Saturday, April 12, 2008


“When you see bear dance, you make to laugh,” is the first thing my grandfather says to me, in the first few minutes of my life. No one has ever told me this—I discover it quite by accident, rewinding an old videotape, looking for something with which to tape a television show I like. It comes back shockingly clear for a recording nearly 22 years old. There I go, the young me, appearing from the static hiss, clean in my mother’s arms, blanket-swathed as only babies can be. As I watch it in rewind, my finger on the remote control, I assume it to be a documentary or badly lit soap opera. The baby—the little me—is lifted up, placed back in the doctor’s hands, smeared with blood and afterbirth, reattached umbilically, and thrown back up the cervix.

It’s only when I see the woman’s face, the nameless woman I’d assumed to be a documentary extra. It’s my mother. The hairy arms reaching down from outside the frame are my father’s. This is the tape of my birth. I rewind back as far as I can go, holding that little plastic button—the fast rewind function long since deceased—and all it is is my mother’s frantic face. My father has shown nothing else of cultural interest, no chance of bell-bottomed trousers or brown vinyl décor or anything quite so interesting. Just my mother’s young, red, pleading face. She puffs and screams and she sometimes looks straight at the camera. And then, here I come, swelling out like an inevitable excretion, bulbous blue head and all. And then there I am again. Safe in towels and blankets.

Then there’s my grandfather, that fuzzed-up corduroy memory, in clear definition. His eyes, which I’ve only ever seen in photos, are dead black, but I can see a shine of welcome. He winks at the camera, one side of his mouth rising in a smile. His son—my father—shifts behind the lens, adjusting what must have been a tripod because the image suddenly lurches downwards and then back up. Dad must have the camera on his shoulder now, because the screen goes shaky, and it swings around, skimming over my mother, and the stark white of the hospital room. The image settles on my grandfather, holding me in his arms, fingers shaking and bent, but holding strong. And there we are, the beginning and the end of life.

“When you see bear dance,” he tells me in his faltering voice, “you make to laugh.”

My pruned up newborn face is nothing but a toothless hole where my mouth should be, but I’d like to think that somewhere in that baby brain is comprehension, some link of reasoning that only those with one eye on life’s backstage can understand.

I smile.

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