saved my life when I was ten years old.
Worry was my constant companion as a child. I was a serious little kid with the weight of the world on my shoulders and during the worst of it my hair began to fall out. Thinning hair at the age of nine would have been bad enough but to exacerbate my stigma it all fell from the same spot. I had a silver dollar sized bald area on the top of my head that was gradually expanding in a near perfect circle.
The ridicule on the school bus was the worst of it. In class the teacher would intervene if the other children became cruel but on the bus I was on my own. I didn't sleep well so I had dark circles under my puffy eyes and my siblings teased me because my lips were too big for my face. There was no doubt that I was a goofy looking kid and with the bald spot ever expanding I could expect to look even goofier.
I can remember clearly the day that I hit bottom. It was a sub-zero winter morning and instead of enduring the ridicule on the school bus I decided to walk the mile and a half to my elementary school. I hadn't gone a block before I realized I had made a terrible mistake. My feet were frozen solid, my nose hurt from the cold and I still had more than a mile to go.
When I arrived at school the other children pointed at me and laughed out loud until the teacher sent me to the nurse's office. The nurse took one look at me and called my Mother to come and take me home. Cold makes most things contract but for some reason it had the opposite effect on my ears. They swelled to twice their normal size and glowed bright red for days. Between my big lips and my bald spot, my dark eye circles and my massive glowing red ears, I must have been a pathetically comical sight.
There were many nights that my worry wouldn't let me sleep at all. I'd lay awake cataloguing my various anxieties and grow more depressed the following day for my lack of rest. This cycle reached its logical conclusion the day my ears became swollen and my freakishness could no longer be denied. The prayer I had been taught to say before bed was usually delivered quickly and mechanically, without much thought given to the words.
"Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take...."
On that night I delivered the prayer solemnly, word by word, emphasizing the last line and repeating it over and over again.
My parents divorced soon after my swollen ear episode. It was the best thing for all concerned and my fretting actually eased slightly in the absence of domestic conflict. My Mother remarried and I spent the summers with her and my new step-father aboard a houseboat on the St. Croix River.
It was in that marina where I met a real live pirate who exposed me to a world view that was far superior to my own. He spoke of a great philosopher who believed that this was the best of all possible worlds and that we had all won the cosmic lottery by waking up here. The pirate explained to me that this sage had been ignored by the mainstream but that all thinking people would ultimately embrace the truth of his message. He was referring, of course, to Jimmy Buffett and his Coral Reefer Band.
I grew to love Jimmy like a father and if I tell you he is my spiritual leader it's only because it's true. He taught me not to take myself or anyone else too seriously and to smile by default. He told me that tragedies very often become comedies and that, "they'd better become comedies fast or else you're in a lot of trouble." Jimmy said there was nothing to worry about and I believed him.
My face eventually grew to match the size of my lips, my ears returned to more normal proportions and my bald spot sprouted an even growth of hair. I still have the dark circles under my eyes but Mary says that with proper lighting and from a certain distance I'm handsome in a way. I smile now, by default.
The anxieties would resurface at Christmastime, when family issues and religious hypocrisy were most conspicuous. That is, until I found out that Brother Jim was born on December 25th.