Gentle Giant

By Molly K. Lichtner, 5/10/17

The Florida Manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is the epitome of a gentle giant.  They are large, soft, and covered in algae.  With greyish-brown skin and mottled green backs, they blend into their aquatic sanctuaries with ease.  No one quite knows why they need to be camouflaged so well; the manatee has no natural predator besides climate change and boat propellers.


            I was never one to fit in very well.  Throughout elementary school I was the tallest child every year in every class, which is a tremendously embarrassing feat for anyone of any age.  That paired with the fact that both of my parents worked for the school district made it nearly impossible to go unnoticed.  “Oh, is Mr./Mrs. Lichtner at the high school your dad/mom?  Tell them I said hi!”  I was under the constant stress of being taught by someone that goes to teacher in-service days with my dad or exchanges Christmas cards with my mom.  Any infraction on my part may have been an embarrassment to my parents’ careers; things like that put a lot of pressure on an eight-year-old.


            The Florida Manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) can weigh up to 1,600 pounds.  Females are usually larger than males, most likely due to the demanding needs of a fetus during gestation.  Manatees in general are large due to their low cold tolerance; they cannot survive in temperatures below 68°F.  One fifth of their body weight is from their gastrointestinal tract alone.  This generates heat as they digest in order to keep internal temperatures high.  Manatees, in a nutshell, are living, breathing, insulated animals.


            I have been fat my entire life, but I didn’t quite know it until about the second grade when a kid called me and another girl “big boned” during recess.  I knew this was an insult of some kind, but I wasn’t quite sure why.  How can I be ashamed of something that I didn’t know I was?  Being fat became clearer to me when my mother signed me up for Irish dancing classes in the third grade and my grandmother applauded her initiative because she thought it might help me “lose the baby weight.”  But I was still a baby.  I hated Irish dancing and quit within a year.


            The Florida Manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is slow and has difficulty moving out of the way of boat propellers.  The propellers tear up their flesh and leave scars: long, jagged, and slow to heal.  Sometimes the boats do enough damage to kill the manatee, leaving its battered and bruised corpse to decompose in the water.  Most manatees have crisscrossed patterns of scars adorning their backs, sides, and tails.  These are permanent reminders that they are not invincible.


            I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have stretch marks.  Unnoticeable and innocuous to anyone but me, I have them on my tummy and my arms.  I used to hide them under baggy sweatshirts— I was afraid that someone might notice them and realize that I’m a fat person—but now they no longer are a source of shame.  They show how soft I am.  They show that I have grown physically, but mentally as well; I am no longer afraid to show my propeller scars.


            The Florida Manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) becomes sexually mature around four years of age, and reproduces a few years after that.  One calf is customary, but occasionally twins are born as well.  One female may have up to seven offspring in her lifetime.  Mothers and calves stay together for two years.


            I have never gotten along better with my parents than I do now that I no longer live with them.  My mother and I have become particularly close; we talk nearly every day and see each other as frequently as possible.  My mother, like most mothers, is desperate for grandchildren.  With my brother recently separated and soon to be divorced, her efforts for grandchildren have turned toward me.  She frequently urges me to go out to potentially meet “Mr. Right.”  She had met her first husband by the time she was my age, and she had my brother by the time she was 27 years old.  I don’t have the heart to tell her that I don’t want children because I don’t want to pass my own neuroses on to another generation.  I am still learning to take care of myself.


            The Florida Manatee (Trichechus manatus latirostris) is a generally solitary creature, apart from mating season or when caring for a calf.  They travel alone, they eat alone, and they rest alone.  They are not territorial and their lack of predators defeats the need for a herd mentality.  Despite their near constant solitude, they are still able to thrive.


            I have lived alone for almost a year now, and after about five months the silence in my apartment was deafening.  My solution to this was to get a roommate; I brought my first cat home in late April.  Coming home after a long day was no longer lonely.  There was something there that craved my attention as much as I craved his.  After six months of bonding, I worried if he was lonely when I wasn’t around.  My solution to this was another cat.  I am greeted with a chorus of meows and leg rubbing when I walk in the door.  I can count on one hand the number of times my family has visited my apartment.  On my other hand I can count how many friends I have had over more than once.  I am alone but I am not lonely.  The quiet is comforting.  I am a solitary gentle giant.

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