Nature vs. Nurture – Part I

The author wrote this post in 2013. It was originally published on March 24 of that year.

The good memories are fading. They were once plentiful.

I entered her life when she was six and witnessed plenty worth recollection. But, the production line one evening … just stopped.

Her beauty was natural — and a certainty, with striking deep brown eyes and onyx hued hair. She had proven herself on the stage, at the plate, and with her embouchure. But, she had dreams still in waiting.

As a little girl, she was much like any other. She talked about her birthday — months out; she eagerly awaited Santa’s arrival, and she preferred the over-salted gravy and fried chicken strips at Ponderosa Steakhouse to any homemade dish — except for her Mom’s spaghetti and meatballs.

I can still smell the sweat of a young child who spent her day climbing fences, playing hopscotch and racing the little boy who lived two doors down. My memory needs no refreshing to see her blue-on-white saddle bucks peddling and pushing.

I can also hear her whining voice when she didn’t get her way.

‘So, what are you gonna be for Halloween?’ I remember asking that little six-year-old. ‘Power Rangers? Dora?’

‘Mom makes me dress up as a Bible character every year,’ she told me, frowning.

‘Like what?’ I quizzed her.

‘Last year, she cut a hole in a big basket and attached it to my waist. Then she dressed me up like a baby,’ she explained. ‘I was supposed to be Moses.’

‘Well, that actually sounds pretty cool,’ I responded, smiling at the sad pathetic look of a child who was disappointed. ‘What do you say we try to convince Mom to let you dress in a devil costume this year. You could scare every kid in the neighborhood.’

Her eyes briefly widened. An excited smile came to her face. Then both disappeared, as if she had a contradictory thought.

‘Even you won’t be able to talk her into that,’ she said.

‘We’ll see,’ I responded. ‘I mean, the devil is biblical. Yes?’

Though Mom didn’t offer her blessing on the whole devil costume idea, we managed to convince her to construct an ensemble in the likeness of Dorothy, from the Wizard of Oz.

I was a young man who sprung himself into fatherhood after falling in love with a beautiful single mother. I was far from perfect — often expecting too much and other times not expecting enough. I deeply regret that in all the times I told that little girl how beautiful and intelligent she was, we never shared an embrace. We both needed it more than we knew. Yet, we subconsciously avoided it.

Still, she and I made an excellent team.

Once, not knowing my way around the neighborhood, she volunteered to navigate. Snug in her blue booster seat, she shouted directions from the back. Left. Another left. Go straight. Now go that way. We became lost, but we eventually found our way home, with a bagful of soda and candy.

‘I thought you knew where you were going,’ I said over my shoulder.

‘I figured I’d take you on the scenic route,’ she responded, just as seriously as she could.

She would get hers about seven years later.

‘Watch her pitches,’ I whispered through the chain-link dugout. ‘She’s fast and intimidating, but she’s not hitting the strike zone.’

‘Well, I’m swinging anyway Dad,’ she said ‘because I don’t want the coach to yell at me.’

‘Look,’ I responded, ‘you can’t score a run if you don’t get on base. You were swinging at air last inning. She’s all over the place — except where it matters. Let her put you on base. You can probably get a steal and then you’ll be in her head.’

In just about everything I’ve ever done, I’ve played with the odds. In competition, I’ve always tried to find my biggest strength and pit it against my opponent’s most glaring weakness. Sometimes, one’s strengths are lost against an opponent. That first at-bat was one of those times. She just needed to be patient.

‘If she throws one down the middle, by all means — take a swing,’ I pleaded. ‘But she hasn’t placed more than one pitch in the strike zone during any at-bat. Think about it.’

As she stepped from the on-deck circle and approached the batter’s box, I just stood at the corner of the backstop and stared. We made eye contact and I nodded.

Four pitches later, the umpire used both arms to make his loud animated call. She’d struck out. Looking. As she lumbered back toward her emotional coach, we exchanged glances. I could only shrug my shoulders. She had two more at-bats, and struck out swinging every time. She had a strong desire — then — to please.

Though I was trying to help her succeed, I still regret that moment. I’d pitted her against her real teacher. And she gained nothing … except a verbal lashing and some prolonged time sitting on the bench.

I remember sitting on a large towel beneath an umbrella on Long Beach Island, just minutes from our home. While her mom and I fought off gulls who wanted our sub sandwiches, she introduced herself to other little girls — and boys — and invited them to play. Like a good cold-calling salesman, she accepted ‘no’ with grace and quickly moved to the next potential customer. Within minutes, usually, she would be surrounded by the laughter of other children.

No matter how out of tune she might have been, she continued to sing. And sing. And sing. She was adorable in her perseverance. And innocent.

Somewhere along the way, the songs began to fade.

The beautiful outwardly friendly little girl began to withdraw and see herself in a negative light. She began to hunger for more esteem from her peers but seemed puzzled on how she would accomplish it. She began to want more along materialistic lines. Unrealistic yearnings such as living in the town’s most expensive neighborhood.

Those desires quickly turned to hard cravings.

Once a little girl who befriended inspiring counterparts, she had gradually become attracted to a different crowd. This new group could best be described as lost. Outsiders. Drawing flies. They were neither athletes nor musicians. And they were far removed from being academicians.

Despite that none of her new chosen peers had a single hobby or nary a desire to attend college in a few years, she attached herself. They accepted her, she explained to us, and made her complete. Had she lost sight of her wide acceptance during the previous 10 years of going to school? Would she go from colorful to drab? Why?

A couple of years passed us by, during which lies became more frequent than the truth. We tried to welcome her friends into our home, if for no other reason than to know who she was admiring and trying to emulate. Someone, we felt, had a stronghold on our daughter. But, she was careful and calculating. We met very few of her acquaintances.

Throughout that time of letdown and disappointment, one thing never waned — her work ethic.

I gave her my old Honda Civic. She could install her own stereo, decorate it with bumper stickers or even use those hideous strawberry-scented Christmas tree air fresheners. But, I made sure she knew that my name was still on the title of ownership, in case she thought about getting into trouble.

She used that car to take herself to school, and to two jobs. While her grades left a lot to be desired, she stepped from her newly updated comfort zone and acted in a school musical. The recently tapped group of friends were still kept mostly hidden from us, but we saw progress with our daughter.

As she looked into the mirror, she began to discover her beauty again. She ate well and worked feverishly. She seemed content and acted the part very well in much of her life. Her mother would get another chance at establishing a strong bond. Maybe I would too. Our little girl was coming home again.

Nature. Relentless nature.
It was a Saturday night. Our son was lying on his bed playing a handheld video game. Our youngest daughter slept soundly in a bed a few feet from her older sister’s. The dog was inside and it was time to turn off the lights and lock the doors.

‘Hey!’ My wife yelled down the hallway. I was in bed, relaxed and flipping through TV channels. ‘Come here!’

‘Jesus H.!’ I yelled back. ‘I’m in bed!’

‘I need you in here!’ she yelled back. I could hear the shakiness in her voice.

Frustrated that I had to climb back out of bed, I quickly threw on a T-shirt and made my way down the dark hallway, toward the light of the girls’ bedroom. What in the hell could she want with me? And why couldn’t she just come to our bedroom and ask for it?

As I rounded the corner, I saw our oldest sitting on the edge of her bed. Her eyes were wide open and dilated. Catherine stood beside her first child, her own eyes big. I could sense that she wanted to release some sort of primal scream.

Instead, she produced a lightbulb with the screw-cap broken off and filament removed. In her other hand was a short red straw and a cigarette lighter.

Our little girl had found contentment … in the form of pseudoephedrine, battery acid, and ammonia. Meth.

The little girl who became a protective big sister a few years before was now sucking the exhaust of boiling toxic chemicals — just feet from where her little sister dreamed of her own birthday parties.

The little girl who once played dress-up and looked like Dorothy on Halloween was now killing her heart and brain with stuff meant for clearing drains and stripping wax from dirty floors.

The little girl who had once memorized the books of the Bible — in order — was now meeting people in the church parking lot to make exchanges. Wadded up cash for poison.

Moving on
After three attempts at inpatient rehab facilities, a child taken away from her, a couple of jail stints and a life now with someone who has even less ambition than her, that little girl is still addicted. Her DOC (drug of choice, for those who are fortunate enough to have avoided such vernacular) has changed through the years.

Our little girl’s goal in life gradually changed from attending law school to acquiring prescription anti-anxiety pills, marijuana, K2, bath salts and crystal meth, when available.

Though her eyes don’t tell the story that they once did, we remember the little girl and beautiful young lady that she once was. We cannot help but to recall the laughter and fun. The blowing out of birthday candles and the sprint from the school bus to the front door. The beach.

Oh, how we long to be guided again along the scenic route.