very six months, in another epoch, my parents would pin me gently to the scribbled wall and mark how much I’d grown of late. In the years between ages four and twelve, such a wall is like a battlefield testament to cities conquered. Look, friends, our child has grown an inch, or a mile. Look, child, you are approaching your eventual adulthood in small but inexplicable spurts, since growing itself is something of a mystical (if not mischievous) process.
At first no one can accurately tell if a child will grow to basketball’s redwood heights or be one of those whose early upwardness will suddenly leave them, their leaps and bounds distracted by laziness or intent instead on uplifting some brother, or, heaven help the boy, a sister bound for stardom in the willowy valley of girls’ volleyball.
But whatever happens later, the wall etchings are something of an art form if not an obsession, especially among the parents of only children who seem to see an improvement in their inner selves with each child-inch accrued.
I never did grow very high, but then again, I was an only child, which meant the instant I appeared likely to overtake my father, I was valid progeny, destined for a useful if not proud future.
Having attained that future, neither tall nor particularly oversized, I’m intrigued at the thought of that old wall with the pencil markings of height taken at tribally crucial intervals. This marking (No. 2 pencil) was a ritual rite of passage that seemed to make a great deal of difference to those making the scratches on that too-messy wall.
Now, afflicted by a progressive disease, I’m even more fascinated by this chart of growth, because my vantage point on such “progress” is in reverse. I have reached the age of regress.
Every week or month, my parents long gone, I diligently measure the decay of my vision, based on what I see, which can include the outline of a painting on a wall that last year showed a man and woman in some sort of past-midnight showdown that now, to me, appears as something rocky and reptilian, not two people but a giant dark lizard on the slopes of Gibraltar.
Each time, as my parents did before, I measure my changes objectively, staring at the painting from the same spot on my bed, in much the same way my parents dedicated themselves to the penciled wall.
I want badly to again see that additional inch that seemed certain to leave my father in its shadow, but instead see the people as reptilian shapes, plunging backwards each time I measure my disease’s anti-Pilgrim’s Progress (a pilgrim’s regress).
For every little upward etching I get a blur that further confirms I soon will see nothing at all, something that if my parents had to deal with would have driven them mad.
But I am not mad. Sad often, yes, but nonetheless captivated by life’s shrinkage and how at times it takes away and there’s nothing to be done, whether it’s an untamed disease or an unmoored virus.
All of us seem so equipped for growth but so timid, if not lost, when the fierceness of the taking away takes hold.
We want solace. We seek remedies. We delve wholesale into the sentimental, mourning the dead and pretending a better, more vigilant future can protect all.
Lincoln once said, “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time.” His point was that life was tied to conditions, and conditions meant knowing that at some point after growth would come shrinkage, even unto death.
This remains a lesson unlearned: the stubbornness of only the upward celebrated, and absolute decline imagined as fixable. At times it is not.
But parents who measure their child’s growth remain just that, parental and wedded to growth alone. Which makes the idea of allowing a vastly overcrowded planet to shrink untenable. We must all live. We must all be nourished to grow. We must all establish personality and franchise and good health. Wonderful stuff when spoken before a growth wall, but otherwise, mark my words, a myth that conceals a yearning for truancy that inches and their No. 2 pencil accomplices conceal.
I was growing like a sapling, my ego too, and soon there’d be hell to pay for this conspiracy.
— This is one in a loosely linked series of autobiographical essays in which the author recollects his childhood years, spent largely in Washington, D.C., and Madrid, Spain. Some names and details have been altered for reasons of privacy.