A family member is getting married. Sarah and I fly in to attend the ceremony. Usually I skip these things, but this one is more mandatory than usual.
Friday night, I go to the rehearsal dinner. I’m not in the wedding, but the rehearsal scene is quieter, more low key than the wedding will be, so I think it’s a good time to mingle, meet family. Most of these folks are people I haven’t seen in many years…people I’ve avoided. My heart feels tense.
However, we’re there: Sarah, myself, assorted family, a few friends of the two getting married.
We’re in an old gym beside the church, where tables and decorations are being set up. People rehearse the ceremony, then for an hour or so we all sit around the gym, eating, talking. I have a hard time knowing what to say, so I mostly listen and nod my head and stare at my plate.
Dad and uncles talk about hunting and guns. Comedic deer camp stories ensue. Sarah listens and smiles politely. She leans over and whispers, “The south really is different.”
People laugh and eat and talk a little more. The bride walks over (I’m meeting her for the first time tonight). Walking beside her is the guy who’s supposed to do the sound for the wedding; he’s just a local guy who works at the church. Sound guy tells everyone that he won’t be able to attend the wedding, a family emergency came up. Bride asks if any of us will volunteer to work the sound in his place. Sound guy explains that he can give a quick tutorial, explain how it all works.
It’s quiet, no one immediately volunteers. Bride looks around and says, “M should do it, right? I keep hearing he’s the smart one.”
I panic a little. I think by “smart one” she means “nerd”…and in her mind, “nerd” is synonymous with tech stuff. The problem is that I’m a whole different species of nerd and have no tech skills whatsoever.
Bride looks at me, says, “You can learn the sound system real quick, right?”
I open my mouth, no words come out. Sarah raises a hand, says, “I’m a fast learner. I’ll do it.” She elbows me, says, “Be right back.” She heads off for the tutorial. She returns 20 minutes later and says, “Looks like I’m doing the music for the wedding.”
I say, “Wow, you learned it that fast?”
“Meh, not really,” she replies. “The guy explained how the sound board worked. To me, it was just a bunch of knobs and buttons and flippy things. I’ll manage.”
“That’s great,” I tell her. “The bride…I think she thinks I’m a tech nerd.”
Sarah shrugs, says, “Maybe. I just know she said your name and I saw that rabbit/headlight look cross your face…so, you know. Me to the rescue.”
We leave the rehearsal, go to a bar. Sarah drinks a little drink. I drink a big drink. She asks, “Are you nervous about seeing more of your family tomorrow?” In response, I cringe and rub my face and radiate discomfort.
The next morning, day of the wedding, Sarah and I stop by my parents’ house for coffee.
Dad is on the couch, watching a foot ball game. He watches intensely, eyes never leaving the screen…his arms and shoulders are rigid with excitement. He periodically blurts monosyllables; “Go!” and “Run!” and stuff like that.
At one point, he says, “M! Check out this replay!” I look over. I just see dudes milling around; a ball flips into the air or something. I can’t really tell what’s happening.
Sarah whispers, “They just blocked a field goal attempt.” So I say, “Oh! Nice block!” and my dad says, “Man, that was something else.” I give Sarah a thumbs up.
Mom walks over with some pictures. She shows them to Sarah and says, “Here are some photos of M when he was little.”
One picture is me on a basketball team. I was seven years old. Mom says, “He used to love sports.”
I say, “Mom, I was the worst player on the team. I didn’t score a single point the entire season.”
She says, “Oh, you had talent, you were just…too polite. You were too much of a gentleman to push your way to the goal.”
This is a disturbingly upbeat interpretation of my relationship to childhood sports. I mostly remember a lot of asthma and ridicule and failure.
She shows a few other pictures…mostly me in sports or martial arts…says, “He just had so much energy when he was little. That changed later on. He went from active to just…I don’t know. I’ll never understand what happened.”
That was crippling depression. But let’s pretend it’s mysterious. I shrug and say, “Who knows?”
“I bet it was the asthma,” mom says. “I think that really slowed you down.”
I drink coffee. Mom and Sarah talk. I watch my dad watch football. He roots and blurts. My brother shows up. He collapses into a recliner and glares at everyone. That’s his thing. He glares.
Sarah and I leave.
It’s around lunch time. Sarah expresses an interest in food specific to the state. She says, “I don’t know what people eat here. I’m curious.” So we drive to the river district…find a place that specializes in fried food. We get a big basket of catfish and frog legs and, as a side, pickled green tomato.
Then we go and get dressed for the wedding. I have to pull the computer out, go on You Tube, and watch an instructional video on how to tie a tie. It’s not something I know. I’m coming out of a really long pajama phase. I practice the video stuff. The tie ends up heaped on my chest, a mangled clump. I unclump and re-mangle it until a tie-like effect is somewhat achieved.
We go to the church where the wedding will be held. It’s the church my grandparents attended for almost 60 years. My grandfather and uncles helped build it. I was last here for my grandmother’s funeral just a few years ago.
We show up early so that Sarah can familiarize herself a little more with the sound system. She spends some time looking at knobs and buttons and flippy things and says, “Looks easy enough.” One small red light keeps flashing…I ask her what that is. Sarah winces and says, “Don’t know. I’m pretending it doesn’t exist.”
Then family begins to arrive for the wedding. My dad has a whole mess of siblings…all of whom had multiple children, so the gathering is large. I roam around the church lobby. I see uncles, aunts, cousins…my cousin’s children.
These are people I’ve avoided for many years now. People I last saw just prior to an emotional collapse…one that kept me socially isolated for more than a decade.
The sense of lost time…of frayed connections: it hurts in a way that I can’t find words for. There’s a hollowness to the day; the handshakes and hugs and greetings all feel like cherished old photographs that are too faded to see.
And it’s strange…despite my unexplained absence, everyone is exceptionally nice. Everyone is warm and affectionate. It makes me feel guilty. The darker sparrows that inhabit my mind, they start whispering. They start saying that the time I spent away was entirely my fault…that I can’t blame a collapse or depression or my family…that it was a choice, the isolation.
It’s particularly painful when I see my cousin’s children…kids I’ve never met until now. I see them and feel simultaneously curious and hurt. I want to know what their little minds are like…what toys or cartoons they obsess over…what personality traits they’ve absorbed from their parents…and which traits are uniquely their own. I feel curious…and knowing that I could have spent time with them, could have spent the previous years getting to know them…it stings. They’re just tiny strangers. I don’t know them.
I try to push back the sparrows, their turbulence, and make an effort to mingle. I baby step a few conversations. Then I go hang out with Sarah, at the sound system. She asks, “How’s it going out there?” I just pull my hair and say a bunch of curse words.
A few minutes later my mom walks by. Sarah asks her, “Why is everyone sitting at the back of the church? All of the front and center pews are empty.” Mom laughs and replies, “It’s a Baptist thing. We fill our churches back to front.” Mom walks on.
The wedding begins. Sarah turns knobs and flips the flippy things and plays through the various songs…each song signals a different portion of the ceremony. It’s all orderly and scripted and brief. A preacher preaches, rings happen, a bride is kissed. Then we go to a different area of the church, the old gym, for the reception.
It’s crowded; my heart is twisted up, anxious. Sarah, freed from her sound duties, is now available to meet people. Humans pass by and I’m obligated to make introductions. With family, I can manage this task fairly well. It’s more of a problem with friends of the family because, growing up, I was so introverted that I never really got to know any of these people. I look around and realize, with much of the crowd, I’ve forgotten their names. The introductions will be a problem.
This happens repeatedly: a vaguely familiar faces walks up…says, “M! Good to see you! And who is this?” And then I have to introduce Sarah to someone whose name eludes me. It’s pretty awful.
Mostly I try to skim past it. I just say, “This is Sarah!” and leave it at that. A few times, it actually works…the person shakes her hand, offers their own name. A few other times, it fails miserably. I say, “This is Sarah!” And the person waits for me to introduce them as well. So I stand there open-mouthed, stewing in the awkward silence…until the person says their own name. Stiffly, a bit offended. They walk away and I pull my hair and mumble curse words.
Eventually, once I’ve introduced her, Sarah starts to jump in with, “And you are?”, mercifully cutting me out of the process. It works better that way.
One woman walks up and greets Sarah. She says, “I’m friends with his mom going way back. We all grew up together around here. Now…I have to tell you this story. M may not remember it. When he was, oh, around 5 or so, his parents came over to our place for dinner. M was with them. They walk in…and I tell you what, they practically had to drag M inside. He just did not want to be around us. Eventually they got him in the house. He was on the couch for a bit, just sitting there looking absolutely miserable. Finally, he got up, ran to the door and started pounding on it. With both fists. And full volume, he yelled, ‘Let me out of here!’ And I liked of died, I just thought that was the funniest thing. I mean, I felt bad, but the sight of such a little kid pounding on that door…it was something else. I remember that clear as day.”
The woman walks away. Sarah says, “I didn’t know how to tell her: you still do that.”
Later, I tell that story to my mom, ask her if she remembers it. She says, “Not really. That happened so often, I just stopped noticing after awhile.”
People mingle, make plates, sit around tables, talk and talk. I just pace around the periphery of the reception. I’m too stressed to eat. Sarah makes me a plate anyway, but I don’t have an appetite. I just push a strawberry in circles around the plate.
Eventually, I sit. I listen to the sound of nearby conversations. I watch kids dart around the room. I watch my dad tell a story to some of his brothers…he pantomimes shooting a gun, waves his arms around, makes funny faces.
Sarah and I leave for a bit to drive around the old neighborhood. We look at the house I grew up in. My grandmother’s former house, where a lot of my family were born and raised. We look at my old elementary school and see the playground, where I got my ass kicked pretty regularly. There’s a convenience store down the road from the school…starting in 6th grade I used to sneak away from class, walk to the store, shoplift candy bars.
We drive and drive.
Briefly, we go back to the church, say goodbyes.
We head back to the hotel. I get a drink in the lobby bar…try to mentally decompress. But conversations from the day replay in a loop. Over and over.
I think mostly about my family and how nice they were…both to me and to Sarah. I think about how uncomfortable I am around them. And it’s a common occurrence: when I really examine the discomfort I feel around people, I find…not traits in others I dislike or any rational position upon which to stand…I just find a lot of confusion and self-doubt and uncertainly about my own nature.
Darker sparrows replay it all until my head feels heavy.