Monday, January 21, 2002

The Under Toad

From 'The World According To Garp' :

"Duncan began talking about Walt and the undertow- a famous family story. For as far back as Duncan could remember, the Garps had gone every summer to Dog's Head Harbor, New Hampshire, where the miles of beach in front of Jenny Fields' estate were ravaged by a fearful undertow. When Walt was old enough to venture near the water, Duncan said to him- as Helen and Garp had, for years, said to Duncan- "Watch out for the undertow." Walt retreated, respectfully. And for three summers, Walt was warned about the undertow. Duncan recalled all the phrases.

"The undertow is bad today."
"The undertow is strong today."
"The undertow is wicked today." Wicked was a big word in New Hampshire- not just for the undertow.

And for years, Walt watched out for it. From the first, when he asked what it could do to you, he had only been told that it could pull you out to sea. It could suck you under and drown and you and drag you away.

It was Walt's fourth summer at Dog's Head Harbor, Duncan remembered, when Garp and Helen and Duncan had observed Walt watching the sea. He stood ankle deep in the foam from the surf and peered into the waves, without taking a step, for the longest time. The family went down to the water's edge to have a word with him.

"What are you doing, Walt?" Helen asked?
"What are you looking for, Dummy?" Duncan asked him.
"I'm trying to see the Under Toad, " Walt said.
"The what?" said Garp?
"The Under Toad," Walt said. "I'm trying to see it. How big is it?"

And Garp and Helen and Duncan held their breath; they realized that all these years, Walt had been dreading a giant toad, lurking offshore, waiting to suck him under and drag him out to sea. The terrible Under Toad.

Garp tried to imagine it with him. Would it ever surface? Did it ever float? Or was it always down under, slimy and bloated and ever watchful for ankles its coated tongue could snare? The vile Under Toad.

Between Helen and Garp, the Under Toad became their code word for anxiety. Long after the monster was clarified for Walt ("Undertow, dummy, not Under Toad!" Duncan had howled), Garp and Helen evoked the beast as a way of referring to their own sense of danger. When the traffic was heavy, when the road was icy- when depression had moved in overnight- they said to each other "The Under Toad is strong today."

"Remember," Duncan asked on the plane, "how Walt asked if it was green or brown?"
Both Garp and Helen laughed. But it was neither green nor brown, Garp thought. It was me. It was Helen. It was the color of bad weather. It was the size of an automobile.

I've spent my entire life looking for the Under Toad, ever watchful for the time when it would snare with its slimy tongue my ankles or the ankles of my children. I've never doubted its existence for a minute. It has left its mark on every year of my life, from my earliest childhood memories of my father and his belt and trying to stay quiet so I could avoid them both to my father in my bed, crazy fuck stalker ex-live in forcing me down, my kids getting sick and then better. It's always been around. When I read 'Garp' I nearly leapt up and yelled "YES! I understand! I know JUST what you mean here!".

For me, the Under Toad has always been the size, shape and color of someone else's control, be it through belt, or sex, or anger or desperation, even random sickness. Someone else's control over me or later my children. Tomorrow I go to the gynecologist to have the first of what I believe in my heart already to be many, many tests. They will open me like a clogged pipe, take slices of me with cold knives, and send them off to be analyzed. Me, they'll send home to wait some more.

After those tests, nothing is going to be the same. Nothing. I already feel it. Call it intuition, call it hysteria, call it the Under Toad, call it whatever you want, I know it. I have cancer . I don't want to and no offense, I would cheerfully pass this buck to you if I could get close enough to do so, but there it is. After tomorrow, everything will be viewed through the cancer filter and everything will have more weight to it, every word, every hug, every glance, everything I put in my mouth. Even if we cure it, the rest of my life will be vigilance to keep it from getting another foothold in my body.

Today, I am taking my kids to the beach. To see it once more before the filter covers everything up, so I can watch them and hug them and stare mindlessly at surf and foam and gulls and trash before I have to hand so much of me again to someone else's control.