You hear it often, mostly from those of us who are guilty. I’m talking about making a promise of spending “quality time” with someone we care about, a precious and valuable experience in these hurried and harried times.
And a few weeks ago I was going to do just that. I planned for dinner and a football game night with my son, Liam. Just us at the house, a huge pizza, him slurping cold milk out of a frosty beer mug and me filling my glass with something a little tastier. He’s 10, and at this age a passion for sports has become something we share. In a household where the only men are the bookends — I’m the oldest and he’s the youngest, with a wife and two daughters in between — we seldom get several hours to do indulge our passion.
On this night, I hatched a plan for the girls to do a movie in Asheville. They took the bait, and we looked forward to the game. An hour or two prior, though, he found a better offer.
“Dad, can I spend the night with Jack and Mason?” he asked after spending the afternoon playing hard with his buddies.
That’s how quick a plan for that elusive “quality time” can disappear. That game and our pre-game dinner had been the most looked-forward-to event on my calendar that week. But that’s also why I’ve learned over the years that the search for that special time — more times than not — is a recipe for disappointment. You can’t run through the week and neglect a son or a wife in hopes that some hyped-up special event will make up for what you’ve just sprinted past. Doesn’t work that way.
I should have known this. It’s a mantra I preached over the years — only in a different set of circumstances — as I became accustomed to driving my daughters to swim practice at 5 a.m. three or four mornings a week. Friends and family would hear about the early morning practices and tell me how bad I had it, how crazy I was for letting my girls get that caught up in swimming.
I would shake my head and tell them they were wrong. Those five minutes around the house before the sun rose and those 15 minutes in the car became a precious commodity. Some mornings there would hardly be a word as we listened to NPR or the girls just dozed. Others we would have conversations about everything from the news on the radio to boys to school to how they should treat their little brother to some crazy family story about one of my brothers or one of Lori’s sisters. Those 20 minutes added up to hundreds of hours spent together, forging ties that will never be broken.
But my oldest has had her license for half a year now. I’m not needed as the chauffeur for the early morning swim practices. That lesson about time had been replaced with me looking forward to that special Saturday night with Liam. Yeah, I was disappointed when he picked his friends over me, but just like that, he reminded me of a lesson I had too quickly forgotten.
Saturday is errand day for us, as it is for many families. This particular morning — prior to the big game — the plans included a trip to the dump, to the dreaded Super Wal-Mart, to the shoe store, over to Ingles and back to the house. The idea was to rush and get the chores done and get things in motion for the night.
And so we were off. The trash takes twice as long with my son helping, but he’s learning how to break down the cardboard and how to get it in the green trailer properly. That’s his job, and so we muddle through it. At Wally World we tried to get in and out fast, but he wanted to trade in a Christmas gift card for a toy, and so we were there quite a while as he figured out which toy gun was the best. Shoe shopping was taxing, but we finally got just what he needed. And so it went. Suffice it to say the errands took longer than I’d hoped.
On Sunday, after the football game disappointment, Lori and I went to the lake for a walk, and Liam wanted to come along. As we walked, he became a Star Wars clone warrior, protecting our perimeter, running, rolling, flipping, hiding and shooting. All around the lake we went, rubber bullets flying, us getting dirty looks from those who think kids and toy guns are a bad mix. You can tell when children are just having fun in their escape mode, when the game becomes reality and to hell with what most of us consider the real world. He was in that zone.
On the way home he was was tired. He sat quietly in the back before telling us that Saturday morning had been one of the best he could remember. It was fun doing all that stuff together with dad, he says.
And so it was, and out the window once again went the pompous idea that anyone can really measure out planned teaspoons of quality time, like there’s a recipe that adds meaning to time spent together. It comes when you least expect it, amid all those hurried and harried moments we call life.