I wrote about this before, back when this blog was new. My first post here, the last thing I wrote for my book. Hi, I’m Jeff. “Wow, you sure have a lot of problems!” This was my former boss. She spoke with exclamation points. She ticked them off on her fingers: “Vision! Hearing! Tourettes! Face-blindness?” I’m not sure she believed that last one.
Have you heard of it? Prosopagnosia. The inability to recognize faces. I’m a mild case. When I see people frequently, I do pretty well. Like I’ve got work pretty much covered. At least in my library, the big one. Take the smaller branches, scramble the employees, I’d be lost.
My biggest failure was with Sophie, my own daughter. Not now, I do fine now, but as a baby. She looked like all the other babies. Picking her up at daycare stressed me out. People like me use cues. Clothing, hair, size. All the babies start bald, and they’re all tiny. Clothing worked. I knew her outfits, I bought them all. But accidents happen. Seriously, horrible diaper blow-outs, overactive drool-glands, a tantrumy meal, Sophie wound up in one of the public outfits, the ones the director bought at Goodwill. When I arrived, I couldn’t find Sophie.
Before kids, Susan and I got heavily into swimming. Because we lived in DC, the only pools nearby topped out at fifteen yards long. Stroke, stroke, stroke, turn. We drove deep into the Maryland suburbs to visit an aquatics center. Three pools there, the big pool, fifty meters long. One night as I got off the highway, a car t-boned the minivan directly in front of me. I ran from car to car asking if everyone was alright. Dazed stares, no one answered so I called 911. Before I left the scene, a cop took my statement. Months later a subpoena arrived. In court, the judge asked me to identify which driver that caused the accident. One was Black, the other white. I couldn’t answer his question.
Countless times walking home from daycare, I pulled up the back of Sophie’s shirt to make sure I got the right baby. She had a birthmark on her lower back—in the spot where a tramp-stamp goes. We called it her on/off button. A round, dark stain on her skin, not raised or depressed, just colored, the size of a dime. Perfectly centered, like someone put it there on purpose. It was impossible not to think of a button, all our friends said the same thing. We joked it was how we got her to sleep at night.
As Sophie got older, we told her about her button. Family-lore. Just something you know. Sophie has an on/off button. Right there, just above her bathing suit bottom. Yes, I even used it to recognize her as a preteen. A group of girls at the swimming pool, Sophie’s the one with the button. The whimsy of the on/off button is a small reminder of the hundreds of things I love about Sophie.
When I was a kid, my father told me I was born with a tail. There’s a dimple on my coccyx bone. A deep one, like they cut something away in surgery. I can feel it when I prod the base of my spine, even through a pair of jeans. From my earliest memories, my father told me this, I was born with a tail. Like Sophie and her button, it’s something I’ve always known. Not once in my life has my father suggested he’s joking. After Sophie popped out with her button, I asked my father again. “Yes, you had a tail, they cut it off when you were born.” I still have no idea.
Sophie’s home on college break. Besides hostessing at a local ski resort pub, she’s visiting doctors. All of them. Tomorrow, it’s an eye appointment. Today, the dermatologist. Sophie had a freckle on her cheek that concerned her. “The freckle’s fine, but that birthmark is a little iffy.” They cut it off. They cut off her on/off button and sent it to a lab. I’m not overly concerned about the biopsy, the button hasn’t changed since she was an infant, but now it’s gone.
Sophie couldn’t care less. It’s just something weird her parents talked about now and then. It’s meaningless to her. To even see it, she needs two mirrors. And now it’s gone. I find it difficult to not think of this as a bit more of her childhood that’s disappeared. Sophie became an adult at college. She’s confident and independent. Assured and intelligent. And now she’s missing the one enduring element from her childhood I expected to last forever.