It’s a sweltering summer day. Captain AmeriCute and I are returning from a Superhero and Sidekick outing to an indoor play gym and Target (one of his favorite destinations). I park my car in Brady’s driveway and hop out to open the back door. As Brady climbs out, I scan the back seat, and my heart suddenly drops into my stomach. My mouth is dry, and it’s hard to get the words to come out. I look at Brady, trying to keep my face neutral and my voice steady, so the fear won’t show:
“Where is Princess Leia?”
Our eyes lock, and I can see the fear overtaking Brady as well. “I don’t know!” he blurts out, looking horrified.
“Did you take her into Target?”
Oh, Fu-, I mean, Fudgsicle.
Princess Leia is an inch-tall cinnamon bun hair-sporting Lego knockoff figurine. Brady insisted that she accompany us on our excursion, and before we left, General Mommy gave us explicit instructions to keep an eye on her. I recall that Brady chose to leave her in the car when we went to the gym. But I was so concerned with getting us in and out of the Target parking lot in one piece that I’d completely forgotten to check Leia’s whereabouts.
I assume full responsibility for losing Princess Leia and apologize to General Mommy when she comes out of the house. She hasn’t yet mastered the Force choke, so instead, she goes inside, returns with a flashlight, and then starts rooting around the back seat of my car. As I watch, I’m pouring sweat – but it’s only partly from the heat.
General Mommy finally sticks her hand down the tiny hole from which the seat belt emerges. “I think I feel something,” she says. Sure enough, she slowly withdraws the tiny Rebel.
My panic eases slightly, but then I remember that something is still missing. “The stand! It had a stand!” She reaches in again and eventually pulls out a small black disc. My heart untangles itself from my stomach and starts beating again. I give Brady a hug, and we go through our goodbye ritual. (“See you later, alligator.” “After a while, crocodile.” “Chop, chop, lollipop.” “Take care, polar bear.”) As I head home, I feel a huge sense of relief that today will be remembered as just another fun play date – and not as the day that one of Brady’s toys went AWOL on my watch.
I definitely don’t want to go through the Princess Leia crisis again, so I start doing a toy inventory at the start of our play dates. “OK, so today, we have Mr. Snuffleupagus, Squeaky the Dolphin, and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.” (Yes, that’s actually a thing again). And I would keep a watchful eye on each toy throughout the play date, chanting the list like a mantra:
Snuffleupagus. Squeaky. Stay Puft.
Snuffleupagus. Squeaky. Stay Puft.
Which actually worked pretty well as a crisis avoidance tactic. That is, until Brady started collecting official LEGO Minifigures. In case you aren’t familiar with “minifigs”, some rocket scientist at the LEGO factory apparently decided it would be a great idea to make them an inch and a half tall, with REMOVABLE BODY PARTS – including “hair helmets” that are approximately the size of a pea. I suspect the person who invented minifigs either (a) got a lump of coal in his Christmas stocking as a kid and wanted to exact revenge on future generations of children and parents or (b) worked in the LEGO executive offices and realized that profits from the sale of teeny-tiny replacement body parts would keep his Christmas bonuses rolling in for oh, about the next 200 years. Perhaps both.
So anyway, Brady brings one of these minifigs over to my house for an afternoon play date. I try my hardest to keep up with the newest generation of Superheroes, but I don’t recognize this one. It’s all fun and games until Brady pops off our Mystery Superhero’s hair helmet, and it flies through the air, bounces a couple of times, and then rolls out of sight. Instead of throwing a temper tantrum (which almost would have been more bearable), Brady looks like he’s just lost his best friend. “It’s not my favorite toy anymore,” he says sadly.
Fudgsicle. Fudgsicle. Fudgsicle.
“Don’t worry!” I say, using my Extra Cheerful Voice, which seems quite unnatural coming out of my mouth, as it doesn’t get much use in my day-to-day life. “The hair helmet is still here somewhere! We’ll find it!” I frantically crawl around the living room. No hair helmet. I duck underneath the coffee table. No hair helmet. I stretch out on the floor, stick my arm underneath the couch – all the way up to the shoulder – and start flailing it around. No hair helmet. I finally move the entire couch, and oooooooh, praise the LEGO Gods, there it is. Crisis averted. I’m thankful that we found the hair helmet, but even more thankful that Brady didn’t drop it in the toilet. Because I probably would have stuck my arm down there, too, in order to keep him from being disappointed. We continue our play date, but I make a mental note to implement a Minifig Bathroom Ban.
You see, Brady is usually a happy, energetic, curious, and hilariously funny five-year-old, so it breaks my heart to see him sad or disappointed. And it would be extra awful if I knew that I was the cause of the sadness or disappointment.
For example, Brady loves writing letters and making his own books out of blank pages that are taped or stapled together. He recently created his own storybook featuring “Ghostbuster Crayons”. I’m glad I was there at the beginning of the creative process, because most of the characters looked not so much like crayons, but more like…well, let’s just say that without the proper context, the book could have gotten Brady sent home from kindergarten. So I always get a little panicked when he shows me one of his new creations, as I’m afraid I will hurt his feelings by not understanding the words or correctly guessing what the pictures are. Luckily, most of the drawings involve superheroes, so that narrows the list of possibilities significantly. And when I don’t want to give away that I can’t read the words to the story, I will say, “This looks like a hard word. I will have to sound it out.” I make a big show of sounding out the letters and eventually, I will figure it out – or Brady will get impatient and just tell me what the word is.
And a couple of weeks ago, General Mommy was travelling for work and asked if I would pick Brady up from school. I wrote the day and time in my daytimer. And set an alarm on my cell phone. And another one on my computer. And that morning, I set the timers on my oven and my microwave. But I still couldn’t help thinking, “What if I forget?” And then, “What if I don’t forget, but I have a flat tire on the way? What if I hit traffic? What if a spaceship crashes to earth and blocks the main road?” It’s probably a good thing I’m not an actual parent, as I might spontaneously combust from trying to keep track of this stuff 24/7. Although I would definitely make some therapist incredibly rich.
But I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t want Brady to be disappointed. I always send Brady a postcard when I’m travelling for work. One day, while visiting his Gra and Dadat, Brady decided to return the favor by drawing a hand-made postcard for me. (Dang, now I have something in my eye). He wanted to put it in the mail, but Gra and Dadat said they would take care of it. Rather than explaining to Brady that the post office would not deliver an envelope that had nothing on the front but a hand-drawn stormtrooper stamp and “Auntie Kimembrye,” they waited until he left, and then called me to come over and get the postcard. I’ve also received a letter from Brady in the actual mail. General Mommy had placed the letter and the originally addressed envelope (“ATI KIBLIY FUM BRADY”) inside a larger envelope with my actual address and an actual U.S. Postal Service stamp.
But even the toy inventory, the sound-it-out scam, the mail fraud, the belt-and-suspender timer system, and the Minifig Bathroom Ban can’t completely shield Brady from sadness.
One afternoon, we’re sitting in Brady’s kitchen while he eats a bunch of grapes. He has a loose tooth. (His second one). When I was Brady’s age, I would literally spend hours in front of the bathroom mirror trying to work out a loose tooth so that I could claim my quarter from the Tooth Fairy. I figured each baby tooth was the equivalent of a tiny gold nugget to be mined and cashed in at the first sign of wiggly-ness. But Brady seems determined to hang on to this tooth as long as he can, refusing to even let General Mommy have a look at it.
Brady plucks another grape and starts chewing – and then he suddenly makes a weird scrunched-up face. I assume he’s accidentally tried to eat a piece of stem and say, “Spit it out, Brady. The stems are yucky.” He spits out a wad of chewed-up grape, and I spot a tiny white fleck. Oh. Holy. Crap. It’s the tooth. I carefully extract it from the mush and cup it in the palm of my hand. We run into the office to show Daddy and General Mommy. We all act like Brady has just caught a Hail Mary pass to score the winning touchtown in the Super Bowl.
But Brady isn’t in a celebrating mood. “Don’t talk about the tooth,” he says, and stomps away. And then he starts sobbing. Huge, heaving, heartbreaking sobs.
General Mommy gives Brady a big hug and reminds him that “Dude 2” (his new grown-up tooth) is already coming in and needs the extra space. He keeps sobbing. She mentions that losing baby teeth is a part of growing up, and that he has 18 more baby teeth that need to come out. He sobs even harder. She promises to give him a Superman figurine, which she’s been saving for a special occasion. He continues to sob.
Brady asks for a wet piece of cloth to put on the hole, even though it’s not bleeding. He tries to talk, but between the cloth and the sobs, it’s impossible to understand a single word. I’m fighting competing urges: one to giggle and the other to burst into tears myself.
Maybe Brady just needs to be sad for a while. But instead of letting him sit through this loss, I instead launch into my Auntie comedy routine. I act like I’m scared of his Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and pretend to make a frantic call to the Ghostbusters on my cell phone. This gets the briefest of smiles, but then Brady goes back to sobbing. We sit on the couch and watch a Ninjago DVD. Eventually, the tears dry. He takes the cloth out of his mouth and announces matter-of-factly that he’d like to have his Superman.
He’s excited to get Superman, and he’s thrilled the next morning when the Tooth Fairy rewards him with an Aquaman figurine, a silver dollar, and a page-long poem, a tradition that General Mommy started when he lost his first tooth. Brady enjoys the poems, although with 18 more coming due in a fairly tight time frame, the Tooth Fairy might have to start hiring ghostwriters a la Tom Clancy and James Patterson. (I seriously suspect John Grisham is doing this as well).
My sidekick instinct is to leap tall buildings in a single bound to keep Brady from experiencing sadness or disappointment. But we all experience sadness and disappointment in life, and Brady is no exception. Sooner or later, he won’t get invited to a party. Or he’ll fail a test. Or he’ll get cut from the team. Or he won’t get hired for his dream job. Or his long-time favorite band will inexplicably start putting out sucky albums. (Oh, the pain!) And he’ll have to figure out for himself how he’s going to respond.
Thus, the disappointment dilemma. Brady needs to learn that there are consequences if he doesn’t keep track of his stuff. But I’m too much of a wimp to want to teach him that lesson right now. Am I doing the wrong thing by not letting him experience disappointment? Should I stop keeping an eagle eye on his toys? Should I tell him how the mail system really works? Should I allow him to feel his own sadness until he is ready to let it go – instead of trying to distract him? And should I be discussing all of this with a licensed therapist?
Probably yes to all of the above. Especially the therapist. But in the meantime, I’ll keep trying to shelter Brady from loss and hurt and disappointment as much as I can. I’ll inventory the toys. Go for the quick laugh. Rig the mail delivery. Set multiple timers. Sound out the words. Move the furniture. And yes, should the LEGO Gods forsake me, I’ll even stick my hand down the toilet.
But I’ll still wonder if I’m doing right by my pint-sized Superhero. Because failing as a Faithful Sidekick would be the biggest disappointment of all.
Editor’s note: The Princess Leia in the photo above is a stunt double that General Mommy cobbled together from spare parts, as both the knockoff Princess Leia featured in this blog post and LEGO Minifig Princess Leia have gone missing. (Luckily, not on my watch.) Brady took one look at the photo and said, “She’s not wearing the right clothes.” Hopefully, those who are fellow aficionados will forgive the inaccuracy.