Paradise lost

It was raining.

I remember that because the traffic downtown was awful. My daughter and her friend were supposed to take the bus home from the Cineplex, but she called me up begging for a ride, and I gave in.

By the time I got there, I was pretty grumpy. It was the end of a long, frustrating week, and my brain was fried. Maddie and her friend piled into the car, still buzzing from the movie. Some of their classmates had met them there, and the thrill of adolescent drama was the only thing on their minds. No thank yous. No how was your day. Not even a hello.

"Oh my God," Maddie said, "Eliza was SO annoying! She kept bopping me."

"What do you mean, bopping?" I asked, trying to remind her that I was in the car, too.

"Like this," she said, and she slapped me across the ear, harder than she intended.

"What the hell!" I yelled – and before I could stop myself, I slapped her back.

I remember the exact look on her face, but it's hard to describe. Shock. Horror. Hurt. All of those things, I guess. But mixed in, there was a glimpse of something entirely new – something that told me this was one moment of stupidity I'd never be able to take back. Betrayal.

And then there was silence. As we dropped off her friend and drove to our house, I rehearsed an apology in my head. But when I turned off the engine and tried to deliver it, it came out all wrong. It was laced with excuses, and implications that she shared the blame. She wasn't having any of it. She just got out of the car and hurried up to her room.

For the next few days, we avoided each other. It was as if a wall sprang up between us overnight. Why did this feel so momentous, I thought? It was the first and last time I ever laid a hand on her. Couldn't a parent lose their cool just once in 15 years? My parents had spanked me plenty of times. Why did this feel so different?

Then, I realized, this wasn't about the slap. It wasn't even about that moment, or that particular day. It was about the long fall.

My dad and I went through it when I was 13. I was a typical wise-ass teenage boy – full of sarcasm and newfound bluster. We were sitting down to dinner, and my mom was teasing my dad about the tattoo he got when he was in the Navy, and his wilder days as a younger man.

"Yeah," I said, with a smirk. "But then he made up for it by becoming a dentist."

I don't even remember my dad getting up, but suddenly he was leaning over me. He picked up a rice bowl and slammed it down in front of me. It cracked and fell into two perfect halves, and rice spilled out onto the table.

"Where do you think this food comes from? You should be damned glad I'm a dentist. I don't have to take that #*&@!! from a little punk who never worked a day in his life."

It was a strange and uncomfortable moment. My father rarely cursed, and wasn't prone to sudden displays of anger. My little brothers giggled nervously, mainly because of the comical rice bowl, and the sheer absurdity of it all. But I wasn't laughing, and neither was my dad.

I had seen him angry before, but this was different. He wasn't just mad at me – he was hurt by me. He was suddenly vulnerable – like Superman lured unsuspectingly into a Kryptonite cave. He was human.

To a little kid, parents are gods. All safety, sustenance, and comfort seem to arrive in their benevolent hands. Their strength and constancy are the bedrock on which kids build their worlds. A careless slap or a thoughtless taunt shouldn't shake them – any more than it would a mountain, or a redwood tree. At least, that's how it seems.

As parents, we willingly promote this myth. We long to be the Creators of our children's universe. We build an Eden around them, and expect them to live there forever by the grace of our divine wisdom and will. Then one day, the fruit of knowledge crosses their lips, and the garden isn't enough anymore. We don't have to cast them out – they leave because they want to. Because they need to. Because now they know it was an illusion all along: the meager conjuring of a false god.

When paradise is lost, and our children venture out into the real world, the long fall from grace isn't theirs. It's ours.