I Wish I Could Tell Her That Now
For many years, I was a professional skateboarder. I first stepped on a skateboard at the age of 11. The nomenclature – switch-stance frontside tailslide, kickflip to nose manual – was the language of my first friendships, with wild, strange boys who were as ill-suited to team sports and school as I was. They were from broken homes. Poor homes. Group homes. We were all like little cement mixers, keeping ourselves in constant motion, our skateboards’ movement the only thing preventing us from hardening into blocks of pure rage.
It was through those wild and strange friends that I first realised the oddity of my own home life. Skateboarding gave my mother panic attacks. She bought me helmets and pads (which I never wore) and gasped at my scars and bruises. She would have forbidden me to skateboard at all if she believed for a second that I would comply.
This might sound like typical parental anxiety, but with my mother, it was something deeper.
My mother was agoraphobic, which means she was often housebound. She cut our hair, made us clothes, prepared complex meals. She taught me to build a bookshelf and piece together a quilt. She worried that school stifled my creativity, so she encouraged me to stay home whenever I wanted, which was often. School couldn’t compare with the spotlight of her attention, and besides, I knew she needed me close by.
I felt uneasy around other children until that day when I was 11 and saw a boy outside my house perform an ‘ollie’ (that magical, clacking leap by which skateboarders temporarily glue their boards to their feet and vault into the air). To my mother’s horror, I begged him to let me try. From then on, I realised I needed to be skateboarding in the streets as much as she needed to be safe in the house. I stopped coming home except to shower and sleep.
At 17, I left and moved across the country. I seldom called my mother. When we talked, it felt as if she was trying to siphon something vital from my cells, so I parried her inquiries about my welfare with sharp, monosyllabic replies. It was a time of great anger and resentment, a time I’m not proud of.
Then when I was 32, my mother got sick with Stage 4 lung cancer. I went home to care for her and found her in the process of throwing away everything she owned. To prevent precious artefacts of our family history from being lofted into the trash, I gave her three options: keep, donate or trash.
Eventually I dragged a container from her cupboard and found it was stuffed with skateboard magazines, bookmarks peeking out from their pages. I leafed through one and discovered a picture of myself, five years younger, atop a skateboard mid-tailslide on a wooden handrail.
“I didn’t think you could look at these,” I said.
“I took out subscriptions,” she said, avoiding my eyes. “You never sent any photos over the years. These were the only ones of you I could get.” Then she sighed, “Keep.”
A few weeks after her chemotherapy ended and I returned home, I woke late one night to a phone call: my mother had died. I remember sitting at my kitchen table, weeping, clutching my stomach. I had to get outside. I grabbed my skateboard and rolled for hours in the orange street lights.
Five months later, my first son was born. My love for him was instant, soul-flooding. I had trouble taking my eyes off him. We went on long walks while my wife slept. Out with his stroller in the midday traffic, I found that I had suddenly become attuned to the world’s menace, to the human being’s naked vulnerability in the face of it. The city throbbed with dangers that I’d long been insensate to: veering cars, potential kidnappers, toxic exhausts, carelessly discarded needles. It was as though the universe had turned double agent and become my enemy.
I developed a Border Collie–like attentiveness when it came to my son’s safety. When he stood at the coffee table like a cute little drunk bellying up to a bar, I’d be hovering there. After my long acquaintance with the physics of crashing, I knew exactly what whap his forehead would make if it hit the lamp, what thunk his cerebellum would issue on the hardwood if he tipped back.
Or perhaps, I worried, it was because of my mother – my inherited brain chemistry, my angst-ridden genes taking over.
Things got worse. I kicked a dog at the park that looked as if it was going to bite my son. I complained to my wife that his daycare workers were inattentive. If he choked on something at the table, it would take me an hour and a few drinks to smooth out my nerves. Sleep became impossible.
I never imagined that parenthood meant learning to live with this unrelenting, impaling fear, with the question of when to catch your children and when to let them fall. To date, I’ve watched my son’s body bounce off concrete and wood. We had another son in 2013, this one more fearless than his brother. Some day I may be forced to hear their bones snap and see their blood gush. And then, after all that growing and falling, they might move away, far beyond my protective reach. My mother was ill, but she was also right: it is terrifying to be a parent.
It is a cliché to say children teach us about ourselves and about our parents, but it is true. My sons are teaching me to calm down. I’ve watched a trip to the ground leave them incrementally stronger. I even recently bought them both skateboards.
I’m learning to forgive my mother, for her life lived inside, for her inability to cope. She was afraid of everything, yet she was brave. I used to fear nothing, but parenthood has rendered me a coward. I wish I could tell her that now.
When I picture my mother leafing through those magazines, searching for her reckless, angry son, only to find me falling from the sky somewhere she couldn’t go, I’m sure she understood how I felt then, how I’d feel now.
A skateboard is the most basic ambulatory machine. It has no gears, offers no assistance. It will protect you from nothing. It is a tool for falling, for failure – but also for freedom, for living. On a skateboard, you must stay balanced in a tempest of forces beyond your control. The key is to be brave, get low, stay up and keep rolling.