Saturday, February 16, 2008

Time passages

A few days ago, three little kids charged into an elevator I was taking up to the parking garage from our gym and knocked me over. One managed to spill the contents of his sippy-cup all over my pants; another wiped her little grungy, cheddar-Goldfish stained hands on my jacket as she got up from our spill. The third, the youngest of the trio at . . . hmm? . . . 18-20 months, got so excited by the unanticipated fun of watching her brother and sister knock over a strange man that she . . . she . . . she . . . she . . .

started to pee right then and there on the floor, while still managing to maintain enough composure to stick her finger out at me and laugh.

Before I could get up and collect myself I heard a voice, a voice that could only be a mom, shriek out, "OH, MY GOD, ARE YOU ALL RIGHT, SIR?"

I turned around because, at 46 years old, I still refuse to believe that anyone would call me
"sir" because I have reached that point in life where I am so distinguished, so wealthy and so revered in the community that it only makes sense to call me "sir." For example, I like to think that when another person flips me off during some misunderstanding in traffic, or comes close to running me off the road when I'm riding my bike or accuses me of attempting to severe his head on the ice, he's not saying, "Hey, asshole, watch where you're fucking going you shithead, prick bastard, motherfucker jerkoff! You almost fucking killed me you dickless piece of shit douchebag." Rather, he's saying, "Hey, SIR, watch where you're fucking going you shithead, prick bastard, motherfucker jerkoff! . . ."

. . . and so on. Out of respect.

Of course, I know that's not true. The only people that call me sir are people so young I look a good 5o or 239 years older than them and they were raised to be polite to seniors, and restaurant employees who are required by their corporate training manuals to call all their "guests" sir or ma'm. And maybe an occasional friend of my son's who has caused some damage to our house or knows he's about to get in trouble. Sir, in that case, becomes a defense mechanism.

"I'M SO EMBARRASSED! WE'RE LATE FOR SWIMMING AND THE BABY WAS NAPPING AND I HAD TO WAKE HER AND THE OTHER TWO WERE JUST BEING IMPOSSIBLE SO I COULDN'T GET ANYONE OUT OF THE HOUSE. PLEASE LET ME PAY FOR YOUR DRY CLEANING! I AM SO EMBARRASSED! OH, MY GOD. I AM SO SORRY."

"It's really all right," I said. "Don't worry about it. I doubt this was a premeditated attack. And if it was you would be liable, not them."

"OH, MY GOD! ARE YOU A LAWYER? GREAT, THIS IS ALL I NEED BECAUSE I'M ALREADY . . . ."

I had to interrupt her.

"It's not a big deal. Let me help you clean up."

We rode the elevator to the first floor, pushed the stop button and dabbed up the pee and cranberry juice as best we could. The Goldfish made a mess, so I took out the towel I had just showered with at the gym and let the dampness soak up the crumbs. I did all of this without complaining and well enough to earn a compliment from this well-meaning but very harried mother of three young children. I even talked to the kids as I was doing this, telling them they should talk their mother into letting them eat Oreos instead of Goldfish for their snacks. Really, it didn't bother me a bit.

We cleaned all this up pretty quickly, quickly enough, in fact, that the mom was able to get her three kids off to their swim lesson. "Actually, it's just the older two. The little one can't swim yet," as if I could not conclude on my own that 20 month olds are not yet ready to swim without supervision and enough flotation devices to lift a WWII submarine from the ocean depths.

"Good luck with them," I said.

"Thank you," came the reply. "You know, you'll be a good dad one day."

At first, I was flattered, thinking that this mom younger than me by at least 10 years thought I would be a "good dad" when my time came, until I realized that she was just well-mannered and courteous. And relieved that I didn't get angry that her kids doused me with juice, crackers and pee.

What this mom didn't know is that I had been where she is now many years before, that I had done Gymboree, swim lessons, music school, circle time at Barnes and Noble and Borders and every other bookstore within a 100 square miles of my house. That I had cleaned up vomit and pee from grocery store and bakery and hardware and restaurant and strangers' floors, or that I had once taken off my shirt to "catch" the pee that had begun creeping out of one of my children's shorts in the middle of Giant, or offered to replace various broken items in stores that broke because my children broke them because I had made the mistake of taking my eyes off them for eight seconds or had taken the wrong child to the wrong birthday party on the wrong day because I had gotten confused about which child was supposed to be going in which direction.

She didn't know that I was more than happy to help her clean up after her kids, just like one day she'll be happy to help another young parent clean up her children's mess. She'll be happy because it will remind her of when her kids were little, when they needed her all the time, when she was their best friend and never their worst enemy. She'll be happy because, like me, she'll see those memories of "firsts" in high definition as she kneels on the floor to clean after somebody else's small children. She'll be happy because she knows that, in the blink of an eye, her kids will be embarrassed to be seen with her, then out the door, and that she'll miss the time when life was exhausting, frustrating, depressing, exhilarating, never-ending and maddening, so much so that wiping up after a little kid she doesn't know will make her smile a smile that can only come from knowing what it's like to love a child.

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