I could tell he was upset about something, but wasn't sure what. Not minutes before I watched him hustle off after his brothers to play among the trees while we waited for the bus, but something had turned his sweet smile sour as he returned.
"Hey buddy, what's wrong?"
"Nothing" he pouted as he passed, his shoulders slumped and his steps sloppy and listless as he dragged his feet back to the car. I know that body language. It's frustration with a hint of resignation.
OK, I'll bite. "What's going on?" This won't take long to figure out. He's easy to read. His cheeks are flushed and you can see the tension mounting in his lower lip where he's trying to hold it in, but resistance is futile. His eyes are welling up too quickly for him to blink the tears away as they spill out with his confession.
"I'm so SLOW. I can't catch anyone," he blurts out with a throaty warble and casts himself forward with a stomp of his foot against the floor mat.
"Oh..." His forehead now pressed against the back of the front seat where he can hide his face from view, I can tell he's going to need a minute to recover while I try to comfort him. In his fragile condition I know better than to offer any of that "slow-and-steady-wins-the-race" nonsense when this loss is so fresh in his mind.
And "it's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the blah blah blah" is only gonna aggravate this self-anointed slowpoke, especially if he thinks I think he's slow. I can't have him go off to school in a state of festering depression and self-loathing. That ain't no way for a fourth-grader to start the day.
When the snow is gone and the days become warm enough that the morning grass is dry, they often play some sort of game with other kids at the bus stop. Today we were early, but the advantage of having three sons is that we have enough players to be self-sufficient.
Sometimes I throw myself into the mix for some 2-on-2 action, or just to even the playing field. They generally play well together, but I often find it helps to sacrifice myself for whichever little lamb is struggling with the competition.
As they get older and begin to differentiate themselves, it is easier to discern their individual strengths... and their weaknesses do not go unnoticed either.
They are constantly testing boundaries with each other until somebody gets hurt, or upset, or until Dad can't stand it anymore and has to pull the car over for an abruptly threatening father-son chat... but I digress...
With my hand on his shoulder, I can feel the warmth already generated from his lumbering jaunt across the lawn. A fading tremor stutters his breathing as he wipes the annoying tears that tickle the end of his nose while I recall watching them take flight moments earlier. At 13, the oldest has suddenly become an athlete. He runs with direction and purpose and he's tall, which gives him a distinct physical advantage. The youngest tears off like a jackrabbit. He still wears 7-year-old sizes because his butt's too skinny to hold up a pair of size 8 skinny jeans. There's just a blur of scrawny legs and the flipped up soles of his shoes as he kicks it into overdrive and pulls away from my big sensitive galoot.
Despite the age gap between the oldest and his little brothers, my gentle giant is closing the physical gap. Simply growing is easily the one event at which he is faster than the others. The shelf life of hand-me-downs has been reduced from years to months.
I keep warning the oldest to beware: "Every time he gets hurt, you're the one doing it. I know you're just testing your strength, but it won't be much longer before he's bigger than you."
But for now, his big bones and youth are clumsy to control.
"... You know, when I was in school we used to have this thing called the Presidential Physical Fitness Test in gym. We had to do pull-ups, sit-ups and sprint for time. I've never been a very fast runner. My thighs are big so they're strong for biking and lifting heavy stuff, but they aren't built for speed so I'm more of a long-distance, endurance kinda guy.
"Well, I remember having to run like a 50-yard dash on the football field with the entire class watching. I was OK, but then there was this girl. She was sorta tall and skinny with a narrow face and wispy blonde hair, sorta like your brother's. I mean her hair color was like his. Your brother isn't a girl. (He smiles) So anyway, I was at the finish line when it was her turn and I swear that girl just flew down the field like a baby giraffe across the savanna. I couldn't believe it. When she took off it was like her head was shot out of a cannon strait at me, her legs galloping beneath it. She totally smoked everyone, and she was girl! Holy cow!" I said, recalling my naive disbelief. He smiled a little more.
"I know it's frustrating when you're trying to play tag with your brothers, but everybody has different strengths and weaknesses. You know the Hulk, right? He's totally strong and he can smash stuff and throw cars at bad guys, but he's not known for speed. But then there's The Flash who's super fast. What would happen if Flash ran into the Hulk? That'd be ridiculous! He'd bounce off like a bug hitting the windshield of a car."
"Or he'd go splat and die," he offers with a grin that tells me he'll be OK for the bus ride.
"Right! So listen... I don't know what your super powers are going to be by the time you're done growing. We already know you're gonna be big and you can crush Speedy Gonzalez over there whenever you want to. And nothing says you can't be faster, but you might have to work on it.
"In the meantime, don't forget that you have other powers that your brothers don't. You know what I mean?"
"OK, well here comes the bus. Grab your bag and let's have a good day at school, Okay, big guy?"
"Okay, Dad" he says as I chase him toward the bus with the threat of a tickle attack.
"Hey, don't forget..." I call before he mounts the first step, "Burping and farting AT WILL are NOT super powers. They might be super EVIL, but with great power comes great responsibility."
Just then, as if on cue, he let out a tremendous resonant belch and smiled as if to say with immortal confidence, "Fear not, Father. You'll be okay as long as I'm around."
"There goes my hero. Don't know what I'd do without him."
Dave Brewster is a stay-home-dad being raised by three young boys in Groton. Find more at www.ADadIsBorn.com.