My mother used to tell us to use a mantra whenever somebody was being mean: “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Words are easy. Words are cheap. But I think we all know they sting like a yard full of yellow jackets. To use word judo like some sort of zen master is all well and good, but to really ignore stuff… that’s hard.
When I was a kid, I wet the bed every night. I don’t remember how old I was when I started: maybe preschool? There was a time between my toddler years and kindergarten when I didn’t wet the bed at all. But sometime around my parents’ divorce, I began to have bladder control issues.
It was after sixth grade camp when I stopped, because I couldn’t go to that event. This was tough because Camp was sort of a rite of passage, a last hurrah before we left Pistol River School.And I’d heard stories of how amazing it was. I sequestered myself and stayed home. I probably read books, because that’s what I did back then. That, and wet the bed.
It happened every night, maybe a couple times a night. My bed needed rubber sheets under the linens, in case my “diaper” sprung a leak. In those years, I don’t think there were disposable undergarments for anyone as big as me, or if they were, my family certainly couldn’t afford them. I wore towels around my middle, and plastic pants. I could generally put on my own diaper and the rubber pants, so I wasn’t beholden to my mother or anyone to lay me down like an infant. At least there was that small victory.
Grandma Myrt had me rub the stomach of the buddha statue in her hallway, and pray to the thing. She said it would stop my bedwetting. That stupid gaunt, unsmiling gold statue haunted my nightmares, but I did it anyway. I’d try just about anything to be able quit. I went one perhaps night with maybe a sweaty groin, but no actual peeing. Maybe this was because I hadn’t drunk anything on a hot summer night. But I was pretty certain I had sold my soul to the devil, praying to that statue’s stomach, and that’s what did the trick.
And oh, the shame. Well, it wasn’t shame really, because only my immediate family knew, and those who had to spend overnight stays with me. My occasional nighttime caregivers were discreet and said nothing, at least not where I would hear it. So, maybe not shame? Maybe it was embarrassment, or a kind of nervousness that somebody would discover my secret.
And, for a long time, nobody in my little group of Pistol River kids knew.
Except Brett Hull.
He had come by our house dozens of times, and I to his. There was a bit of old logging road and a dark forested trail between the house we lived in and his, and in our first couple years, the Hulls were our closest neighbors. The trees were dotted with old forts, constructed years before. We played together the forts and threw gourds at each other, and talked about our families, and dug holes in the dirt, and stacked branches to form windfalls. We took turns riding my bike. But he never, ever spent the night because, you know, that unique problem of mine.
Then one day at school, this was maybe third grade, he pulled me aside and said “I know what kind…”
He walked away and left me to ponder it.
Later, he got me into a corner again and said, “I know what kind.”
“What kind? What kind of what?”
“What kind of things…”
“What are you talking about, Brett?”
“What kind of things you wear at night…”
I still remember the cold feeling when the bottom dropped out of my stomach. You are somewhere between that moment a roller coaster reaches a peak, and you’re suspended without the help of anything but conscious thought, and then gravity takes over. Somewhere between that, and the moment you are caught in a flagrant sin.
“Please don’t tell,” I whispered urgently. I was probably crying.
Brett told me that if I didn’t do everything he asked, he’d tell everybody.
He never asked me to do anything. But he reminded me of this once or twice; probably to see me squirm.
This ploy lasted maybe two days. I was pretty sensitive back then. I’m sure I was crying and nervous; even more so than usual. So, before long, I told my mom what had happened, and she talked to Jackie Hull, who brought us two boys together in her sunny kitchen. And we had a conversation.
I don’t remember what was said, but finally Jackie convinced me to lay down my fear. Brett was probably eighteen inches shorter than me. And he was born, I think, four months before me. Despite his stature, he always had control over me. I always felt there was something something of a glint of disdain in his eye, maybe because he knew my secret. Or maybe I imagined the whole thing.
But I never trusted Brett again. I was kind of forced to enjoy his company, because he was the only one my age. I had even cried when he moved away, in seventh grade, because I was to be the only Pistol River kid in all Riley Creek. Even the Agness kids–even the Ophir kids had more of a clan than I did. I was alone. But, at least I wasn’t wetting the bed anymore.
Yes, sticks and stones may break your bones. But what about the unsaid words? Those are the ones that really stick in your skin.