Last month, Ryan and I returned home from an errand at the local Home Depot. Ryan went down to the basement to play with his toys before dinner, and I found his mother to report the bomb he’d dropped an hour or so earlier.
She stared at me in disbelief. “He said what?”
I repeated what the Woog had told me.
“Wow.” She shook her head. “I don’t believe it. It’s like the end of an era.”
Now, as those of you who have been reading this blog from jump already know, and as those of you who are just climbing aboard will figure out pretty fast, I’m occasionally prone to artful exaggeration, whimsical hyperbole, jocular bullshit.
Ryan’s mother, I assure you, is not — at least not with regard to her children. Ryan’s earlier declaration is in fact the end of an era. Mark it down.
What was it that he said which possesses such cosmic force of law? That he’s decided cheesy pasta is yucky? That he has no interest in seeing Toy Story 4? That he’d rather stay home and fold clothes than go to Please Touch Museum?
Let’s not get crazy, I might reply in another context.
But if you really know Ryan, what he said to me is as much an earthquake as those alien abduction-induced statements would be.
Right, got it. So what the hell did he say, with your fake suspense?
Ryan informed me that, in the future, it was okay for me to go to Lowe’s and Home Depot without him.
Oh. I see. Uh, well, guess you had to be there.
Here’s the backstory. I’ll make it quick. (Okay, that’s a lie).
So, every now and then, another dude (always another dude) will ask me what I do.
Rather than reply, “Nothing you’d respect,” I used to test-drive responses that in the moment promised to be interesting but in fact always ended up sounding like the pointless violations of social convention they really were.
Nevertheless, when uttered up front, “What do you do?” is usually a half-assed question to begin with, so I never felt any compunction about offering a half-assed response, such as: I am a jack of all trades, master of some.
As it happens, one of those trades of which I’m arguably a master is home renovation.
I have remodeled and repaired every home we’ve owned. I remodel basements, build staircases, enclose lofts, cut wiring trenches in concrete slabs. I build kitchen islands, kitchen cabinets, countertops, built-in furniture. I lay down flooring. I retile kitchens, bathrooms, showers. I repair and reroute plumbing, ladies and gentlemen. I landscape.
I’ve built my wife bookcases, a desk, not to mention the sweetest purpleheart sewing cabinet in the history of North American woodworking. If I build her an Ofuro tub, I’ve been assured that great things will happen in life.
What does Ryan have to do with this? Well, every general contractor needs a parts and supplies subcontractor. Mine has been the Woog.
I started taking the Woog to the blue and orange borgs when he was a baby. I strapped him to my chest in an Ergo carrier and together we pushed many a lumber cart through the aisles.
At first I approached the trips with some apprehension. After all, I’d never seen a baby in any hardware store. Maybe there was a reason for that.
Turned out that he loved it. Plenty of colorful lights to stare at, plenty of dangerous things for him to try to grab.
Those were just trifles, however. The main event would come later, starting when he was about two years old.
Until he was four and a half, Ryan had a mania for construction vehicles, emergency vehicles — basically, anything with wheels or tracks that could damage your hearing.
Aside from garbage trucks, however, which can be found somewhat readily (except in our neighborhood, where they barrel-ass through alleyways and don’t pick up anything that isn’t gift-wrapped), it’s unusual to find firetrucks or ambulances, e.g., in the wild.
Sure, you could go down to a firehouse, but (hopefully) their main occupants are just sitting there, inert.
Likewise, catching a glimpse of an ambulance with the Woog has turned out to be almost as rare as seeing a comet.
(On the one or two occasions it has happened, I could never figure out how to explain to Ryan that when an ambulance was in his preferred state — tearing down the street, siren screaming, panicked lights flashing — that actually wasn’t a good thing).
But forklifts are always available, always faithful, always working at the borg.
(Or resting. Ryan used to classify forklifts as “wide awake” or “all night long.” Wide awake forklifts were in operation; all night long forklifts were “asleep”).
Forklifts became the reason why a trip to the hardware store was for the Woog what 50-yard line tickets at the AFC Championship Game (in Pittsburgh, of course) would be for me.
Once we got there, holy cow. What a performance. Never mind any shopping. This place was merely called a hardware store. It actually was forklift nirvana.
Every forklift operator in the state of Florida, and quite a few in southeastern Pennsylvania, knew and loved the Woog.
They would show off for him as he stood rapturously behind the safety gate, pumping his fists, stomping his feet, exuberantly pointing out where the next palette of 1x4s needed to go.
They’d wheel around in circles for him, beep their horn, climb down from their machine with a huge smile on their face, and always ask the same question: “You wanna drive it?”
“YEAH!” Ryan always replied as he tried to climb aboard.
“He didn’t mean right now, Woogie,” I’d say.
More than once, these guys would look wistfully at Ryan and tell me that he reminded them of their son, or grandson, or nephew.
In hindsight, I think they were telling me something else as well:
Hindsight is a bitch.
If I’d known that this final, comparatively bland outing to the Home Depot would be our swan song, I would have stretched it out maybe, taken an extra nostalgia lap or two, done something special. I don’t know what, exactly. It’s Home Depot. Maybe let the Woog get an extra key made.
As he had the last few times we’d hit the borg, the Woog wanted to ride in a kiddie cart.
Before that, he’d been insisting on helping push the shopping cart. I’m sure I don’t have to describe the fruitless frustration of that scene in great detail. Like trying to bail out Lake Superior with a spoon.
Believe it or not, him helping push the cart was an upgrade over the previous iteration: free-range.
You try to shop for weather-stripping while your child is taking all of the mailbox letters off the display rack and scattering them on the floor to spell words.
It’s very difficult to shop for weather-stripping under those conditions, is what I’m saying.
When Ryan first expressed interest in riding in the kiddie cart, I was as confused as any parent would be when their small child miraculously offers to do something genuinely helpful.
I did a triple take. “The cart? You want to ride?”
I pointed mutely, my brain temporarily stripped of any multi-syllable words.
“Yeah, I wanna ride in that race car shopping cart.”
I approached the kiddie cart tentatively and looked back at the Woog.
A light from heaven illuminated the stupefied smile slowly dawning on my face. I blinked several times. You mean you’re not going to demand that you be allowed to get behind a big cage on wheels that’s taller and heavier than you so you can push it into aisle displays, into appliances, into people, turning what should be a thirty minute errand into a two-hour, quarter-mile hellscape of bitter trench-fighting and preschooler recriminations?
Hells to the yes, son! Climb aboard!
I’ll confess a dilemma here, readers. On the one hand, I feel committed to rendering events chronicled in this here weblog faithfully — that is, more or less as they actually happened.
Sure, I may take some liberties with the language (I can hear my wife’s peals of laughter reading that), but I don’t just make stuff up.
Problem is, sometimes not much happens that’s renderable. Even with a five-year old.
This was one of those times. In fact, had it not been for what happened at the end, I wouldn’t have felt compelled to write about it at all.
Nevertheless, that’s my problem, not yours. Forward …
I needed three items: a pruning saw, four one-way screws, and lawn bags. (And now I need smelling salts just pondering the domestic titillation).
As usual, we stopped in the paint section first. I always let the Woog pick out a paint chip for him to carry home (I have no idea, but it keeps him occupied for thirty seconds).
He picked Cranberry Red.
If he knew how to browse the internet, I would swear he read this post, because the last few times we’ve gone out shopping his favorite refrain has been, “Do we need that?”
As we headed toward the Garden Center, he pointed at a propane tank. “Do we need that?”
My job is to peer at the object intently, stroke my chin, and say, “Nope. We don’t need that.”
We found the pruning saw in record time. Ryan asked what it was.
“This is a saw to cut tree limbs,” I said, unsheathing the blade.
My usual practice with the Woog is to let him carefully feel all of my really sharp tools and painstakingly describe how they could injure you if you’re not doing exactly what Dada tells you.
The blade had a manufacturing sticker on it. “What’s that say, Woogie?”
Ryan leaned down and peered at the blade. “Razor sharp.” He looked up. “What that means?”
“It means these teeth are very sharp,” I said. “Like a razor blade you shave your face with. They could cut you very easily. You have to be very careful.” I lightly tapped the teeth with my finger.
The Woog was mesmerized. “Yeah, if you’re not paying attention, you could cut yourself,” he said.
I nodded pleasantly. “That’s right, Woogie. You’re a good listener.”
The Woog wasn’t done. “And if you cut yourself really badly, all of your blood will come out of your hand and get on your clothes and you’ll need a whole box of band-aids!”
“Uh, well, something —”
“And you won’t be able to use your hand anymore to draw or eat and it will hurt a lot!”
Okay, so maybe I’ve overdone the safety lectures.
Or not. I turned away from the cart to inspect some pruning shears. When I turned back, Ryan was reaching down for the saw.
We grabbed the lawn bags on our way out of the Garden Center, and then headed for the Hardware section to grab the one-way screws.
The Woog pointed at an orange contraption standing in one of the aisles. “What’s that?” he asked.
“That’s an electric ladder.”
“That’s a forklift,” he said.
“It’s like a forklift,” I said, “but it lifts people.”
“I want to get on it,” he said.
“But I’m people,” he said.
I smiled. “It’s for people who work here.”
“No one works here,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said, “I can see how you’d get that impression.”
After we paid and headed out into the parking lot, I said, “All right, Woogie, where’s my car?”
This was a game we often played. Usually, he’d make a big show of not being able to find the car, while we searched the parking lot. I always figured it was so he could get a closer look at the monster trucks and vans that filled the lot.
This time he pointed the car out immediately.
“That was fast,” I said.
He let out a humongous yawn as we reached the car. I got him out of the cart and he climbed into his car seat as I returned the cart to the pen next to us.
“Hey,” I said. “We didn’t see any forklifts.”
“Yeah.” He stared at the back of the seat, and something dawned on me: the reason for him always wanting to ride in the kiddie cart recently.
He was exhausted. We were only ever going out to the borg nowadays after I picked him up from school.
“Well,” I said as I buckled him in, “that’s okay. We can see some forklifts the next time we come to the hardware store.”
“I, I, I … you can go to the hardware store next time without me,” he said.
I stared at him. “You don’t want to go to the hardware store anymore?”
“No,” he said. “That’s okay.”
A moment passed.
“All right,” I said quietly.
“I’m thirsty,” he said.
“I figured you would be,” I said.
“My water bottle’s empty,” he said. He was getting teary about it.
“Don’t sweat it,” I said.
I reached into the driver’s console and grabbed a water bottle I brought from home. I poured some water into his bottle and handed it to him. He guzzled it and looked at the bottle I was holding.
“Is that your water bottle?” he asked.
I explained that I brought extra water for him to drink so he wouldn’t be thirsty on the drive home.
He took another long sip and said, “Thank you, Dada.”
I offered him a courtly nod. “You’re welcome.”
He studied the back of the passenger seat for a moment and then looked up at me. “You’re a nice guy, Dada.”
This caused me to laugh out loud. “Thanks, Woogie. You’re a nice kid.”
“I like you,” he affirmed with a studious nod.
I smiled. “I like you too. Always have. You’re my wonderful Boogie Woogie.” I leaned in and gave him a scratchy kiss on his cheek.
He giggled, and I asked him if he was ready to go home.
“Yeah,” he said. “And you can still go to the hardware store if you want to, Dada.”
He was reassuring me with that proto-mature expression kids try out when they’re starting to grow up. Gazing at him now induced in me a mixture of joy and sadness.
“I appreciate that, Woogie.” I started to close his door, but stopped. “And I’ll say ‘Hi’ to all the forklifts for you.”
Ryan flashed me a knowing grin. “You’re silly,” he said.
I didn’t tell Ryan anything of what was in my heart at that moment. One of the miracles of childhood is regeneration. Every year Ryan gets to create himself anew, and I was mindful of not weighing him down with my sorrow that the old Ryan is gone forever.
Such sorrow is one of the costs of being a parent, and a child has no way of understanding that cost, much less paying it.
Otherwise I would have told him that our trips together were some of the best moments of my life, and that he’ll never know how much I’ll miss him from now on, every time I go to the hardware store.