Wednesday, July 6, 2011

His Mother's Fear

            When I attended Indiana University I roomed with Karen, one of the Webb sisters. She and Mary were white girls who sported huge afros. They liked to laugh, but I couldn’t exactly tell you what inspired their near constant giggling. Their sexual orientation was ill-defined. And they both played the guitar.
            For reasons that are as murky to me as the Webbs' source of mirth or their gender preference, I brought my guitar to college.  I had taken a semester’s worth of lessons in high school, but could only play “Dust in the Wind”.  I never practiced and I had barely any familiarity with popular music.  This did not stop me from banging that guitar around on my back through frequent flights home and to beaches and weekend getaways. It was like an enormous accessory that signaled to the world that I was hip. I would have been better served by a toe ring.
            When our dorm announced that they were going to book resident acts for a Valentine’s Day café, the Webbs quickly signed up. Probably because they knew that they would be free that night. They started practicing nightly. Perhaps sensing that two identical sisters singing a love song might look a bit creepy, they asked me to join their act.
            I remember my heart fluttering when I saw my name on the café bill. I admitted to the Webbs that I couldn’t play very well but they didn’t seem to care. They painstakingly taught me the simplest guitar part to Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer Than”. What I could bring to the group was a decent voice and I loved singing out strong and loud. My instrumental inadequacies, I reasoned, would surely be drowned out by my vocal stylings.  Plus, I could whip my hair around. I had such a ball rehearsing that I saw a big future for us as an act.
            When the big night came, I dressed carefully in my overalls and Candy’s.  The Webb’s wore their overalls and Birkenstocks. The three of us warmed up in my dorm room then slung our guitars across our backs and walked through the halls to the café which was really just a cordoned off section of the cafeteria.
            I was slightly disappointed at the low turn out. It was going to be hard to jump-start a career on ten people. But then, I assured myself, everyone had to start somewhere. In my pre-show jitters, I barely noticed the other acts. The rudimentary lighting system did dim to allow the acts to get situated and when our name was called, the Webbs and I mounted the stage in darkness and arranged ourselves as planned. Me on the stool between the two of them, who were standing.
            Bam. Lights so strong that I couldn’t see anything. The Webbs immediately started playing. I tried to move my fingers but they wouldn’t move. The fingers on my right hand had formed a lobster’s claw. I couldn’t even lift the claw to bang the strings. I could hear the Webbs riffing on their guitars behind me. The long riff indicated that they knew something had gone wrong. I quickly abandoned the notion of moving my fingers and opened my mouth to sing out the first strains of the song. I could make no sound. My mouth was open, my mind was still engaged – but nothing was working. I wondered if I had had a stroke. My brain, my very soul, was trapped inside a motionless, soundless body on a stool in the cafeteria of a dormitory. I could hear Karen and Mary singing, “Longer than there’s been fishes in the ocean/Longer than any bird ever flew…” And all I could do was sit stone-still between the two bobbing afros, staring into the white light. I hoped to God that I wasn’t dead.
            As soon as the lights dimmed, however, my corporeal self reanimated as if nothing had happened. I managed to get off the stool and descend the steps to our table. I don’t remember talking to the Webbs about our performance. I think that my catatonic lapse was simply ignored and in the weeks that followed, references to our future as a group were noticeably absent.

            “I’m going to memorize my speech,” Spencer announced on the morning of his graduation from middle school. My heart clenched.  We had five minutes before we had to run out the door to catch the bus.
            “The ceremony is in two hours,” I said, yanking his little brother’s arm through the arm of his sweatshirt. “You can’t memorize your speech in two hours. What if you forget a line?”
            “I think I can do it,” said Spencer.
            I couldn’t let him risk failing in front of all of the fifth grade parents and his friends. It would be disastrous. What if he froze and couldn’t come up with anything at all?  He’d be standing up there all alone. I wouldn’t be able to help him.
            “Here, it’s easy,” I said, grabbing a clipboard. “You put the speech on the  clipboard. You hold the clipboard in one hand and the microphone in the other.”
            I showed him the pose.
            “The other two kids have their speeches memorized,” he said.
            I breathed in and presented my case calmly, “Yes, I know honey. But they’ve been memorizing for a couple of weeks. You can’t decide to memorize something a couple of hours before you have to do it. Trust me, no one will notice that you’re reading. You’ll feel safer with your script right there.”
It was all about safety for me.  Feel safe and secure above all else. Then, and only then, will you be able to function. Couldn’t he see that?
“Why don’t you get dressed and we’ll put the speech and the clipboard right here,” I said, placing the clipboard on the coffee table.
I followed Spence and into his room to oversee his choice of attire. He wanted to wear a T-shirt under his button down.  “You’re going to get hot,” I warned. But he insisted. There was a last minute shuffle with choosing shoes. My choice was discarded. Too uncomfortable. I quickly found shoelaces for another pair. Done. As we were hustling out of the door, Spencer grabbed the speech off of the clipboard, folded it up, and stuffed it into his pocket.
“The clipboard!” I said, voice tense.
“I’m going to keep my speech in my pocket,” he said. “That way I can study it while the ceremony is going on.”
“Don’t put the speech in your pocket. You’ll lose it. At least put it in your backpack where it will be safe.”
“No Mom,” he said, calmly. “It’s safest in my pocket.”
I threw up my hands in exasperation. “OK. OK. I’m only trying to help. But if that’s what you want,” I said with a manipulative undertone of don’t blame me if it all comes crashing down on you. Spencer shrugged and my heart sank as we spilled into the morning, making our way toward the bus.

The graduation was packed with parents by the time Pat and I arrived. All these people, I thought. Spencer’s going to be nervous.
We found seats near the back and as soon as “Pomp and Circumstances” started to play, I burst into tears. I dabbed my eyes but I was afraid that I explode into full-on heaving sobs as soon as Spencer walked down the aisle.  How on earth would I make it through his speech—especially if he stumbled?
As Spencer inched toward the top of the processional line, tears streamed down my face. I had to stop myself from screaming, “That’s my BABY!” as he took his place and walked down the center aisle. I peered through my foggy contact lenses at other parents. Most of them were smiling and snapping pictures. No one was on the floor sobbing, which was where I was headed. Other mothers looked relaxed and proud. I wiped the snot from beneath my nose with my sleeve.
What moments like this do to me is highlight the fact that my baby is getting older and that he will leave me one day. And worse, these events smack me with the inescapable realization that I will die someday and never see my baby again. I won’t be there to protect him. Graduations and their ceremonial cousins (recitals, school plays, etc) are excruciating for me. I can never understand how other parents, including Pat, can manage to stay calm watching their babies grow up right there. On stage. In front of everyone. I want to scream, “NO!!!! DON’T YOU SEE?  HERE IS THE EVIDENCE!  WE ALL DIE!! STOP THE MUSIC! STOP SMILING EVERYONE. THIS IS FUCKING SERIOUS!”
I have already begun hoarding medication for my sons’ weddings.
Spencer’s speech was near the end of the program.  After half an hour, my breathing normalized and I started to feel pleasantly numb from the overload of serotonin released by my tears. I felt like taking a long nap.
Then Spencer’s name was announced and I snapped to.  I quickly jumped up from my seat and hustled down the side aisle toward the stage. Dear God, I thought, don’t let him fail. I held my breath as he started to speak. 
The first thing he said wasn’t part of the speech!  My heart raced. Did he know what he was saying? The audience laughed in response to his ad-lib. I looked at the faces in the crowd. They looked attentive and generous. Spencer launched into the speech and I relaxed. Then he fumbled. Oh dear father-of-all-that-is-holy, he’s going to crash and burn!!!! Should I create a diversion? How can I save him?
Spencer took the speech out of his pocket and unfolded it while making a joke about not having memorized it well enough. The audience laughed. Then he made another joke and the audience applauded.  I stared at this person who looked like my son. Who was this young man? He didn’t seem nervous. He seemed, in fact, to be enjoying himself. Who was he?  He certainly didn’t seem like any son of mine. A son of mine would have to be like me. Frozen to the spot with lobster claw hands. Afraid of being seen. Terrified of failing. Even afraid of succeeding.
He finished the speech and gracefully acknowledged the swelling applause. I clapped vigorously. No tears now. Just joy. Because for that brief moment I had gotten to see his future. And even without me, I knew that he would be all right.

Spencer with his pals


  1. Sublime! all of it. You, the Webbs - the hilarious description of your near-death experience on stage. And Spencer's triumph. Loved it. - Stephanie