Nat walks into the livingroom this morning, announcing himself in his own language, dressed in his signature yellow, shining like the sun. I am flooded by de-light. “Natty!” I say. “You’re so cute!” Nat’s eyebrows go way up, as if he is concentrating really hard on the meaning of cute.
Ned and I agree that indeed, he is cute. But then! Oh shit! A flash, a split second of something, sharp, ugly, and true, that has wedged itself like a splinter into my full, fleshy happiness and whispers: -You’re treating him like a baby.
I can’t help it, I reply. He’s cute. He’s adorable.
-He’s 21, says the splinter.
I know. But he is an unusual 21. Besides, if I see him as truly 21, all 21, I feel a pang that I don’t want to feel.
-And that is?
Imagine what he might have been like by now.
-You have no idea. This is who he is.
Well… I look at Max and Ben…
I don’t dare finish the thought.
-You are a terrible person, says the splinter. They are who they are, but who are you to say that Nat should have been someone else? It’s vanity. It’s chutspah. It’s hubris.
I guess, well, since we’re talking about it — I look at Ned’s and my genes. Or I think about what they contain. The dark and light of Ben’s art. The round warmth of Max’s. Their lightning epiphanies, realizations about — everything. The way they can do math (that’s Ned’s genes). The way they laugh at my jokes — or the way they hate them. The million different things they do and become and once were.
-And what does that have to do with Nat? Isn’t he a million different things and going to become even more?
Yes! But the boys are so close, genetically.
-I know what you’re going to ask. Go ahead. It’s okay to wonder. It’s okay to think it.
WHY did things end up so different? Why?
-There is no ‘why.’ There is only what is. There is only who he is. Exactly who he is.
I’m going out. I’m going to ride.
-In this weather?
You’re just a splinter! You can’t know what it’s like!
I know. Because I was once a tree. I could have been standing proud in a park, giving shade, dropping orange leaves in the fall. But instead, I am just a metaphor for your conscience.
Now I feel my smile coming back. The splinter floats free, as splinters do. I bundle up and I ride. The air is so cold, but I am dressed just right. My trunk, legs, and arms are warm. I only feel a few slashes of the wind here and there, and it is only cold like peppermint. Every now and then there is an ache, a burning and a strain, a pop of knee, a lumbar pressure. There is always, always, a little tiny bit of pain, but it’s nothing compared to the pleasure of just being here, exactly this way. Once again, I understand.