On Pride and Joy: A letter to George Edward Lewis (1935-2023)
On Thursday, the 8th of May, 1975 – four days after my 9th birthday – I was beaten up at recess by a horrible bully. I remember everything about that day, not only because I was already faithfully writing in my journal, but because it it would go on to become a kind of hallmark memory, an illustration of both how the world was, but also how the world could be. I remember it all: raw carrots sitting next to a carton of chocolate milk on a pale green compartmentalised lunch tray; blue skies with a particular dark grey cloud which had formed into the shape of an X; dried, peeling glue on my fingers from the Mother's Day project that I would have to give to my sister or grandmother; the shock of the initial physical blow; the faces of those gathered around watching the sad scene; the cruel taunting about my buck teeth, my weak and skinny body; the tears I futilely willed not to come; the metallic taste of blood; the sense of utter abandonment.
After that, my memories become less clear. I can't remember who pulled my bully off me, can't remember the face of the school nurse who tended to my cuts. (With my awful tangle of teeth my lips had taken a particular beating.) I remember sitting in an office but don't remember whose office it was. I don't remember you picking me up, nor do I remember the drive home.
But I remember what happened when we got home. You got a towel from the cupboard – the blue and white striped one that Grams told me had come from a box of detergent – and ran cold water over it. We went to the living room and you sat in your chair (the one that I would have to get up and vacate when you entered the room because that's the way it had been with your father as well). I stood in front of you and you began wiping my face, careful to be very gentle around my busted lips. I remember being worried that I would stain that blue and white towel with my blood – thinking that it had to be special indeed if Grams found it in a box of detergent – but you didn't seem to care.
I remember feeling ashamed and worrying what you thought. You had been a great athlete and coach in your day, and I worried that you felt bad that you had a son like me: skinny, buck-toothed, too small for football, a disaster on the basketball court. I worried that you were disappointed in me, that you felt stuck with me. I looked down; I didn't want to see your disappointment.
You placed the towel around my neck like boxing coaches did in the movies. You grabbed my arms and said, “Look at me.”
I looked up.
“You are not always going to look like this. We're going to fix your teeth and you'll get taller and gain weight. But listen to me. None of that matters. Because you are the most spectacular, beautiful person I know, and I love you. You are my pride and joy.”
You are my pride and joy. You had said those words to me countless times, but usually they were linked to A+'s and things I had written for you, the only areas where boys like me could excel. How extraordinary, I thought, that my utter defeat and degradation also elicited these words. How extraordinary that you had the ability to look at that broken boy in front of you and feel pride and joy. I felt that if my extraordinary Dad could see something spectacular and beautiful inside me then I knew that it had to be there, regardless of what the bullies of the world would have me believe, regardless of what society or even – I'm sad to say – the Church would sometimes have me believe.
For fifty-six years and two hundred seventy-three days I was someone's pride and joy. I knew it, felt it, believed it in a way that coloured absolutely everything in my life. Not to oversimplify things too much, but the mistakes I have made in my life mainly came when I doubted it, but what little good I have achieved came when I allowed myself to truly believe that I was worthy of being someone's pride and joy.
I cannot imagine a world without you in it, and my heart aches in a way that I don't think it ever has before. But I have the assurances of the faith that you, yourself found “complicated” (an apt description if ever there was one) that helps me believe that this dying will somehow be followed by rising. I have so many people who surround me with love, who protect me from the bullies of this world who would still try to get at me. And I have grateful memories of someone telling me I was spectacular and beautiful, their pride and joy.
What a fortunate, fortunate son I have been to have had such a father. Thanks, Dad, for everything.
(You were my pride and joy too.)