Johnny, when you were smaller, with hands the size of Sammy’s, we stared at each other for hours. Then Billy Mays came on the tv, and your head turned.
“Don’t just get it clean, get it OxiClean!” his voice carried through our small living room, yes, and easily, but I’m guessing it traveled to the kitchen, too. I know, for sure, it had traveled through the stretched skin of my belly before you were born, and to your ears–a booming, vibrant voice.
This is not a tribute to Billy Mays, more an explanation for the passion that calls from your throat every morning. Your voice that yells, “Mom, you know? Buzz Lightyear flies on his back sometimes!” that I quickly follow with, “Shh, Johnny. Your brother is still sleeping.”
You have been a commercial-watcher for all three and a half years of your life. Advertisements were made for people like you and people like your grandmother, who are quick to solve a problem, anxious to run ahead, scrub a stain, build a house, plant trees, work, and work, and work.
You won’t ever change the channel during ads, Johnny. You learn everything there is to know about anything. “Yeah?” you’ll ask to be sure you’re not being fooled, then you’ll commit it to memory, and probably, someday, repeat it to your brother, who might or might not do the same.
Your love of commercials has allowed you to memorize jingles, to multi-task, to enjoy television in small bits, and then go off to something more meaningful, like smudging dirt in your shirt sleeves or shorts. Someday, I hope you’ll have enough money, because you pay in more than just attention for a love of commercials. Perhaps it is my job, Johnny, to turn the channel during commercials, or keep you from tv in general. But I don’t. I want you to see it as something that’s simply there. It’s in the background. It’s not the focus, but simply a distraction, something easily left behind.
When you were not yet a year, Billy Mays died. Had you been much, much, older, I might have used this a teachable moment (I really don’t like that phrase, but there it is, anyway). I might have pulled you aside before dinner or before soccer practice or before your second date with a girl I’d never like, to tell you that Billy Mays had been paid to be as passionate as you were naturally. How so much of his own trouble left his family alone. Hell, maybe the cocaine had nothing to do with his death, but it is all I could think of after the reports.
Not everything you do will be advertised on your baseball caps or logo t-shirts or even held in your hand. Rather, some things, the more shameful things, will fit comfortably in your pocket, hidden with abandoned pennies and crumpled receipts and wads of lint. I will tell you that I will always find these things when I do your wash. Really, what you’re most ashamed of will bark like a dog only you can see or hear and will follow at the end of an invisible leash, glued to your wrist, and will catch up with you when your head hits the pillow at night.
You were not even one year when I spent hours watching reports, reading news updates, wondering how someone like Billy Mays would vanish from our tv set. Then, oddly, for weeks and months after, there was his commercial, echoing itself. You’d still watch him, not knowing he was a ghost in the flesh. You used to stare at him, and I used to stare at you, staring at him, but after he died, I stared at him, too. Why, is a lesson I wouldn’t have to teach you until much, much, later.