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Monday, December 12, 2011

The Involuntary Manslaughter of a Book

I hope you read this one day, son. Because it's really the only way I'll ever be able to let you know just how much what you said hurt.

We were out Christmas shopping a couple of weeks ago when my son pointed out a book that he wanted. It was a newly released title in a series of books that he had been reading for a while. Mental note made, I decided to pick up a copy for his birthday, shortening his wait to Christmas by a couple of weeks.

On a later shopping outing, I had the opportunity to buy a copy of the book without him even suspecting. That's kind of an accomplishment in and of itself. I hid it in our van and got it upstairs to our bedroom where I had another book hidden away for his upcoming birthday.

On his birthday, before I wrapped his gifts I hunted down a good pen - one that wrote nicely - and made an extra effort to neatly write a note on the title page. I put the date in the upper, right-hand corner. Below the title of the book I wrote, "Happy 11th Birthday. Love Dad and Mom." Then I wrapped it in tissue paper and put it in a gift bag with the other book.

If you're reading closely, you may have deduced that my son was only getting two gifts from us on this particular occasion. That's not because his birthday is so close to Christmas. We've always said that should not factor into it. We don't make a big deal out of birthdays at our house, but Christmas is Christmas, and your birthday is your birthday. The relatively modest "take" had nothing to do with that. What it really boiled down to was that my son wanted to take several friends to go play paintball for his birthday party. As usual, however, he didn't express this until it was far too late to make all the necessary arrangements. For starters, the paintball facility required a minimum of one week's notice and a downpayment. For another, the smallest birthday party package they offered cost a little over $200. That's FAR more than we usually spend on birthdays for any member of our family. My son typically changes his mind about what he wants to do on his birthday at least four times, two of which usually occur within a week of the actual date. At any rate, since there was no time and the weather wasn't really all that conducive to outdoor activities, we agreed to set up a paintball outing at a later date. That would be his real present. But, I do like to give my kids something for their birthdays that they can keep and remember. Hence, the books.

I didn't expect him to be overjoyed by the books, but I did figure he'd be somewhat pleased with them. One was a softcover picture book about Navy SEALS, one of my son's latest passions. The other he had flat out told me he'd like to have. And, it was a hardback, first edition. So, I expected him to be somewhat appreciative, which he was at first.

What I wasn't prepared for was his reaction when he opened the hardback book and saw my handwritten note on the title page.

"Why did you write in it? You killed it?" he said.

I don't even know what I said in response. I was stunned. I wrote the note with the intent of adding some personal value to the book, not to ruin it. Perhaps my harping about taking care of his things had gone too far. He's not typically devoid of sentiment. I don't know what I'd say now, given days to think about it. All I know is that those words cut to the bone.

His sister had gotten him a movie, which we watched after he had unwrapped his books. After the movie, I picked up the book, opened it to the title page, and tore it out. Then I wadded up that page and threw it in the trash. What else could I do? I couldn't return the book and he clearly didn't want a book with a handwritten note in it.

I have a letter that my dad wrote me when I was younger than my son. Dad was working in Virginia and we were still living in Indiana. My mom kept it all these years and sent it to me last summer. My dad is still alive. It's not like I'll never hear from him again. But, we don't see each other often. Time and distance simply make it impractical for us to visit in person. The vast majority of our communications are by e-mail; eventually they'll disappear without a trace. So, I'll hold onto that letter from my dad until I'm gone.

I figured I'd give my son something to hold onto in the event that he and I find ourselves separated by time and distance the way my own dad and I have. Maybe he's still too young to get that. Maybe he doesn't even comprehend that there will be a day when I won't see him off to school and I won't tuck him in at night. Or, maybe that just means more to me than it does to him.

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