Tyler and Bryce, playing hard. | Photo by Anita Trainor

‘I’ll miss you forever,” Bryce says as I buckle him into his car seat for the ride home at the end of our day together.

“And I’ll miss you until next week,” I reply, kissing the top of his head several times.

Tyler is a less dramatic. He smiles and says, “I love you, too … Mr. Boogerman.”

What is it about boys and boogers? It seems hardwired into the male gene. 

Boogers or not, my 4-year-old grandboys are becoming more complex. And so am I. One part of me is Playmate Papa who enjoys Magformers and loves the smell of Play-Doh as much as they do. Part of me is Helicopter Papa, making sure they don’t do themselves bodily harm (and tending to them when they do). And part of me is Papa Jane Goodall, observing these ever-changing marvels with awe and appreciation.

Bryce began one of his sentences last week with “Actually …” sounding very grown up. Later, as we read a book about cats, he turns and asks, “Papa Ken, why don’t you have a cat?” He asks good questions, thoughtful. Questions I can’t always answer. Questions I praise to the hilt. Pretty soon they forget I haven’t answered them. But I’ve reinforced the quality of questioning, that it’s OK to ask something not that simply can’t be answered but that can’t be answered simply, at least not right now. As Rilke wrote, “Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” 

The art is not to make up something that merely appeases. Instead, questions can be the start of a good conversation, like comparing their cat to Grandma’s cat, the most laid-back feline ever, who doesn’t seem to mind at all being boy-handled.

Kids respond to animals, I suspect, partly because they’re easier to figure out than humans.

“What is ‘play hard’?” asks Tyler after I use the term.

“Whenever you come here you guys always play hard,” I say. Tyler pauses as if thinking, “As opposed to what?” 

They throw themselves into play, never holding back. They enter the realm of the imagination and weave narratives that Tyler in particular likes to do a running commentary on as he proceeds. Sometimes their narratives collide and compete, requiring corrections and negotiations.

Bryce makes several references to something called a “cashuckshin site.” I ask him to repeat it several times until my specialized papa translator function solves the mystery.

“Ah, construction,” I say.

“Site,” Bryce adds, lest I forget.  

My apartment has become a recreation site with multiple options. They move from one thing to the next with ease and enthusiasm. When the officially designated playthings aren’t sufficient, they start exploring my drawers and cupboards for more material, asking, “What’s this?” and when they get the OK, pouring them into their creative constructions. They lose track of time altogether and when we have to move on to something else, like dinner, they need time to transition (depending on how hungry they are — and what’s being served). They play hard, in other words, which is wonderful to watch. 

But sometimes confusing. Looking over his shoulder, I explain to Tyler how something works. 

“I not Tyler. I Bryce,” says Bryce who I swear has magically traded places with his brother. I can’t always tell the difference from behind. In the chaos of play, I lose track.

If I want to read them a book, I don’t ask. They’re too busy. I just start reading aloud. Their curiosity gets the best of them and soon they’re looking at the pages and climbing up on the couch next to me.

When it’s time to set the table for dinner, I don’t ask if they want to help. I call out from the kitchen, “Who’s taking the plates? Who’s putting out the forks?” They love to help, but it needs proper framing. Playing them off one another doesn’t hurt either. 

After dinner, they want to watch the Paw Patrol DVD we picked up at Maze Library. Tyler sits in my lap. Bryce sits with Dad. Halfway through the first episode, Bryce looks over and says, “Papa Ken, I love you very much.” 

“I love you very much, too, Brycie.”

They loved before this, of course, but now they’re becoming aware enough to say so. They’re old enough to know what it means to “miss” someone. They feel the ache when Mama leaves to go to work. It’s painful, but they have to learn that some pain is not all bad. There’s no cure, but why would anyone want to be cured of missing the ones we love?

The boys are bonding. They’re still so young, so innocent, yet life is already becoming more complex, so much richer, so much deeper. 

They’re learning that it’s bittersweet. 

And who would want to be cured of that?

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