Every night I’m at home, I read to my little boy before he goes to sleep.
“Little” I say, but he’s creeping up on six now. It doesn’t matter. He will always be my little boy.
Every night we read. Usually at least 10 minutes. Usually not more than an hour. A couple short chapters. A dozen pages. Maybe just a picture book if I’m exhausted. Maybe just a page or two. But I always try to read him something.
We worked our way through all the Little House on the Prairie books this way. We read the Hobbit together. I hope to do Narnia soon.
I may not be the best dad all the time. I travel too much. I work too much. I have a short temper. I’m overly critical. But in this one thing I know I’m doing something right. Reading at night like my mother read to me.
Right now we’re between books. We took a run at Treasure Island, and he seemed to be enjoying it fairly well. But it was requiring a lot of explanation and on-the-fly editing….
And let’s be honest here: *I* wasn’t that into it. Besides, the further we kept reading, the more concerned I was going to have to explain what sodomy was.
So tonight we were looking for something to read, and I wasn’t quite ready to start Narnia yet… so I pulled a couple books off the shelf and let him pick.
He picked this:
The Velveteen Rabbit. It’s a book I’m terribly fond of, though I haven’t read in ages. In fact, the only piece of art I have on my wall here in my home office is a piece of art based off a quote from the book.
(Witness the unspeakable glamor of my office.)
Yeah. I could take a better picture, but that would mean standing up. Trust me, it’s art based on a quote from the book. My mom gave it to me.
And just to be clear, it’s not that I don’t *have* any other art. It’s just that I’ve only lived here, like, six years, and I haven’t got around to decorating yet.
Anyway, I didn’t know we had a copy of this book until I pulled it off the shelf. But I was delighted when Oot picked it, because, as I’ve said, the book has a special place in my heart. I was eager to read it after a decade or two away from it.
So I start reading, and in about three pages I’m crying so hard I can’t actually make words.
This is the passage that did it to me. It’s the same quote that’s on my wall:
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Even just cutting and pasting that into the blog made me all teary again.
So there I am, sitting on the couch, crying too hard to keep reading, and Oot looks over at me and says, “Are you all right, Dad?”
Luckily, this sort of behavior isn’t something out of the blue for him. Sarah is a Olympic-caliber crier. She cries when she’s happy. When she’s sad. When she’s ambivalent. Because she loves me. Because she’s mad at me. Because she’s mad about the fact that she loves me. Pretty much any emotion, action, situation, or change in temperature can lead to weeping.
And I’m only being slightly hyperbolic here. Ten years back, I asked Sarah how much she thought she had cried in her life. Something quantifiable: volume of tears shed. She guessed it at somewhere over seven gallons. And honestly, I think she might have been conservative in her estimation.
So. Oot is no stranger to out-of-the-blue crying. He gets up off the couch, gets me a tissue, and brings it back. He’s a good boy.
As I sit there, trying to pull myself back together, I try to think of how I can explain why I’m crying. The truth is, I’m not entirely sure myself. Sometimes a story just hits me a certain way and it destroys me. The Last Unicorn Does it all through the book. Gaiman’s Sandman in places.
But while Oot is a pretty perspicacious little guy, he doesn’t have the vocabulary I’d need to explain this. Or the experience base. Or the emotional wherewithal.
Still, I feel like I owe him an explanation. There’s nothing obviously sad in this part of the story. Not even a little. That’s got to be confusing.
“Some things are hard to explain,” I said. “Because some people know things that other people don’t.”
He’s listening to me. He nods.
“You know how you’re scared of going into the basement?” I ask him.
He nods again, his little face serious.
“That’s something you know,” I say to him. “You know that the basement is scary when it’s dark.” I pointed to myself. “I don’t know that. It’s hard for me to understand because I’m a grown-up. That means if you tell me that the basement is scary, I have to get you to explain it to me. Or I just have to trust you when you tell me it’s scary to you.”
He nods a third time. This makes sense to him. He knows that I don’t have a problem with the basement, but at the same time he knows it’s scary.
“There are some things only I know,” I tell him. “When I read this part of the book, I get happy and sad and I can’t help crying. You don’t feel that way, and it might not make sense to you, but it’s still the way I feel.”
He reached out then and patted my arm. “That’s okay, dad,” he said gently, “I believe you.”
He’s my sweet boy.