After a breakfast of oatmeal and bite-sized chunks of honeydew, we walked down the green carpeted hall. Another pastor-father passed me, grinning and saying the same thing he said the night before, “They have child care!” He walked briskly from the room where I was headed. His three children were there. I heard them playing, though they weren’t noisy at all. No, they needed my son for noise. He would lift the sound level by his own voice. He would teach three children from one family what noise was.
There were blocks of all colors and games and bright toys along one wall. Two staff members, a married couple who explained to me that they had nine grandchildren, one of whom was the same age as Bryce, wrote his name and took his bag. I explained that yes, he could have snacks. I said that there was a pacifier in extreme situations, though I, as always, was secretly embarrassed by this admission. I still wish he did not use the thing, but he does. It doesn’t kill him. Let’s hope it doesn’t alter his development in the long run. I pointed to where I kept the sucky cup, which isn’t a sippy cup because a straw pops up.
None of the other children had bags. At first it was another small sign that I was at a Pastors and Spouses retreat without my wife. I had those signs already that morning and the night before. My explanation to colleagues became common. Dawn couldn’t get off work. Dawn has class “tomorrow night” or “tonight,” depending on when I answered the familiar question. But it wasn’t a sign that I was wifeless or that Bryce was motherless for the retreat. I had a bag, simply, because I knew my kid. I packed his water and a banana and some pudding. I included enough diapers and wipes. He would only be there for two hours, but I knew this boy. He would be a challenge, potentially.
I turned to walk out while he was busy playing. I came back when we had a break, an hour and something later. I listened for his scream as I descended the hill from the center to the building where childcare and lodging were. Nothing yet. He wasn’t yelling through the stones. That was good.
At the bottom step to the basement level where the noise and playmakers were, I looked both ways like I was sneaking, like I was taking something that wasn’t mine to take. I wanted to go undetected. My thought was to stick my head in the room, get a thumb pointed up, and return to the next session.
But Bryce was behind me as I edged toward the room. He was in the arms of a grandfather and new friend, Dave, who I heard saying, “There’s daddy.” It was too late to hide, though I tried as I turned around. Bryce was already reaching for me. He had been crying. He was still sniffling, and when he took to my neck, I saw the dribble under his nose and the strips of dried tears down his cheeks. I felt a twinge of regret that I had not been there, that I had left my kid with these others who he did not know.
I got the usual and expected questions. Is he sleepy? He wasn’t. He had almost two more hours before a nap grabbed him. Then, the grandfather and new friend said something that sounded good to me, better than the half compliments, half sermons I had heard that morning about spending time with my son or about how fathers weren’t as involved as they should be. He said, “Oh, it looks like he just wanted his daddy.”
Back in the room with the wall of toys, one of the staff folks asked if I had ESP. No, I told her, I just know this guy. I changed his diaper. When we came back from the changing, he launched into the toys that were in every corner by then. I saw something called Lincoln Logs, and there was a tiny town being built on a table that the kids had abandoned.
Bryce started drawing with his new friend and playing with one of the other children who had a pink and brown box of somethings I couldn’t see. He found a truck, knelt down, and started pushing it the way he did when we visited the Poethigs down the hall the other day. “Vroom vroom,” he whispered, as he rolled over the large rolling television that was playing something from Disney. Then the boy came over took a pen and tried to swipe the taped paper with all the kids names and ages. I asked him to leave it. He kept the pen, deciding that I meant the paper. His new friend and adopted for the day grandfather figure took him to the board. They started drawing, Bryce with his back to me and me, suddenly, grateful that I paid attention every now and then to the kid’s rhythms.
Before I left at Dave’s suggestion—“You can sneak out, dad because things should be fine”—I heard a mumble or two from the great adults who gave themselves to do what I couldn’t. “Maybe he just needed a dry diaper. Maybe he just needed his dad.” I, again, chose the second answer and I walked out with that in my ears. And Bryce didn’t cry or wail or scream—for about another ten minutes—until I was too far away to hear him.