My Stepkids: New Members Of the Tribe
I'M not the photographer my father was, but I've shot seven frames that leave me breathless and grinning. Eric's my stepson, but you might have a champion of your own; if you do, you'll understand.
It's an 800-meter race. In the first photo, Eric stands with his hands on his hips, feet slightly splayed, and one knee bent. He's gazing straight ahead with an expression so serious it might be grim.
Eric will turn 16 in two months, and he works hard to wear the mien of a man. He's also aware that I'm taking pictures and, like me, he's awkward around cameras.
As I zoom in, I worry how he'll feel if he loses. My last photo shoot caught him walking away from the final basketball game of his team's season: He'd played little the second half, and they'd blown a lead. I could feel the sadness in the muscles of his shoulder.
Like his mother and brother, Eric looks all leg. His twin sister is more reasonably constructed, though even she has the prehensile toes and seven double joints that distinguish her mother's family.
As for Eric's leggy look, it's deceiving.
Eric's all heart. All of him, save for a few places that generate laughter, courage, goodwill. I've known him most of his life, and those few characteristics fit him tighter than his track shoes. So as I watch, expecting disappointment, I hope he knows how much he's won in the world. In me, anyway.
In the second picture, Eric runs with the pack. He's easy to pick out with my eyes, dark gold on the field.
Tall as I am, though still a freshman, he's shortest on the track - but man, what a stride. I know even less about track than photography, yet I can see that he runs the ways he laughs, full out, headlong, all of him extended.
START to laugh myself, watching him. From pure pleasure, that's all. Eric's older brother Marc has touched me this way, midflight on a soccer field, or an hour into some conversation about women and work and baseball cards; his sister has done it during an elaborate story she weaves that ought to be titled "Cathy Acting 26 Roles for No Apparent Purpose, but Here's the Dance Part."
For the third photo, I lean out over the rail. It's almost straight on, and I think Eric sees me as I focus.
He looks to be third, surging forward.
I shout as he passes - maybe that's why the next shot is so blurred. Eric's first of the runners in this narrow frame, both feet off the ground, head erect, leading even his shadow.
Three, two, one - epiphany. Suddenly I'm 14 again, standing on the tee above the fifth hole at Rolling Hills Golf Course. Below lies the green, but I am looking at my father, who has thrown his arms in the air and is about to embrace me. I'd hit a ball 140 yards with a seven iron for a hole-in-one. I don't savor the triumph: The only emotion I have is amazement that a person can feel as much joy as my father reveals on his face.
In photo No. 5, Eric leads everyone. Cathy is screaming in the bleachers behind me. Marc, Eric's coach now, is down on the field pumping his fist in the air.
Eric's hair streams out behind him in the sixth photo. Light washes his forward thigh and his left cheek. He is 10 yards ahead of the second-place runner, and pulling ahead.
The last photo shows Eric alone at the tape.
My father saw me play shortstop, read my first published story, and was featured in the second. As often as I saw the joy in his face, it never failed to astound me. Wonderous. So was the warmth of his arms as he cradled my failures in a gesture I remember as a physical murmur.
WHEN he died, I thought I'd lost the last man of my tribe, the only other person who spoke a special language. But while studying photos of my son, I feel my father inside me, remember his lesson, and hear the sound of his heart in my chest. It beats "my child, my child," and I think it means that I am not alone now, that I have champions of my own, new to the tribe.