The Exact Image Of Your Mother


They say you are the exact image of your mother, and this brings me such joy.  One of my greatest fears is to have a son exactly like myself.  It would be a trial, and possibly an unbearable one.  I can’t imagine attempting to remedy my own inherent deficiencies while watching them play out in a child I love.  


So when folks say you look just like your mother, I agree heartily.  Sometimes, they give me a pitying look and suggest that surely my contribution will become more apparent as time goes on, and this makes my hands clammy.  


What things could I have offered you?  At the top of list are poor eyesight and incessant acne.  You’re welcome.  But there are other traits, too, that I’m fearful I’ve passed along to you.  Maybe you’ll sweat profusely in the heat and shiver uncontrollably in the cold.  Maybe you’ll get my skin—the ragged type that makes my cheeks droop and eyebrows sag like an extra large shirt draped over an extra small mannequin.


Of course, if you got my skin, that would just be unfortunate rather than abnormal.  I also have medical defects to offer.  Spina bifida and pectus excavatum, to name two.  The latter a dented chest and the former unfused lumbar vertebrate.  It was as if the stem cells charged with assembling me worked close enough to a full day, then said, “good enough,” and started the weekend early.  On a Wednesday.


Despite their semblance with spells from Harry Potter, these two conditions have afforded me only consequence and no magic at all.  I’ve hardly noticed the slit in my spine, thankfully, but as for the impact crater in my chest, that has been more problematic.  For one, at my sports physical in high school, a doctor told me it probably had no effect on my heart and lungs.  I read between the lines to discover that it could have an effect on both my heart and my lungs.  All these years later, I still can’t jog a hundred yards without breathlessly fearing that my heart will explode or surmising that my lungs are undersized.  Second, the lost space in my chest made my body even denser than it naturally is.  Denser, in fact, than water.  I know this so precisely because if my lungs are not maximally filled with air, I do not float on top the water, but rather six inches under it.  This, in turn, made me desperately fearful of the water, which, in turn, caused me to never learn how to swim.  It was only when your mother was six months pregnant and the increasingly clear recognition that I might be a father unable to teach his child how to swim, unable to save her, and inadequate in her eyes, that I finally summoned the courage take swimming lessons at our YMCA.  My instructors said I became like a fish, but they were only being kind.  A more appropriate analogy is that I now move in the water with the uninspired diligence of a snapping turtle—dour, dense, and determined.  And usually beneath the surface.


Above all else, God forbid you get my personality.  Aloof, brooding, and insecure, I was born to implode.  For that reason, it’s a miracle I got the parents that I did.  I was raised amidst incessant, relentless optimism which means I compulsively smile—in greetings, conversations, and arguments—and all that smiling ended up making me more cheerful than I was made to be.  So at least regarding my personality, it’s reassuring to know it can be haphazardly corrected if inflicted upon you.  


Another aspect of myself that has been entirely uncorrectable, however, regards my severe deficit of common sense.  I guess that I should be thankful that, in comparison to the people who lack common sense and don’t realize it, I have the great advantage of being painfully aware of it.  I am proactively on the lookout for my own compulsive, naïve stupidity.  All the time, in all the places.  My first memory of this self-realization occurred when I was in second grade.  I was shooting a water balloon with a pellet gun at our farmhouse.  My dad walked out the door while I pulled the trigger, and I kept pulling the trigger while I took my eyes off the water balloon and looked at him instead.  


My father was unfazed by a BB grazing his face.  After all, it was in my father’s younger years that a lightbulb exploded in his face, serrated his cornea and cut his eye socket.  He cupped his oozing eye with his hand and told my mother they probably ought to go to the hospital, and it was only when he had gotten into the driver’s seat that he calmly, somewhat disappointedly, acknowledged that perhaps she should drive instead.  It was my father that rolled off the roof and hobbled around on a cracked hip till it healed, my father who counted it as a blessing when his rickety car was totaled by a drunk driver and he could cash it in for the insurance money, and my father who was flung from the top of a carnival tent in a windstorm and broke his arm during one of his many spontaneous excursions into an unvetted opportunity—this one as a carnie for a summer.  It was preceded by joining the Air Force and followed by driving a rusted race car around every dirt racetrack in Iowa.  If some people brush their irrational passions into other parallel worlds, as in the “in a parallel universe I’m a doctor,” strategy, my father compressed those many parallel lives into a singularity, and that is why when you are old enough, I will use him as an example definition of the vocabulary word “eccentric.”  You, surely, will quickly recognize the definition also pertains to me, but only in the sense that beer and moonshine are both alcoholic, the one being far more concentrated and potent than the other.  I am, after all, only a diluted version of my father, and that may be best for the universe.  


My father, thus, held little fear of being shot whether by a BB or something more substantive.  Instead, he simply waved his arm to the vast expanse provided by the other 359 degrees surrounding our isolated farmhouse and suggested I shoot at my water balloon in a different direction.  Any different direction.  


In the moment, I thought, My God, that’s brilliant.  Only later, with the benefit of time and reflection, did I acknowledge that this was the sort of thing I ought not be required to be told.  Nonetheless, whatever realization this experience induced for me, it was no cure for my chronic oversight of practical matters.  


I contemplated my future less than a year later, and I decided to be a shot-putter.  I was skinny, short, and weak, but I had watched Rudy and I did not yet understand that underdog stories were powerful because they were so unlikely.  I wrongly assumed my ineptitude would all but guarantee my success in a world dominated by burly, hulking men.  If God short-changed me on the common sense, he filled the void with a frenetic, desperate need to act on my compulsions.  I had hardly thought of being a shot-putter before I had run into the porch, grabbed two croquet balls, and sprinted back outside to begin practicing for my gold medal.  I was consumed by energy.  I breathed heavily.  I could not bear to think any longer about setting up a proper shot-putting ring.  Instead, I needed to heave a croquet ball, scream loudly, and begin realizing my destiny immediately.  In a near blind daze, I staggered out of the porch to the nearest approximation of a shot-putting ring that was naturally available.  A corner flower bed bordered by our dining room on one side, the porch on another, and an open expanse on the remaining two.  I thought it would do perfectly.  Just as a shot-putter was penned in by a net, I would also be penned in by two banks of glass windows when I launched my croquet ball into the stratosphere.


I stood at the border of the flower bed, assumed the stance to throw from a standing position, and then I remembered that the Olympians twirled like lumberjack ballerinas before they threw.  I decided to do the same, and this is why whenever I hear someone say, “fake it till you make it,” I cringe at what terrible damage they will motivate some impressionable person to inflict.


I spun faster and faster and tore up the magnolias with my grass-stained tennis shoes.  And every time I wondered if I should stop, if I should take a moment to rethink all the things I had thought in the last five minutes, I urged myself on with one phrase: Gold Medal.  The windows were a blur, the sky was a blur, the crushed flowers were a blur.  At last, I felt sufficiently charged.  I released the catapult that was my small stick of an arm.  I screamed into the humid Iowa summer, and I heard a crash as I slowly spun down, collapsed to my hands and knees until the world stopped spinning, and then squinted my eyes into the distance.  I looked out into the expanse of grass to see how far it had gone.  I was amazed that I had thrown it so far I could no longer see it, and as I reached for the second croquet ball, I turned enough to notice that one of the porch windows had a circular hole in it with cracks traveling outward in every direction.  When one of my elementary teachers later queried the class as to the meaning of “all roads lead to Rome,” I raised my hand and gave them a picture to imagine – a thousand cracks leading to a hole in a window.  My teacher praised my intelligence and no doubt wondered why my face contorted with conflicted emotions at his simple compliment.

I ran into the porch and met my mother there as she came out of the house.  She asked me what happened, and I gave her a select telling of the facts.


“The window broke,” I said.

I reached down and picked up the croquet ball, “and here’s a croquet ball,” I continued quizzically as if I were Sherlock Holmes doing some tough figuring.  It’s only now, with the benefit of the retelling, that I realize I should have become a lawyer given my predisposition to dilute facts until they become more palatable to an alternative explanation.  


My mother, like my wife, knew that with enough space, I would eventually dawdle towards accountability.  She said nothing while we picked up the glass and my face turned deeper shades of red, tears accreted out of my eyes, and finally, I apologized for being a damn fool.


Of course, when I try to get you to go to sleep, you outsmart me often, so I am sure that you were imbued with more common sense than me.  Praise be to God.