It was not supposed to go down like this. There is a bead of sweat rolling down the side of my face as I realize I have made a terrible mistake from which I am not sure I can recover. Staring across the ping-pong table from me is a grim-faced eleven-year old boy who is flexing his knees and taking every shot seriously now. He thinks today is going to be the day. He thinks today is the day he takes down his old man. I have always let him stay close before pulling it out at the end but today I regret that. I have intentionally flubbed a bunch of shots but a few errors on my part (and great shots on his) has left me three points from losing. He thinks today is the day.
“They” say the happiest and saddest day in every boy’s life is the day that he realize he can beat his father. Video games do not count. It is the day a boy can beat his father at some physical activity. It is the happiest day because the boy realizes that he is growing up and becoming a man. However, at the same time the boy suddenly has to face the fact that his dad is not a mythical, invincible deity, but simply a man. A man who is starting to lose the fight with Father Time. Essentially, the boy kills his hero.
I vividly remember my day. In middle school, I was fast. I was very fast. At an extended family gathering, I mentioned this and my dad made some comment about keeping me in my place. Not thinking he would ever accept, I challenged him to a race. To my shock, he accepted and my aunts and uncles, and cousins, and grandparents all headed out to the street to watch. I trudged through the yard already embarrassed because I knew there was no way I could beat my dad. I just never thought he would accept the challenge and now I was going to look dumb. My mom even pulled me aside and said, “Why are you doing this? You know you can’t win. You’re still a boy.” I knew she was right and I knew that I had put myself in position that I was going to be hearing about for a long time.
At the start line, my dad looked down at me and said, “We are only doing this once. This is you’re only shot. No excuses” I nodded and got ready. My entire family was out there and my uncle started the countdown. “On your mark.” Deep breath. “Get Set…..” and my old man cheated. He was three strides down the street before I realized I had to move. This was my one shot and I started from behind.
I remember going as hard as I could. I also remember feeling a bit puzzled at how quickly I made up the “head-start.” I was surprised at the half-way point when I was a couple strides ahead of him and feeling like I had not really even hit my stride. I was in a little disbelief by how much I won by and how I eased up a little at the end because it did not feel right. Later, I snuck back out there and stared at the street. I was elated because I knew I could out-run grown men and I had beaten my dad. At the same time, there was an odd sense of disappointment and general weirdness. I was too young to put words on it, but later I realized it was the sadness “they ” say every boy feels when he beats his dad. Sad that his hero is really just a man who is starting to get older.
And now Ben thinks today is the day. I can see it in his eyes. He is not jabbering about Pokemon anymore. He is not talking about soccer. He has stopped trying to do fancy shots. The only smile I see is the smile he is desperately fighting to stifle every time he scores. Ben thinks he is three points away from something special.
I know it’s not the day because I have intentionally let him stay close and then made some mistakes. It still takes effort to make the game close without making it obvious that I am tanking. However, he does not know this. The scoreboard does not know this. The scoreboard says the day is three points away.
I know the day is coming. It is inevitable. I will feel proud and a little sad. He will be elated with a weird feeling he can not pin-point. When that day comes, I want it to be real. For him and me.
I have three points left to make sure I push the day back. Fortunately, Ben is eleven-years-old and is starting to choke. All I have to do is keep the ball on the table and he screws up two points. On the third point, I put a ton of backspin on my shot and watch his little dreams crumble as he bashes the ball into the net.
He drops his paddle, falls to his knees with a huge smile and yells, “Nooo!” Ben gets to his feet laughing and gives me a huge hug. “Dad! I almost beat you! I thought I was really going to do it today!”
“Yeah buddy. It was close! You will get me some day. Today is just not the day.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll know it when it gets here.”
**Addendum:. My dad read this blog and recalls our race. He told me today that he knew the only way he stood a chance was by cheating.
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