Faint Praise

It was a Sunday, filled with the promise of flaky warm croissants and bursting red strawberries. We walked toward the Farmer’s Market, Huck and Christopher up ahead, Butch and I hanging back as he concentrated mightily on bouncing a ball. New and delicate stuff, this dribbling is. The ball gets away quickly; two or three bounces and he’s chasing it into the bushes. But he has decided that he likes basketball, and he is determined to figure this out.

I watched him retrieve the ball from the neighbors’ newly-planted pansies, perky and blemish-free. My every cell vibrated with the effort not to scoop him up, squeeze the air out of him and tell him he’s scrumptious. But I controlled myself. I wish I had controlled my next impulse, which was to encourage him: “You’ve really improved in basketball!” 

At once his face darkened and his spirit shriveled. He stopped walking, dropped the ball, crossed his arms and stared daggers at me through red teary eyes. 

“You hurt my feelings.” Just like that, he knocked the wind out of me without lifting a finger. 

This was not what I intended. I desperately tried to explain, saying I meant that he was doing great, and that everyone improves at everything they practice, even his idolized brother, even Kobe Bryant! My voice rattled on, to no avail. 

He resumed walking, slowly now, without the bounce and joy that before had been effortlessly present. By the time we walked another block, turned the corner at Sunset and passed behind the dirty bus stop bench, he was no closer to forgiveness. 

“I wish you weren’t my mom. I wish you weren’t alive.” His words didn’t cut me nearly as much as knowing the depth of the hurt I’d caused him. 

Parenthood is too powerful; it is far too easy to screw up. With one careless sentence, you can shift a morning, change the hue of a day, sear an indelible memory. I remember stinging zingers from my childhood—the drama teacher who said I suffered from Minnie Mouse Syndrome—yes, you see, I remember!—or my pediatrician’s casual remark that I had an elephant in my ear, causing me to wonder, “does this guy think I’m an idiot?” If I remembered offhand comments by tangential adults, surely my son would remember the moment he believed his mother told him he was no good at basketball. 

When I was a teenager, my dad used to joke whenever he’d do something odd (which is to say, often), “is this going to send you to the psychiatrist’s couch?” I can still see his impish smile and hear his voice as he asked the question. Only now, through the lens of parenthood, I think I hear a pleading behind the laughter: “please say I haven’t messed up too badly; please say you’re okay.” 

But there’s only so much we can control. As for Butch, there was nothing I could do or say to take it back. Only the sight of his brother waving two croissants from across the street lured him from his melancholy. Sampling the strawberries and oranges on the farmers’ tables took his mind off our sorrowful walk. Playing hide-and-seek in the Village Green added sheen to the muddied day. By the time we headed home, arms laden with fresh goodies, I hoped he had forgotten. 

His face was calm as we neared our house, his mind who-knows-where, one of the philosophical places it tends to go. And then we got to the fateful square of concrete by the pansies in their freshly-turned dirt, which reminded him of how he’d felt the last time we were here. His face fell, crushed anew by the memory of my words. 

Then he spoke, his voice a quiet mix of understanding and regret. “It’s okay that you said that Mom.” 

I don’t know exactly in what sense he meant it was okay. Okay, he forgives me? Okay, he isn’t a brilliant ballhandler? Okay, we’re going to be okay going forward, him and me–he’ll still let me bathe him, read him books, kiss and hug him as much as possible? Okay, he’s willing to overlook my human flaws, he’s willing to accept his own? But I know better than to push for an explanation. I’m not sure I want to know. I’m just glad that he’s talking to me again. 

A week later, he’ll hear me tell the moms of two girls racing by us that they are “so cool.” The voice at my hip will say, so quiet that I’ll have to ask him to repeat it, “How come you never say that me and Huck are cool?” 

This can’t be. I am an effusive mom. Aren’t I? 

“I don’t?” I lean down and ask him, looking in his eyes. 

“No.” 

He needs me to lay it on thick. “Well, I think you’re the coolest ever. And I love you so much. And you’re amazing, and awesome and cool and wonderful.” And so he reminds me, again and again and again, that the little moments that constitute our days—the ones we don’t think twice about—are rich with meaning. Tonight, I kiss and hug them and wish them sweet dreams, then ask, “Did I tell you enough times today that I love you?” They sigh and roll their eyes, as if to say, “she’s so full of it.” But I’m a convert to the religion of overabundant gushing, and I’m praying that too much will be enough.

4 thoughts on “Faint Praise

    • Thanks, Eric. Dialogue’s a toughie, ain’t it? Good thing my kid provides such good stuff. I couldn’t make up half of it.

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