The Noisy Water Review

Cherishing My Chance to be a Whole Person

Robert DeCoteau

I stand in front of my kitchen sink washing the dishes. My six-year-old son is playing with a handful of toys at my feet. In my mind, I am a scholar and a student, a reader and a writer, an academic and a philosopher. In my kitchen, I am a single father with chores.

My English 101 class just ended and I raced home to meet my son at his bus stop. I'm stressing about a creative nonfiction essay that's due on Monday. This style of writing is hard for me. I'm so used to making my own rules. My son's imagination is running rampant on the freshly mopped floor.

"Heh, heh, heh," the little figurine of Pablo from The Backyardigans says to a Spiderman action figure at my feet. My son's voice is a fair imitation of Pablo from the Master of Disguise episode.

"You won't get away with this," Spiderman says to the dastardly penguin, "I'll turn on the bat signal and call the Dark Knight to help me."

"I'll just call my henchman," Pirate Pablo replies.

Out of nowhere Boots, who is normally Dora the Explorer's sidekick, appears to render aid to the make-believe villain and not a moment too soon, I might add. The Batmobile blazes into action.

To my knowledge, although both are products of Nickelodeon, there has been no crossover between The Backyardigans and Dora the Explorer; Pablo and Boots have never met.

Meanwhile, Batman and Spiderman are opposing forces in a more than fifty-year struggle for market share between the two largest and most influential comic book companies in existence. But, in my son's mind it’s all fair game. He makes his own rules too.

It dawns on me that my son is a writer. Actually, storyteller is a more accurate term. I think that maybe all children have this creative ability. He is drawing on his limited experiences, citing movies and television, to create his own epic battle on our kitchen floor. There is a beginning to the story, middle, and an end. He even has a rudimentary plot.

Are we all gifted with the ability to create fiction and somehow most of us lose the knack along the way? Maybe that talent is still in all of us just waiting to be reawakened. It's possible that we just need to pull the skill out occasionally and dust it off, sharpen it and make it a useful tool again. Being creative helps us to open our minds so we can see the world with new eyes. If nothing else, we can come to understand ourselves better.

In early April of 2011, I started writing a short novel entitled The New Days: The First Son. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world infested with zombies. My intention wasn't to create my masterpiece like Moby Dick. In fact, I completely intended to write some gratuitously gory, hack fiction in between homework assignments.

Upon completion, I looked back at what I created and saw that my analytical writing teacher was right; everything is just a remix. In my novella, I saw elements of several books and short stories I have read. I took a repeated description of a peaceful future from Of Mice and Men. The Running Man lent me the idea of entertaining the masses with the life or death struggle of contestants and I borrowed the arduous journey of a father and son from The Road.

I also noticed influences from movies such as Mad Max: Beyond the Thunder Dome; my intellectual antagonist is backed by a physically powerful cohort. From Gladiator I took the protagonist’s need to destroy the ruler that was turning average citizens into a bloodthirsty mob and the nocturnal nature and speed of my zombies are reminiscent of the movie version of I Am Legend. None of this was done intentionally, mind you, all these elements are standards used repeatedly because they make stories interesting.

But, when I look past all the fluff that makes for a good story, I see something more. Who I am is spread out for the world to see. Very few people know me well enough to read my pains and losses and fears in those pages, but through what I have learned in analytical writing class those things are plain as day to me now. Sven Birkerts calls it reading intensively. We learned to search for a deeper meaning in the text, word choice, and even the way the words are arranged.

“I had to wonder what it was like to be a kid that didn’t get to play or laugh or shout.”
-The First Son, DeCoteau-

I was born the fourth child of a welfare mother. There were four fathers and no dads. Due to drug addiction, there was no mom either. My sister, who was nine when I was born, attempted to fill that gigantic void. She changed diapers and prepared bottles, wiped my nose and tied my shoes. In retrospect, I believe she did these tasks to avoid punishment. Physical abuse was normal for us in those days. Even at a very early age, we became conditioned to be quiet and stay out of the way. Children are to be seen and not heard, was a family adage handed down from Great Grandma Verle.

My mother had a fifth child two years after me, then she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and had to have a hysterectomy. Was it divine intervention? At times, I think it was.

I was just one of many children in our house. Our mother didn’t have a favorite; she expressed the same amount of disregard for each of us. No one hugged us or tucked us in. There were no bedtime stories. My life was already burgeoning with fear and uncertainty.

After I turned four, there was a stepfather in my life occasionally, but the state of the marriage was dictated by the availability of drugs and alcohol. Domestic violence became a common excuse for both of them to indulge in a weeklong binge. My mother would initiate an argument to force her husband into a fury just to compel a physical reaction from him. After striking her, he would shamble out of the house drenched in shame and guilt, intent on self-medicating. As soon as he was gone, she would spend a few minutes applying makeup to her gaunt face, hiding the dark circles under her sunken eyes. She was thin in a sickly, drug-induced way, but this too would be hidden with just the right outfit. Then away she would go without as much as a backward glance.

As the yelling started, I would ghost under the bed or into the closet until all was still again. We became shadows shaped like children clinging to the dark, quite corners. Even after they were gone, we crept around the house with kitten soft steps always keeping one ear tuned to the gravel driveway dreading their imminent return and praying that they didn’t bring the party back with them.

“No! ... Arrghh,” Spiderman cries. He takes a beating at my feet. By the end of all the newer movies, he is bloody and bruised, so that is how it must be on the linoleum battleground.

“I’ll get you next time, Pablo!” Batman yells as he rushes his compatriot off to the refrigerator shaped hospital in his black convertible with colossal Cadillac fins. Pablo and Boots narrowly miss being run down as Batman speeds away.

“Heh, heh, heh,” is Pablo’s sinister reply.

“I screamed like a child as the howling and grunting of eight deaders filled my every thought. I was going to die; my boy was going to die. There was nothing I could do. I was just a man. A father, who had promised his son a new life and couldn’t deliver.”

Sometime after my fourth birthday, my father came into town to visit. My grandmother, who was sick with cancer at the time, pulled him aside and told him to leave us alone. My mother had a new husband now and he shouldn’t poke his nose in where it didn’t belong. Go away and let her be happy. He chose to heed her demand. He walked away, and it was ten years before I heard from him again. By then it was too late; he didn’t know how to be a dad and I had no interest in being his son.

What my grandmother did wasn’t fair to either of us, but that was not a reason to abandon me; it was an excuse. I would move a mountain a single stone at a time if it were standing between me and my son. One sick and frail old woman should have posed no problem at all for my father.

“Look out! Aaahhh!” My son runs the Batmobile into my foot while I’m adjusting the water to rinse the dishes.

“Ouch!” I yell startling him.

I hop on one foot feigning a severe injury. He giggles and ruthlessly repeats the crash into my other foot. On his third attempt, I dodge and his toy car completely misses both my feet.

“Dad...” he admonishes me.

My boy expects me to be there no matter what abuse is inflicted.

“Nothing makes you grow up like searching for food and water knowing you’ll die without them, all while you’re trying to avoid the zombies trying to eat you at every turn”

Food in our house became scarce after I turned eight. Our mother figured out she could sell food stamps for half of face value to other families. Four hundred dollars worth of food stamps became two hundred in cash and that was enough to buy an eight ball of cocaine and a few cases of beer. Add that to the welfare check and she could party for half the month on government funding and maybe find a guy to pay her way until the first of the following month.

By the time I reached the third grade, there were only three of us left in the house. She sent my oldest brother to live with his father and my sister had fled with her boyfriend. Neglect had replaced most of the physical abuse.

At eleven, nine, and six years of age, my remaining siblings and I were expected to become self-sufficient. We cooked and did laundry. We did the dishes, vacuumed, swept, mopped, and mowed the lawn with an old push mower. We cut and stacked firewood. We hauled it in all winter and woke several times during the night to keep the woodstove burning. Winter was the hardest time for us. We foraged in our bare cupboards and became good at creating practically palatable meals out of the paltry provisions available.

The United States government had set up the commodity foods program to combat the third-world conditions on many American Indian reservations. My brothers and I ate generic oatmeal soaked in powdered milk for breakfast because none of us could figure out how to make the powered egg packets taste like anything other than gritty, yellow rubber. We fought over the generic, canned fruit cocktail or peaches as an after school snack and ate dinners consisting of meat from shiny cans labeled BEEF or PORK or CHICKEN. It never tasted like any of those things and there was never enough to go around.

We set our own alarm clock and got out to the bus stop on time every morning careful not to wake our mother. We had been signed up for free lunch at school and you didn’t pass up any chance of a real meal in our world.

“Dad, can I have a snack?” my boy asks.

“Sure, let’s see what we got,” I say, drying my hands on a dishtowel and stepping over his battlefield.

I pay two dollars and seventy-five cents a day for my son’s school lunch. He barely picks at it due to the anticipation of the recess that follows. I smile at this. In my adult life, my fridge and pantry are packed to the point where they are hard to close. I am grateful that my son has so little to worry him. I love that he takes for granted that there will always be a snack waiting for him behind the overstuffed pantry door.

“No one should have to suffer so much indignity that they responded to a moment of kindness in such a way. I felt like I was crying all the time now. Some big tough guy I was.”

Just after I turned twelve, my sister and her boyfriend, Tony, moved in with us. They were adults now, each with their very own drug habit. Life changed for my brothers and me for the next few years. Our mother delegated her authority to Tony. He became our mother’s minion.

Tony was in his twenties, a burly young man who didn’t know his own strength. An abusive, alcoholic widower had raised him and had instilled a twisted idea of child rearing. After being the victim so long, he relished the opportunity to become the victimizer. My mother would yell for him to “shut those kids up” and he would become a snarling beast in our small room, unsparingly meting out our mother’s wrath.

Tony used belts, metal spatulas, and wire hangers to inflict pain in the guise of punishment, all the while berating us and telling us we didn’t know how good we had it. The rule was if one of us gets it, we all get it. I couldn’t tell you how many times I was awaken from a sound sleep, yanked from the top bunk, and beaten for my brothers’ indiscretions. The welts and bruises were a shame we hid. It was easy; we had been training all our lives with our mother’s drug habit and our living conditions. It was just one more thing we concealed from the outside world.

I lost copious amounts of dignity standing in my underwear at the age of fourteen gripping my ankles waiting to be beaten with a curtain rod. But if we didn’t grab our ankles, we got it much worse. I silently cried myself to sleep more often than not in those years. It’s not at all easy to attain manhood under such conditions. I think it was yet another act of God that Tony was never able to father children of his own. For that, I am grateful.

“Time to go water the strawberries,” I say to my son after his fruit snacks and pudding cup are gone.

“Can I do it myself this time?” he asks as I drag the hose into place.

I hand him the nozzle and step back to avoid the splashing cascade as he pulls the trigger. Together we are learning to nurture the ten strawberry plants beside our house. Who knows, maybe we’ll get more than five stunted berries this year and the plants will nourish us in that way too.

Just as my boy turns the nozzle on me, I kink the hose. The water trickles from the tip falling well short of his target. The smile he flashes me is a mix of childish innocence and boyish mischief. His father always seems to know what he’s up to. I still have the ability to astound him almost as much as he amazes me.

“I’ve suffered my fair share of losses, Riley. I lost my wife and her parents, I even lost my daughter. I know what loss feels like.”

On December 2, 1993, I sat across the table from my first love as she broke the news that she was pregnant. The bad coffee and the poor service at the Horseshoe Cafe in downtown Bellingham was a nightly thing for us at the time. We were nineteen, four years into our relationship. Connie’s home life was nearly as bad as mine was; the Horseshoe was an escape for both of us.

I was scared about the news. Fatherhood was not a thing I was ready to face at that point in my life. I was nervous, but I was excited too. I stared across the booth at this young woman I had clung to as she had clung to me. We had become so entwined in our mutual rescue of each other that we were like a single person.

I proposed to Constance Solomon that night in the bustle of that busy little dive. We stayed late planning the rest of our lives together. I had time to let the idea of becoming a father sink in. I would do it the way it should have been done for me.

On the way home from the Horseshoe a drunk driver hit our car head on doing one hundred and ten miles per hour. Connie, my high school sweetheart, died in my arms just after midnight on December 3, 1993. Our future died with her.

“Dad, can I play outside now?’

“Sure, shut the water off first and you can play in the backyard,” I tell him, “I’ll watch you out the kitchen window while I finish the dishes.”

He goes around back while I put the garden hose away. When I reach the kitchen sink again, the view from the window distracts me. I stare out and have to shake my head as he uses a stick to battle unseen adversary despite owning a veritable arsenal of toy swords, lightsabers, and dart guns.

“Something broke inside me. I could feel it like a physical thing. My strength fled and I was a broken thing shambling upward step by step.”

That night, in the early morning hours of December 3, after hearing that we had been involved in a car accident and that Connie was dead, Mom got on her knees next to her bed and promised God that she would quit everything because He hadn’t taken her son from her. She has never touched drugs or alcohol since that promise. I made a full recovery physically within a month. My mental and emotional recovery took much longer.

For a year or more after Connie’s death, I threw myself into alcohol wholeheartedly. Or should it be hole-heartedly? I don’t know. The best part of me died on that cold, dark road. I was hollow inside. I felt like half a person. A series of bad relationships followed because I was incapable of caring about anyone.

“HELLO!” my boy yells charging up the stairs.

“Hello,” I call back from my computer desk.

This is his version of the game Marco Polo. Every time he comes in he calls to me so he can figure out where I am in the house, it is the only time he doesn’t have to use his inside voice and he takes advantage.

His face is red and his hair is matted with sweat from the physical effort of vanquishing the invisible invaders in our backyard.

“Check the chores list and get your chore done while I decide what we are having for dinner,” I tell him as I save my work and log off.

“Vacuum the stairs,” he reads from the paper on the fridge and then runs to get the Dust Buster.

“He stood over me, my son, so lank and small. He had been my treasure, my hope, my will to live.”

I didn’t have much when I was a boy. I was no one’s treasure, no one’s hope. My world was a wasteland filled with the walking dead. Is it ironic that my favorite hiding places were in the closet and under the bed? Parents are supposed to be there to chase away the monsters in those places. But what if your parents are the monsters? What if they invite other monsters right in? I believe that my imagination failed to create monsters in my childhood because I was already surrounded by them. Anyone who knows about addiction knows that addicts keep to their own. Every adult that ever crossed our threshold had the disease. Every one of them was a potential threat to my siblings and me.

It was eleven years after Connie’s passing that I finally did become a father. In that time, I learned and grew as a person. I did my best to become a productive member of society, leaving people from my childhood behind and burning all the bridges that led back to that life I so despised. I face each new day head on and squeeze the most life I can out of every one of them.

One of my biggest fears is that nothing I do for my son will change his lot in life. He was born into a broken home, birthed by a recovering drug addict who quickly relapsed and abandoned him. I fight a silent battle everyday to parent the way I know it should be done. I keep my struggle to be a good person and a good parent a secret from my boy. Part of being a parent is protecting him from my own worries and fears. I’m sure eventually he will figure it out; he’s a very bright kid. But, at the age of six, the thought that his father doesn’t know best should never cross his mind.

Perhaps when my son is old enough to read this novella that I wrote he will see how much the father in it loves his son and know that we are those fictional people. I want him to see it that way. Mere words just don’t do justice in describing what I feel for him. I would rather he not know the other stuff, how I struggled through my childhood. He loves his grandma for who she is now. I don’t blame him; I love her too.

Today, I count my mom as one of my closest friends. We are closer in my adulthood than we had ever been. She understands my daily battle after seventeen years clean and sober. She has taken the steps and made amends. I have mostly forgiven her.

Now, I am living a sort of childhood through my boy. I get to be there as he experiences things for the first time; many of them are firsts for me too. I see the wonder in his eyes and the excitement he feels heals me. He would tell you that I’m not very good at playing and he’s right. It’s hard for me to sit on the floor and be co-author of an epic saga such as he creates. I struggle to understand the steps in his creative process when he gets into storyteller mode. It may be that I just need to pull the skill out, dust it off, and sharpen it, but I don’t have many memories of my own playtimes to call upon. I didn’t play all that much.

Still, the hole in my heart has been filled; I am a whole person again. It took fatherhood for me to know love the way I once did. My greatest hope is that the stories my son the writer composes will all have happy endings. Every morning, as I get my son out to the bus stop I remind myself that my duty is to give this boy a chance. That’s how I chose his name.

“Chance, what are you up to?” I ask my son from the kitchen.

“Just playing in my room,” he responds.

“It’s time to put your toys away and get washed up,” I call down the hallway. I nearly puncture the bottom of my foot on the pirate’s peg leg after stepping on Pablo again.

All the cupboards and fridge are wide open. I try to build a meal in my mind with the ingredients we have available. It’s so much easier now than it was twenty-five years ago. There’s so much more to choose from.

“What’s for dinner?” Chance asks, coming around the corner with a bin for his toys.

“Anything we want,” I tell him and smile.

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