I have grown into a man. That phrase is as odd to hear in my own internal voice as it was the day my father told me the same thing.
“Son,” he said in his slow southern drawl, “you’re a man now and it’s up to you to make something of yourself, or not.” I remember his somber and steady face, as emotionless as I ever knew it. He took a sip from his glass of iced sweet tea then looked over my shoulder, out toward the line of trees. I could sense by following the movement of eyes that he was thinking about some limbs that needed to be cut away from the property line. He continued to look past me as if I was not standing there. As he did, my heart raced with anticipation for what came next, hanging onto his every word, knowing that this was the last day I would live with him before I drove away to my new life. Finally, he spoke again, “I can’t do it all for you anymore. It’s you now.”
As I left that day I thought about his words and knew in my heart that he was right. He had always been right, but often times I confused his slow and careful way of speaking for ignorance. My father was not ignorant. He was actually deceptively intelligent, although he rarely made this hidden brilliance known through his speech. When he did speak though, his words held a breadth of wisdom that was so valuable, you’d be stupid not to respect the words that he said. I held the honor of stupidity as I spent the majority of my teenage years dismissing the things that came from his mouth. Despite my adolescent failures, today I allowed them to penetrate my mind, hoping against all odds to commit them forever to memory.
“It’s you now.”
Across the years I had grown into someone with potential, or at least that is what I was raised to believe. My mother told me that I would be something special. She said I had the potential to change my life and to better myself in the ways that she and my father could not. I believed her at times, and at other times I dismissed her as much as I had dismissed my father’s wisdom, claiming to myself that she was simply being an overly nurturing mother. I was, in truth, her only son, and though I had a sister who had come before, I felt that she unfairly prized me above everything. I am unsure whether she truly favored me, perhaps it is just a flawed memory, or maybe even foolish optimism spurred on by nostalgia and regret, but looking back I still see it that way. I cannot say why she favored me, I really had no obvious gifts or talents. I was a small, shy child, who was weak and sickly. It is highly doubtful that anyone who knew me in those early days would have seen any signs of a notable life to come. They more than likely only saw a passive child who sat alone too much, and who faking sickness to avoid the cruelty of other children at school. The opinions of others never swayed my mother’s faith in me though, and so, she persisted undaunted in her belief that I had the potential to make something of myself someday.
While my mother appreciated my demeanor, my sister tested her. She was the complete opposite of me. Where I was reclusive by nature, she was exuberantly social. She relished the attention that the world around her gave, and made friends easily, a trait that she still possesses to a truly remarkable extent. Her extroverted nature led to her being an extremely vocal child, and at times, blatantly defiant. She did grow out of it, but in those pre-adolescent years this defiance drove a wedge between her and my mother, or at least I believe that my sister thought that to be the case. Either way, it seemed that the further they separated the closer my mother wanted to be to me. In retrospect I understand it. Her first child was going through a phase that all parents despise, one of rebellion that was followed by a perpetual swirling of emotional strife. Her natural response, of course, was to cling to the one child that did not turn away her affection. Me.
I had, in my youth, not yet developed even the slightest glimpse of the rebellious spirit that my sister was held captive by, and although that very nature of defiance would consume me like wildfire in the years to come, as a child I remained passive, polite, and sympathetic toward my mother. Though my sister loved her just as much, she left nothing on the table when they fought, not even the phrase that struck my mother like a dagger to her heart: “I hate you.” My mother would always cry after hearing this. Her pain was so evident that I swore to myself to never allow those words to fall from my lips. I have broken more promises over the years than I can begin to recall, hurting people in the process, sowing seeds of distrust in others, and even reaping self destruction that has personally devastated me, but one promise I have always kept was that one. I never told her I hated her, even when I felt at times that I did. With this in mind, I am thoroughly convinced that my mother confused my softness and passivity with potential, which is why I doubted her encouragement, and still struggle to accept those words today.
Whether she was right or not I still have rarely seen proof either way. The one thing I do know is that although I have grown into a man, the child I once was never left. Somewhere beneath the layers of prideful failures, mistake-laden pathways, and rebellious regrets, I am still much gentler, and more sympathetic than I am believed to be. Those traits have long since been buried in the sludge of lies that I have slowly shoveled around me, all in a feeble attempt to hide the evidence that the foundation of life is built in falsehood.
The true child, the inner one, still suffers. Although his outer casing, the man I now am, has central heating and a warm bed to sleep in, the inner child still shivers remembering those nights when my father and mother could not afford to heat the house. He is reminded of those times that we crowded together as a family around one small gas heater. He can still see the old patchwork quilts that we hung over the windows and doorways to warm one room the best that we could. Even though the man I am now has a wife that he loves more than the world itself and an emerging family of his own, the inner child still cowers in the isolation and loneliness of his room. He remembers the parties that were held in his honor that no one came to. He still feels the pain of the aftermath, when those who he invited just avoided him rather than offer an excuse. He also remembers the loneliness he felt when he was mocked because the clothes he wore were for “poor kids”. He vividly recalls those late nights calling home from a sleepover with a fake sickness, after learning that he was only invited because the parent of his classmate forced him to include everyone. Although the man I am now lives in a home that is both well taken care of and far too expensive, the child lays awake at night remembering those nights that it rained and his bedroom ceiling leaked. He can still hear the drips that never slowed, splashing forcefully against the plastic mixing bowls that were set up just to the left of his pillow. He remembers the droplets hitting his face when the water level reached a certain point. He also remembers the subtle joy and sense of pride that came the moment he thought to place a towel in the bowl to absorb the water and spare his pillow from being wet. That pride was then followed by shame and embarrassment as he remembers early mornings of dumping the bowls so that they could be reused. The child remembers all of these things.
He never forgot.
That child never grew into the man I am today. His body grew, his mind grew, but the child never did. He just hid beneath the tattered blankets of memories. Some of them were truly good, like the times his father would teach him to catch a football or spend time playing Super Mario Brothers with him, or when his mother would read to him or take him on walks in nature. Some of the memories were bad though, ones that child wishes he could escape from, but even so, all of them, both good and bad, were too difficult for the man I grew into to bear to remember. So I forgot them all.
When I realized I was grown enough to make something out of myself or not, as my father said, I sealed the inner child up in that house. I forced him into that lonely room, the one he grew to hate, the one with the ceiling that was mold ridden and falling in, the one with the filthy water-stained carpet. The child begged to leave with me, he feared the isolation, the musty smell and the darkness of that old abandoned place, but I coldly shut the door on him. And as I locked the door, I half expected to hear the ceiling collapse completely on the child, finally overcome by the rot and decay of all those rainy nights. It hurt to leave him there. That child knew my deepest, most well-kept secrets. He felt my pains in a way that no one else ever could. He shared my most fond moments of joy. He was the reason that I appreciate books and movies about space. He was the reason that I still love animals more than I love most people. He was the reason that I began writing in the first place. He was defenseless and innocent and did not deserve to be locked away like some sort of criminal by the man I had become, a man who was not innocent, a man who I am sure deeply disappointed the child. Still, I couldn’t bear to face him or the moments that he represented, so I walked away.
The child knew that I never intended to come back to that place–why would I? I would one day move even further from it, swearing to never set foot on the property again until the house was destroyed or burned to the ground. I left it behind for good, knowing that if I ever visited my hometown, I would avert my eyes from it when driving by, daring to never catch a glimpse of the child’s face peering out the window of the lonely room he hated so much. The child was dead to me. A fading water-stained photograph to never be looked at again.
I moved forward in life, still avoiding those ancient thoughts that I knew would cause my new self to crumble. For a while, I succeeded in masking the pain, but that came at a cost. Drugs, alcohol, and self-afflicted mistakes managed to redirect the pain, but sadly, redirected pain does not remove the initial source of the pain, it only creates a larger blot of it, followed by guilt and shame. The guilt crippled me more than any insecurity that came from the child I locked away. Addictions and self destructive behavior always have their consequences. The lifestyle eventually climaxed, and with its release came two things, rock bottom, and a lesson truly learned. With the freedom attained from starting over and the commitment that the lesson learned would never be abandoned, I began to seek internal resolution rather than more redirection.
The first step was to pursue the potential my mother suggested I had. Though I never believed it and still have my doubts, I rested on her faith coupled with the blunt truth my father shared: “it is up to you.”
My life grew in a more positive way as I became emotionally healthier. I started a family of my own and for the first time felt as if I was moving past the days I hated to think about. As seasons came and went, my joy increased, and the moments lived were truly treasured. I almost felt completely at peace.
The only issue still to face was the one that I had always wanted to ignore. Somewhere, far away from where I now sit, there is a child abandoned in a house of insecurities, bad memories, and fear. The child that made me the man I am today is lost and alone, forgotten for a time, ignored and still avoided by the man he would someday become. My heart still feels heavy thinking about that child. I want to pull into the old gravel driveway and break into the condemned home, announcing that I have come to rescue him from his prison cell. I imagine the joy he’d feel realizing that someone cared for him enough to come back for him. I imagine his face knowing that he too could leave it all behind as I did and that the dreams he once had for something better could finally be realized. I imagine how excited he’d be to know that he could meet my kids someday, and play the games that he knew best with them, or read them the books we both loved, or teach them to love movies about space just the way we did. It makes my eyes swell to visualize him leaving that place behind, finally, and getting into my car, a car he never thought he’d get to ride in, one he was proud of, and to see him arrive at a house with heat, and food, and a ceiling that never leaked. I think about how happy he would be to meet my wife and to know that she would love him despite his many weaknesses. And to see how he would hug her and never want to leave her arms, as she assured him that loneliness was truly a thing of the past. I imagine the moment when he realized that it was not all some far-fetched ideal of potential, but instead that this is the genuine reality of his life new life. I want him to know that he made his mother and father proud, even when he was so sure that he would not. I want those things. I crave the closure it would bring.
But, the happy thoughts of rescuing my inner child is overcome with the fear that I spent my whole adult life avoiding. The fear of what that decaying place would smell like, what the room would look like, what the darkness represented there would feel like. The fear of the ceiling crushing me when I opened the door. The fear of being trapped in there, with no escape. The memories flood in and I tremble as I write about them. I am scared of that place and what it meant and what it still means. I am terrified to face the ghosts that live in that house. So much so that even the joy of the child is not enough for me to overcome the phobia. So, I fail him yet again. And I fail myself.
I sit and weep, knowing that I am so close to making it, but until I free him, that quiet, gentle child, I have not yet done so. Whatever potential I have, whatever special trait my mother saw in me can never be realized, not until I pull the boards off that door and step into the entryway.