When I lived in Oak Park, my next-door neighbor was an Armenian woman, about my age, who grew up in the Soviet Union. While she had an M. D. and a Ph.D., was working on curing breast cancer and could speak at least three languages, there was one she desperately wanted to learn. She felt her lack hindered her ability to truly interact with her colleagues.
My friend wanted to learn the language of American vulgarity. I don’t discriminate in verbal acquisition, so my vocabulary includes an extensive collection of American swear words. And I know how to use them.
So on our nightly walks, I would instruct her in how to swear in American English. We spent at least two sessions discussing the various terms for copulation. I ranked them in increasing order of severity from “fooling around” up to the “F” word. She was astounded at how versatile that word could be, but couldn’t really master its use. Still she was eager to try her newly acquired skills. At a meeting of her research team, presented with a problem that confounded her, she said, “What fuck is this?!”
With the “F” word behind us, she turned her interest to vulgar synonyms for “penis.” Again, she was amazed at the variety of monikers Americans have devised for the male appendage. I don’t think she believed me when I mentioned that many men actually have a pet name for their penis, “just like women have a term for their breasts.” The look on her face told me that Soviet women probably don’t have terms of endearment for their “girls.”
I was reminded of my friend while taking care of my dad recently. Cancer treatment doesn’t just make you tired. It doesn’t just make you nauseous. In my dad’s case, there is a lot of sleeplessness. He also has a feeding tube installed in his small intestine. All night, the adult version of formula is pumped into his body. So, along with the sleeplessness, he has toileting issues.
It was in the course of dealing with one of these issues that I came face-to-face, as it were, with my dad’s . . .um . . .Johnson. I knew what came next. I dreaded what came next. Out of respect for my dad’s ability to retain his dignity in a terrible situation, I got over myself and did what needed to be done.
Dad and I both survived the incident and others as well, but it struck me that we had crossed a significant invisible barrier. In a moment, it became appropriate to do something that had been completely inappropriate a heartbeat prior.
When we were kids, my dad would dress in his swim trunks and get in the shower with my sister and me. With the water beating down on us, he would rock back and forth making storm noises. Now, I’m grabbing a handful of cleansing wipes and helping dad do what he can’t do for himself.
Ironically, it’s now ok for me to see dad’s unit, but no longer appropriate for me to see my son’s. When my son was an infant, I didn’t just see the teeny, weenie peenie, but was its primary care giver. The doctor assured me that post-circumcision care was simple. She lied. I think she did it on purpose. Prior to amending my son’s constitution, she told me “circumcision is completely unnecessary. We used to think the procedure didn’t hurt them, but now we believe that isn’t true.” She then gave me the pursed-lip “I dare you to be a bad mother” look. I gave her the “it’s none of your damn business” look and said, “My husband is Jewish.”
My intimate relationship with my son’s winky continued. He refused to use the toilet any way but the way his father did: standing up. This meant that the only time he did not pee in a diaper was at Brookfield Zoo, where there is a pint-sized urinal in the women’s restroom. At nearly four years old, he finally stood tall enough to (sort of) hit the mark in the potty. He still is only sort of making the mark, but I think he does it so he doesn’t have to share a bathroom with his sister.
The day it became inappropriate for me to see my son’s penis is burned into my mind. I was bringing laundry to his room, just as I had done for years. I seldom knocked. On the day that shall live in infamy, I opened the door and found my son exercising his right to the pursuit of happiness. We looked at each other in horror. I said, “AHHHHHH!!!!” He said, “AHHHHHHHHH!!!! I slammed the door. Now, I knock and he locks.
I don’t think I’ll ever completely recover from seeing my baby boy behaving in a very un-babyish manner. That kind of thing has a way of searing the corneas. But, I’m behaving like an adult when it comes to caring for dad. He needs it and I’m glad to do it.