gaze by o&poecormier

from the minute they were born, they looked exactly like him.

all of them. even Finn, smallest of doppelgangers, his dark eyebrows and his tiny big toe carbon copies of his father’s.

when Oscar was a newborn in the NICU, the nurses used to joke that they couldn’t tell him apart from Dave except for size. every time Josephine smiles, her father gazes out at me, shrunken and in pigtails.

high school science class taught me that what i see when i gaze upon the faces of my children is genetics in action.

i accept that i lost that bargain, in terms of passing on anything visibly recognizable as my own. it’s not a bad thing: i have a fondness for Dave’s visage, particularly as it’s manifested in the faces of small cute people. plus they missed out on the crossed eyes and colourblindness that ought by rights have landed somewhere in their paths, legacy of my glorious gene pool. i’ll take that luck of the draw.

i need a tshirt that relieves commenters of the obligation to note the kids’ lack of resemblance to me. YES, THEY LOOK THEIR FATHER, it would proclaim. underneath, with a nice vintage salvation show wagon, See Bonnie, the Circus Geek, the Scientific Marvel: a Seething Mass of Recessive Genes!

i never believed that genes mattered much. i grew up on Anne of Green Gables, on stories of orphans and foundlings. i was raised in part by a woman whose blood relationship to me was distant, who passed on not one of her genes in this world. but she and i were kin at the heart. she loved me and taught me.

and yet sometimes i wonder about blood.

the thing Dave likes least about me, i think, is my capacity for wounded outrage. deep inside me a she-donkey lurks, eyes turned out to the world. the donkey is not suspicious; it looks for friends. it is not needy, particularly; it can live with being ignored, can live even – though not best – with hurt and conflict. it is earnest; will always seek engagement, a happy ending from all encounters. what it cannot endure is dismissal, smugness, perceived cruelty, any authoritarian refusal to engage its warm human donkey-ness. it is not jealous, and it can be equivocal about being cheated. but it is outraged by being slighted. and being subject to the indifferent whims of dehumanizing power? makes it wild and destructive and rather silly, a tempest of hooves in what looks from the outside to be a teapot.

the donkey is not especially easy to live with, i will admit. with renewed humility, as it is becoming painfully – and loudly – clear that Oscar has his own rather potent little donkey. or a herd. though he has never once – okay once, ONCE, people – seen my donkey go off, and even then in restrained-ish form.

i DO see myself in my children. not in their looks, but in their senses of themselves, their relationships to the world. their alignments, for lack of a better word, to power, to limits, to what they perceive as unfair. and i puzzle.

perhaps they learned these things from me, i intone to myself gravely. nurture. my job is nurture. and i try to tie my donkey tighter, because it is indubitably part albatross.

but i visited my grandfather last week at the hospital. he’s home again now, recovering from a mild heart attack, his much younger homecare nurse happily ensconced in the house with him in an arrangement that is neither romantic nor conventional but seems to work for them. none of my business, is my opinion. we should all have someone good to us at 91.

but last week he’d been three nights in the hospital, and there had been a night nurse on duty, an older nurse who had upset him. he alluded. i asked, pressed a little. his hands shook in punctuation and he would not meet my eyes. he knew the story was not dramatic; he tried to play it down. she put up all the rails in my bed, he said, shrugging at first. i told her i have the same bed at home, that four was dangerous. any two would be okay with me. i asked her if she’d ever seen pictures of a fire in a nursing home. he spit the words. that’s how old people die.

he is not wrong: he was a fire chief for years. she had dismissed him, threatened to tie him down. he won, and slept with only two rails up. she’d told him not to blame her if he fell and killed himself. she left.

she was not NICE, he said. that’s not right. there were tears in his eyes, and they were tears of outrage. they did not fall. his donkey is more experienced than mine.

i did not spend a lot of my childhood with my grandfather. i have never, in almost forty years of knowing him, seen him express that kind of wounded anger. but there it was, and it was like looking in a mirror.

i put my hand on his cheek and looked into his eyes, and said you’re right. that wasn’t kind. that wasn’t her place. that was MEAN.

you just need to look the hooves in the eye and accord them their dignity.

i got the head nurse’s number before i left, but he was released the next day. he squeezed my hand and i walked away, stunned at seeing what i’ve always considered this ridiculous secret part of myself on display in him. as i’d seen it in Oscar, only a day or two before. perhaps it is in all of us? or perhaps a strain that runs somewhere through my invisible, unassertive genes. i don’t know. i shook my head as i walked through the hospital, marvelling at the mysteries of us humans, of biology and nurture and blood, the unanswerable puzzle.

i think the idea of blood as thicker than water is a learned thing, one that runs through culture and often causes more hurt than good. i do not believe genes make families, not at all.

and yet i see Dave’s face on those two little creatures we shepherd through the world for a few years yet, and wonder what it is of us that our genes carry, what of ourselves runs between the generations, written in blood and bone.