I’m playing Imagination with my three kids.
This time we’re on a rocket ship headed out into the dark of space, toward a new planet, one yet to be discovered by humans; a planet full of extraordinary mystery and danger.
A planet probably crawling with aliens.
The rocket ship is the couch we bought at Value City Furniture five years ago. Each of the three stained cushions become a rocket booster and after a heart-pounding countdown and a smooth liftoff the boosters detach (we each throw a cushion out onto the living room floor) and we are left ‘floating’ on the springy innards of our vessel, speeding toward the unknown. My eyes settle on the kids, all three looking out into the expanse before us. Their eyes reflect a scene that must surely be magnificent.
My eyes are drawn to a pair of dirty socks in the corner of the living room.
When I was young, I used to love to play outdoors. We had quite a stretch of land behind our house; land teeming with tall trees and wispy grass, small streams and wild animals, secret caves and giant rocks. This land called out to the neighborhood kids, called out to me, and we answered the call.
There was one spot in particular, the spot beyond the great rock wall and the broken fence, the spot beyond the rope swing and the leaning tree, the spot where magic happened. In this spot wars were waged, battles fought, kingdoms built up and torn down, kings and queens crowned, thieves and marauders beheaded. Hour after hour. Day after day. Anything was possible.
We launched a few rocket ships there, too, I remember.
Inside our sofa shuttle, things have settled down. The kids are captivated by the view. All three mouths hang slightly open and I can only imagine the cosmic scene that lay before them.
Or maybe I can’t.
“What do you see,” I whisper quietly, gently nudging my son.
“Stars,” my son says wondrously. “So many shining stars.”
“Stars,” repeats the three year old.
“Earth looks so pretty from up here,” says my eight year old daughter. “So ... small.”
And then someone asks, “Do you see it, Daddy? Do you see it all, too?”
And I look, I really do. I stare out from the couch with great determination and focus. I even squint my eyes and lean forward a bit, hoping to force a glimpse of my retreating home planet, a shooting star or even the reminence of a detached rocket booster or two.
All I discover, looking out into ‘space,’ all I can see, is a used Pull-Up (left alone on the living room floor), an unfinished jigsaw puzzle (pieces scattered), and beyond that, a cluttered kitchen counter full of unpaid bills and home improvement store receipts.
No moon. No extraterrestrial life. No new planets. No stars.
My kids stare up at me, waiting for my answer. Do you see it, Daddy?
I am too ashamed to look at them. Too ashamed to admit that I cannot see what they see, anymore.
How can I look them in the eyes? How can I explain to them that I am a castaway, stuck in a terrifyingly ordinary world full of walls and barriers, rules and unceasing limitations; an incredibly predictable planet void of secret caves, giant rocks, kings, and queens?
A world void of magic.
How can I explain to them what has truly happened to me-that I have lost the ability to imagine, to dream beyond the everyday? How can I explain that at this moment I am not in space, but sitting on a cheap, cushionless sofa in the middle of a messy living room trying not to think about the overdue bills lying on the table in the next room?
“I could see it, once,” I whisper.
“Close your eyes, Dad,” my son says, perhaps sensing my struggle.
I do as I am told.
With my eyes closed, after a few moments, my heart rate slows and my mind calms. It is just what I need. Before long I find myself drifting back, back to the rock wall, back to the rope swing and the leaning tree, back to the spot beyond the broken fence. My spot. Suddenly, I feel lighter.
“I think I’m floating,” I say aloud.
Do you see it, Daddy?
I open my eyes.
It is all here! The rocket ship, the black of space, the sea of stars.
The stars are so bright I have to hold my hand up to shield my eyes, so numerous I could never begin to count them all. The moon looms so close and so large that I actually reach out to touch it.
I float for what seems like hours, mouth agape in the space shuttle, just staring out into the wondrous new world. We will arrive at the new planet soon. I see its outline on the horizon.
I wrap my arms around my three kids and pull them close.
“Thank you,” I say.
“For what?” says my daughter.
I want to tell her: For keeping me young and alive. For always asking me to play. For including me. For helping me conjure up a part of myself that I thought was lost; a part of me that is always teetering on the verge of extinction, the part of me that can turn a cheap sofa into a speeding rocket ship, a messy living room into a cosmic Utopia. The part of me that can see beyond the cluttered kitchen counter.
But I don’t say any of those things.
Instead I respond, “For the magic.”