GROWING UP IN A FLASH
Liliana Noemí Nealon
There was a little nook with a small window on one side of the bedroom. He doesn't remember much from those days, but he seems to recall that mom’s exercise bike was gathering dusk in that corner.
Opposite the small window, there were shelves for dad’s sweaters, drawers for mom’s, and two narrow doors on either side with slanted wooden bars for shoes.
Mom and Dad used the inside one of the little doors to measure the kids. When he was born, his brother was seven years old, and his sister, twelve. As he grew up, he hated being the shortest in the family and thought he’d never see the day when that would not be a cause for concern. He was a small child, having suffered from bronchitis as a baby which his dad said had stunted his growth. Mom, a petite woman who was five feet tall, always told him that one day, he would be taller than Mommy. That became his goal, and every time they measured him, he’d look up at the five-foot mark, and wondered how the hell he was ever going to be that big.
Sometimes, when no one was around, he would sneak into the bedroom, open the shoe door, and try to measure himself. “One day I’ll be as tall as Mommy” became his mantra as he stood on his tippy toes. He would often open the other door, inhaling what he called “dad’s smell,” a mixture of aftershave and cigarettes which he knew his father smoked, hidden under the big willow tree by the brook.
Sometimes at night, he’d go to their bed. It was always dad who grabbed him like a wet puppy and placed him in the middle. He often ended up sleeping there all night, rocked by the sweet sound of dad’s snoring and his oh! so recognizable aroma. He slept through mom’s alarm, as dad quietly left for his early morning workout in the basement. Growing up, his memories always took him to the peace of feeling safe and sound between his parents, waking up in their bed not knowing how he had gotten there. Throughout the rest of his life, those thoughts were a small glimpse of the happiness he felt with his parents by his side, before everything unraveled literally in front of his eyes. And before sleeping became a dirty word for him.
He was a bright child who dreamed of being an actor, a famous pianist, or a major league baseball player. He was relentless in his pursuit of attention, knowing full well that the youngest kid either grabs it all or receives nothing. He made sure no one ever ignored him, trying all kinds of tricks, jokes, and crying spells to make sure everyone knew he “existed.”
Once a week, he asked dad to measure him. He knew that his father always pulled some kind of trick with the damn measuring tape because, despite his young age, he also realized no human could grow in the space of seven days. “WOW!”, dad would yell, a big smile on his face. “you’ve grown 1/8 of an inch!” One day Dad told him he’d be taller than him and, for the next week, the little guy walked as if he were already six feet tall.
Dad and his older brother played catch every afternoon. He was excluded, not out of lack of talent, but because his brother, too, needed attention and loved the time alone with dad. Small enough to hide behind the big magnolia tree, he would watch every throw and every catch, telling himself he could do better than both participants. He felt like the best pitcher of the Mets, his favorite team, watching a replay and learning from his mistakes. He added pitcher to his list of professions to seek.
Once he started kindergarten, his demeanor changed dramatically and he became the teacher’s pet. He was always the first to arrive in the classroom, lining up his pencils, notebook, and erasers on his right side. Then, he sat and waited for the other kids to file in, screaming and jumping up and down. He did not mind, nor care. He was determined to surprise his parents with his excellent behavior and so he did, often shocking mom and dad with the teacher’s glowing appraisal of their little rascal.
After a month in kindergarten, Dad told him he was now old enough to play catch with the boys. For him, there could have been no better news, though the first time they went out together to the park, they treated him like a baby pitching him slow ground balls. They had no idea that he had been practicing in the backyard, throwing lacrosse balls against the wall, catching flies, popups, and whatever else bounced back to him.
Once dad saw what he called natural talent, the fun began. Every Saturday the three men went out to a real baseball field and practiced, the older “men” concentrating on the little guy’s form. His proudest moment was a hit so hard that the ball went all the way to right field and into the cold waters of the Lake. “HOME RUN!” his big brother yelled, running toward him and lifting him up in the air. His father just stood there, a tear running down his left cheek. “Just an allergy”, he said.
They played ball throughout the winter. It was a dry winter with no snow and little rain. Although the park was two blocks away, dad always insisted on driving his brand new 4-wheel drive, spending the five minutes complaining about the lack of snow. That was the year dad turned thirty-seven and he, six. They shared a birthday, but he recalls little of the day that changed his life forever.
It was 4PM when his dad told him it was time for the weekly measure, now that he was about to turn six. “Wow!” dad said. “you’re almost an inch taller than last year.” The boy knew little about feet and inches but dad’s wow was enough to make him happy. “Now, get the heck out of here and let me take a nap before your mother comes home!”
The next few hours are like a black cloud that never left. His brother told him to wake dad because mom’s car was pulling into the driveway. The little guy bounced up the stairs. He did not knock as he was always told to do but rather ran straight to the closet door to admire his height one more time while calling dad to wake up.
And there he was, sitting on the white love seat, his feet propped up on a small table. The TV was on. As he approached his father, he knew right away something was terribly wrong. Dad’s lips were blue, but it wasn’t cold in the room. The boy called out: “Dad, Dad, wake up!” He cautiously put his little head on dad’s chest — as he had done many times to fall asleep to the steady sound of his dad's heart.
“Dad, Dad!” Nothing.
Years later, when he was seventeen and the family had moved from the ill-fated house, he saw a narrow light green door laying against the side of the garage. The last entry: TJ 3’.5”. He took the door, his hands trembling, to the backyard, where he buried it along with his baseball mitt. By this time, he was about six feet tall, although he did not know his adult height.
He never tried out for the majors. He never became an actor or a famous pianist. He was unable, as hard as he tried, to remember his dad, the soft touch, the beautiful smile he saw in photographs, his dark black hair, or his deep brown eyes. His only memory was the door, his dad’s hand holding the measuring tape, and the deep silence as he lay his small head and his trembling hand on his father’s chest.