How Precious are Those Who Survive….And Those Who Don’t
I saw him while I was cleaning the blinds on our sitting room window last evening. Our house sits literally on the furthest civilized edge of a busy area of town but faces a quiet field, so the sight of him gave me a start: especially when I saw him struggle with his fallen motorbike, the left side of his face an ugly mass of red, torn flesh. Seconds later my husband and I were next to him, I swabbing his face with ice water and a rag, Marc covering his naked torso with a light jacket as the cool evening winds kicked up. Soon cops, paramedics, and a fire engine arrived. Police had been called out by friends who’d seen their inebriated friend ride off clumsily and too fast on a motorcycle he didn’t own. The police in turn had called the others in to check out the bike which was leaking gas, and the young man’s face that was leaking blood.
I sat next to him on the curb and put my arm around him as he fretted over the trouble he was in. He now feared the ultimate price of his adventure, but was fortunate that this evening was going to end up with him alive, in a hospital getting his injuries attended to and not in a morgue wrapped in plastic and sheets. He seemed a decent kid who had made a really bad choice. “It’s okay,” I said to him, holding him close to try to stop his shivering. “You have to go get your face taken care of. Just learn from this.”
Which to him, must have sounded like so much blah, blah, blah.
But given the memory of past events, I couldn't help myself. I kept trying to encourage him, to help him put this craziness in a context he could live with, maybe grow from. Earlier that afternoon in my office at work, I’d showed a colleague a photo of a handsome young man with a seriously degenerative disease: the kind that isn’t diagnosed until five or six years of age, and that decimates its victim year by year ever after. I put the picture next to one of my own sons, whom he happened to resemble, and asked: “How is this fair? How do you account for such things?”
Sometimes life to me is full of senseless noise and massive unfairness, like blah, blah blah. I want to cover my ears and bury my head to get out of it all. I want to lick my wounds alone. I so understand that feeling the young man in my arms felt, but I just couldn't let him go until the paramedics took over.
Long ago when one of my artistic sons was seven, he made me a red clay figurine of a woman sitting reading a book, her mouth a perfect O as if she was reading aloud to the clay children that climbed over her lap, her arms, the top of her head. Within five years I’d become that woman, kind of, with as many children as her life and metaphoric lap and arms could hold; and besides that, I guess I’ve become a storyteller along the way to try to keep myself from feeling too lost.
My little son had been prescient, you see, and here is how that all unfolded (this "mother to all" thing was neither a conscious decision or anything I asked for.)
Five years after the clay mother gift, in 2005, my artist son’s friend Marco was killed crossing a busy intersection. I helped his beautiful mother the best I could, all the while surprised at the magnitude of my own persistent grief, as if Marco had been my own child. His mom and I touched base with one another often, and we wrote a book together. We were witnesses to one another changing as we tried to make some sense of the world again.
About a year after his death I took a paper bag home that Marco’s mother had pulled from the recesses of a closet. It was an “EVIDENCE” bag from the police containing the clothing that was recoverable from the accident. His mom couldn’t bear to deal with its contents, but wanted to see her boy’s belongings again. A year after the loss, she needed to touch them and hold them against her face. I took the bag home to clean its contents. As I prepared, she emailed me: “If I ask if they were very bad please don’t tell me, I really don’t want to know.”
I washed a jacket and a pair of athletic shoes for her. I set the shoes out in the sun and inspected his jacket with care. It had holes in the sleeves by the wrists that Marco himself had made. Later I learned he’d put his thumbs through the holes to keep his sleeves down and his arms warm as rode his bike in the wintry Chicago air. It had taken a long time to clean his things because I kept noting stains and little signs of use and wear. I couldn't stop crying as I stood guard over the wash cyles so nothing would fall apart. Not that it realistically could have, but it all felt so tenous, as if the precious belongings could dissolve or disappear as suddenly as the owner had. As the entrusted caregiver, I was responsible.
I still have the little tag from the inside neck of the jacket. I had to cut it out because it was the only part of his clothing that held bloodstain. I kept it for myself because it seemed a sacred thing, something that needed preserving but that would have been excruciating for his mother to own.
His mother received the jacket and loved it. She held it to her face and smiled and wept. "This was his favorite jacket," she exclaimed. She later had it framed and put it in her office, and every time I saw it I'd think, “How much we love our children. There is nothing to compare, but they will never know how loved they really are by us. They'll never get it.”
I went to bed last night thinking how I can’t help but feel that all kids are my kids, and when they show up, I will be there as necessary for them. My own mother often told me how selfish a person I was, and to some extent that's true, but the love I feel for my children and the children of others is real. The boy who lay near my front yard last night was literally precious to me, and I was so grateful that he survived.
I can’t end this little meditation without mention of the time, about a year ago, when a young man driving too fast on the busy highway behind my sister’s house crashed through her fence and landed in her back yard, dead on arrival. I still have not gotten over the horror of it. This sounds like an implausible addition to my story, but here is the news item to confirm it: https://articles.chicagotribune.com/2011-03-21/news/ct-met-joliet-teen-killed-0322-20110321_1_head-injuries-backyard-car
This is another indelible memory for me, though I had moved to California before this happened. My sister still feels it. My brother-in-law, also emotionally crushed by the event - he had been first to see the young man in his yard - painstakingly rebuilt the shattered fence as if that in itself represented a path toward such healing as was possible under the circumstances. As he worked with the wood, he noticed knots that had serendipitously met as if to memorialize the tragedy. Here is a photo, taken roughly at the point of impact:
Amazing, the signs we are given, as if out of chaos comes…whatever it is we are able to see. What a world this is.
During my frequent walks in the field by my house, I often look up at the uncommonly beautiful sky out here and hope that somewhere, somehow, all is, or will be, resolved. I so want this world, this life, to be good for the generation ahead.
Children of any age are the hope of our world, just as they are. Kindness in the end is all that matters, and I hope there is plenty to go around.
Postscript: Just before I published this, the young man I met last night rang my doorbell to thank Marc and me for our help last night. He’d received no ticket, just as the police had said he wouldn’t. It was obvious to us all that he was a good, contrite young man. The only harm done was to his beautiful face and his friend’s motorcycle, but it looks as if all will heal. Amazing what some careful expert stitching can do. He gave me a hug, and life suddenly made a little more sense again.