There are a lot of people that helped mold me into the curmudgeon who stands glowering before you today. Sure, you could blame it on any of the teachers who told me I wasn’t special enough to succeed. But those were errant contributions. Based on my family history, I like to think that my attitude problem was simply meant to be.
When I was four-years old, my great-grandmother was my best friend. While it might not sound plausible, I assure you that the old lady was my everything. She lived a quiet life alone and didn't have to work. She smoked cigarettes and wore cardigans and tucked used tissues up her sleeves. She lived to watch Jeopardy! She swore like a sailor, thought my father was an asshole, and considered me the most special little guy on the planet. This list is still my benchmark of kick-assery.
Because she was always home, my parents made her my de facto babysitter. They would dump me at her apartment for hours and I couldn't have been more pleased. Even as a small child, I felt misunderstood. Somehow, however, she managed to see through what others were already starting to raise an eyebrow at and welcomed me as an equal.
When I would go to visit, there was a jar of (always) homemade cookies of which I was expected to eat at least two. Next to her TV chair was a bowl of mouth-puckering lemon drop candies that I would stash in my pockets. On rainy days, there were games stored at the top of her closet. She taught me how to play Bingo and War and Go Fish and we would have epic tournaments, just the two of us. Then, on nice days, she would take me outside for a picnic or, better yet, to the park so I could play on the playground. The playground was my favorite because, even though I had a swing set at home, this one was Olympic-grade by comparison. (In truth, my swing set was destroyed by a fat babysitter whose ass bent the support bar to the ground, which made us laugh until we puked.) Naturally, the playground was always more for me than her. Over time, she became less enthusiastic about having to push me on the swings. Her exhaustion became a fundamental lesson in my independence.
One nice day, she took me to the playground and sat me down on a swing before parking herself on the bench nearby. "You know how to push yourself, right?"
"Uh-huh". I was lying, trying to impress her, trying to make myself appear more worldly— something I still do when asked about the works of Harold Pinter. She told me to show her. My demonstration was a listless struggle with the chains that manifested in more sway than swing.
"Alright,” she said, “well, it’s been a while since I’ve done this. Ok. First you kick your legs out strong. Let me see you do that."
"Right. Then, you tuck your knees in tight. Show me that."
"Great. Now put them both together. Kick, then tuck. Then kick, then tuck."
In no time, I was soaring. And unstoppable. We sat out there so long that the hazy moon began to appear in the sunlit sky. I kicked and tucked with fury and abandon as I watched the past and present co-mingle in the heavens above. Then I noticed how the sun began to dip with me on every swing. It was trailing my movement.
“Why does the sun swing with me?”
She took an eternity to answer, which was her default speed in those days. “It’s so tired,” she said. “It wants to go to bed and sleep until morning. It’s the moon’s turn to shine so the sun is doing its best to stay out of its way.”
As she grew older, her mild emphysema turned into moderate emphysema. Still, my great-grandmother did her best to maintain her joie de vivre. It couldn’t have been easy. The doctors had put her on an oxygen tank and she was made to use a special ventilator several times a day. The machine made a terrible noise and shot fog out the mouth apparatus. But it didn’t scare me; this was the same machine I had to use when my mother took me to the ER when suffering my first asthma attack. Having seen my great-grandmother use the machine countless times made me feel like I was part of some hip club for the infirm. Soon, I would be the club’s only member.
When anyone has ever asked me what super-power I would want, the answer has always been pretty lame: the power of intuition.
I would want to know exactly how many times I have said the word “and” in my lifetime (as to determine how many of my sentences have been run-ons). And I’d want a full list of all the times that I have ever doubted myself - fifteen of which were while writing this piece alone— that way I could know if any of those moments were worth the pain. And I would want to remember the very last time that an adult held me in their arms when I was a child before they all started to grimace, “you’re getting too heavy.” And I would want to know the last time someone held my hand when I was crossing the street or held my hand just because I was afraid. And I would want to know the last time someone ordered my dinner for me because I was too shy. And I would want to know if there will be more than one moment in this lifetime that I will be loved so entirely that it won't matter if it never happens again.
After a few months of living in a nursing home, my great-grandmother turned to me from her mechanical bed. She said, “I know that you don't like visiting me here. And that's okay. It’s okay that I’m not your best friend anymore.” If I had the super-power of intuition, I would want to know that she was going to say that so I could think of a way not to let it sting my eyes with tears during the car ride home. And if I had that super-power, I would want to rewrite time and memory and history and destiny to stop that from being the last time that I remember seeing her alive.
When I got to college, people started to refer to me as “The 60-Year Old Man”. What can I say? I learned from the best. I smoked cigarettes and wore cardigans and tucked used tissues up my sleeves. I lived for Jeopardy! I swore like a sailor and I thought my father was an asshole. I did everything in my power to celebrate the image that I had grown to view with such respect.
And, to this day, whenever I see the sun and the moon sharing the same sky- I see nothing but limitless possibilities.