Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Bone Stories

Dem bones.
My oldest daughter is nine years old. When she was a toddler, she became fascinated that people's bones could break. In fact, she was nervous about it and wanted to know how people broke bones and what it was like.

To answer her anxiety, I began telling what we have come to call "bone stories," bedtime tales about different bones I broke when I was younger. There are four stories, one for each bone I've broken. When I was seven, I broke my left arm, near my elbow. At 12, I broke my collarbone playing a neighborhood game called "bike tag." I broke a bone in my hand when I was 15. Finally, at age 20, I broke my nose.

I told my girl bone stories to make her laugh. I hoped she would realize it wasn't easy to break a bone. Something extreme and sudden had to happen, often something dumb. I wanted her to know that even though breaking a bone hurt, it wasn't totally unbearable. Other hurts are far worse.

I've been telling bone stories for maybe five years. At one point, the stories were a nightly bedtime ritual. I now have two daughters, and they both like me to tell the stories to them. Of course, the stories bore me now, so I occasionally jazz them up. I'll go into cartoonish detail about how fast I was running, or how many times I somersaulted in the air, or how many tackles I evaded. The stories get ever more outlandish. I like to watch the girls' faces in their bunk beds as I hop around or whirl my hands to describe the moments leading up to the fracture.

My son, who at four years old already has broken his arm, does not hear bone stories at night. Instead, he and I wrestle in his bedroom. Yet, the same principle is involved from wrestling to bone stories: I want the kids to remember the feeling of having fun with me, the feeling of being loved by me. The wrestling and bone stories are unique gifts. I'm the only one in the world who understands the way my boy likes to wrestle. I'm the only daddy with the special stories that involve their uncles and their grandparents.

I cherish the feeling of having unique gifts to pass along to my kids again and again. I'm not always in the mood to wrestle or to tell a bone story. I usually go on despite my mood because I understand the time for gift-giving is finite--that is, the kids will grow up soon enough and not want either to wrestle or to hear my stories--and I believe the offices of love make gift-giving my responsibility. In other words, these kinds of interactions with the kids are part of my obligation as a loving parent.

My wish is that these gifts, my gifts, will be appreciated in the lasting memories of my children. A poem like Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz" expresses something like what I hope for:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother's countenance
Could not unfrown itself.

The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
I've taught the poem for many years, and I confess it's a personal favorite. Some students mistakenly interpret the poem to be about an abusive, alcoholic father. But the battered knuckle of the father is from his day-labor, as is the dirt-caked palm. There is some violence in the poem, falling pans and scraped ears, yet these are inadvertent. At the same time, I know a parent's love can be "violent"--by which I mean not aggressive or destructive but rather messy and unstable: we parents struggle to hold ourselves and our lives together while also caring for the children. Sometimes we can't hold on or we hold on too tightly.

The poem's final image, the sleepy boy who doesn't want to let go, tells everything: the boy holds his father against bedtime, against sleepiness, against growing up, against the inevitable loss of the father to death.

The poem's speaker remembers that he wanted to remain with his father, that he wanted his father to stay. I want my kids to remember that for me. And I want them to know that I would stay if I could.

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