It had been a great day of hunting. Many mammoths had been slain. Neanderdad had reigned supreme at work. Now Neanderdad departed his cubicle stronghold and returned home triumphantly. He strode into his dwelling, strong, tall and commanding. Sensing his ebullience, the dog greeted him at the door spastically, leaping up at him as if to lick off some of his success. The children too seemed to sense his splendor, rushing gleefully to hug him. Even Neanderdad’s mate, swamped with her efforts to staunch domestic chaos after her own workday, took time to join in Neanderdad’s jubilant homecoming, giving him a hug, kiss and smile. Neanderdad’s was truly a hero’s return.
But, alas, such moments of splendor can never last. Too quickly do the sharp young eyes of youth see the subtle imperfections of greatness. So it was that Neanderdad’s offspring found the first of several chinks in his armor. It started with the boy who, Neanderdad noticed, was staring transfixed at his midsection. Neanderdad took a quick look to see if, once again, his shirt had been greased, or ketchuped or mustarded. But his shirt was spotless. As he looked up in askance, the boy reached out and slapped Neanderdad’s stomach hard.
“Daddy-o has a big fat belly-o,” the boy yelled.
Neanderdad was confused. The boy’s remark did not seem complimentary or reverent. In fact, it seemed quite the opposite. He looked down at his midsection, trying to understand what had elicited the attack. Yes, he had been working more and working out less, but fat?
“Daddy-o has a big fat belly-o,” the girl then echoed, laughing, She rushed forward to slap his stomach too.
Neanderdad had no choice but to go on the defensive, covering his vulnerable mid-section. Yet they still came. Small hands were hitting him from all sides, smacking hard enough to sting. And the mocking calls continued.
“Daddy-o has a big fat belly-o! Daddy-o has a big fat belly-o!”
“Stop,” Neanderdad found himself pleading instead of commanding.
The offspring did not seem ready to stop and only the dinner call saved Neanderdad from an embarrassing retreat. And as the children withdrew to wash their hands, Neanderdad fought back the smallest flickering thought that his resplendence had somehow been diminished. It was all in good fun, he convinced himself. Great warriors were self-effacing, were they not? So he played it all off.
“Daddy-o,” he repeated rhetorically with a forced chuckle, rubbing his now pink belly.
At the table, Neanderdad calmly listened to the tales of his children’s day. They talked about school, where social drama with other children seemed to be a most pressing issue. They talked about home, were social drama between the two siblings seemed to also be a pressing issue. They expressed great anticipation about the soon-to-be-hatched mail-order butterflies their mother had ordered. To each thread of the discussion, Neanderdad gave his full attention, as magnanimous leaders all must do.
But when the conversation lulled for a moment, Neanderdad took the chance to share some of the more interesting aspects of his work accomplishments that day. Unfortunately for Neanderdad, his tale was a non-starter with this particular audience. Even before he could fully relate the dexterity he had shown in navigating the political geography of the modern mammoth hunting organization, the children had glazed over. And though their futures might depend on his skill—their college education financing, for example, certainly hung in the balance—Neanderdad could not generate any enthusiasm for his triumphs.
“That’s boring, Daddy.” Said the girl, wrinkling her nose.
“Boring, Daddy-o with the big fat belly-o.” Said the boy, trying to reignite the wicked joy of their early attack.
Neanderdad sighed and shrugged. These little ones were too young to understand the significance of what he had done. He understood that now. So he proceeded with them to the bedtime routine, determined to focus on them. After all, truly great men did not dwell on themselves. They gave to others. And so Neanderdad gave the children dental hygiene lessons, guidance on donning pajamas and life lessons in the form of bedtime stories. But the children were givers too. And during this time, as Neanderdad tried to focus on select stories from Robert Munsch’s Grand Treasury, his offspring decided to give Neanderdad still more frank analysis of his appearance.
“What’s this mole on your face,” said the curious boy, jabbing at Neanderdad’s cheek while he tried to read “Mermel, Mermel Mermel.” “Why’s it there?”
“You have a lot of red in the white parts, Daddy.” The girl said a few minutes later, critiquing his bloodshot eyes as he plowed through “The Paper Bag Princess.”
And so it went. The children complained about the roughness of his five-o-clock shadow. They became suddenly captivated by the metal fillings in his mouth and wondered what had happened to his “real teeth.” They giggled and grabbed at tufts of hair that were apparently starting to sprout from his ears. And with each new discovery, Neanderdad began to see through the eyes of his children an entirely different person than the one he thought he was when he had first walked through the door. So quickly, he though, do the unguarded tongues of youth breach the bastions of self deception.
When story time was over and each child was in their bed, Neanderdad kissed them goodnight and quietly crept away. As he fled down the hallway, the girl started yelling for him to return. Neanderdad wondered if he’d left the closet door open, or had forgotten to close the window or perhaps had not turned on the fan. But the girl had gotten out of bed and met him at the door. She beamed at him radiantly, then held her arms out for a hug. Then, as she hugged him, she whispered.
“Goodnight, Daddy-o big fat belly-o.”
Then Neanderdad, he of the big fat belly-o, truly laughed.