My children attend public middle and high school; hence the school year always begins with the ritual of the sports physical. There’s a clinic at the orthopedic surgeon’s office: five doctors, three hundred students, all in a line waiting to have their nuts grabbed and their eyes checked.
At the end of the summer, the teenagers are well tanned, their skin darkened, hair bleached out so they resemble palominos, particularly the long-legged girls in small shorts. Their straight blond manes ruffle when people walk past. And the boys talk with a confidence and cadence I recognize from when I was in school, twenty years ago now.
Small-town boys have an easy banter. They insult each other, hug each other, yell threats across the room, and for some reason, the girls link arms and answer. They walk over to the group in pairs and say, “What are you yelling about?” scolding and flirting at the same time.
We mothers sit around the edge of the room, mostly silent, though occasionally I want to say to someone, “It stinks to wilt while they bloom, doesn’t it?”
When I was my daughter’s age, I thought I’d never die—that even if my body failed me, I’d find some way to live on, either by making something beautiful, or perhaps more honorably, by bearing children.
Currently, I’m thickening everywhere but my hair, which falls out by the handful in the shower while my daughter’s has simultaneously grown lustrous and thick. My face coarsens, my feet curl. I am increasingly sexless.
Into the crowded clinic came a small family, a mother, father, and teenaged son, all Mennonite. The son’s hand was wrapped in gauze, but through an opening at his fingertips, I could see that he’d destroyed it, crushed or mangled probably in some piece of machinery. One finger was in a splint, another was just gone. He was dirty, his hair in the telltale bowl cut. He wore suspenders, trousers, a button-down shirt, and a sideways glance at the hundreds of students laughing and flirting in bare legs and sandaled feet.
The Mennonite family headed to the X-ray department window, where the father asked the receptionist, “What’s going on here?”
“Sports physicals?” the receptionist asked back, as if to discern whether the answer could possibly ring any bells. Have you ever heard of this bureaucratic practice of making people visit the doctor before they can play organized sports? Have you ever heard of sports? They play them in high school. Do you know what high school is?
The boy with the mangled hand was handsome and aware. He surely knew what young men and women of their age often do in quiet corners. There was no naiveté in his glances, nor contempt, but incredible curiosity about how there could be so many near-grownups in one place with nothing to do but look forward to another year of physical familiarity, sport, and leisure. And here, he’d been doing the kind of work that can destroy your entire hand in a millisecond. What a curse to be aware that you’re dying while others go on living with impunity.
The thing is, I don’t know how any of it works either—all the subtle machinations of small-town culture. I didn’t get it when I was young, and I don’t get it now. I always looked on the people who knew with awe and envy—and I mean knowing of any kind.
When I was younger, social knowledge was what I most wanted to attain, and I see my own kids now grasping in the same way I once did for certainty in this realm: Is it the clothes? The right phrases? The primo piece of technology? And how can I make it seem as though I invented this way of being and never knew otherwise?
My kids are not naturals with social knowledge either, and I’m glad because, selfishly, I want to share my exile with them. Or maybe it’s unselfishly, I don’t know—maybe a sense of exile is good for the soul, or at least it is an inevitable effect of being human. Knowing, after all, is what Eve wanted in the Garden, and what she got was exile and death.
The Mennonite family, having acquired knowledge of the good and evil pervading many modern societal issues, chooses to live apart for spiritual reasons. Those of us who are thickheaded and stubborn rely on time to relegate us to the periphery. We’re all exiled eventually.
The injustice is that, more often than not, we don’t get to choose our exile. Even the Mennonite boy will go home from this doctor’s visit having become someone else within his community, an exile among exiles. Who will he be with a mangled hand?
Exile always has a physical property—geography, family of origin, ability, age. “Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) I suspect that it’s only when we consent to the exile we’ve been given, to the fact of our death, that we begin to transcend it.
I’m still learning how to give my consent. I see the Mennonite boy looking in on the scene in the orthopedic office, and I think, Brother, you are being taken where you do not want to go, and I know your heart.
Maybe if I can process my sorrow at the loss of youth early, my children will never know it existed, and we’ll all have a happy exile in the glorified body of Christ.
Elizabeth Duffy writes at Patheos: Elizabeth Duffy: Perspectives on Catholic Life, Family, and Culture and at bettyduffy.blogspot.com. She is a contributor to Living Faith/ Daily Catholic Devotions, and has work published or forthcoming from OSV, On Faith, The Catholic Educator, and Image.