Written in 1993. Published in the book, The Things I Wish I’d Said
He’s breaking out. Like a butterfly emerging from a thirty-year-old chrysalis, his legs kick and his wings form. He is finally growing up. And soon, if he makes it through this struggle, he will fly with a new self-confidence, a new stamina.
I watch him.
I observe with a hardhat and powerful pair of binoculars. I carry a shield. I carry a book. I listen to the deep breathing that comes with challenging work, to the heavy sighs, the cries, and even the laughter. I marvel at his progress and shake my head at his exasperations, quelling his desire to give up. I cheer him on like a pompon girl on the sidelines, ready to jump in reaction to any feat. More than anything, I want him to win.
And suddenly this game isn’t easy. Someone switches the game plan at half time and forgets to hand him the rules. Or maybe the rules were handed out and he threw away his copy. After all, the first half had been easy. How was he to know that the blades on his shiny new skates were going to dull with age?
Once you find the easy way out, it doesn’t make sense to look for a more complicated path. Your home is nice, your clothes are nice, and you have a lot of friends. Everyone seems to like you. And all the corners of Suburbia are soft. You have to look hard to find the craggy edges. But they’re there, and you find them. You climb to the top of every hill without noticing the sweat forming on your young, handsome brow.
You start to grow with an invincible attitude. You never question the gifts, accepting all that is handed to you as just part of the plan.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to be the runt of the litter. At the tail end of a bunch of kids, the shadows of brilliant older brothers and successful older sisters loom large. Nicknames like “baby of the family” have a way of turning into “black sheep of the family,” if you’re not careful. So, if you care at all you have to try a little bit harder to get the recognition.
Examples are put before you and you are expected to follow footsteps that might not fit your feet. But you trudge along anyway to the applause of those who are only slightly paying attention. This applause encourages you—for a little while. And it’s loud enough to help cover up the sound of that nagging inner voice that’s suggesting to you “maybe this isn’t the right thing for me.”
“Who am I?” you ask yourself. “Who am I?”
You’re not sure you really want to know the answer, so you keep climbing the hill, shrugging off comments from others that suggest you’re not as invincible as you think. You don’t hear them say that you might not have the lung power to keep ingesting all the black smoke that gathers ’round the top.
But then one day, something changes. Maybe it’s as physical as a cough or a slap in the face. Maybe it’s your first bounced check. Maybe you’re left alone for the first time and you can no longer hear the applause or the warnings. Maybe that inner voice has started to scream.
“Damn it,” it says. “I am me.”
Dreams keep dumping him into his childhood home. He is always his father’s son. He’s feeling slightly mischievous and on the verge of being scolded again for something naughty he did yesterday, the day before, or just a minute ago when he buried his head in a soft feather pillow and said good night to his wife.
He wakes up in a cold sweat and reaches for the glass of water or the bottle of Tums sitting next to the bed. He’s given up the other vices and this is what’s left: A parched throat and an unsettled stomach. He is still too weak to emerge.
So, he settles back into the warm blankets, the king-sized cocoon, and closes his eyes. Just four more days until the weekend, he thinks. And then he falls back to sleep quickly.
I lay awake next to him, watching the fluttering movement of his long-lashed eyelids, and I imagine my dream for him. I see him step outside his boyhood home and into a world filled with nothing but trees and flowers. He sees it and smells it all clearly for the first time.
He looks down at his fragile, wet wings and stretches them out like the stiff sleeves of a new shirt. He hesitates but then hears my soft whisper:
“Fly, my love, fly. I know that you can do it.”