An Unintended Reincarnation

Without intending to, I recently brought about the rebirth of my parents. They had died a year or so before--my father, a retired physician, of cancer at age seventy, and my mother, a former nurse and housewife, of heart failure at seventy-one. Needless to say, my wife Celia and I counted on ordinary children, not on bringing these two elders back to life. Except that we delayed having children until late in our marriage, shortly following the death of my parents, there was nothing medically wrong with either one of us, or nothing so serious as to bring about such odd births. But first Ted was born five years ago on April 29, followed by Alice the following year, on September 21. These are the birthdays of my parents, and the first signs that something strange had happened.

Of course I might have attributed the dates to odd coincidence, and assigned little meaning to them. But even in infancy the children had looks in their eyes I recognized, ones that measured me from head to toe. These pointed to their true identities. “You really are my parents, aren’t you?” I announced to two-year-old Ted and seven-month-old Alice as they rolled together in a play crib. Ted stared back at me with the impassive look of my father, and Alice took on the cold glare of my mother. “Though you can’t speak yet, you kiddos are devils come back to torment me, I know it.” I couldn’t avoid this conclusion. The infants revived in me old feelings I’d hoped to have buried for good. I’d never suffered physical abuse, it’s only fair to report, but predominant among these sensations were inadequacy and shame. These my parents had taught me well.

No doubt I was predisposed to dislike the kids whatever their appearance. Children and the disruption of life they entailed were more Celia’s notion than mine, and I struggled to contain my resentment of the intruders. Not that they made much noise, in fact as babies and toddlers they were oddly quiet. But their unnatural silence only made them creepier. As a man accustomed to peace of mind at home, now a father who returned from work to a couple of sullen and strangely silent brats, I grew more desperate by the day. I thought more than once of throwing a sharp kitchen knife at tiny Ted as he crawled across the living room rug, and I finally allowed both him and Alice to eat dropped food off the floor, half hoping they would swallow something harmful. In what were perhaps my most disgraceful moments, I gazed at their tender bodies as they slept, and considered how easy it would be to wring those innocent-looking gullets. But because I felt they were my parents, it was already too late. I was too intimidated to follow through on my instincts to break free, too much under their thumb all over again.

Though I felt certain my parents had been reborn, I didn’t know the full horror of the situation until the kids took on their peculiar appearances and characteristics. This happened at preschool age, and at three Ted had the paunch, jowls and bald spot of my forty-year-old dad, together with his expectant, demanding green eyes. Alice, with eyes of the exact blue-gray shade of my mother’s, soon took on that lady’s thin, frizzy hair and wiry, almost skeletal frame, these matching well her pinched, faultfinding expression. They had even begun to smell like my parents, Ted like Old Spice and Alice like a Walgreens. Imagine my arriving home from an unglamorous and taxing job, to find my fault-finding young ones in bunny pajamas, the boy precisely mirroring the expression--and odor!--of my father when he caught me throwing litter in the street when I was around ten, and the pharmacy-smelling girl scowling at me in perfect mimicry of my mother upon learning of my middling SAT scores. And this was my greeting at the door!

My wife Celia, a disappointment to my parents when I married her, thought I was imagining the resemblances, even the eye colors, though she lacked a precise memory of such details. She admitted that the kids looked prematurely middle-aged, but put it down to a lack of exercise and a faulty diet, not bothering to correct either. Her people were raised on hamburger, packaged sweets, and cigarette smoke, and I could never reform her backward habits. The parents, still somehow robustly alive in their early seventies, were fond of saying our offspring looked like them, which couldn’t have been further from the truth.

But Celia lacked the visual memories of my parents that I possessed, in the same way that my recollections of her family must have paled when compared to her own. In my mind, the retinal pictures of my parents were accurately burned in. The similarities between them and my kids’ appearances were to me obvious and unshakeable, and couldn’t be accounted for by laziness and diet.

My sister Agnes came to visit occasionally to see her niece and nephew, and here my theory was put to the test. She too showed astonishment, as the kids turned from infants to children, on seeing how mature they looked and acted. But she didn’t entirely endorse my idea of a rebirth. “Ted certainly has Dad’s eyes,” she admitted, and “Alice eats like a bird, just like Mom. But that doesn’t mean anything. They have their own personalities.”

“But don’t you notice how sternly they regard us, and with what disapproval in their hearts?” I told her. “Mom and Dad never forgave you for dropping out of college to marry that salesman, or me for not becoming some high-earning lawyer or accountant. And these two show disparagement toward us as well, as if they’ve already been through those episodes with us. That’s more than sharing a few inherited traits.”

“What else could it be?”

“I tell you, we’re seeing the return of our parents,” I said in a near panic. “Don’t pretend it’s a mere genetic twist, as if Celia and I were siblings or cousins guilty of inbreeding. My wife and I are not related by blood at all.”

“You just need to get used to being a father,” was Agnes’ final word.

When she had gone, Ted approached me, his shoes untied and an old-fashioned clip-on bowtie (what drawer had he dug that out of?) hanging from his shirt collar. He held me with his hard, green eyes. “I don’t trust you or your sister Agnes,” said the precocious boy. “She’s a floozy and you’re a chump.” By this time he and his sister had passed beyond their silent days, and while resting his hands on his plump little belly, he kept talking. “Agnes told me you hit her when you were children. She said only a criminal would hit his sister. Are you a criminal?”

Ted’s sister Alice, wearing a play princess gown and holding a wand, came up beside him and added, “Agnes is smarter than you. She’s the talented one of you two.”

These remarks, I shouldn’t need to add, were delivered in my parents’ old familiar voices, voices that contained all Mom and Dad’s former intimidation and scorn. Every comment the kids made to me brought their disapproval of me back to the present. “Why did you marry Celia?” Ted more than once demanded in my father’s flat tone that echoed forever in my hearing. “I never heard of a dumb job like yours,” Alice would sometimes say, in the condescending manner of my mother. When either called me Dad, the word dripped with irony.

I insisted on one more familial test, and sought the opinion of my father’s sister Kate, still alive though living hundreds of miles away in another state. Due to her age and infirmity, a face-to-face visit remained out of the question, especially as Celia was not keen on the prospect. “Why not go somewhere fun, if we’re going all that distance?” was my wife’s attitude. So I settled for emailing some pictures of the two kids to Dad’s sister, or rather to her grown daughter who handled such high-tech tasks for her aged mother. So as not to sway her response, I didn’t ask any specific questions about the pictures, such as “Remind you of anyone?” but waited for her unguided reply. For weeks I heard not a thing, but finally, after prompting the daughter, I received Kate’s answer: “Very handsome boy. Strong and upright. The girl is pretty I suppose.” And that was that. She naturally maintained her lifelong admiration for her accomplished physician brother, whom she had always held somewhat in awe, and her lasting reservations about her sister-in-law, whom she continued to find superficial and opportunistic.

I thought of soliciting another eyewitness, my wife’s brother Edwin, who like Celia had met my parents many times though he had not yet seen our kids, since like my aunt he lived a good distance from us. But he was a chatterbox who inhabited his own dreamworld, and I thought his opinion would be both fanciful and artful. I could hear his reply to me now: “What kind of reincarnation is it where one sires one’s own parents?” Here he would look quizzical, then go on, adopting wise airs: “It would mean that your mother and father’s raising of you had been so horribly off the mark, that providence has given them a second chance at parenting you, with as little delay as possible. It would be interesting to note what differences and improvements in you they’d seek this time out.” Then he would fix me with his glassy eye and deliver the coup de grace: “Perhaps more importantly, it would give you a chance to become a better son and correct your filial errors. “ So closely did I imagine that these words would match Edwin’s take on my problem, that I decided not to involve the pedantic ass.

Things could not have been worse for me, and yet my father sometimes tossed me a compliment, in his restrained way. “My beamish boy,” he once called me at four, and went on playing with his electric train. Where did he hear that expression? Then it was my two-year-old mother’s turn: “You’re a fussy one, my love.” She could not have been more tart.

When a man’s family chokes the air out of him, as if his lungs were collapsing, he must seek relief. I couldn’t destroy the kids, even if they were demons, as that obviously would wreck my life too. Moving away from Celia and my accursed offspring seemed the only way out, and yet I would be forever haunted by my betrayal and cowardice. My parents had not thrown me overboard after I had disappointed them with my education and career, but allowed me to live at home with them until I was nearly thirty. Somehow we all found the strength to cohabit, if awkwardly. I would need to find that reserve of steadfastness again, to repay the debt.

I studied my son, recently turned five, and recollected his last days before dying of cancer at seventy. On his deathbed in my parents’ old bedroom he had still recognized me, and although he couldn’t say much, he called out my name. Ted now spoke my name, with pain in his voice. I watched my three-year old daughter, and remembered her saying, at age seventy-one, the year she died of heart failure at home, “I’m cold,” the very words Alice now uttered. The two kidswere splashing each other in their wading pool out back.

“You remember me, don’t you?” I asked them, watching the water sparkle and fly. “Not when I was your dad, but before, when you were older than me. Do you remember me then?”

“You were a silly boy,” said my son, “not like me. I’m a man.” “You ran around naked,” said Alice, and “You had a funny navel.” The kids both laughed.

No later than their insolent teen years, the pair would turn me into a son they could be proud of. Their second go-round would be as hard on me as their first, maybe harder. I dreaded that future, but I couldn’t cast off my minor parents, could I?

Michael Fowler is a humor and science fiction writer living in Ohio. His latest murder-mystery is up at The Horror Zine, and his most recent humor at Rejection Letters.