I had one of those moments last weekend. I had another one just the other day. These moments happen a lot. They are the ones that you hope you never forget. Maybe the specifics of what happened will fade, but not how you felt, or more importantly the lesson you learned. To me, being a parent is about continuously learning because one fails so damn much. It’s a humbling, humbling experience.
Last weekend I took Alex, our almost-4-year old, to the San Francisco Zoo. “Just me and you” he reminds me, pointing to his chest and then to me. He’s been begging to see flamingos, giraffes, ducks and pigeons (yes, pigeons) in that order.
We arrive at the zoo and I ask Alex what animal he wants to see first, knowing full well that he was going to say “flamingos.” I wonder why he likes flamingos so much. Perhaps it’s that we had just recently gone to the Oakland Zoo with his grandma and grandpa and the flamingos are right in the front of the zoo and perhaps maybe he associates any zoo with their visit. Or maybe because it’s more of an open exhibit vs. the lions or elephants. Or he likes pink. Or he likes birds. Or that they stand on one leg. I honestly have no idea but I’m a big fan of letting a 4-year old like what they like.
We walk to the flamingos and Alex immediately sits on a ledge and starts to watch them. They’re eating, they’re flapping their wings, they’re dunking their beaks in the water. Doing what birds do. I take a seat on the nearby bench and settle in…we’re going to be a while. About 5 minutes in, I begin to pepper Alex with my usual “Hey buddy, how about we go see the lions and tigers?” At 10 minutes I try “Hey Alex, how about we go on the steam train?” I can tell that one got him thinking, but he turns back and continues to watch the flamingos. Every now and then a seagull or duck flies in the water and he screams with delight. “Look Daddy the seagull just fly in the water with the flamingos.” I nod, “that’s cool buddy.” For some reason, even though he’s made it very clear he’s having a blast at the flamingos, all I want to do is get him moving…am I worried he might miss something or am worried that I might miss something?
At this point, I do what most parents would do — I take out my phone. A “witty” post to Facebook, a scroll on Twitter hoping for a good story to read, I check the baseball scores on my MLB app, text back and forth with my wife about the zoo and how cold it is, I check Facebook again to see if I got any likes to my post, take a few photos, look again at Twitter hoping more than one new tweet pops up…you get the point. I start humming “Watching the Flamingos…oooh they’re so pink (to the tune to Elvis Costello’s Watching the Detectives). I mention to the friendly parents next to me that my son has already been here a half hour and when they come back for lunch at the nearby cafe, I’ll likely still be sitting here. They smile and I immediately believe they’re thinking “what kind of parent would let their kid just watch flamingos at the zoo?” — I hate parents. Why did I say anything to them? But he loves flamingos.
Then it hits me. Why am I just sitting here?
I get up and start reading about flamingos. “Hey Alex, do you know flamingos stand on one leg to conserve energy?” “Hey buddy, do you know their beaks are really special because they use them to filter out water when they eat?” “And…they love to eat shrimp.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Alex and I are now engaged in a conversation about the flamingos and you know…they actually are pretty cool. The lions and tigers are all asleep, but the flamingos are active, they move, they “talk” and they get other bird visitors. Content with my parenting…I sit back down on the bench.
“Hey! Hey!” I hear Alex trying to get a man and his young daughter’s attention. Sure, I need to work on the “Hey” but I love the initiative. It takes a few seconds for the other dad to realize that this little twerp next to him is trying to get his attention. He finally looks down at Alex and hears “Flamingos are swimming in the water. They eat shrimp.” The man laughs and looks back at me and I smile. “He like flamingos,” I reply. A little girl, maybe two years old, walks up with her father and Alex jumps right in and starts telling them all about the flamingos. When they leave, the dad thanks Alex and says loud enough for me to hear, “Thanks little man, thanks for telling me all about the flamingos, I didn’t know that.” I beam. The kid who barely talked at all at three years old is now engaging people in sentences at the flamingo exhibit. He’s the Mayor of Flamingo Land.
The zoo isn’t the only place this happens. Alex loves structure and is a creature of habit. He requests to go the nearby train station nearly every night to see the freight trains and the “regular” Caltrains. It can get a bit boring, let me tell you, but we just make it come alive — so much better than a book. We’ve been going since all he could do was sign the word “train.” We learned about the tracks, and colors of the train and the signal for everyone to stop crossing the tracks. We count the cars and yell out “TANKER!” when his favorite type of freight car flies by. He calls out every bird that flies by correctly…”That’s a crow daddy…look at the ducks flying.” We look at the huge construction cranes building a shopping complex and we talk about all the beams being lifted and put in place. We say hi to the same commuters we see every night as they comment at how big he’s getting. We go to Chipotle where he orders himself “brown rice, black beans, chicken, cheese, guacamole, chips, apple juice.” If he had his way, he would do this every night…and he does (minus the Chipotle).
The other night I had one of those moments. The moment when something so obvious in retrospect took so long to uncover. I can barely remember anything from when I was four. Can any of us? Sure, Alex will hopefully remember things that he learned, and the bond we create will hopefully last a lifetime, but he won’t remember what it felt like to talk to that dad and his daughter about flamingos, to have them understand him, when just months ago he couldn’t even say the words.
It hits me again. These moments…
They’re for me.