Grandfather’s notebook: Moving sideways

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by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle 12-26-2012

Part of my DNA is walking around West Glover in African-American skin.

Part of my DNA is in first grade in Ridgefield, Washington, dealing with Down syndrome.

Part of my DNA is in two children in Leeds, England, who talk to me, when I can get anywhere near them, in broad Yorkshire accents.

Part of my liver is in a woman in Ontario who is doing valiant battle with ovarian cancer.

Who knew?

A dozen years ago, before I had any grandchildren, I thought being a grandfather would be a calming experience.  Mostly a matter of doting.

I guess I pictured an assortment of blond, blue-eyed kids who would be parented much better than their parents were parented and not go to Harvard or Yale but to the sort of schools their parents — my kids — went to which were, in no particular order, the University of Chicago; Lewis and Clark in Portland, Oregon; Colby in Maine; Tulane in New Orleans; Sheldon Jackson in Sitka, Alaska; Reed in Portland; Brooklyn University; Mills in Oakland, California; New York University; Northeastern Law School in Boston; and the Banks Street College of Education in New York City.  Not a bad list for four kids, but they did tend to wander.

I hasten to add that it is far from beyond the realm of impossibility that any and all of my grandchildren will end up at any or all of these fine institutions, not to mention Harvard and Yale and Oxford and Cambridge.  Life is all about possibilities, and my granddaughter Adara, who lives in Ridgefield, is already pressing the envelope and, I believe, will continue to do so throughout her happy and already very useful life.

Her brother Corwin, who is about to turn three, faces the prospect of developing abilities that may be beyond the reach of someone who is now, and will always be, his only big sister.

And my grandson Isaiah has the courage to deal with what one very articulate Vermonter, Robert Walsh, called “unaware-unintentional racism.”  That’s not the stuff of deeply imbedded racial hatred.  It’s the stuff of “I thought you people couldn’t survive in this climate.”

And I hasten to add — I’ll be hastening to add a lot of things in this piece — that there seems to be a critical mass of Black children in our schools now, and they have collectively put some of this kind of prejudice quietly to rest.

I  don’t know if Phoebe and George in Leeds will have to clean up their North Country accents before they go to Oxford.  I don’t really know a damn thing about what remains of the class structure over there.

And as for Clara in New York, maybe it will be tough to deal with being a native of Brooklyn.  So far, she’s just a month-old bundle of promises.

Anyway I didn’t set out to write about my grandchildren, but about myself.

What I wanted to say is that grandchildren have a way of backing you in to groups of people you know nothing about and never thought, at this advanced stage in life, that you would have much to do with.

And the important thing to say about that is that it’s a remarkable experience.  In fact it’s a gift of considerable value.

My sister Shari, the person walking around Canada with half my liver, raised this point when I visited her last week.  She said there must be an odd sense of inclusion in another group, when you have a grandchild who is a full-fledged member.

I agreed, but it occurs to me now that I have an odd sense of inclusion in the group of women with cancer of a female nature.  Shari mostly startled me by coming down her stairs with straight hair, something she told me she has always wanted to have.

I hasten to say that she looked very good in her new wig.  But I must confess that it startled me, who has known her as my curly-haired sister for 68 years, even more than her loss of so much weight.

I have no ovaries and have never undergone chemotherapy.  But there it is.  Part of me has, in fact, undergone chemotherapy.  And that part of me sustains a woman of enormous courage.

That doesn’t make me courageous, any more than it makes my skin black or my brain and body subject to the effects of Down syndrome.

So why do I feel like I’m in the club?

A writer named Andre Solomon has recently gained a lot of attention for his book, Far From the Tree.

I bought the book as soon as I heard about it on the radio, but so far have only worked through his first chapter.

I know from his table of contents that he writes about parents who give birth to children who are deaf, children who are dwarfs, children with Down syndrome, children with autism, children with schizophrenia, and children who are the result of rape, among others.

The structure he introduces in the first chapter is about direction.  What parents look forward to is passing on the best in themselves vertically.

What fate may have in store for parents is a child who introduces something entirely unexpected, something that comes at them sideways, something horizontal.

He says it better than I can:

“Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs.  Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity.  We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die.  Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult, we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do.”

Perhaps Mr. Solomon writes so well about this because he is gay, and so has put his own parents to this test.

I would hasten to add that none of my grandchildren are gay, but that would be politically incorrect.  I would then attempt to redeem myself by saying that, should I have a gay grandchild, I would expect that same, odd sense of inclusion that I have already mentioned.  And I believe I would welcome it.

Mr. Solomon’s powerful prose makes one thing obvious:  Grand-parenting is far, far easier than parenting.  Every grandparent knows that, and every parent looks forward to it.  The horizontal gifts my children have been given are challenging.  They require a level of courage that, as a parent, was not required of me.  My children have inspired in me a respect that, in turn, arouses great and quite undeserved parental pride.

Meanwhile, as a doting grandfather, I get to go along for the ride.

And maybe, after all, this loss of vertical integrity is really a matter of branching out, of stumbling toward that distant place where our common humanity lies.

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