For Martin Luther King Day, Luke had the day off from school, of course, and I had a day off work, due to a coincidence of scheduling. To make something of the day, we went out and walked the length of our block (he rode his scooter, actually), picking up all the trash on the sidewalk and the curb. It's a pretty serious job. We're between the high school and one of the ghetto neighborhoods, and there's a convenience store on one end of the block and a record store in the middle, and with one thing and another it gets pretty trashy. We filled a whole bag.

To reward ourselves for a job well done (after washing our hands), I drove out to Friendly's, which is one of Luke's favorite places. He ordered something from the kids' menu, like always, but when the waitress brought by the little pamphlet of games and puzzles and jokes that accompanies the meal, Luke felt sort of embarrassed and pushed it quietly aside. Now, I know this is one of the places where my own childhood gets tangled up with my parenting. He's 10, and though he's still a child, he's aware of all the pull of adolescence and the awful fear at that age of being "a baby." I think it might be worse for boys, because there's an undercurrent of sexual suspicion to it.

I suppose if it weren't for social pressure, nobody would ever grow up. Why would they? And some people in fact don't grow up. We either laud them as artists or lock them up.

But the rest of us have to. I hated it, when I was there. It's not enough that you get thrown into the murk and hell of sexuality. You also lose everything that made life golden and easy. The pressure to mature forces you to give up aspects of childhood before you're sure you're ready to let them go. It snatches things from your hands before you're done playing with them. And you never get them back.

And I know he has to grow and I would never hold him back, but I'm going to miss the child that he is. I'm going to have to say good-bye to that kid. It puts the seal on a lot of "somedays" that will now never happen, because it will be too late to light up his face with one more helium balloon or one more stuffed animal or one more kids' meal at Friendly's. And it's not that I did these things so much. The problem is I now feel like they were so easy, and I didn't do them nearly enough.

I've spent time, more time than you would suspect in a grown man, trying to devise a plan for an honorable and loving retirement for the little herd of stuffed animals that he took to bed with him, one or two or sometimes all of them, every night for years. What can you do with them when he starts to feel too old to have them around? You can't just sweep into the room one day with a cardboard box and pile them all in and haul it up to the attic forever, or off to the church rummage sale. That was my mother's solution.

After I finished my cheeseburger, and while Luke was working on his dessert, I opened the activity book and took the purple crayon that came with it and started circling the word-search words, connecting the dots, helping the astronaut find his way through the maze to his lunar module. A grown-up can do that. At least I can. Pretty soon Luke was helping me. We made a few good-natured jokes at the expense of the McDonaldland-type characters interspersed among the educational stuff, just to show we knew we were really above all this.

Aren't we?

Only Satan will tell you, son,
The truth about your dad:
That your growing up also was a torment;
And he wept on your birthdays after you slept.

At every turn in the stairs
He paused and looked down the well
And saw your face of a year before,
Looking up at him, the boy-who-was,
Who was gone.

He loves the young man who stands before him.
But the small version -- he loved that boy, too,
And he had vowed to be father to him to the end,
But he vanished so slowly your father never saw him go,
Never saw he was missing; the parent's nightmare.

And every turn took you closer to 12 or 14 --
The age you saw dad as just another man, flawed,
And you began to cast off the ropes to be yourself.

No, he never stops feeling like your father,
And he never stops loving you like his son,
But there it is; the truth no parent ever will tell.
No more little boy reaches up to hold a hand,
Or looks at dad with laughter in his eyes when dad laughs himself,
Or lets his father quietly settle a stuffed animal more closely
Against a boy's cheek
While he sleeps, hot and growing every second.


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© month day, year Douglas Harper Moe: "Say, what's a good word for scrutiny?" Shemp: "uh ... SCRUTINY!"