Would You Love Me?
On the car ride back from his cousins’ house, well past bedtime, his face glowing in the pale low-pressure sodium lights outside the turnpike toll plaza, Noodle asked whether we would still love him if he lost a hand. I checked the rearview to see if he was giggling out a cheeky ruse, but he wasn’t. His brows squinched, his eyes bright and blinking hard, his was a serious query. “Would you?”
“What do you mean?”
“If someone sworded my hand and it came off, would you still love me?”
By “sworded” he means “chopped” — a good old fashioned slicing as with Excalibur or a buzz-humming hack as in a hyper-violent video gaming excursion. Noodle accidentally wandered into the carnage and mayhem of first-person shoot-em-upped slashing and it shook him, as I suspect it should. It sure enough shakes me. I find the business of killing-by-proxy disorienting, dirtifying, and plain old ugly. And as with most of my dispositions and general concerns, my little boy is no more than a few steps behind on this given path.
Noodle learned that his hands were his on a jangly play mat, tantalized by dangling toys. For hours on end he’d swipe at monkeys and elephants and giraffe and blocks and tubes and mirror balls, snatch them, and the whole mess would flex toward him as he yanked with all his might, then spring back and jiggle slowly to a stop, and the cycle repeated repeated repeated day in and day out, marking the distance between him and his world.
Gradually his world broadened, as it would when he first crawled out the dog door to discover the back yard within his reach, and when he pushed his trike off the top stair to discover that gravity prevails in all cases. I do this, he realizes — I tug and yank and the rattling plush wiggles and sways. How many hours did I watch his progress, his practice, his exercise? As I think about it, in these times he learned that he and the sprung monkey are separate not only in space but in being. He learned who he is and which events he could cause and whether he preferred the effects, sobbing mercilessly when he didn’t, giggling uncontrollably when he did.
A staggering feeling, I imagine, to learn self-consciousness and cause and effect out of nothing and into apperception. I guess I can forgive a good fuss and a cry every now and again. The toughest of paradigm-shifting study certainly reduced me to a quivering mess a time or two in school. I’m surprised he doesn’t scream constantly as he learns to judge the distance between himself and his world.
I dwell on how extraordinary it is that from banging around on a puffy blue mat, swatting pastel critters or even as simple an exercise as grabbing my finger and squeezing, he works out the difference between his body and everything else there is — the stuff he can control, like feet and mouth and fingers, and the stuff that sits there idle no matter how hard he wishes otherwise. My head spins as I try to step onto the mindful stage of a little boy for whom there is hardly a distinction between being and doing.
Of course, whenever he squalks, I come running. So he likely thinks that he and I are not so separate as he and Zolly the Zebra. I reckon he’s exactly right. I spent years of studious undoing to uncover a perfectly simple lesson that we all get before we leave the cradle — a lesson that circumscribes his view of Earthly existence, and rings truer to me now than ever:
At the end of my hand begins the world.
Waiting for a pizza. I can see through the rain and front window of the Turkish Café across the street a streaming Springsteen music video. Scenes of America, scenes of a stadium show, contorting, shouting, mouth agape, barking, howling, bash-strumming his battle-worn Telecaster. The artist performs, exorcises energy out of himself into the crowd, jumping, screaming, matching emotions toe to toe. His body rises from a desperate landscape, from the cityscape, from the dilapidation of a crushed economy, crumbling yet fighting. He snarls and spits and stares cold as images flash hardhats and ball caps and Cadillacs and amusement parks and soldiers and kids and gravestones and machines sparking and grinding, assembling American dreams. His body amplifies across the stadium, banging, stomping, shrugging, pumping, sweating through leather and denim and bandanas and a working man’s scruff picking up stage lights embedded in his face pouring out across the crowd. He closes his eyes to the humanity ahead, listens to his own shouted growled words. He is by himself in this moment, in his space and in his time, yet displayed, recorded, and replayed now and on demand. Transported, I am this image. Contorted and chilled, as desperate as he.
Readers see only my words, neatly typed, sanitized, pixelated, anti-aliased, cleaned up from their messy birth mixture of lanugo, vernix, and blood. Nobody sees a writer perform. It’s a lonely vocation, tucked away, struggling, drawing out word after word, most dead before they make the page, grieving, writhing, scribbling, sweating, muttering and mumbling through a pen into a notebook, moments both captured and lost. When I write seriously — when I perform — I become acutely aware of my body, my position in space, my hand cutting through the air, the grind of the pen against paper, its fibrous texture, frantic lurching and squirming as words combine to phrases to sentences to paragraphs to themes to which I cling fast for fear they will spill past the page, soak into the Earth, evaporate. You will not witness my creation, as you might a musician or an actor or a celebrity chef. But know that I am behind these words — more than in name. I am the sum of my parts plus summation itself. I am writer-as-performer on my written stage, inviting your matched emotions toe to toe.
To think about who you are is to think about who I am, your dad, because as I see it, the separation of our lives into you and me is an Earthly phenomenon, appropriate only while we ponder and meander through our days together, collecting shadow boxes of memories and experiences we’ll share for all time and through all space. I imagine space and time connect in a manner beyond and bigger than my mind and body and yours, but I don’t reckon it’s trouble-making to cipher out answers as a matter of physical investigation or spiritual supplication. At the end of either, you collect a sense beyond yourself and your ken — beyond your mama and her daddy and my mama and hers and every friend, foe, sinner, saint, puppy, kitten, and houseplant that I never managed to keep green more than a week. We’ve all got claim to the same awe-striking finality that marks a lap around, not a banner finish.
The Ancient Greeks figured the quest to “know thyself” seeded the whole of philosophy, and I reaped plenty studying the field. Best way to know the world is to turn yourself inside out, as I see it, because yourself is the best shot you got at certainty in an existence such as ours. I haven’t the capacity to tell you who you are — that’s something we all figure on our own. But I can offer a few memories of myself, bared on the outside you might say, and in them, you’ll surely hear familiar verses.
I’ve been given a fair chance, all thing considered. I’ve been terrified with joy, as when your mom and I made our few faithful moves, into marriage, out of jobs, and across the globe. I’ve enjoyed a generally upward mobility, but you ought to know from the start nobody wins ’em all. There’d be nowhere to put the lot of it anyway. I’ve been heartbroken, disappointed, held back, and propped up when I tripped down ill-maintained paths. I’ve driven highways and back roads, searching for a new me in unfamiliar places, and sometimes when I just set back as passenger the world still stirred me to a frenzy. I’ve ridden motorcycles and bicycles across deserts and along scenic coastlines, for joy, for charity, and for straight up challenge. I’ve written sentences and phrases and paragraphs and aphorisms and I’ve assembled them into stories, theses, jokes, greetings, apologies, and righteous complaints. I’ve studied, walked, talked, taught, and built. I’ve worked with wood, with food, and with buzz-humming mysterious digital machines for shift after shift ending in what I thought was exhaustion. But I’ve never worked as hard as you’ve worked me, always on the move, giggling anarchistically at broken rules and miscreancy, ever one step ahead of my expectations and one step closer to what I can only describe as mischievous peril — though we both survive and thrive, if even a tick more self-assured for it. All we’ve got are stories; everyone’s got theirs and you’ll one day sing your own song of thyself.
You and I aren’t so different. If someone sworded off your hand, you’d still have mine at your service, and I trust you’ll make parts of yourself available when mine break down, as they surely will. We all crumble through the years, and picking one another up in times of need, and boosting one another up in times of opportunity, well that’s what keeps our world in one piece. They say a man who’s given chances will give the same, and for now I’m working like a machine to keep us turning this direction.
So the simple answer is yes, I would still love you, because you are more than bits and pieces and preferences and dispositions and obsessions and temper. Right now, you might be a few steps behind, but you’re inching closer with every stride, and one day you’re sure to take the lead. I hold your hand across parking lots and busy streets and past the chocolate cookies and potato chips at the grocery store because you hold it up for me to take, and I don’t mind allowing the glue between us to set a little longer. The fact is, where I see you, I see we, and that means more than I was able to imagine back when I thought the whole world separate from my own being. Maybe you’ve shaken loose my vanity with all your bounding chaos, and maybe this is a celebration of a simplified self-image, a gift you give know it or not. I suppose some day I’ll have my chance to ask you the same — whether what’s left of grizzled old me still stirs you when the table’s turned. I imagine you’ll feel as I do now, because I intend to raise you in the faith that it’s our world, come what may — that you and I have always been and always will be — inseparably — us.