A Peck On the Head

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    Well, just look at the bunch of us now. A bit more weight, a bit more gray, but who cares? It’s a reunion, so it’s bear hugs all around as we shake our heads and try not to count the years we’ve racked up since we last walked this campus together.

    We’re all old buddies – friends for life, really – and now, a lifetime later, we’ve all become dads, too. But as the conversation quickly turns to family, I realize that the rest of these guys got started on fatherhood a lot earlier than I did. Most of their kids are now well into their teens, and my pal John gets congratulations from everyone when he tells us his daughter is already starting to look at colleges.

    Freshman year for my kids, I joke, is still ages away. In our tiny universe, the children do their homework pressed against me on the couch. They sit on my lap to tap away at the computer. Their favorite professor is still Dr. Seuss.

    John laughs at the thought of kids so young, still held so close. Then he looks away.

    “Yeah, it’s different for us these days,” he says, trying to hold onto his smile. “They don’t let you touch them anymore.”

    We pause for a moment as his words hang in the air.

    “They’ll be sitting there at the kitchen counter, maybe eating a bowl of cereal,” he says, “and if you get to give them a quick peck on the head as you pass by, well, you’re pretty lucky.”

    Another pause comes and goes, but then the other dads slowly begin to offer tales of their own. Rich says his teenager allows a kiss only by leaning in stiffly to offer her forehead. Bill, father of a 15-year-old, reports that his son doesn’t mind a bit of affection at home, but don’t dare show it in public where his friends might see. Tom pours himself a fresh beer and shakes his head at the thought of his boy, long gone sullen and monosyllabic. “It’s like that line from The Simpsons,” he laughs. “The older they get, the cuter they ain’t.”

    Guffaws all around again, but I see a tinge of sadness in their eyes. And I can’t imagine the world they speak of, at least not now. Then John shifts the talk to me.

    So how are your kids?

    Lucy is nine now, Will just turned seven, and they always want a kiss before they go to sleep at night – and one in the morning when they come down to breakfast. On any rainy Sunday, they’ll tumble into our bed and burrow under the covers to serve happily as human pillows. A kiss on the way out the door to school. Hugs back at home when the day is done.

    How to think of a time when my kids won’t want to grab me around the waist or leg or neck and tell me everything that’s on their minds? Besides, I like to think of myself as the great solver of problems, giver of answers, architect of dreams. Can you help put together my Star Wars Space Police Galactic Enforcer? (You bet.) Must I eat every one of my green beans? (Absolutely.) Will the tadpoles in the goldfish pond ever turn into real frogs? (Let’s wait and watch.) In this time and place, I am still gatekeeper to the world beyond.

    But that world is getting closer. I can glimpse it as I see how far our kids have come already. His little-boy shoulders are now broader and sturdier, and it’s clear his shirts won’t fit by summer’s end. Her I marvel at how dark hair has grown so long and shiny; she is just now beginning to sense her own girlish mystique. At the school’s annual spring festival, their mom and I have always joined them to make crafts, ride the rides and pet the animals in the makeshift zoo. This year, though, they dash off with a posse of school friends and come back only long enough to try for a win at the cakewalk.

    They run off again, but of course we have to smile. There are new friends to make, there will be new people to love, and, yes, there will be colleges to visit.

    Day by day, year by year, they will find their place in the world.

    But for now it’s enough to know they will still reach up to take my hand when we cross the busy street, and still look to me with questions that have no firm answer. When the dog goes to heaven, can we get another? Will we always live in this house? And if we ever do have to move, will the Tooth Fairy be able to find us?

    The next time I see my college friends, my children will both have entered their teens. But tonight when I get home, there will be time to pull their covers up a little tighter and stroke their hair as they sleep. And tomorrow, there will be time to rub their backs to rouse them, to pack their lunches with the daily notes tucked in, to cast a vote for strawberry instead of cotton-candy Lip Smacker for the day that lies ahead. There is still time enough to win a cake.

    “And how are your kids?” John asks once more.

    “They’re fine,” I say. “Just fine.”

    And mine, I tell myself. For now.