Orbiting Pollux

My father was a Gemini, born on May 26, 1939. The stereotype of the sign is the life of the party, the gregarious entertainer, but also the split personality, the Twins.

The twins of Gemini have names, both as characters in mythology, and as stars in the constellation of Gemini. Castor and Pollux were, interestingly, half-brothers, as well as twins. Castor was the son of Tyndareus, the king of Sparta. And Pollux was the immortal son of Zeus. According to myth, when Castor died, his brother asked to share his immortality with him, and Zeus created their constellation. The star Pollux is a red giant, and its one satellite is the only orbiting planet we know of outside our own solar system.

Pollux and Castor were warriors, but Pollux was the harsher of the two. He was a boxer, and is said to have had metal hands. (Not someone I’d like to box.) Both twins are associated with horsemanship and are considered the patrons of travelers at sea. (They certainly dropped the ball in 1912 when the Titanic sank. And what about the Italian cruise ship that just rolled over and sank?) In seafaring lore, the twins get credit for what is known as St. Elmo’s Fire, or sparks from the tops of masts on ships in an electrical storm at sea. Sailors considered the glowing flames a sign that Castor and Pollux were watching over them.

I never knew which father I would get when he came home from work: the nice dad or the evil dad. As an adult, I learned that the nice dad was usually drunk. The harsh dad was the dry drunk, the boxer with the metal hands. He was, frankly, a soft-hearted man, and ashamed of it. My grandmother told me that her oldest son, Fred, would grit his teeth and ask for more when he was punished. “But your father,” she said. “It just broke his heart to have anyone upset with him.” I often saw that, in his relationship with my mother. She told me she could never stay angry with him because he was always so contrite and sweet. Maybe it’s better that he was 4-F because of the Polio. Maybe the military would have broken him. In any case, he considered this tenderness a weakness, one he tried to conceal with muscle and braggadocio—not always the best combination when dealing with a daughter.

He had his moments, though. The day I graduated from high school, I was slated to give a speech. My boyfriend at the time was visiting from out of town, and we argued all day. I was terrified of graduating and going off to college on my own. I couldn’t sleep. As we prepared to leave the house for the graduation ceremony, my parents planned to drive separately, leaving me to ride with my difficult boyfriend. I panicked, hyperventilating and sobbing. My mother, at a loss for what to do, shook me by the shoulders and yelled at me to stop it. Which only made me cry harder. She finally called my father into my room. He didn’t say a word. He just sat next to me on the edge of my bed and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. Slowly, he rocked me back and forth. “Shhh,” he murmured. “Shhhh.” Eventually, I calmed down. My deep, jagged breaths started to even out, and we all heaved a sigh of relief. I rode with Mom and Dad to the ceremony, and I gave a great speech.

Now my father is dead. All of his warmth and tenderness and laughter are gone, along with his cruelty and alcoholism and self-hatred. He was, after all, the mortal twin, Castor. I am left with memory, old stories, boxes of photos and letters. These are Pollux. And myself. I carry his genes, and in that, I give him a form of immortality. I passed them on to my son. I see his eyes in my own, his temperament in my own. Some of it I like, some of it I don’t.

But a few days ago, my son, who is nearly two, fell out of his crib for the first time. We think he may have been trying to look out his window and fell out. We’re not sure. The baby monitor is not that helpful. All we knew was that he was crying for a long time. It took us a few minutes to realize it wasn’t just his occasional fussiness. I asked Brian if it could be hunger or an injury. He went into Jack’s room with a bottle of milk and found him standing on the floor by his bookcase, sobbing. He brought him out, and I held him, feeding him the milk. Jack kept fussing and crying on and off for the next several hours. He wouldn’t go back to sleep. He started shaking. We checked him for injuries. No blood, no bruises or bumps. He could move around OK. All I could do was lie beside him, petting his back and singing “Sing a Rainbow” over and over and over again. Every time I stopped singing, he started crying again. Eventually, he fell asleep.

The next morning, we took him to the doctor, since he still seemed unusually fussy. Jack has already learned to associate the doctor’s office with shots, and he got even more upset. The doctor said they could do a CT scan to check for damage or a concussion, but Brian said he couldn’t take any more of the crying. Jack’s sobbing was bringing tears to Brian’s eyes, and the stress for all of us was doubled. The only time Jack calmed down was when I sang the rainbow song to him, which I repeated over and over, rocking him back and forth.

Well, we could take him home and keep an eye on him, the doctor told us, and just bring him back the next day if things didn’t improve.

Luckily, they did improve. By lunch time, Jack was laughing and singing along with me, supplying the essential “O” in the chorus of “Old McDonald.” He was still a little shell-shocked for the next couple of days, but now he’s running and playing like his usual self. And I came through the ordeal with a sense that I have inherited from my father a very special and important gift. In a dark time, the tender Castor came in, giving comfort and calm seas in a storm. But he could only do that through Pollux, the part that lives on. Me.

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