EPISODE 16: Time Passages
A few weeks ago I was performing one of my semi-regular purges of clutter in my seven-year-old son's room. Most of the time I treat Nicholas' toys the way a South American dictator would a political dissident - a large stuffed animal made of synthetic fibres, some vaguely flammable-looking art supplies and a bathtub periscope that smelled of mildew were all disappeared during the night, and in the morning never spoken of again. I could not do this to Thomas the Tank Engine.
"Nicholas, do you still play with these trains?" I asked as I pulled two large plastic containers - one marked Engines and the other marked Tracks - out from under his bunk bed.
"No, Dad, you can give them to Goodwill or maybe those twin boys upstairs that Alexandra [his three-year-old sister] plays with," he said. I was shocked. There was a period not long ago when I thought Nicholas would grow old and put a codicil in his will to be buried in a Thomas casket.
Before you know it I'll be arriving home after a crap day at the office to a son who says, 'Oh, look, here's Mr Ass Clown again'
"Are you sure?" I asked, hoping for a few sentimental tears as we bid farewell to our cheeky blue friend. A montage set to Al Stewart's "Time Passages" unspooled before this dad's eyes - the miles of track we laid together, the way the prospect of purchasing a new engine induced Nicholas to start potty training, the terror when The New York Times reported that a certain Chinese factory was producing toxic red engines. Then Nicholas dragged the needle across the record and awoke me from my reverie: "It is OK. I don't really play with that stuff any more."
The Thomas the Tank Engine massacre has just been one small moment in a summer of transition. As a dad, I've noticed this happens at certain junctures with your children. Most of the time, the milestones fill you with pure psilocybin exaltation - he's walking, he's talking, he accompanied me to the pub to watch baseball and didn't tell the wife that I had five pints. But this summer has been bittersweet, for with each new triumph Nicholas has also cast off the last traces of being a little boy - a sweet boy who held my hand, kissed me goodbye and wouldn't dare give either of his parents attitude.
The older I get the more I realise the importance of transitions and how we manage them. At work, I see the difference between a deft and a clichéd transition all the time. There's the person who sends the long-winded, company-wide farewell email. These mash-ups of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" and Richard Nixon's farewell speech to The White House staff invariably arrive when my inbox is overflowing, and I find myself screaming at my desktop, "Please, just tell us your Gmail, and then get the f*** out of the building!"
The better move in my experience (and I've been sacked from a lot of prestigious companies) is to leave a series of handwritten notes - each one connecting a unique dot between sender and recipient. The last time I got one of these I didn't know the colleague very well, but I was so impressed by the bespoke gesture that after a suitable bromantic interlude, I invited the guy to lunch, and we ended up becoming good work friends.
This isn't brain surgery, but it seems as if those peers of mine who are now in senior management or successful entrepreneurs or on the board of the charity that throws the coolest bash manage transitions really well. I can barely remember to leave the house with my pants on, yet they seem to send your favorite Burgundy when you get a promotion.
Another downside of this summer of transition has been that Nicholas treats questions from his parents as if we were a CIA waterboarding team
With children there's less to manage with transitions. They can't be forced. A year ago, I had no idea that Thomas would be supplanted by a fascination with the Civil War or a card game called Uno. At the beginning of the summer, I was convinced that Nicholas would be the misfit in a family of strong swimmers. Then one day in July he let go of me in the middle of the pool and started swimming the Australian crawl. The next weekend, he announced, "I'd like to try that diving board," and then ran off the end. By the month's end, he was letting go of my hand in the ocean swells and diving under the breaking surf.
The downside of his most recent personal growth is that he can now arrive home from day camp using new-found language that he's picked up from the cool kids. Before I had children, I was an epic swearer and used the modifier "f******" the way some people use "very". I quit swearing when the children arrived, so catching Nicholas playing around with the insidious gateway drug of "crap" makes me nervous. Why? From "crap" it is a slippery slope to the hard stuff, and before you know it I'll be arriving home after a crap day at the office to a son who says, "Oh, look, here's Mr Ass Clown again."
Another downside of this summer of transition has been that Nicholas treats questions from his parents as if we were a CIA waterboarding team. In the past he would recount the events of his day in detailed fashion - his face still flush from the highs and lows ("And then... And then... And then..."). We now get monosyllabic responses when we ask. All these wonderful summer activities cost money, and it would be nice to enjoy a little return on investment; maybe hear what it was like to be playing tennis while dad was being parboiled alive on the subway.
Sure, there is a huge part of me that welcomes the transition, but there is also the part that will miss the bits that vanish along with the chubby cheeks. As I lay on his bed the other night reading to him about Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, I thought back to all the nights that I had read him Little Engines Can Do BIG Things as a bedtime story.
"Nicholas, you don't miss Thomas at all?"
"No, not really."
"I was pretty shocked how easily you gave away all those engines. I mean what if I were old and sick and boring, would you just pack me off to the twins upstairs without a second thought?"
"Don't be silly. You're my dad, and I will always love you," he responded and then thought for a moment before adding, "Besides I don't think the twins would really want to play with a sick old man."
To read Mr Brodie's previous columns, click here. Follow Mr Brodie on Twitter @jbrodieny