In honor of my Dad’s birthday, here’s one of my very favorite memories of him. (Spoilers re Santa ahead).
When I was seven years old, I figured out that Santa was just Mom and Dad—the handwriting was a dead giveaway. When confronted, my Mom cracked like lava cake, secrets pouring out in the McDonald’s drive thru.
“Yup, we’re the Easter Bunny.”
“And the tooth fairy?”
“And the tooth fairy.”
“And God? Don’t tell me God—“
“No, no we are decidedly not God.”
There was a long pause.
“I don’t get it. Why lie about this stuff if it’s all just—nothing?”
“Oh! But it’s not nothing, Sarah. Just because it means something different now doesn’t mean it was never anything. Do you know that there was a real St. Nicholas?”
My mother had an Irish fisherman’s knack for spinning yarns. In vivid detail, from squalling snowstorms down to the embroidery on his well worn sleeves, she described the original St. Nicholas to me until he was so real I could smell his pipe.
“What he did for all of those children—that was real. And now we honor him by spreading that magic, that joy of giving year after year. Don’t you see? When we gift someone else a moment of believing in something bigger even when the world is quite literally dark—that is real magic. And now that you’ve figured it out, it’s not any less real. You are just part of the magic now! It’s an awesome responsibility, isn’t it? To be one of the grown ups, creating the real magic?”
It was too awesome a responsibility for me. I eyed my naive, innocent brothers for hours, looking for cracks or signs that they’d also taken the red pill. But alas, they waddled around building dreamscapes out of legos, leaving me to my reindeer-less reality. After a couple of hours, I started casually dropping hints to my brother Jimmy under the cover of his loft bed. Listen, I wasn’t going to be the only child thrust into an adult world. There had never been a thing I’d done without Jim, and I’ll be damned if I was going to have to be Santa without him.
“But don’t you think it’s strange that Santa’s handwriting is EXACTLY like Mom’s?”
“Mom said sometimes she helps Santa by labeling the presents for him after.”
“Sure but...do you think that’s the most likely answer? Don’t you think—“
She cracked my name open like thunder and all of my shame poured out. My mother’s eyes, the brightest green I’ve ever seen to this day, somewhere between neon and sour apple, flashed furiously. She had always had a propensity for letting loose with cutting words and flying dishes. But on this day, she said words I’d never heard before.
“Wait until your father gets home.”
I hid under my Dad’s desk for hours, shaking, petrified. Was he going to beat me? Eat me? Send me out in the woods with nothing but a small purse of breadcrumbs? Was he going to tell me he was...disappointed in me?
I heard my Mom’s harsh, hoarse, angry whispers as my Dad put down his briefcase. He sighed and bent all the way over.
“What are you doing under there?”
“Okay, well, why don’t you come out? You and I need to have a little chat in our room.”
“Okay,” I sniffled.
I sat on the edge of the bed, stiff as a board, bracing myself. My Dad loosened his tie and belt. I winced.
“Sarah, do you know who Socrates was?”
I shook my head.
“He was a Greek philosopher. He taught people the difference between intelligence, knowledge, and wisdom. Can you tell me the difference between those three things?”
This is not at all where I thought this was going. I paused for a second, shifting gears to let my brain take over the reigns from my petrified little thumping heart and shaky gut.
“Well knowledge is...what you know?
“Uh huh. And intelligence?”
“How smart you are?”
“Right. Or more accurately, it’s your natural ability to learn. It’s your capacity for getting new knowledge. Make sense?”
A total blank. All I can see is an owl.
“Wisdom is the ability to choose how to use your knowledge. To use it for good, not to hurt people.”
He looks at me pointedly. Oh.
“Socrates once said that a wise man knows that he knows nothing at all. Do you know what that means?”
“No.” But that’s wise, right?
Then in vivid detail, my Dad explained that, according to good old Socrates (who was currently ruining my life), what we knew for sure was just one grain of sand on a beach, how those grains of sand extended all the way under the ocean even where we couldn’t see them. There were, according to Socrates, infinite possibilities and things to know. We would never, not in a million years, be able to contain all the world’s sand in our heads.
“But then how would I ever know anything for sure?”
“But then how am I supposed to know what to do?”
“You consider your grain of sand very carefully. And then you make space for the other possibilities and make the best choice you can. For example…”
His eyebrows knit together.
“You found out today that Santa wasn’t real. And now you think you know that. And you decided to share that with Jimmy.”
“Yea, because it’s the truth!”
“Okay!” He always has this lilt to his voice when you’re catching on. It’s oh-KAY! Not oh-kay or OH-kay. He always cocks his right eyebrow with the bounce of the kay.
“But there might be lots of good reasons not to tell him. Like...didn’t you have fun believing in Santa?”
“And you’re seven and Jimmy is five. Would it be fair for Jimmy to have two years less fun than you did just because you figured it out now?”
Oh. I hadn’t thought about it that way...like I was robbing Jimmy of something good.
“Or maybe the question of real is more complicated. Maybe Santa is real in the way we continue his legacy, or—”
“Yea, Mom talked some about that.”
“Or maybe Santa not being real isn’t as important as believing in him, because celebrating Santa causes people to be nicer to each other. So in that case, what matters more, the truth or the outcome?”
Now that is an interesting question to seven year old Sarah.
“So sometimes it’s okay to lie if it makes things better?”
“No. Well, it’s a very nuanced thing. Again, one grain in a big beach. If I lied to your mom about how much money we had because it would make her happy...but then we ran out of money and had to live on the streets, that would be a big mess. But if someone asked if you if they looked fat and you thought they did—”
“I would never tell them that!”
“Because it wouldn’t be—oh.”
Now the cocked eyebrow comes with a side smirk. The sides of his mouth and the tip of his eyebrow almost form a little point at his ear.
“Plus, we know so little about the universe! Some scientists think there are multiple versions of the universe with all different realities—”
“Really? So everything could be real and nothing could be REALLY real? Like maybe Santa is real somewhere?”
“Well, you have to be careful about how far you get carried away. For example, there was another philosopher—”
“Like Socrates, yes, but this guy was French. He was named Renee Descartes.”
“Renee Daycart. Isn’t Renee a ladies name?”
“It used to be a guy’s name. Anyway, he questioned everything he knew about reality so long, he started to doubt whether anything existed at all! He wasn’t even sure if he was real!”
“What happened? Did he go crazy?”
“He said to himself, okay what do I know for sure? The only thing I know for sure is that I’m thinking. And if I’m thinking, I have to exist, because otherwise, where would these thoughts come from? And who would be experiencing them? So he came up with the phrase, ‘I THINK, therefore I am.’ And that launched a whole line of philosophers who—”
The door cracks and you can see one lime green eyeball and a mass of black curls. My Dad straightens up, nods, and the door shuts again.
“Bottom line is, even if you know something, and you think it’s for sure, one person can never have the whole picture. It’s all of us together that make up the whole beach, and every decision you make affects everyone else around you. So before you push your knowledge onto someone else, before you share or judge or try to tell other people what to believe, always ask yourself: Am I sure this is right? But also, is it kind? And is sharing it wise? You think you can do that?”
I nodded vigorously, those three questions like tiny blades that swiftly freed the knots in my stomach.
Is it right?
Is it kind?
Is sharing it wise?
“Are you gonna spank me?”
He sighed. “No. I don’t want to punish you, I want you to learn from this.”
“Do I need to say sorry to Jim?”
“No, I think that might be more confusing for him. Next time, just act better.”
“Wiser, you mean.”
He smiled. “Wisely. Right.”
Let’s be honest: After an eight hour work day and four hours of commuting, it would have been far easier for him to swat me on the behind or send me to my room than to explain Socrates and Descartes and wisdom and reality. My friends always laugh when they hear that story. Silly Rick, explaining philosophy to a seven year old. The world of adults always liked to condescend and pat me on the head, telling me because I was a child, I wouldn’t understand, shouldn't understand, should cling to my beautiful naïveté. My Dad, because of his own experiences, understood that life would not wait for my own convenient timing or spare me troubles until I was an adult. And it was in the turning and turning of hourglasses full of grains he gave me in the safety of my home that prepared my mind and heart for the existential inconsistencies of adulthood.
This is my father. Every mistake, every stumble, every wrong turn is just a long walk down that beach, crosswinds pelting us with shards before tiny undiscovered treasures sift through our fingers. Suffering, for him, is a way station but never an endpoint—because that’s not how the beach works, anyway. All the grains are pushed, pulled, shuffling, shifting, giving way to new life and toppling old worn out structures as they pull with life’s tides. For him, the world and its possibilities are infinite as the sea where those sands meet and extend beyond our seeing.
When adult after adult told me, at 21, in the wake of Mom and Jim’s deaths, that only brokenness awaited me from that point forward, I got angry. They said it with such sad, weighty certainty. I turned the life sentence they’d given me over in my hand.
“Was it true?” No. There were, logically speaking, infinite possibilities for the rest of my life.
“Was it kind?” No. It was absolutely unkind of them to tell me I was fat from trauma.
“Was it wise to share?” No. They were just kids throwing fistfuls of sand in a box they’d made, telling themselves it was the world.
They didn’t know any better, I decided. Their fathers didn’t give them the ocean.