There may not be a more up and down experience than parenting. The pride felt in a parent’s heart when their offspring scores an A on that test, makes the winning basket, works really hard to learn trumpet, or on the other side- the wonderment at the sneaking out at 230 am, or the throwing rocks at moving cars, pool hopping when the people are home (brilliant), maybe a brush with the law… or two.
How about the misspelled tattoo that suddenly appeared on their back? Thank god mine haven’t done that one yet…yet.
But then you witness your kid do something incredible and do something extraordinarily compassionate – maybe even the kid with the tattoo, and you can’t believe they are yours, because you aren’t even that good of a person.
There are unique experiences that each of us as parents have that remain with us as well. These are extra special. You know your list. Maybe it’s the snake in the house, or the drunken clown at the kid’s birthday party, or the full sentence the 5-month old baby said when it was just you and her. Some of these memories are wonderful and some of them not so much. But they are yours and that is what makes them special.
Well, every year at this time, I am reminded of our uniquely wonderful- and not so wonderful- memory. And it went down like this;
For this story, our daughter was in third grade and our son was in second grade. For those of you now as far away from this time as we are, it was when they were still angelic. They were adorable. They had terrible breath every day when they gave you a kiss after school and they still wore some of their lunch on their faces. They wanted to constantly be outside. They loved water more than all else- all kinds: baths, pools, lakes, rain, water guns, slip-n-slides, water-faucets, puddles, sprinklers, hoses, and the ocean. And they still believed in Santa Claus. There were no doubts.
And on this particular cold December night, the scream that filled the house meant one of two things. Either our daughter was angry with her brother again, or she was seriously hurt. I say seriously, because of her history of not telling us about injuries right away so not to lose any precious “play time” such as the ten stitch job above her eye that was only realized when she came for a bathroom break.
“What is the matter, Casey?” My wife asked, worried.
We received no response.
“Come on Casey,” I said. “Did you hurt yourself?”
She collapsed before us with a little box in her hand. I had no idea what it was. The look on my wife’s face was grim. She knew. I did the hands in the air with the confused look. “What?” I mouthed. Tiff just shook her head. That’s when my sweet little eight-year-old daughter threw the box against the wall and the box exploded into several little, white baby teeth. And then I knew.
“Why?!?!?!?!?!??!?” Casey cried.
We had no answer. We were not ready for this. “Well,” I said trying anyway. “Everyone does it. It’s fun. You know. For you kids.” I looked over at my wife who was shaking her head to stop. “I think there once was a real Tooth Fairy in Switzerland, but she died in a skiing accident, and we kept the tradition going…” The look on my wife’s face was telling me if I didn’t stop bad things would happen to me. She didn’t say it, but I could feel it.
Casey screamed again. “You are all liars! Liars.” She was sobbing. It was a complete tantrum. “Liiiiiiiiiiaaaaaaaarrrrrssss! I hate you!” She looked into my eyes with a hate that I didn’t know little girls could even carry in them. I knew a little older and they could. But not a third grader. I felt so violated.
I remember thinking that if she knew how to swear, she would be dropping some bombs on us. Then she ran upstairs. Her door that had nail polish, stickers, and an unknown substance all over it slammed shut. We decided to let her cool off on her own for a bit. I looked over at Tiff dumbfounded. “We keep their teeth?”
Tiff went up and gave Casey some love. They watched a movie and painted their nails and did whatever other magic tricks moms do that make everything all right. Our son played it cool, never coming out of his room during the episode. We were pretty sure he didn’t want to jeopardize any loss of future income.
We had forgotten to place money under the pillow a few times. We told the kids to put a sign in the window because the fairy probably got lost. This was tougher. So after getting past it, we moved on and woke up the next morning to a fresh day and with everyone happy.
And now, the rest of the story…
I have no idea where we went. It might have been Christmas shopping. It might have been to a family Christmas party. It might as well have been California, because the only thing that matters in this narrative is the ride home. We lived in Northwest Omaha. Some of you who know Omaha may know of the store called Bike Masters. It’s a great shop on Fort Street which I have used many times over the years. Every year at Christmas time they put out a Santa riding a bike at the corner of their lot. His legs are going to town and the steering wheel moves back and forth. It is great marketing, great community outreach, and just a great idea-period. Remember it is now the day after the infamous discovery of the little box that made the Tooth Fairy a fraud. We are driving east and my wife says, “Hey look. Santa is riding a bike!”
What I witnessed next is something I am guessing very few people get to see. Casey was seated directly behind me. I looked up into the rear-view mirror excited to see her reaction. She was smiling, looking out the other side of the car for the cycling Santa. Then she looked perplexed. I watched her say, “But Santa doesn’t ride a bike?”
My wife, without noticing Casey’s inner-turmoil, responded, “Sure he does.”
But I noticed. Casey sat back, turned the other way, and then let her forehead rest against the window. She stared out into world with yet another crushing blow to her belief system. Their universe is so small at that age. To have two major kicks in the gut about the world you thought you lived in and to happen in less than 24 hours, had to be overwhelming. Had the Santa on the bike come even two days later, maybe she wouldn’t have put it together.
But I witnessed it. I saw the moment my daughter realized there was no Santa Claus.
When we got home, Casey went upstairs to her room along with her brother. I told my wife what I saw. She was unconvinced. I think she just didn’t want to believe it. There was no doubt in my mind. Her face had told it all. And even though I needed no confirmation, it came later that night anyway. My parents had stopped by for some reason. They were in the kitchen with my wife. I was in the living room. Casey ambushed me like she does all the time, but this time, she carried with it a message that would haunt me and my dreams forever. She leaned down and head-butted her forehead against mine.
“I know there is no Santa Claus,” she said in a low whisper. But the voice wasn’t hers. It was a demon’s or maybe Voldemort’s. I thought about which priest to call for the exorcism.
“What? What are you talking about?” I said, nervously.
“I know it’s you.”
And then she left, floating back upstairs like a wraith that had just disturbed my existence for eternity.
She left me stunned. But I was mostly mad. Why do we lie to these kids? I wondered. Why not play the Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny game like we do other characters that aren’t real: all the Disney princesses and Spongebob and Shrek and Justin Bieber and my godfather (my parents claim my dad’s Marine buddy is mine, but I have never even seen a picture of this guy) and Bugs Bunny.
I don’t know if everyone remembers their “Santa moment.” I do. It was fourth grade.(Is that old?) I was walking around the mall after a movie with two friends, riding the escalator up. They were discussing the likelihood that Santa was a fake. I was agreeing, but holding on to hope. Then I looked down at the Santa taking pictures with the kids. The women wearing the elf suits were working hard to get the kids through the line, the parents waited for the kids. It was normal. And just like that it hit me. It was so obvious. Nothing spectacular happened. Santa didn’t go out back and smoke a doobie. I didn’t catch him and an elf in a backroom playing reindeer games. The crazy thing was I felt guilty, and I didn’t want to tell my parents because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings. In fact, I think I played along for another ten years. (Is that a long time?)
So that is the story of one of my unique moments as a parent. I witnessed the instance my daughter realized there wasn’t a Santa. And it broke both of our hearts. But in some way, we are a little closer for it.