Today is my dad’s birthday and I wasn’t able to spend time with him to celebrate which was a bummer. A couple of years ago I wrote an essay for a writing contest. The question asked was something like “When did you first understand the meaning of love?” This was one of the first things that came to mind and compelled me to write. I love you, Dad.
PS. I didn’t win the contest.
I have felt love in many different ways beginning with my first memories of running into my Dad’s arms to feel safe and protected from all that was wrong with the world. Then there were the countless times my mom hugged me tight, rocking me back and forth and stroking my hair after yet another nasty fall on my bike. But feeling love and understanding its meaning are two very different things.
There was a day that I remember understanding the meaning of love in a way I never quite had before. On this day my six-year-old son came up to me with crackers surrounding his lips, grabbed my freshly poured Diet Coke on ice with his grimy little hands, and took a nice big gulp. Excuse me? I thought. Did you ask if you could have a drink of my Diet Coke? Don’t you know I just poured that and now it has your fishy cracker floaties skimming the top? Yes, this was my moment. I get it. The meaning of love. Sacrifice. To truly understand the significance of this requires going back to a time when I was probably eleven or twelve, a time when my dad could do no wrong, a time when I couldn’t be cool or fit in no matter how hard I tried.
I don’t know what it was about seeing my dad with that Diet Coke that looked so enticing. Maybe it was the first cracking open of the can, or the fizzy sound I heard as the dark liquid poured over the ice, or the way the condensation collected on the glass as it sat there on the table slowly leaving a water ring around it. Well, I think it might have been all of it. My mouth began to water as I watched my dad lift the glass to his lips, taking not a gulp, but a long drawn out sip, breathe out a satisfied sigh and set it back down.
“You want a sip of my Diet Coke don’t you?” my dad asked me, positive of my answer, I’m sure. I didn’t think I liked Diet Coke. Well at least I didn’t think I’d ever tried it before.
“Yes, you make it look so good,” I replied, mouth watering.
“It does look awfully good doesn’t it? Well, you’d better give it a try then.” He held out the glass and I gladly accepted. I sipped it slowly, trying with all my might to make it look as inviting as he did. It turned out I must have liked Diet Coke after all because I desperately wanted another sip. Dare I ask? I didn’t even have to.
“Do you want some more?” He generously held out the glass again. “Listen,” he said, leaning in as if he was going to teach me the secret to all happiness in life. “Anytime I pour myself a Diet Coke and you see it and want a drink, you can take one.” But this is the sort of thing I would normally get in trouble for. He was the one, after all, who always taught me to never take anything without asking permission first. This just didn’t seem right. “You’re in the club, the Diet Coke Club,” he said. “That means that you are always welcome to take a drink of my Diet Coke and you don’t need to ask.”
Part of the club? This was a very big deal for me, the girl who was the last one picked for everything, every time. I’m in the club! He meant every word of what he said too. Every single time I heard that can cracking open I knew I would get to take a sip, maybe even a few more, sit down with my dad and feel like I was a part of something.
I was jolted back to my own reality by the salty taste surrounding the tip of my glass and the sound of a little voice, “Mmm. That’s good Mama!” said the boy who couldn’t care less about Diet Coke in the first place. This drink is no good to me now. It’s gross. I didn’t want to share at all. Is this how my dad felt all those years? I mean, at least I didn’t have fishy cracker crumbs falling off my face, but still. I had many questions now regarding the logic behind this club that I was so proud to be a part of. I felt compelled to call my dad right away.
“Why did you make up the Diet Coke Club, Dad? Did you really like sharing your Diet Coke every time? You couldn’t have. What were you thinking?” My questions poured out so fast that I barely paused long enough for him to answer.
I heard him laughing on the other end. “Of course I didn’t like sharing,” he answered, still chuckling. “I’m selfish. I would have rather drank it all myself, but that was my whole reason for making up the club. I knew I had to. I knew that every time you came to take a drink I would have to die to myself and my own wants and think of you. And I knew how much it meant to you which was better than getting what I wanted. That’s what being a parent is about.” That was it. No more explanation necessary.
Twenty-five years after my first sip of Diet Coke and four little fishy-cracker-faced children later, I find that I never really want to share my Diet Coke with them. I give them sips here and there because I know I should, but I haven’t made them privy to the Diet Coke Club. Maybe it’s because I’m just plain selfish. Maybe it’s because there’s a little piece of me that likes hanging on to that feeling of being loved so much that my dad would make the sacrifice of sharing so I could be a part of something better than any team or club that I would ever know − the Diet Coke Club.