It was a scene that was both incredibly beautifully and unspeakably terrifying at the same time. Nobody was hurt. And nobody else was around to see it.
The perfect paradox and my children were the subjects.
I’ll explain in a moment, but first a refresher:
As I’ve documented for years, my children are emotional carbon copies and physical polar opposites.
These two exuberant souls share a passion for each experience that keeps my flame burning. They are both empathetic and active, artists and readers, dedicated to fairness and kindness. They will hold the door for you and offer you popsicles if you skin your knee.
At first glance, though, my duo could not be more different: A 7-year-old giant, with feet like bricks and a complexion resembling the perfect hot chocolate; a 5-year-old peanut whose hair is reminiscent of late-80s Hulkamania and whose circulatory system can be traced when he removes his shirt.
So, the scene is set. Let’s cut to the chase—and it was, actually, a chase.
While we live in a New England suburb, we do a great deal of traveling to the rural American South to visit my in-laws. When we are there, it becomes evident to me that my children are also country-kids, at heart. They are liberated and emboldened by the freedom to wander the expanse of forest and fields on the property owned by my in-laws.
I become a better dad when I allow them to wander. I watch from afar, observing their lips in constant motion as they create imaginary wonderlands. I see my youngest pointing at imaginary doorways, undoubtedly creating the rules and frameworks for their newly discovered lands.
One morning, though, I stepped out the backdoor to holler to them for breakfast, when I saw the scene which has haunted me to this moment—and will stick with me until my journey ends.
Fully locked in their imaginary world, my 5 year old emerged from the woods first, smiling but yelling in faux-fear from an invented scenario. Following him by 10 paces was my 7, his beautiful brown face illuminated by a smile that could barely be contained by the immense acreage on which they played.
Slung over his shoulder held in his left hand was an aluminum baseball bat. In his right hand sat a curious trigger-operated contraption, maroon and handheld. While I later learned this device was my father-in-law’s Christmas-light tester, my first thought (obviously) was that he had found a cap or water gun in the forest.
If you’re still having trouble envisioning the scene. Imagine The Walking Dead’s Negan as a Christmas elf.
Suddenly—and just briefly—I saw the universe align in the worst way imaginable. While I was completely charmed by the moment, pastoral and timeless, I also realized that this was exactly the moment I’d always feared.
From a casual unknowing eye, how would this look? From a distance?
An oversized brown boy, baseball bat in one hand and unidentifiable trigger-operated device in the other walking behind a screaming white child.
So I screamed. And I wasn’t sure why, at first. But I knew I had to. I told them both that we aren’t gun people. We don’t play or pretend to play with things that look like guns.
They asked why and I did my best to explain. I really tried. And I’ll do it again. And again.
Mostly I just wanted to get inside. To bacon and eggs. Back to a place I knew both of my children are viewed as equals.