Last night, just as it began to grow dark, I needed to roll our big, gray garbage bin up the narrow asphalt road we share with our neighbors, for its weekly pick-up on Tuesday morning.
I asked George, my 3 year old, if he wanted to come with me. He said yes, and he ran to my side. We crunched through the gravel of the driveway together, intent on our plan.
Now, taking the garbage out on Monday night has become a kind of ritual for George and me. Sometimes Cole (my 2 year old) joins us, but usually it's just us two guys. There are certain expectations that we have, based on past experience.
One is that George gets to push the button to open the gate to our driveway. Another is that George gets to open the doors of the shed holding the garbage bins. In fact, now that I think of it, all physical aspects of the task, except for the actual rolling of the heavy garbage bin up the hill, are George's department.
We moved casually through all of these stages of the ritual. We even threw an extra can of Wacky String, which we found lying on the driveway, into the garbage bin for good measure.
But when it came time for the rolling of the bin, I had an urge to change the plan.
If I could just grab hold of its two handles and race up the asphalt of the road myself, before George caught on to what was happening... Then I could get the garbage bin all the way there without the usual game, which involves George holding on to one handle to "help Daddy," while I struggle to keep the weight and the wheels moving with only one handle.
I looked at George. He was a few feet away near the neighbor's plum tree.
So I grabbed the two handles and took off. I felt a little giddy. It was so secure, this garbage bin, rolling so confidently and straightly behind me. I glanced back to see that George was now giving chase.
And he was laughing! As his little legs churned under him he was trying, from a few feet back, to lunge and grasp hold of the steel handle at the center of the back of the garbage bin.
I knew he wouldn't reach it. I was too fast for him. I turned to see how far I still had to go (our garbage bins are a long way from the pick-up area!) and picked up the pace. The bin rumbled behind me.
That's when I detected a change in George's tone. Something alerted me.
I stopped immediately, rested the garbage bin on its plastic bottom, and looked for my boy. He was behind the bin, hidden for a moment, and then suddenly revealed as he stumbled around it. His face was streaked with tears.
"I wanted to pull it!" he says.
I look at him, as if shocked to see him at all, as if he has interrupted some sweet dream I was having... a sudden gust of wind blowing a branch against a window, a picture falling off the wall in the middle of the night. Sit up, look.
"Sweetie. I didn't know you were crying," I say, reaching for him.
"I wanted to pull it!" he says between gasps.
"I thought you were laughing, sweetie!"
"I was laughing..." he sobs.
"You were laughing... and then you got frustrated because you wanted to pull it?" I am trying to understand what happened.
"I wanted to pull it!"
I pick him up and seat him on top of the garbage bin's closed lid. I wipe the tears from his cheeks with my thumbs and hold the side of his face. More tears replace the old ones.
"George," I say, "You can help me with the recycling bin. The blue one. We still have to get that!"
"I wanted to pull it," he says once more.
It's the repetition of it that hurts. He had a simple expectation, and it wasn't met, and we can't go back. It's as if he is crying for himself and for me too, for the whole world. All the missed chances, the failed opportunities, the plans that lead nowhere, the loss. I can see it in his eyes and his lips.
As an adult I could have determined that the whole thing was trivial, which it was. I could have insisted that he get over it and help me get the recycling. But I felt, somehow, that its triviality was what was important.
I knew what I needed to say.
"I'm sorry, George. I thought you were laughing. I know you wanted to pull it."
George nodded through his tears. He leaned forward and into my arms, where we stayed for a moment. Then we pushed the garbage bin back about five feet, and he finished the hill with me without saying much.