“Dear Sean,” the notecard began. It was postmarked from Texas. The handwriting was very neat.
“I’m 12 years old… And I know your really buzzy… But my mom committed suicide and my dad doesn’t live with me because he does drugs and now I dont have any one but my foster mom… I’m super embarased about who I am and stuff. Maybe we can be pin pals. Love, Susan.”
DEAREST PEN PAL:
Hello. My name is Sean. I live in Birmingham, Alabama. I am red haired and very plain looking. I rarely clean up after myself. I talk too much. I like Werther’s Originals, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Chili Cheese Fritos, barbecue, and Elvis Presley.
A little about me. I was 11 years old when my dad shot himself. My father did the horrible deed in his brother’s garage. And my family completely fell apart.
After that, I grew up pretty poor. I wore clothes from goodwill. My mother worked in fast food. I thought I was a loser. And still do.
But do you know the worst part about losing my dad, Susan? The worst part was the fear. I was always frightened. And it never left me. I am still afraid of the dark. Loud noises scare me. Fireworks especially.
Nobody tells you that grief feels a lot like fear.
Also, I was always embarrassed. I lived beneath the heavy fog of embarrassment. It was my go-to emotion. Again, I can’t explain this. So I won’t even try.
I’ll never forget when I was 13, when a popular girl named Amber invited me to her pool party. I had never been to a pool party before. I wasn’t sure why she invited me.
My father was freshly dead, and I had no friends. So my mother encouraged me to go.
I was a chubby boy. I was so embarrassed about being fat that I wore my T-shirt into the pool that day because I didn’t want anyone to see my little belly.
During the party, while everyone was eating pizza, Amber was wading beside me, and at some point she looked at me, and in front of everyone, she asked in a loud voice, “Why’d your dad shoot himself?”
All at once, I suddenly realized exactly why I had been invited to this party. Because I was the town joke. No. I was worse than a joke. I was that tragic orphan who everyone’s parents forced you to invite to your party because I was a glorified charity case.
I started to cry. In front of Amber. In front of everyone. I was so embarrassed that I leapt out of the water quickly, my wet T-shirt clinging to my fat little tummy.
And do you know what happened next? Well, I’ll tell you. I leapt out of the water so quickly that my swim trunks fell down.
Yes. That’s right. Everyone and their mother’s brother got a perfect shot of the perpetual whiteness that follows me.
I was so humiliated that I ran home. With bare feet. It was four miles. Embarrassment has been my constant companion.
But over the years, do you know what I’ve learned? I’ve learned a few things about myself, and about life.
Namely, I’ve learned that pool parties are stupid. For starters, pool parties have no real objective. You just stand around in a bunch of over-chlorinated water looking at people, shriveling up like a raisin.
Secondly, I’ve learned that it’s not a bad thing to be afraid. For only those who are afraid—and I mean really afraid—can be truly brave. The bravest people you will ever meet are those who are scared spitless.
And lastly, I have learned that embarrassment is a divine gift. It humbles you. Embarrassment brings you so low to the ground—so immeasurably near the earth—that the only direction you can look is up. And this is the only direction worth looking.
Of course we can be pen pals, Susan. In fact, it would be my great honor. Please write back soon. I’m never too buzzy for you.