I heard the minivan pull into the driveway and walked outside to meet them. The kids tumbled out like monkeys, the excitement from the zoo fresh on Pax’s face. Ella was fatigued from a long day of walking. It was the usual greeting, them holding up their gift shop choices while talking over each other, sharing what they did and did not get to do while I nodded my head and tried to acknowledge the rapid fire of random facts.
I started to guide them toward the house when Pax held up a tiny inflatable football next to his face. With the sun shining down on his bright blond hair he couldn’t look more angelic. His blue eyes shone. “Wanna play football with me, daddy?”
But the other reason I had come outside was to finish mowing the lawn, the way a burst of productive inspiration always hits me as soon as my wife pulls into the driveway. So I told him no. “I’m sorry, bud” seemed like a weak apology and it was. I excused myself from the conversation and walked back to where I had left the lawn mower before my rest.
I love the hum of a lawnmower engine. The colors of the grass and leaves were bright and the air was cooled by a spring breeze. Add to that the smell of freshly cut grass and you’ve got the recipe for a perfect day. I continued cutting along the neat diagonal rows and felt a sense of accomplishment that was much needed this day off. But still it nagged me, his sweet face, those bright eyes full of joy at the thought of playing outside with his daddy. Actually, that comic strip popped in my head that shows a young son asking to spend time with his father and being told no. Frame after frame, his father turns down every request to read or play or listen. Until the last frame, when the little boy is suddenly a teenager and the dad is the one who wants to have an important conversation. But his son doesn’t have time for him anymore.
It may be overly dramatic, but that’s the way my mind works sometimes.
As soon as I finished mowing the lawn, I went into the house and found Pax standing on the couch watching TV. I had a feeling what he would say before I even asked him the question. It was like my own mental prophesy about him had already come true ten years earlier than expected. He now wanted nothing to do with me or football.
Finally, he agreed to come outside. In true three year old fashion his determined no was followed only seconds later by an enthusiastic yes.
We hunted around for the football. He blamed me for losing it, I blamed him. Ultimately, it was his fault. It was under the swing set.
“Alright,” I said abruptly in an attempt to clear the air from our recent dispute. “Let’s play tackle football!” His high pitched voice agreed. “You throw the ball, Pax, and I’ll catch it. Then you have to tackle me before I touch the tree.” He shouted in gleeful acknowledgement.
It’s hilarious to watch the intensity he gets before throwing a ball. His fists clench and his whole body shakes. Even with all that wind up the football landed only about ten feet away from the knobby trunk of the apple tree.
With a long drawn out motion I scooped the football up in one hand and put one foot in front of the other to start “running” toward the tree. Pax’s smile was as wide as the blue skies above him. He was laughing and out of breath at the same time as he chased me. At each step I baited him, “You have to tackle me! Hurry before I get to the tree!” These taunts only made him laugh louder and higher. He caught up to me just as I put my hand on the tree trunk.
He squealed in delight, chanting quickly in his boyish falsetto, “Tackle, tackle, tackle!” but his fingers betrayed his lips. He wasn’t tackling me, he was wiggling his fingertips into my sides to tickle me!
I about fell down with laughter. I grabbed him close to me and explained, “No not tickle! TACKLE!” and pulled him down with me to the ground so our clothes were covered in grass clippings.
And then I tickled him in return.