Pete Harrington stood watching his ten year old son, Jake, kick his soccer ball around on the soccer pitch in the park. He rolled his shirt sleeves up. It was unusually warm for early October, and he hadn’t had time to change out of his suit. After coming home from work, Jake had harangued and harassed him to take him to the park. All Pete had really wanted to do was put his feet up and open a nice cold beer. But since he wasn’t going to get any peace, he’d agreed. At least the beer would wait until later. Sometimes this kid was way too hyperactive for Pete to handle. He could barely keep up with the boy. Had he been that energetic when he’d been Jake’s age? He’d forgotten what it was like to be young. Working all the hours God sends just to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table tended to do that to you. It’s typical, he thought to himself. You spend the best years of your life working your ass off trying to make enough money for a comfortable life and then you never have time to do anything with the money you earn.
“Hey dad, wanna kick the ball around with me?” The skinny fair-haired boy looked hopefully at his father.
“No, it’s okay son. You go kick your ball around. Show me what you can do. I’ll sit on that bench over there and watch you.”
The disappointed look Jake shot at him was like a kick in the teeth. But it didn’t stop Pete turning away and trudging to the bench. Someone was already sitting there, an older man, maybe in his late fifties, with salt and pepper hair. Pete nodded to the man before sitting on the other end of the bench. They sat in silence for a moment.
“That your kid?” The older man finally asked.
“Yeah, he’s a real soccer nut. Wants to run around with the ball all day long.”
“What’s his name?”
Pete hesitated, unsure whether he should answer. Why was this stranger so interested in his boy? “His name’s Jake,” he finally said.
The old man turned to Pete, and with a low chuckle said, “Relax, I’m no predator. My name’s Darryl by the way.”
“I’m Pete. I just wasn’t sure why you’re so interested in my kid. You can’t be too careful these days.”
Darryl sighed. “A truer word never spoken. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uneasy. My wife and I moved here recently. Your son sure has a lot of energy.”
Both men watched Jake run full pelt from one end of the pitch to the other, controlling the ball perfectly. Pete sighed. “Yeah, you’re not wrong there. To be honest he gets a bit too much for me sometimes. Tell you the truth, I’d much rather be home right now, nursing a beer. But Jake was very insistent that I take him here. He’s trying out for the school soccer team. So…do you have kids of your own?”
Darryl shook his head once, but didn’t say anything.
“You didn’t want any?” Despite his initial suspicion, Pete found himself becoming genuinely curious about this stranger.
Darryl sat silent for a moment. “We tried. God knows, we tried. At first we tried the natural way, but as the years passed with no success we realized we were going to need some help. We went to a fertility clinic. We tried artificial insemination, IVF, nothing helped. The IVF was the worst. We tried five months in a row. That was the worst part. I had to stick a huge needle in the top of my wife’s butt every night for weeks. It hurt her so much and I hated doing it. It would all have been worth while if it had given us what we both so desperately wanted.” The old man’s eyes took on a faraway look, clearly recalling that painful time. “We tried everything we could, until our funds ran out. Then we just had to accept it wasn’t God’s plan for us to have children. That was the hardest realization I’ve ever had to make.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. It must have been a tough thing to go through.” Even as he said it, Pete knew how trite his words must have sounded. But what else could you say? What do you say to anyone who’s going through a tough time? ‘I’m sorry.’ The truth was there was nothing else you could say. “Didn’t you try for adoption?”
The older man shook his head. “I was open to the idea. But Muriel? She wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted a child of her own, and that was that. Nothing would change her mind. Well, I’m retired now, and all we have is each other. No kids to visit us, no grandkids to spoil. And everywhere I look all I see is fathers with their children. I love to watch them interact, but it’s like a dagger through the heart at the same time. All those things I’ll never experience. I come out here sometimes because I just have to get out of the house. Muriel’s cold to me these days and the silence gets me down so bad.” He turned his body slightly to face Pete. “Son, I know you probably work too many hours a day. And I know when you get home you’re probably tired and the last thing you feel like doing is running around after Jake. But if you could spend just one day in my shoes, I know you’d see things differently. Because I’d happily trade places with you. Wouldn’t even need to think about it. That boy clearly loves you and he wants your attention and he wants you to interact with him as much as you can. It’s easy for me to say this I know, but appreciate him as much as you can because there are a lot of us out there who can’t have what you have. And believe me, it hurts like hell.” He stood up, nodded to Pete, and slowly walked away.
Pete stared after Darryl for a moment, thinking over what the old man had said. Then he turned to watch Jake dribbling with the ball toward goal. He stood up and walked onto the pitch. “Hey, Jake. How about you go in goal?”
Jake stared at his father in surprise for a moment. Then he grinned. “Sure, pop!”
“And afterward, we’ll go get some ice-cream and rent a movie. Whatever you want to see.”
It was funny how he’d never noticed before how a child’s smile of joy could light up your heart. What else had he missed out on? He resolved then and there to never again take his son for granted. It had taken a chance encounter with a complete stranger to give him a whole new perspective on life.