Children create worlds small enough for them to feel very big in. I recall, when I was 9, having spent virtually the entire summer in a front-yard sycamore. I had subdivided my branchy realm into distinct subregions and sensed that I was in command of a universe through which I passed with ease and enterprise. I clearly believed that beyond my tree there was no other world.
My son, Alyosha, now 10, has also acquired a world of his own design. In the past few weeks he has developed a passion for basketball cards. I hold my tongue every time he takes his allowance and speeds out of the house to blow it all on yet another pack. When he returns home he pulls out his collector's album and, sitting at the kitchen table, audits and adds to his collection with the silent concentration of a monk. I once disturbed him in the middle of his serious task, at which he threw up his arms and exclaimed, "Aw, Dad! Now I have to start all over again!" And he did exactly that.
The other day I awoke to a thundering of feet above me, accompanied by a fall of books and the slam of a closet door. I made my way to Alyosha's room and found it a mess, and he with a look of panicked despondency on his face. I asked him what the matter was.
"You wouldn't understand," he said, still scanning the room with his laser eyes.
"Maybe I would."
"OK," he said, turning to me. "I lost my Hakeem Olajuwon."
"Your what?" I asked.
My son shook his head in disappointment. "See," he said. "I knew you wouldn't understand. It's a card, Dad."
And then I made the type of misstatement for which parents are famous. "Well," I said, "it's only a piece of cardboard."
I immediately recognized my error. But it was too late. It was as if my mother those long years ago had told me, "It's only a tree." Alyosha flung himself down on his bed and wailed, "You don't understand!"
Oh, but I did, and I do. I was just a victim of the parental impulse to minimize the catastrophe.
The next day, one of my son's friends came for a visit. If Alyosha was the prince of basketball cards, then Zac was the emperor deluxe. Alyosha's collection amounted to a mere 51 cards, while Zac boasted a king's ransom of 400. He was Alyosha's hero of the moment, a co-inhabitor of the world of basketball cards.
Zac immediately understood my son's situation and offered the comfort and affirmation that I did not. He suggested that the two of them integrate their collections into one giant album, which they could pass back and forth from week to week. Alyosha apparently saw this as an opportunity to create the illusion of basketball-card wealth, while Zac may have been simply acting out of friendship and charity.
But somewhere, in some small part of my heart, I had my doubts about the arrangement, which seemed a bit like the stitching together of Yugoslavia after World War. I. How on earth would we ever separate them again without rancor? This time, though, I had the good sense to bite my lip and go about my business.
The first three days of the alliance went well. It was like having my son in a sycamore tree in the front yard: I barely saw him anymore. The cards were everything. It was all I could do to get Alyosha to sit down and eat; but even then he said hardly a word to me - his attention was divided between forkfuls of spaghetti and leafing through the Manhattan phonebook-size card album.
And then came the great disillusionment.
Zac returned one day, and the two boys decided to separate their cards. They sequestered themselves up in Alyosha's room and for more than two hours slipped the cards with loving care out of their plastic slipcovers.
Suddenly Alyosha was downstairs, standing in front of me with tears in his eyes. "Zac has one of my cards."
Out of 451 cards only one was in dispute. The Sarajevo of cards: a Michael Jordan Slam Dunk.
The boys took seats at opposite ends of the kitchen table while I sat between them. Alyosha could barely contain his tears, while Zac spoke straight-faced and quietly in his low, throaty voice. Each boy was convinced that the card was his. But it was a question of forgetfulness rather than covetousness.
"What should we do?" I asked, hoping that they would suggest a solution.
Taking the card, I looked it over and was immediately struck by its singularity. It did have a quality that seemed to be lacking in the others: a gloss, or shimmer, or perhaps it was the gilding around the edge. I don't know. But that card I held was like a small window into the world that meant so much to the two boys sitting before me. "This is a beautiful card," I said, almost to myself. "But there's something even more beautiful."
Alyosha and Zac turned their heads to me.
"Your friendship," I said. And then, "What should we do with it?"
Practically in unison the boys told me to tear it up. I was unprepared for this. I had anticipated another sharing arrangement. It was some moments before I could bring myself to destroy the card. I felt as if I were sawing the lowest limb off my childhood sycamore so that I'd never be able to climb it again. But that wasn't the case at all: I wasn't destroying a world so much as affirming the fact that worlds were never meant for locking oneself away in. They're much more fun when shared.
The basketball card collection lives on.