There’s an old family video where my brother-in-law wrangles my husband to the ground again and again. I can picture the young man with his Andy Gibb hair spilling out of his cap, swinging that lasso with a sure arm, and before you could say – “Cowboy bites the dust” – my husband has done a face plant. It’s not sadistic, just the glee of an eleven-year-old running wild on a dude ranch in Wyoming.
So maybe it’s no mystery that my husband, the middle child, is still the comedian in his family, gets belly aching laughter from torturing a plastic Ken doll. Mr. Hapless, true to his name, is loosely jointed from his neck to his ankles, a Rambo turned Pinocchio who can never get it right.
Andrew, my husband, provides the voiceovers in a lazy Southern twang. “Get me some waterskis and I’ll take a shine to this here…Ohhh!” Mr. Hapless is strung by his ankles while the motorboat is traveling full speed on Lake Erie. That was five years ago, but everyone still giggles uncontrollably at his bumbling, fumbling ways. Not because these boys are the torturing kind, just that tragedy sometimes deserves a good laugh when the dust clears. There are moments we all felt helpless, caught in the tumult and spin of things.
Of course, like his cartoon counterparts, Mr. Hapless never drowns for good, or burns to death, loses his head forever, or gets maimed beyond recognition. Here’s the big secret that nobody lets that they’re in on – he’s my husband’s alter ego. It’s thirty-seven years later, Andrew is back on the dude ranch with his mom, his brother – the cowboy turned computer whiz, the wives and kids. Already I’ve seen my husband hopping in pain from a stubbed toe and jamming his fingers in the screen door, and slamming his head into the play structure while trying to photograph our son. He’s screaming, and nobody’s laughing. It’s not funny at all, because the clumsiness comes from his hands, which have failed him every day and erratically, for the last two years.
My husband has a condition called complex regional pain syndrome. Even before he lost the ability to drive, or use his hands in many ways that we take for granted, he had a poor grasp on some facets of daily life. At our wedding reception, his younger brother Edward gave a moving tribute about the brilliant, creative mind that inhabits this man I’ve now known for more than 13 years. He spoke of the difficult years that Andrew went through in middle school, ostracized after their move to upscale Marin County. And then he whipped out a single shoe missing its match. “That’s what Andrew left behind on his visit,” he said. The audience laughs. Caught in the moment, the swirl of fabrics and emotions and gaiety, I did not sneak a peek at my future husband to see if he was laughing with everyone else.
So Mr. Hapless is comic relief for all of us, but for my husband it’s an act, a role played for the family. Tonight, in the cabin where my brother-in-law’s family is staying, our four-year-old got in the act. My little boy, once shy, becomes the life of the party, coaxing Mr. Hapless to flex its triceps, which flips the torso backwards into a somersault. Then he grabs the doll by the legs and slams it against the coffee table. We’re laughing hard; nobody’s too worried about Mr. Hapless’ feelings, like you’re supposed to in storybooks. Then Alex tells Mr. Hapless to “shake his booty butt.” My son happily demonstrates for us by wiggling his derriere as if he had a horse tail to flick off the flies. He feels the thrill of being the entertainer. It’s rubbing off from his old man.
Our preschool director recently told me what a wry sense of humor Andrew has. She thinks he’d be a great host on some radio talk show. Talk show hosts, the successful ones, have one message and they beat that drum over and over again. Swinging it ‘round like a lasso in the hands of an eleven-year-old. Our family never tires of the Mr. Hapless skit, but in truth, my husband tires of the roles he plays, the ones where he can’t come out from underneath the weight of worldly concerns, personal obstacles. It's the tears of a clown; behind the humor is this simmering desire. Mr. Hapless, now retired in my son’s toy basket with one leg bent upwards, would support him wholeheartedly.