My boyfriend, Zachary has a very large family consisting of five siblings and countless cousins, aunts and uncles. His father, Todd married young and helped produce two strong boys; time he considers to be extraordinarily precious. He once told me a story about how Zachary and brother, Sean were caught walking over an at-best flimsy ice covered pond in the sticks of Kentucky. I could see the fatherly frustration return to his eyes as he described being stuck on the bank, unable to retrieve them. The frustration quickly dissipated as the terror he felt all those years ago returned to him causing a single tear to fall from his eye. He pressed his lips together, inhaled deeply through his nose and exclaimed, as if he suddenly felt silly, “You little fuckers.” We all laughed. Many years later when Zachary and Sean were adults, Todd, following a reversed vasectomy, had three more children; Savannah, Luke and Gus. When I first heard of this I was filled with a mixture of humor and that all too familiar, oh-shit feeling as I realized how fruitful the man I had come to love actually was. Let’s just say, I knew I had to be careful NOT to reproduce.
Zachary and I decided to leave Kentucky and head for the West Coast, my second home. I’d spent half of my life living in the Bay Area region of California and felt as if home held dual meaning. Todd was living with his new wife, Heather and three young children in the Woodside mountains and my mom, just an hour’s drive away in San Jose; the move seemed destined. Zachary and I spent the first two months living with Todd, Heather and three kids. Loud doesn’t begin to describe the kids who were living in a secluded mountain paradise. Gus, the youngest and just four years old at the time was always buck-naked and giggling. Luke, a boy of seven was a ball of energy like I’d never encountered. He’d be in the middle of telling you a story about Star Wars as a visible wave of energy quickly crept up his limbs and exploded before your eyes resulting in a chest pound and monkey-like grunts. Savannah, the one and only girl in a sea of testosterone was nine and sassy. She’d pick up a valley girl head bob within a year; an almost uncomfortable looking neck movement to signify she thought she was the queen of the universe. These kids are amazing. I spent a lot of time babysitting and answering thousands of questions about when Zack and I would be married, why wasn’t I pregnant yet and if I could name our baby Princess Lea.
One particular night stands out in my memory and Luke took center stage. Luke is different from his siblings, at least in my eyes. As the middle child he wont receive the babying that Gus will and the new privileges granted to older sister, Savannah. Don’t get me wrong here; Luke is not at all left out or ignored by any means and he demands attention with his typical seven-year-old antics like interrupting every adult conversation and pouting loudly when video game time is over. His noticeable difference from his siblings comes in his somewhat surprising moments of wisdom and compassion. This night I referred to earlier was one where I sat on the couch with the three kids watching a claymation film called, Mary and Max. In retrospect, the film may have been a little inappropriate due to an intense near suicide scene I forgot about until it was already playing before their eyes. Whoops. The film, though dark at times, is extraordinary. It is about a young girl called, Mary who is living in Australia with her parents. Her mother is a wobbly and brazen drunk and her father is a depressed taxidermist, both of poor means. Mary decides to seek out a random pen pal in the United States utilizing an old copy of the White Pages and chooses Max, an obese over eaters anonymous member with Aspergers Syndrome, Aspie for short. The story is allegedly based on true events and is told remarkably well in this film. I mean c’mon the whole thing was done with clay; how could it be anything other than awesome?
As the film played the more typical and predictable child-like behaviors began to emerge. Gus began to ask questions about every single detail of the film like, “Where is she going?” “Why can’t that mom stand up?” “Is she sad? Why is she sad?” He could barely sit still and moved at least nine times in the first 10 minutes, switching between my lap and the cushion next to me. He kicked his legs up and down, stretched out his toes and sighed like he was sitting through a tax seminar. Savannah, the typical tween she was commented with judgment about everything. “That girl has a big forehead.” “Eww, that guy looks weird.” She was most critical of Max, the obese New Yorker Mary wrote to. Max was a very round looking character with a strange little bulbous head which he covered with a red beanie. He breathed heavily when he walked and was victim to paralyzing anxiety attacks. “He looks so weird!” Savannah exclaimed. I have to admit he wasn’t easy on the eyes. Luke sat to my left at the end of the sofa. The way he was sitting caught my attention first. He was at the edge of the seat with his feet planted firmly on the floor, spine straight as an arrow, eyes glued to the screen. His only utterance by this point had been a giggle or two and I was relieved he was so engaged because answering the inquiries of the other two kids was enough work. During the film there is a scene where Max is standing on a chair rocking back and forth while in the throws of a panic attack. Savannah just couldn’t cut the guy a break when she said with her pre-teen superiority, “Max is so ugly! Look at him! He looks so weird!” For a moment I thought to try and school the girl with some adult-like wisdom; tired arguments reminding her to be nice and less judgmental. Savannah, remember is a kind, compassionate and loving little girl and her moody tween criticisms were so typical they almost made me laugh. I’d been a little moody nine year old once before too. But before I could finish my nostalgic line of thinking, Luke turned his once staunchly fixed head towards Savannah and stared right into her eyes. Her head and body began to retreat a bit as she was obviously startled by his very direct and serious staring. She laughed a little nervously and said, “What?” “Be nice Savannah, “ said Luke, still staring and still serious. “Max is going through a hard time!” I felt my jaw begin to drop as I watched him avert his gaze and fix it once again on the screen. Savannah looked at her feet for a second as if in thought, her criticisms silenced for good. (The rest of the film anyway.) Luke was touched by the story of Mary and Max in a way I hadn’t at all anticipated from a seven year old. I too felt a little guilty for giggling silently with Savannah about Max’s weird head. Luke’s words had so much meaning, so much understanding, so much compassion and I was taken aback by the depth of his understanding. This little boy looked at Max’s pain, suffering and difficulties with empathy and seriousness. This was not a comment made out of annoyance towards a sister who wouldn’t shut up; it was a comment made out of sincere love. The world could learn a thing or two from Luke. Be nice; we’re going through hard times.