From 9:30 a.m. until 7:00 p.m., hours all filled with 90-degree weather and the kind of sunshine that hunts you down on both sides of the street, Lil E was with his dad, celebrating Father's Day. He was happy to go, skipped down the steps when the bell rang with a backpack full of water guns and Lego guys and carrying a gift bag with presents he was so excited to give his dad.
He's a great gift-giver, my boy. He's thoughtful and wants to find presents he think will match the person he sees. But with his dad, there are always two gifts that come to mind, no matter what the holiday -- dumbbells or a watch. His dad is a personal trainer, so the gifts are fitting. But I remember the watch collection and the number of dumbbells tucked into corners and in the basement that I am quite sure still live in his dad's apartment. So every holiday, we come up with a list of alternates, hoping to push aside the weights and the watches for a few more months.
This year, my mom came up with a lawn game Lil E has loved playing at their house. I loved that idea and always give a big thumbs up to gifts that my son and has dad can use on an excursion or for an activity, that they will do together outside of the apartment, like tickets to games. We trudged over to Target, I pulled Lil E past the toy aisles and we hunted through the camping equipment and water bottles until we finally found the game.
Lil E stood quietly.
"I just feel like this is not my idea," he said honestly.
"It isn't your idea," I confirmed. "It was grandma's. We are trying to help. But if it's not what you want to get, that's OK."
He nodded solemnly.
"What about a watch?" he asked. It was inevitable. And then the next predictable moment followed while he pointed down the aisle. "Or those! What I REALLY want to get him are weights."
"Ahhh," I said. I tried to sound like it was the first time we'd had this talk. "Well, maybe you can go on an investigative mission and find out which weights your dad has at home already, because I know he probably has many of those. And then you can choose one he doesn't have for his birthday next month."
I've offered this deal before. Perhaps it sounded familiar. Maybe it was just another diversion. I wasn't sure.
"But he can always use new weights," he offered.
"Yes, I am sure he can." It's hard to tell him no when he is that committed. "But what about something soccer?"
We edged down toward the soccer stuff. It was mostly kid-sized -- knee-high knit socks, foldable goals, little jerseys and miniature shin guards.
Lil E looked over all of it carefully, running his hands across each thing.
"What about this? Or this? Or this?" he said, tracing lines in each item in front of him that had anything to do with soccer.
Most of it was a no because it was for a child. But he stood in front of a soccer ball for a long time. It was white with metallic blue streaks. I knew E loved it.
"This is it," he said matter-of-factly. There'd be no dodging that little ball.
I nodded at him.
From there, we made our way through every Cubs t-shirt, hat and branded flip-flops in the baseball aisle. None of them fit his dad's size or suited Lil E's standards. It worried him and he began suggesting everything he saw in front of him. I could sense what was coming.
"What about weights?" he asked again.
"Since a Cubs shirt won't work," I offered, "what about an athletic shirt. I see all different colors over there."
He agreed to look, pulling shirts out and sliding them down the bars. Green then blue then white, asking my opinion about long-sleeved versus short. And then he stopped.
"This one," he said, holding a corner of an orange meshy t=shirt way out for me to see. "Orange."
I smiled, relieved. It was his dad's size. It was a good color. It was his choice. We were done.
He was more settled, too. I could see it in his smile.
"Good choice," I told him. "These are very Daddy."
He looks surprised most of the time when I say something that indicates I know his father -- or did for a long and intense decade. But in that moment in the middle of the second floor of Target, Lil E just looked satisfied. And so I was.
A few minutes later, we were at the register, piling the extra things we needed for the house and gifts for my dad and cards all on to the conveyer belt with the Father's Day presents for my son's dad when I noticed the cardboard box around the soccer ball. In big purple letters it read, "Perfectly sized for kids 8 and under."
I added it to the pule of purchases. The ball wasn't fit for E's father at all. But it was perfect for E.
He's a 7-3/4-year old kid, so the inherent self-centeredness of the age was definitely at work. But he also really was intent on pleasing his dad. What happened, despite the lawn-game rejection and sorting through heaps of Cubs shirts and hemming and hawing and worries, was that Lil E chose the perfect Father's Day gift for himself...to have with his dad.
And along the way, he accomplished what I'd hoped -- getting something for them to play away from home, outside, maybe even at the park.
I'm simply the middle-person in those moments and still, what's always on my mind -- to put that kid at the center -- happened all on its own.
We wrapped the gifts in tissue paper and Lil E covered them with stickers. He chose a bag with a monkey wearing sunglasses to hold it all. Then he sat down to carefully write out his card. He was intent and serious and then doubled over with laughter at what he thought added up to the perfect sentiment for his dad.
"THIS is so Daddy!" he said loudly as if to stifle his own laughter.
And I suppose that it is. He's the expert in that relationship. Clearly. I don't get the hilarity of that card. I do not have enough testosterone or time with the two of them together to understand how that works. But it makes my boy happy and I trust that he knows. He so knows.
He covered the envelope in hearts and smiley faces and peace signs. That, I can relate to.
It was still light and warm when Lil E finished up his Father's Day with his dad and met me at my parents' house to celebrate with my father. We sat in the backyard, eating ice cream and cookies and taking photos and laughing at the framed picture he chose for his grandpa.
"How did your daddy like the gifts?" I asked.
"He LOVED them," Lil answered quickly. "He is going to wear the shirt to work tomorrow. And we kicked around the soccer ball."
"Outside, of course!" My dad jumped in on the conversation.
"Oh no," Lil E answered seriously. "At home, in the house."
That is their deal. It is out of my control, not mine to worry about. But of course, I do. The lesson and the gift and the challenge and the choice here is to trust. Not Lil E's dad, but my boy. Just like in the aisles at Target, to trust that he will weigh it, take it seriously, kick it around, figure it out.
That's a lot to hope for, to ask of a nearly-8-year old. But this is his life. Specifically, this is the part of his life with his dad. I will offer ideas, encourage, be creative, steer, offer solutions and hope hard. Very hard. That it all turns out with my boy feeling proud and supported and satisfied at the center.
I'm his mother, and that's what I want for him, for Father's Day.