Sometimes when I catch Sean being good, I reward him by letting him pick out something at the grocery store. The only limitation I put on him is that it must be something that can fit in the palm of his hand. And it is for this reason that I haven’t told him where Wal-Mart keeps the iPods.
And so it was one day early in the summer. When we got to the store, we headed straight back to the toy department in search of a reward. We went up the aisles and down the aisles and down the aisles and up the aisles trying to make a decision, trying to choose the exact right perfect reward that would fit in the palm of his grubby little hand.
Finally he stopped dead in his tracks in front of a display of little boy heaven. He pulled from the shelf a box that was about the size of a small television. Wearing a hopeful expression, he held out his hands to show me. Behind the cellophane window on the front of the box was a lightning blue remote control speedboat. The sticker on the front of the box read $25.
“Sean,” I asked, “Does this fit in the palm of your hand?”
“No. But I really want it.”
“Well I can see why. It is very cool. But this is a big thing. This is more the kind of thing you would get for a birthday present.”
“Oh. I thought that was what you’d say,” he said with dramatic dejection. Dramatic flair does not work on me. I’ve had my little-boy-manipulation shot. I am immune.
He hung his head, heaved an exaggerated sigh, and as though wearing lead boots, he walked the box back to its place on the shelf. He patted it and then stood there looking longingly at it. If I were a member of the Academy, I would have given him an Oscar right there in Wal-Mart.
As we continued on, I took a second look at the boat and made a mental note in case of the unlikely event that it was something that he still wanted when he had a birthday later this fall.
About a week later we went to a birthday party.
And sure enough the birthday boy got the lightning blue remote control speed boat.
I watched Sean watching the boy open the box, watching the boy’s face light up.
I watched him try to pretend to be happy for the birthday boy as he has been instructed to do. I noticed his bottom lip start to tremble.
He popped his head above the crowd of kids sitting criss-cross-applesauce in front of the birthday boy. He searched for my face. He gestured towards the boat with open palms. He shrugged his shoulders in a statement of disbelief. I noticed that his ears were red.
He got up, stepped over a few kids and schlumped over to me with the lead boots, head hung low, both arms swinging from side to side like an ape.
He put his head in my lap and whispered through tears, “That was the very thing I wanted and HE got it.”
Part of me wanted to give him a stern lecture about how silly he looked, about how grateful he should be for all that he has, about how he should focus outward and not on himself, about how it wasn’t about him today, about how he will have his own birthday this fall, about how he was embarrassing me, about a million other things.
Yet, my heart broke for him because it was exactly how I felt for years at baby showers. I would pretend to be delighted for the mother-to-be when really I wanted to lay my head in my mother’s lap and cry bitter tears about the unfairness that some other gal was getting the very thing I wanted.
In that moment, I didn’t really know what to do. I wanted to comfort and scold him all at the same time. And no course of action seemed right.
So I told him it’s not his party and he can’t cry if he wants to — and I sent him back to the party. We would have to talk about it later but in the mean time the civilized thing to do was to play the part of a good party guest.
The birthday party might have provided a wonderful life lesson about waiting and wanting and not getting everything you want. But shortly after the birthday party, Sean came home from Memaw’s with a lightning blue remote control speed boat.
Memaw had three little boys of her own at one time but apparently she needs a little-boy-manipulation booster shot.