Last Friday Charlie turned six. I was going to write my son, Charlie, turned six, and add a bunch of other descriptors – “my beautiful, kind-hearted, hilarious, gentle, innocent…” – but I didn’t know how I would be able to end once I started. Plus, all the words – “beautiful, kind-hearted, hilarious, gentle, innocent…” – seemed to fall far short of actually describing him. Plus, he’s not even really “mine.” How can one person possess another? And how can I ever describe him? How can I ever express what I see when I see him, what I hear when I hear him, what I feel when I hold him and what I feel when he holds me back? My heart aches with love.
In the mornings, when I bundle him up and wrap him up in a blanket and carry him to school, he leans in close to me and whispers in my ear: “Want to know a secret?” “Yes, I do.” “I love you so much.” “I love you so much, too.” And I spin in circles and pretend that the hedge by the sidewalk is his school and pretend to set him down inside of it and we both laugh and when I press him close to me he sighs his happy little sighs.
The night before the birthday party, I put the kids to bed and then stayed up late (10PM is late for me now) blowing up balloons and hanging streamers and sorting treats into gift bags for all the cousins who were coming to celebrate with us. It’ll take me two pay cheques to clear my credit card from this event which, I think, is really what greases the wheels of credit-debt. A lot of us aren’t going into the hole buying things for ourselves. We’re going into the hole buying things for other people because we want them to feel love and joy and excitement and if we just spend enough, we can give these things to them.
Ruby wants it to be her birthday, too. Ruby who is smart and strong and creative and a keen observer of others and… but there I am, doing that futile thing with descriptors again. She still crawls into bed with me most nights. I wrap my arm around her and cuddle her while she sleeps. Sometimes she talks about monsters and I tell her there are no monsters at daddy’s house because all the monsters are afraid of her daddy because her daddy is not afraid of them and her daddy has never encountered a monster he has not vanquished or turned into a friend and she believes me and she falls asleep in my arms and she sleeps peacefully… while I toss and turn as she jabs an elbow into my ribs or a toe into my hip. I am grateful for nights when sleep is lost that way.
One day Ruby, my baby girl Ruby, who also is not a thing to be possessed by me or by anybody else, will be too big and old for all of this. She will grow up. And the world is waiting and daddy’s house is small in comparison to all the places she will go. God, I pray her path is not lined with monsters. I don’t really believe in “God” but I pray to any God and every God for my children because, hey, why not? I would obey every fucked-up rule in every fucked-up sacred book if I thought the gods would then keep my children safe.
Recently, I came across a story told by Jorge Semprún, a Spanish Communist Party member exiled to France and arrested by the Gestapo in 1943. He was sent to Buchenwald were he observed the arrival of a number of Polish Jews. This is Žižek’s paraphrase of Semprún’s story:
[The Polish Jews] had been stacked into the freight trains almost two hundred to a car, travelling for days without food and water in the coldest winter of the war. On arrival, all in the carriage had frozen to death except for fifteen children, kept warm by the others in the center of the bundle of bodies. When the children were emptied from the car the Nazis let their dogs loose on them. Soon only two fleeing children were left.
And here Semprún contines:
The little one began to fall behind, the SS were howling behind them and then the dogs began to howl too, the smell of blood was driving them mad, and then the bigger of the two children slowed his pace to take the hand of the smaller… together they covered a few more yards… til the blows of the clubs felled them and, together they dropped, their faces to the ground, their hands clasped.
I lost my shit when I read this story. I cried, like hard ugly crying, curled up on the bed beside a friend who just held me without saying anything. I see Charlie and Ruby when I think of those children – and that is who those children are – somebody’s Charlie, somebody’s Ruby, somebody’s child, somebody’s love, somebody’s reason for living. And, for the adults who froze on the train, somebody’s reason for dying.
(And what did their dying accomplish? Would it have been better for the children to have frozen to death, instead of watching all their loved ones die and then being torn apart by dogs?)
But for now the monsters Ruby fears are the kind that are under the bed or in the closet, that kind that vanish when her daddy holds her and rubs her back and tells her that he loves her. She doesn’t yet know how monstrous people can be to one another.
And me? What do I know? Well, I sometimes wonder if I’ve ever met a woman who hasn’t experienced some kind of physical or sexual violence at the hands of men so, yeah, there’s that.
But last Friday Charlie turned six. He can read bedtime stories to Ruby and I now – he reads them all by himself, turning the pages and holding them up for us to see the pictures. I had tears of joy in my eyes when he first did this – my son can read, he can read books, what a wonderful gift for him to have received. He might not need them, like I needed them to survive my childhood, but they will always be there for him now. How ‘bout that, eh?
His hands and feet are getting so big. He’s got a whole new repertoire of dance moves and he tells surprising jokes.
“Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Banana… wait, I mean Orange.” “Orange who?” “ORANGE IN YOUR EYE!” *mad cackling ensues*
He is a sensitive boy who picks up when others are sad. He obeys quickly – unlike Ruby – and sometimes this worries me.
And this is another story about another Charlie and Ruby. An elder I know told me about some of his experiences at a residential school. One day, a young girl at the school had been told to clean the bathroom but one of the toilets had overflowed and the girl did not have the cleaning equipment necessary to deal with the mess. When the supervising nun came around and saw the mess she was furious. The girl tried to explain that she wanted to clean it but lacked the supplies needed. In response, the nun grabbed the little girl, flipped her upside down, and mopped up the shit and piss with the girl’s hair.
That’s just one event of a countless multitude this fellow witnessed, not to mention the countless others that took place in residential schools (and then foster care – as foster care has increasingly been the tool the Canadian State uses to take Indigenous children away from their parents, homes, communities, cultures, values, and languages). Many kids tried to flee the physical and sexual abuse (not to mention death from preventable disease and malnutrition). This often ended disastrously. For example, on New Year’s day in 1937, four Charlies were discovered frozen to death on a lake in thirty below weather. They had fled their school and were trying to make their way home. One of the boys was in summer clothes and had one foot bare. Another boy had running shoes on with no rubbers over top of them. Only one boy had a cap on. They died about half a mile from home, after walking for eight miles. The police report described them as “little tots.” Children who chose to go out into the heart of the winter without winter clothes because that was a better option than staying where they were.
But last Friday Charlie turned six. He’s six years old and I can see his eyes sparkle when he is extra happy or excited. He’s six years old and he never got shipped off to a death camp or froze to death on a train or in the snow trying to find his way home. He never got torn apart by dogs or beaten to death while holding his sister’s hand in the snow. He’s six years old and he loves to be held or just be close to me while we do things. He’s six years old and he never got torn from his home and culture and language and had his hair cut off. He was never made to sleep alone when he was afraid, he never had his hurts ignored or met with more hurt, and he never had his head used as a mop for shit and piss. My people do that to other people and then we circle our wagons around our wealth and privilege and cake and candles and party balloons and kiss our kids good night and go to bed feeling grateful.
Last Friday Charlie turned six. I love you, Charlie. And I love you, Ruby. I love you, I love you, I love you.