We Coffeys are a competitive bunch. Life most character traits, that particular one has both its plusses and minuses. But by and large, our competitiveness has served us well. We are not content to be merely good at something. We have to be the best. And of course, in order to be the best, you first have to beat the best.
Which I suppose is why my son kept challenging me to games of Connect Four. You know the game, right? Big yellow rectangle on a pair of blue plastic stilts. One person has black checkers, the other red, and the winner is the first to get four of his or her colors in a row. It was under the tree at Christmas. Mostly because I played it all the time when I was a kid.
My son took to the game just as I did in my once-upon-a-time. We played a game under the tree on Christmas night, then again the night after, and then every night since. Until tonight, anyway. But I’ll get to that.
The thing about playing games with your kids is that you wonder when and if you should let them win. I’ve let my kids beat me at wrestling and boxing and Scrabble and chess. Not often, mind you, but often enough. It’s important they learn graciousness. Both when they win and when they lose. But I never let my son beat me at Connect Four. Some things needs to be a challenge. And to be honest, I like my kids to think I’m a genius at something for now. I know it won’t always be like that.
So we played. He tried, I toyed. He lost, I won.
Until last night.
My son beat me. Snuck in a backdoor diagonal of four red checkers. I never saw it. And what’s worse—what’s maybe worst of all—is that by that point I really was trying to beat him. He had homework to do, and so did I. I’d used my last move to set up my third black piece in a row, hidden from his sight on the opposite side of the board. It was a brilliant move. His was more so.
He dropped in his fourth checker and bulged his eyes.
I bulged mine.
“I win!” he shouted. Then he jumped up and crawled around to my side of the board just to make sure. “I win!”
There had to be some mistake. He’d miscounted. There were three checkers, not four. Or four, but not in a row. Something. Anything.
“You win,” I whispered.
He danced. He screamed. He told his mother and sister. He even took a picture of it.
I was happy for him. And not. Like I said, I’m competitive. I don’t like to lose, especially when I’m trying to win and ESPECIALLY when I’m trying to impress my son with my staggering strategic intellect. That’s bad, I guess. But honest. At least I was a gracious loser. I allowed him his celebration. All three hours of it.
He was still awake when I went to bed, though barely. The excitement had worn off by then, leaving behind a sheen of quiet reflection on his face. I tucked his blankets and kissed him on the forehead, then headed for the hallway.
“Dad?” he asked.
“I’m sorry I beat you.”
I smiled and told him not to be, that he’d won fair and square and should be proud because I was proud. The next morning, he said he hadn’t slept well. Neither did I.
I waited tonight for him to suggest another game. He didn’t. The box still sits untouched in the basket behind the recliner. I supposed it will be untouched for a while.
I suppose every child must inevitably arrive at that moment when he realizes his father is not the perfect man he’s always believed. That he in fact makes mistakes and misses things. That he loses. That he is a fallible, fallen person. It is a difficult moment, but a necessary one.
Both for the parent and the child.