I don’t remember exactly how it started. But at some point when my first son, Matthew, was two or three years old, we developed a lovely habit every time we went to the movies. At the end of the show, as the credits rolled and the theme song played, we walked down to the front of the theater, right in front of the screen, and we danced.
At around three feet tall, what that meant was that I would pick him up and hold him in my arms, his little feet dangling in front of me as I swayed back and forth in time with the music. No matter if the song was fast or slow, loud or soft, lyrics or instrumentals, this became our tradition.
I’m sure we were quite a sight to the other theater patrons walking out with their empty popcorn bags and soda cups. My wife tells me we occasionally drew a strange glance, but that most onlookers offered smiles and nods of approval. I’ll have to take her word for it, though, because I usually didn’t look. These were golden times for me and I didn’t want to be distracted by anything.
Our little dances continued like this for a few years. At each movie’s end, I asked him if he wanted to dance. And if I occasionally forgot, he was quick to remind me, take my hand, and lead me down the steps to our spot. (Of course, I never really forgot. That was just my way of making sure he really wanted to, and giving him a chance to lead.)
As he grew taller. . .
I began to notice his feet dangling lower. Those shoes that once dangled against my thigh were now tapping at my knees. The thirty pounds of weight I held now felt like fifty. And I knew our remaining dances were fewer and fewer.
I don’t recall what the movie was, or the exact date–or even if he was six years old, or seven. But I remember the dance. Our last dance. And I remember it so clearly because unlike so many ‘last’ events in our children’s lives that we don’t recognize until they’ve already happened–a last diaper, a last bottle, a last crawl before the first step–I actually knew it would be our last dance before it was over.
In the middle of this dance, instead of the usual tight, unapologetic grip he had around my neck, his hug became more tenuous. His head that normally lay comfortably on my shoulder was suddenly upright, his eyes scanning the room at the eyes looking back at him. He had become aware of the spectacle that we surely were.
We finished our dance. . .
But I knew that the little boy I picked up just four minutes earlier was not the same boy I was putting down. He had, in some small but meaningful way, grown up a bit. And I knew that at the next movie, I would ‘forget’ to ask him to dance. And he would ‘forget’ to remind me. And I was right.
But I am so grateful that for most of our last dance, I knew that it would be our last dance. It gave me a chance to soak in those last few moments of childhood innocence with absolute focus. So while the first two minutes of our dance was like many others, the last two, at least for me, were filled with a flood of emotions. They were filled with sorrow and longing for the child I was losing a part of. They were filled with pride and joy at the man my son was becoming. And they were filled with tears.
Being able to experience that last dance as the last dance was a most precious gift. It made it something I could celebrate and enjoy at the moment, instead of lamenting the passing of in that disappointing moment when the next movie’s end held no dance for me. I got to say goodbye, instead of “I wish I had been there to see you off.”
I was also fortunate that around that same time, my second and last child, Benjamin, was just coming to the age that he picked up the tradition of the last dance with daddy at the movies. So I got another four years of funny stares, a strained back, and bruised thighs. Another four beautiful years. Of course, it eventually came to an end as well. And it did so in exactly the same fashion, with the same tenuous hug, the same scanning eyes, and the same last two minutes of an emotional father putting down a different boy than he’d picked up four minutes earlier.
And once again, I was grateful for the signs.
I like to think there’s a lesson to be learned in moments like these. . .
But in this case, I’m not sure what it is. So I’ll leave it to you to decide. Please leave your suggestion in the comments section below for the rest of us to ponder.
The only wisdom I’ll offer young parents is this: Every time you hold your child in your arms, savor every second with the knowledge that the child you put down, may not be the same one you picked up just a few moments earlier.
Paul Smith is a one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.
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