Clinton, S.C., Thursday, July 4, 2013, 8:48 a.m.
It’s Independence Day, and the hope for the future is curled up to my left, dead to the world, impossible to awaken, with visions of video games undoubtedly dancing in his head.
Alex Montgomery Howard, 10, is spending a few days with me. When he was born, I told his mother that, in this wild, erratic family tree in whose branches the rest of us were trapped, this child represented one more chance to get it right.
So far, so good. He’s such a great kid, it almost hurts.
If I slept like Alex, I’d live in a chiropractor’s office. Just since I got up – and made a cup of coffee, perused the iPhone and Weather Channel, fixed breakfast and completed the other sacraments of each morning – Alex has had his head buried in his pillow, his legs splayed across the cushion and his fists balled up at the end of arms pointed in opposite directions. He slept on the couch even though there is a bed for him. Where the bed is, a television isn’t. Alex tumbled off to sleep because DirecTV means that obscure cartoon characters can be viewed at any hour of the day or night. I’m one to talk, having generally gone to sleep to the accompaniment of David Letterman and Craig Ferguson for roughly 80 percent of the past 1,000 days.
George Burns, who won an Oscar at age 80, had a hit song called “I Wish I Was 18 Again,” and he wasn’t alone in that sentiment. I wish Alex could be 10 forever. He still lives in the relative security of innocence. The Statler Brothers sang that “life gets complicated when you get past 18,” but the period between here (10) and there is a mess. I wish I could protect Alex from it, but that would also be unwise. I can offer advice on where and when to turn the rudder, but he must navigate these troubled waters for himself.
He is so achingly sweet that I fear for his ability to weather the tribulations that inevitably lie ahead. He will have to protect that gentle soul with layers of toughness, for the world is not governed by Spongebob Square Pants.
At his current age, Alex thinks he can do anything he wants. He might as well be Santa Claus. He will learn hard lessons when he has to compete against others every bit as gifted as he. When he learns that others will not play fair, I hope he doesn’t respond in kind. I hope he realizes instinctively that with every cold, ruthless turn in life comes an accompanying loss of humanity. I hope Alex reaches adulthood – no, old age – secure in the belief that virtue really is its own reward, even though it may be difficult to prove with bank statements and investment portfolios.
I want Alex to cast the same kind, gentle shadow across his world that he does now. It is his nature. I don’t want the world tampering with my great-nephew’s perfect innocence.
I can’t help him but so much, though, and that’s why sitting here, looking at his sleeping tranquility, I can’t help but be sad.
And happy, too.