, then tucked the gift under his arm. He was quiet on the way home as I watched him the rear view mirror. I commented how much his older brother was really going to like those cars. He gazed out the window. Maybe for next Christmas I’ll get him the track, he said as we pulled into the driveway.
That moment when he looked up at me, that moment he desperately wished I would simply share in his joy, has kept me awake at the end of each day. I am not terribly worried about his disappointment in me, even as I recognize the familiar realization of my own shortcomings; the generosity of his love seems deep and pure. But as I lie awake, I wish morning would come so that we could wake up and play with those cars, so he can feel that it really was a good gift, and so he won’t be disappointed with himself.
I know I can’t protect him from that forever, from the suffering we all face. But not now, I hope. Not about this.
I made sure to pay close attention when True opened the gift on Christmas morning, ready to share in Robin’s joy of giving. Robin, my wife pointed out, was watching me closely, too, waiting for my reaction. He reached across the box as True pulled off the wrapping paper and tape scraps. They’re all different race cars, you know.