“Can we get it?” he asks. He is clutching the box like he loves it. It looks right in his hands. I want to clear the shelf and throw the whole lot into the cart.
“No,” I reply.
These days he doesn’t ask why. He knows the answer, or some variation of it. We are broke, and we can’t afford it. Maybe next time. Put it on your Christmas list. He doesn’t have to ask why because his little brother does it for him, although he too is starting to see a pattern.
There is sadness in his eyes, but to his credit he doesn’t push the issue. And there is something else there — something that borders on understanding. He is beginning to accept the limits and rations that we must live with. I don’t like it.
It isn’t that I’m angry about being broke. I know we’re in good company. It isn’t about knowing the value of a dollar, material things, being told no, or any other lesson that is my duty to instill within them. We have those conversations too. Rather, it is about that moment when I am unable to make my children happy — that moment when their smile falls from their face, spreads thin upon their shoulders, and causes their entire body to melt into a puddle on aisle six. It is about feeling helpless and watching as they come to terms with forces I would rather they read about than live with.
They will probably grow up the stronger for it. I get that. But this is now, and while the big picture concerns the men their mother and I are molding them to be, today is about the innocence they still cling to and how it unravels string by string every time a lesson is learned.
It is all relative. They are learning that as well. Every time we have to cancel plans due to a lack of finances we make sure to put things in perspective. Yes, we’re missing a birthday party, a dinner, a playdate, but that is nothing compared to the real suffering in the world. It seems ridiculous to even mention them in the same breath. Context is fickle and easily spun.
The store shelves are full of small differences in single products, and a once easy task is now compounded by catchy phrases and colorful packaging. These are things we need. These are things we are prepared to buy.
“Boys,” I say in an upbeat tone. “Do you like this stuff?”
They smile that they do.
“Great. You can each pick one.”
They spend a lot of time studying the products. Eventually I tell them to wrap it up. The youngest finds one with a picture of a penguin. The oldest likes one that has a comic on the back. They do not put their boxes in the basket, choosing instead to carry them throughout the store. Then they talk about them the whole way home. I nod in the rear-view mirror. Their reflections are wide with happiness. For some reason, this kind of hurts, too.
I haven’t even stepped out of the car, but they are gone. They are unbuckled and leaving a trail of laughter behind them. I see them running through the kitchen door, both behind the other, and each clutching something that they can’t wait to show their mother.