So there I am sitting in this Catholic church trying to keep my three-year-old from sticking his fingers into the various anatomical orifices of my three-month-old, and there he is, standing in front of the congregation.
Did I say “standing?” A more accurate word would be “shuffling” or “swaying,” the Rain Man-like rhythmic motions made to music only a nine-year-old’s ear can hear. He’s my son, Mencken, and he’s supposed to be singing with the children’s choir.
At least, I think he’s supposed to sing. Actually I’ve seen ventriloquists move their lips more than my son is. The choir director is directing, the other children appear to be singing, but Mencken is reenacting the final scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind–attempting to contact unseen aliens in the skies above who communicate through music.
And so I sit, fighting a growing desire to stomp up to the front of the church and tuck his shirttail in, and trying to get my son to look at the choir director by discretely flailing my arms and nodding my head emphatically in his general direction.
Even his clothes look distracted. When we left the house that morning, his mom–The Warden–had him completely spiffed in a new Christmas sweater and freshly groomed hair. But now that he’s live on stage, one side of his collar has suddenly turned up like a satellite dish and appears to be tracking signals from the CIA. And his hair–has some member of the clergy been using my son’s head to scrub pots?
All the while, Mencken is utterly oblivious. Has he ever even heard this song before? Why won’t he look at the music? Doesn’t he see the crowd of people watching him…oh, no! Not the finger! And not the NOSE!
And to think I could’ve had that vasectomy for just 300 bucks…
Why do we get so uptight about our kids public performances–O.K., why do I get so uptight?
I think part of my anxiety stems from a southerner’s subliminal suspicion toward the Catholic Church. The Warden is Catholic, but I grew up among rural evangelicals who believe the pope has the antichrist’s phone number in his rolodex. While I’m beyond any overt animus towards the papists, the Catholic rituals, rites and even music remain a mystery to me. We show up at church, some guy in a dress teaches my kid a few lines of Latin–Hey, I don’t know what they’re saying. Sure, it sounds vaguely biblical, but for all I know they’re teaching my son a rude limerick attacking birth control and freemasonry.
Then there’s the basic angst of being the parent of a nine-year-old boy. Is there any creature on Earth more biologically inclined toward destruction? His mind works like the latest technology from the Pentagon: Any unassuming household item can immediately be converted into a weapon. Last Christmas during his church-pageant debut as a shepherd, my son’s Star Wars-inspired stick work with his shepherd’s hook caused an off-duty EMT in the audience to nervously inch closer to the stage.
But I think the primary cause of my child-related misery is that one, universal cause of nearly all misery in the world, love. I look up at the children’s choir and I see this boy who is slowly, imperceptibly growing into a young man, and I ache for him. Yes I’m obsessive about loose thread and minor stumble, but it’s because I know he lives in a world that can be so very cruel, even at Christmas.
As he stands there in his holiday best, making this childhood memory under my (laughable) adult supervision, I want to see some cherub from a Hallmark card, a perfect little boy with an angel’s beaming face.
Instead, I see a nine-year-old kid who is just…just…just…. Well, he’s just like me.
He’s just like the boy who nearly 30 years earlier mortified his own mother by performing an entire song in front of the church with the Fruit of the Loom waistband of his underwear sticking up over the top of his pants. When he sits daydreaming about his Christmas list instead of doing his long division, I recall a kid who could name all 110 members of the Legion of Super Heroes, but couldn’t remember to bring his lunch to school.
And Christmas morning, when my son is sitting beneath the tree surrounded by his loot, I’ll watch his face and see that astonished look that says, “How can I be so amazed at what I’ve got, and still disappointed because I dreamed of so much more?”
I know that look, very well. And when I’ll sit down next to him and put my arm around him, I’ll try to say what I wish someone had said to me. Only, there is nothing to be said; the sweet spirit of Christmas is always a rich mixture of joy and loss, of memories pleasant and painful. I can’t keep that away from my precious boy because I can’t keep life away.
And so I hold my breath and grit my teeth and somehow he makes it through the Mass without any bloodshed or significant property damage. We head over to the fellowship hall for refreshments and stand with the other dazed parental survivors.
Actually, my son is a great kid, he really is. Would you like to meet him? He’s over by the refreshments table–he’s the boy with the jelly donut stuck to the seat of his brand-new pants.
–Michael Graham is a talk-show host and writer in the Washington, D.C.-South Carolina region.