Monday, October 8, 2012

He ain't heavy

I love to read. A lot. I mean, when I say I love to read I actually mean I love to read. And, yes, I would marry the act of reading if I could (if I were not already, in fact, married- because a polygamist I am not).

I've already made it clear that I have tendency to fall in love with books rather quickly. But I'll be the first to admit that my love affairs with books tend to be a bit fickle and short-lived because I'm usually onto the next love-of-my-life book within a day or two after finishing the previous oh-my-gosh-I-love-this-book. That's not to say that I fall in love with all of the books I read, I don't. Some of them definitely fail to light my fire. But, if I'm being honest, I'm pretty easy when it comes to falling in love with books.

However, there is a difference between the momentary flirtations I experience with the majority of books I read that come and go sometime between reading the first page and finishing the last, and the handful of books that have left a lasting imprint on my heart.

One such book that will forever go down in Lori's Literary Hall of Fame is A Prayer for Owen Meany.

I need to stop right here and offer a word of caution. I love Owen Meany so much that I get a wee bit defensive over any criticism, constructive or not, of this literary gem. For me, my passion for Owen Meany could be likened to some people's deep and abiding devotion to their political views. You know how you have those friends with whom you would never dare reveal any of your political leanings that might run counter to theirs for fear that their head might explode? That's me with Owen Meany. If you have read it and didn't like it, don't tell me. I might not ever be able to look at you the same way again. I'm not proud of this intolerance of mine, but the heart wants what it wants- and my heart is forever bound to one unforgettable character named Owen Meany.

This isn't intended to be a book review, there are plenty of places you can go to read a far more detailed and intellectual review of A Prayer for Owen Meany than I could produce. What brought Owen Meany to mind for me recently was two things. First, a dear, old friend of our family passed away this last week which was sad in and of itself, but also brought back up to the surface my own father's passing eight years ago as he and my father were old friends. In fact, this longtime friend of my parents gave the eulogy at my father's memorial service. Truly, a good man and a good friend.

The loss of my father was monumental in my life, occurring less than two years after the loss of our infant twins at birth. Suffice to say, I was well acquainted with grief during those years. In the days, weeks and months after my father died I found myself repeating over and over to myself the final line of Owen Meany. I had always thought it one of the best closing lines of any book I had read, but it took on a new poignancy for me in the wake of my father's death.

O God - please give him back! I shall keep asking you.

I'm still asking.

You will be relieved to know that the second reason Owen Meany has been on the tip of my tongue this week is far less sad. Simply, years ago, when I first read A Prayer for Owen Meany it helped me to come to grips with the reality that I will never, ever, ever, truly be able to understand the mind of a boy. This, in spite of the fact that I was raised with two brothers, grew up with boy cousins, attended gender-mixed schools throughout my entire education, and am now raising two sons myself. Some aspects of the inner workings of a boy's mind have always been and will always be a mystery to me. Quite specifically, the unique sense of humor of the male species.

Early on in the story of Owen Meany (in fact it arrives on the second page) there is a scene in which, John Wheelwright, the other main character of the story, relates how when they were children in Sunday School they would pick Owen up and pass him around over their heads because he was so small. The scene is relayed in great detail including Owen's trademark high pitched, loud voice shrieking to be put down. When I read this book for the first time (I re-read it every few years) I felt a mixture of horror and sympathy for the poor, pathetic, airborne Owen Meany. Every feminine, maternal instinct in me resisted finding even the slightest bit of humor in such a childish, thoughtless display.  In fact, I couldn't imagine any other reaction. And then, my father read the same book. My father... my gentle, kind, generous father who never raised his voice to me in my life. And yet, according to my mother who was seated next to him on the airplane while he was reading, he laughed hysterically while reading the very same scene that had filled me with such dismay.

When my mother questioned his reaction, because she too had read the book and had responded as I had, he could only wipe his eyes and shake his head and say, "Because it's funny!"

Boys. Sigh...

But the thing is, my guess is that John Irving thought that scene was funny too when he wrote it. And in any case, developing a wider tolerance for boy humor has only helped me to maintain my sanity in raising two sons of my own. Because let me tell you, my boys have a really odd sense of humor sometimes.

I am so lucky that my boys are both brothers and friends. Oh, they'd deny the use of the word "friends" only because they would find that word way too weird in describing a relationship that really requires no definition. They would just shrug and say, I don't know... he's my brother. But that's because they don't know how difficult family relationships can be. They don't know how lucky they are to have grown up together in relative harmony and to have arrived at this point in their lives still comfortable and content in the other's presence. I hope that will always be true for them.

What can't be denied, though, is that part of what bonds my boys is their bizarre and sometimes unexplainable sense of humor. Here's an example: My boys like to make fun of one another. They usually keep it pretty tame and they both truly find it a hysterical exercise in creativity. I, myself, have to take deep, cleansing breaths when they decide to engage in this twisted brand of conversation. Quite some time ago, Tim's favorite jab at Jack was to call him "slow". Slow as in speed, not intelligence. After awhile this got shortened to "low" (and you have to say it in a loooong, drawn out way) and now it is one of their favorite back and forth running jokes.

Tim: Hey, Jack! The doctor called and he said you forgot to take your low medicine.

Jack: Oh, Tim... paging Professor Low, your class is waiting for you to give your low lecture.

Tim: Ummm...Jack, are we going to need to be stopping to get gas for your low-mobile?

Jack: Captain Low? The tower has cleared your low-plane for take off.

Don't get the humor? You are in good company. But I have to admit, after awhile I get caught up in their goofy smiles and boyish laughter and can't help but start laughing along with them. Now I catch myself chuckling when hearing the latest "low" comment and thinking, "Oh, that was a good one!" Egads. What have these boys done to me?

What all of this has made me wonder though (you knew I had to get to a point eventually, right?), is whether they have any idea how much they are going to miss each other next year. Because they are. Maybe Timothy more than Jack because he will be the one left at home with no one to engage in a verbal sparring match, but I suspect even Jack will have his moments of longing for the simple familiarity of home and a brother who can always make him laugh.  I think that often when we think about the first child leaving the nest we focus on the impact on the parents, forgetting that there are siblings whose home environment has just changed dramatically as well.

Hopefully though, in this age of texting and Facebook and almost unlimited forms of instant contact they will find ways to continue to seek each other out and mock one another in ever-increasingly creative and mystifying ways. Isn't that every mother's dream? That her children will continue to taunt and provoke one another long into adulthood?

Well, when it leads to smiles like these... then, I guess, yeah... it is.

The highlight of my childhood was making my brother laugh so hard that food came out his nose.
~Garrison Keillor

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