Every boy is a future something. Some get tagged before they're even born. A firm kick in your wife’s tummy means he could play sweeper for Manchester United. When he comes out a bit hefty, you size him up as a linebacker. When he throws a jar of peaches from his high chair across the room, you marvel at what that might portend for his fastball.
I probably don’t need to tell you how foolish an exercise this is, that the globe is filled with men who threw their peaches resoundingly across rooms as infants but who never played an organized sport beyond grade school. Still with both my boys, I couldn’t resist, always looking for signs of innate athletic aptitude tucked just below the surface. There is a picture of Charlie from when he was a baby with the blade of one of my old hockey sticks in his mouth. Put aside the evidence of bad parenting for a moment -- that he was ingesting all sorts of bacteria and toxic adhesives, or that a piece of fiberglass could splinter off and get stuck in his throat (all while I was taking a picture!) -- and instead focus on the larger message. At the time I saw it as proof that Charlie was drawn to hockey, that he literally wanted to eat it up, and it was up to me to dispense the game to him in satisfying, nourishing doses.
I question that interpretation now. Truth is, Charlie did take to sports early, and was receptive to almost everything I put before him. But more likely he was just teething, and unable to distinguish between a hockey stick and the leg of his crib, and while both were disappointing options, nothing else was available.
When Charlie was 3, we drove to Lisa’s family’s condo in Vermont and put him on skates for the first time. There was a basketball court halfway down the mountain that the town used to flood, and in the evening there'd be Christmas lights strung between the baskets that would illuminate the ice surface. It may have been my favorite place on the planet. Strong words, I realize, but it was beautiful and so refreshingly simple.
Even before we had our own kids I'd spend hours tooling around on the ice with a puck and a stick before throwing myself into impromptu games of shinny hockey with anyone who was available. I suppose I was an odd proposition back then, this mid-20s single guy glomming onto games with fathers and sons and packs of mischievous teenagers. But I was always deferential to the group and generous with the puck, and I loved it all so much I didn’t really care what they said about me once they untied their skates and drove away. Besides, pretty soon I had Charlie with me, which immediately absolved me of being weird.
The first day I took Charlie on the ice was cold enough that Lisa made me swear we wouldn’t stay outside for more than a half hour. That was my first mistake, because by the time I had his skates tied and helmet buckled and his gloves pulled on tight enough that there wasn't even a sliver of skin exposed, we had chewed up a valuable 20 minutes. And then I had to tie my skates. So the whole thing was an endeavor. But it was worth it the moment Charlie was up on his feet and shuffling on his own. He would fall every few strides, but would always pop up happily, and I of course took that as a testament to his dogged resilience (he just wouldn't be denied!).
Before long I had thrown a puck down and was sliding it to him, and Charlie delighted in waving at it with his stick, often missing outright and toppling over, but occasionally catching it square and knocking it back to me. By then, a handful of kids showed up and were screwing around on the other end of the ice, and one skated over and asked if I wanted to play a game.
“Sure,” I said. “But Charlie’s with me.”
So we split up, the three boys of about 12 against me and Charlie, who now looked out nervously from behind his mask, perhaps fearing these were the sort of dickish adolescent boys who would gladly steal the puck from a 3-year-old and bowl him over in the process. They weren’t, thankfully. When the game started, they were appropriately gentle whenever the puck ventured in Charlie’s direction, allowing him the time and space to whack the puck back, then returning to their normal intensity when chasing after me. Charlie was beaming. I would rush the puck through the other boys and circle around the net, then just leave it unattended in front for Charlie to tap in for a goal. Then came a fist pump, and a high five even from the other kids, and then he’d work his way back toward our end of the ice.
At one point about 40 minutes into the game, Charlie stood motionless in the corner, his focus shifted away from the game, and off into the distance.
“Charlie, are you OK?” I said.
He didn’t answer, but a few seconds later, he waddled back toward me.
“Buddy are you OK?” I said again.
“Yes, good,” he said, and then: “I didn’t pee.”
“I didn’t pee,” he repeated.
“You...Oh,” I said. “OK.”
The game went on for another half hour or so, Charlie maybe moving a hair slower, but still content to totter up and down the ice, occasionally banging his stick for the puck when the spirit moved him. Pretty soon, it was dark and the other boys were due home for dinner, so Charlie and I called it a day, both in agreement as we drove back to the condo that his first hockey experience was a resounding success.
Which I maintain it was. Mostly.
There's not really a correct answer when your wife asks if you were aware that your son had pissed himself in sub-freezing temperatures and that the inside of his underwear is now crusted with ice. To say no is to reveal yourself as alarmingly incompetent, especially when his 3-year-old bladder was under your watch for the better part of two hours. To say yes is probably worse, because at that point your explanation is something about how you were having too much fun playing hockey and didn't really want to deal. They are both the type of answers that, in another context, might involve the intervention of a state agency.
Anyway, this was what was awaiting us when we returned. We had not only blown through Lisa’s deadline, but we were also hit with the real reason Charlie had stole off for some quiet reflection in the middle of the game -- which, truth be told now, I wasn’t completely surprised by. Any halfway decent dad is armed with a reasonable detector of when his child has to piss, but in what I saw as an early example of our sports alliance, Charlie had opted against dealing as well.
So it was a bit of a mess, Charlie now wet and freezing and needing to be rushed into the bath, and Lisa understandably miffed. Will was just a baby at this point -- little more than a curious, babbling observer -- so I took on feeding him as Lisa tended to Charlie in the bathroom. I could hear them in there as the bath was running.
“Did you have fun?” Lisa said.
“I scored three goals,” Charlie said.
“That’s great, buddy,” she said.
“I could have scored more but dad didn’t pass.”