Everyone is dead. Wild animals run through the streets. Small trees and bushes are sprouting through cracks in city sidewalks with no one to prune them back. Nature is reclaiming the earth we tamed and paved into submission with bulldozers, sweat and zoning laws.
This is what’s showing on the large television mounted on the wall in the living room in the four-story beach house we are renting with Robyn’s parents in Carolina Beach. It’s a show called “Life After People” on the History Channel. My son Avery, who is in the fourth grade, is watching it with my mother-in-law. They are entranced. I am disturbed.
I call Avery down and try to engage him in something, anything else. Later I tell Jayne I ‘m glad that she’s spending time with her grandson. But maybe some other show might be more appropriate than one about the end of civilization as we know it. “He seemed to like it,” Jayne says. “Yes,” I say. “But that’s not the point.”
I am trying to shelter him from certain things I don’t want him to know. I’ve been trying to do this for most of his life, actually. Giving ground slowly in a long war. The apple on the Tree of Knowledge is going to get eaten. Just not today. Some other day, but not today.
All through kindergarten and a good part of first grade, Avery had one handheld educational game and one electronic reading system. He learned about vowels and consonants and the magic they make when they get put together in varying combinations. He learned about the planets of the solar system. It was wonderful.
One day he got a gift for Christmas from his grandparents. It was a Game Boy. “How nice,” I said, wondering if there were a tactful way to dispose of it without anyone being the wiser. He’d only ever played educational games to that point. He was going to be a genius. He’d probably cure cancer before graduating from elementary school. If I could just keep him away from that Game Boy.
“What kind of batteries does this take?” my wife asked. “Hmm,” I said. “That’s the rare Double A. I’m sure we don’t have any of those.” She stepped into the kitchen, found four Double A batteries in the junk drawer and promptly installed them. The handheld game blinked to life. Avery immediately forgot all about the planet Pluto (which of course would later be declassified as a planet in any case). I could almost see the little-used letter Q fading fast from his memory. Unlike Pluto, Q is here to stay. But who needs Q when you have a Game Boy?
This is not my first setback.
About 12 years ago, I am inside a huge rabbit costume. It is Easter. If you find yourself inside a huge rabbit costume, it’s always good if Easter is going on around you. It is Easter, as a matter of fact, and I walk out of a bedroom and into the basement area where a three-year-old Avery is sitting. I am worried he’s going to run screaming from the room. But he’s cool with it. I guess huge bunnies popping out of rooms aren’t as unlikely as I had imagined they would be to him. Maybe every moment is a surprise when you are three. So, the most unexpected thing is just another in a long line of unexpected things. He sits on my lap. Pictures are taken. “Hi daddy,” he says. How does he know? “Hi Avery,” I say. Then I remember the Easter bunny never talks. But I suppose this one does because I just did. When we explain to him that daddy is merely playing the part of the Easter Bunny today because the actual Easter Bunny is busy elsewhere, he seems to buy that.
About six years ago, Avery is in the fourth grade at Carolina Beach Elementary school. He is having daily arguments with classmates about the existence of Santa Claus. His autism and profound belief in everything we say help to bolster his faith. He is a staunch defender of the jolly old Elf while his classmates maintain the man in red is a myth. Robyn says it’s time to debunk Santa. I disagree. “When would you like to tell him?” she asks. “Maybe when he is dropped off at college,” I say. But the Indefensible Position gives way to reason, and I reluctantly come around.
We are sitting in a restaurant on the boardwalk. Sunlight filters through the windows. Robyn drops the bomb. Avery needs a lot of convincing. It’s hard to be a part of it. I sit silently for the most part. He’s having a hard time understanding why the Santa Claus notion keeps getting perpetuated. Finally, he asks, “Why would parents ever lie to their children?” I know this one. “It’s about believing in something big and magical. Something wonderful that only requires faith to exist.” Avery nods. “Then why ever tell me that it’s not so?”
Here I say the worst thing I’ve ever said to anybody. I say it to Avery, but I am really saying it to Robyn. “Because we want to subtract all the magic from your life.” Once you’ve said a thing so horrible, it never goes away. You don’t get to take it back in your mouth. It just lies there and stinks up the atmosphere for a few horrifying moments. We go on to explain that he was having these disagreements with his classmates on a daily basis. That we want him to fit in and stop debating Santa. We make him promise never to reveal what he’s learned to another child. He agrees. No use clubbing Santa Claus to death for someone else.
I can’t stop time. All these moments of innocence I wanted to hold on to slip through my fingers before I can stop them or even remember to take a decent photograph of them. I can put on all the costumes I want, ban television shows and remove electronic games. It stops nothing. He’s growing up.
Today he is taller than I am by two inches. He outweighs me by twenty-five pounds. He takes the subway four stops to school every day by himself and walks three blocks to his high school in Chelsea.
The end of the world is happening all around him in chaotic urban life in New York City. Signs of misery and madness. Symptoms of decay, disease and dystopia. (In fact, he’s reading the novels 1984 and Lord of the Flies this year for his study of dystopian novels in his sophomore English class.) He’s got a Wii game system, a Nintendo DS and every App on his IPhone he could want. Somewhere deep inside me, the Easter Bunny is hopping mad. I may have arrested his development in stages, but he is moving on. One day, I may look around and he’ll simply be gone.
I am learning to let him go. Allowing him to slowly slip away. It’s not an easy trick. Not like pulling an Easter Bunny out of a hat. Not like the casual murder of Santa Claus on a sunny day at the beach. No. Not at all. It’s the end of life as we know it.