Saturday, April 28, 2012

Because I Could Not Stop for Death

"Look, Mom! A aaambulince!" sings a voice in the back seat of our van. We are waiting at a traffic signal on our way to pick up my big kids after school, and our eyes are drawn to the flashing lights and the cluster of people standing nervously in the grass outside the building on the corner. One woman has her eyes closed and her arms tightly crossed. Even though the day is unseasonably hot, she rubs her hands up and down her upper arms, as though she is trying to keep warm. Someone puts a friendly arm around her shoulders.

The kids behind me are bouncing with excitement. There's nothing quite like the flashdance of emergency lights to raise a thrill in the heart of a small boy. We have toys, puzzles, board books, and cartoons depicting every kind of car, truck, or van with lights on top, and our boys associate these automobiles with fun and amusement. We entertain our kids with the machinery that attends tragedy, and so it is no surprise that these boys of mine find pleasure in the grim song of sirens.

Small necks crane and blue eyes widen as we accelerate through the intersection and alongside the church-turned-movie-house-turned-tattoo-parlor where the scene is unfolding. A stretcher is about to emerge from the double doorway.

I tell myself that I must drive slowly here because one must be responsible and cautious—on the alert—when emergency vehicles are present. But the truth is that I drive slowly because I, too, am fascinated, filled with my own wide-eyed curiosity. But unlike my boys, I understand what these flashing lights must mean, and my interest in them is more gruesome than childlike. If I were being honest, I would tell myself that I am driving slowly because I hope we will catch a glimpse of a broken limb or a little blood.

What we see, however, is something much more unsettling.

"What happened to that guy?" my six-year-old asks, pointing. A man's shirtless body is wheeled through the open door and down to the sidewalk. I absorb what details I can in the few seconds it takes for my minivan to pass the scene. The man is young. His skin is smooth and  pale. A swirl of tribal motifs are inked along his motionless arm as one EMT rhythmically presses the heels of his hands into the man's chest and another prepares the paddles of a defibrillator. A third pulls upward to bring the stretcher through the back doors of the waiting ambulance. One of the bystanders has both hands pressed together over her mouth. And then the scene is behind us.

The colored lights spin their dizzy pirouettes in my rear-view mirror until we round a bend in the road and resume our afternoon routine. "I don't know what happened to him, buddy," I say, letting out the breath I didn't know I had been holding. My reply is delayed, my mind still processing what I've just witnessed. But the shudder that heaves through my neck and shoulders reveals my dark surmise: that what I just saw was the unexpected end of a story.

I do not say this to my sons. I keep my suspicion to myself, and instead I say, "We should pray for him, shouldn't we?" I put this in the form of a question, partly because I want to be assured that there is still a reason to say a prayer—that I did not, truly, see a fresh corpse on my afternoon carpool run. The soft "yeah" from my four-year-old helps calm my rattled nerves. Yeah. We should pray for him, for this tattooed stranger who might, or might not, already be dead. So we do. We pray for the people in the ambulance to take good care of him. We pray that the doctors at the hospital would be able to help him get well. I breathe a little more freely. But I still wonder if the man I saw will ever breathe—freely or otherwise—again.

And with that, my kids are on to the next topic—baseball, or the heat, or their brother's field trip. I don't remember. At school, I collect children, herd them across the parking lot and down the grassy hill back to the van, and buckle them in. Then we retrace our route back home, which means that we must pass the tattoo parlor.

We are, again, waiting for the signal to turn green. But this time the flashing lights are gone, and instead a group of people—mostly young—are gathered on the lawn. Some hold each other, some simply look stunned, and one sits near the curb with her knees touching her chin, her face in her hands, and her shoulders shaking with sobs while friends gather around to provide comforting words that she does not seem to hear.

I no longer suspect. I know. 

My second grader sees the dismal crowd and wonders aloud what has happened. I tell him about the ambulance. But for a moment I consider what else I should say, how much I should reveal. We are rolling forward again, and then I say it, "I think the man on the stretcher died."

"Really?" he asks, swiveling his head around for a second to look again at the mourners. And then he asks the same question that is in my own mind, "How did he die?" Heart attack? I wonder. He looked too young for that. Asthma attack? Plausible. Overdose? Not a very charitable thought, but there it is. All I can say is that I have no idea, but I can't help speculating.

For the next few days I scan the obituaries and death notices in the newspaper, expecting to put a face and a name with that inked and lifeless right arm, but there is nothing. And so again I begin to think that I might be wrong. Maybe he is still alive. Maybe that public display of grief was simply a manifestation of concern and stress—even emotional relief—in the aftermath of a medical scare. Maybe that nameless man is, at this moment, sitting up in a hospital bed eating Jell-o and mashed potatoes off a plastic tray.

On Friday morning, I pick up the newspaper and flip absently through the first few pages, this time not looking for an obituary, or for anything else in particular, when I find it: a photo of a young man. His name was Timothy, and he did not survive. No cause of death is mentioned, and so I will probably never know what took his life. He was very young—born in 1985—and his baseball cap is turned backwards, the corners of his mouth curving up slightly, giving him an expression of cheerful defiance. But he could not defy death.

A memorial service will be held at the tattoo parlor. It seems an odd location, unfit for so solemn an occasion. I wonder why his loved ones would choose his place of death as the place for remembering his life. It seems stranger still that a place that provides people with permanent ink could be an appropriate place to reflect on the impermanence of this life.

But then I am struck by the irony—and perhaps it is a bitter irony—that this particular tattoo parlor had once been a church. It had once been a place where earth had met with heaven, where sinners had sung their alleluias. It had once been a place where the dying had gathered and embraced the gift of everlasting life.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Tell Me a Story

"In Calormen, story-telling (whether the stories are true or made up) is a thing you're taught, just as English boys and girls are taught essay-writing. The difference is that people want to hear the stories, whereas I never heard of anyone who wanted to read the essays.”  
—C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy

• • • • •

My grandmother had a black eye. She also had a tremendous bruise on the back of her leg, vaster and more technicolored than any I'd ever seen. She was sporting the injuries of a prizefighter after a street brawl, but there was no violent tale to tell—no sweat or glory or heroic story behind those black and blue welts. They were simply the evidence of an aging body—of the falls she has taken in recent weeks while trying to perform the mundane task of walking from one room to the next. My grandmother is 92 years old, so her failing health should have come as no surprise, but during the last month her decline was sudden and precipitous. Although she has begun to improve, she remains weak, and tired, and frustrated by her inability to perform basic tasks.

My grandmother, who once spent her Saturday nights swing dancing at the Hollywood Palladium to the live music of Benny Goodman, can hardly stand without help. She, who never left the house without every strand of her thick red tresses pinned perfectly in place, now struggles to lift her arm to brush the tangles from her thin white hair. She, whose graceful fingers once speed-typed scripts for Jack Benny at NBC studios, can hardly bend her crooked knuckles to sign her own name.

Her health and strength may rebound as they have done so many times in the past, but they may not. And as I visit her and try to help her in what small ways I can, I am constantly nagged by the realization that so much of her story is unknown to me, that there must be countless episodes of her life's adventure that  will go unremembered and untold.

Here is my grandmother, living right in my own town—even in the same house for a time—for all these years, and I have hardly begun to explore the pages of her history. I feel like that person who, having lived her whole life in New York City, is now about to leave it forever and is realizing she's never visited the Statue of Liberty, never seen the view from the top of the Empire State Building, never attended a Broadway show, never strolled through Central Park. It was always there, so I could do it anytime. And now time is nearly up. I have had this tremendous and enviable array of stories and memories close at hand for nearly two decades, and I have not availed myself of it. Her life spans nearly a century, but I could not recount more than a pitiful handful of the episodes that her long story comprises.

• • • • •

Realizing that the time I will have with my grandmother is limited, I started making a point of hearing at least one story from her every time I visit. As we chat, I simply ask a few questions, and then I sit back and listen as she turns to the colorful pages of her past. These hours with my grandmother have been some of the most rewarding of my life. In one short hour I was with her recently, scene after scene unfolded before my imagination.

She told me stories of family members whose names I'd never heard. I learned that her grandfather died in a coal mine collapse, and that her grandmother, who never remarried, spent the subsequent years cooking meals for the coal miners in order to support herself and her two young sons—Grandma's father and his brother, Charlie. 

She told me how her father was appointed by President Calvin Coolidge to be the postmaster of their small Illinois town, and how the subsequent postmaster was so incompetent that her father remained on the job to perform the other man's duties. She chuckled as she suddenly remembered a huge, friendly German postal carrier named Otto who delivered the mail on horseback and who knew everybody in town.

With a wry smile, Grandma recounted her first date. A high school senior had invited her, a lowly freshman, to the Fireman's Ball, and was she ever flattered! Knowing how much she loved to dance, her parents gladly gave her permission to go, and her mother immediately set to work sewing her a new dress for the occasion. At the ball, the high school coach—a young newlywed nicknamed "Hap" who had been a friend of Grandma's older brother—was cutting the rug with his pretty wife. As they spun around, they both lost their balance, stumbled, and fell right on top of Grandma and her date, knocking them to the floor where they all fell into fits of embarrassed laughter. Grandma laughed till the tears came as she remembered it.

And tears continued to trickle down her creased and freckled cheeks as she told me about the painful years of World War II when her brother, Rock, served on a munitions ship carrying explosives across the Atlantic from New York to England, always fearing attack by the Germans. Her voice quavered as she recalled how she never knew where her youngest brother, Ken, was during those years or whether he was still alive. She frequented the movie house, partly for distraction, partly to see if she could glimpse a familiar face—his face—in the news reels at the start of every show. She did not hear a word from Ken until he came home, and he would tell only one story from his time serving in the Marines: his unit had stormed the beaches at Guadalcanal, and as they neared land, he was certain that they were all going to die. As they ran together up the tropical sand, the men on either side of him were shot and killed, but somehow Ken survived. And that was all he could bring himself to tell her.
One hour with my grandmother was all it took to sit and relive all these scenes, and a half dozen more, from her colorful life. One hour. And this is just the beginning. I could have made a point of doing this countless times before, so why didn't I? Even at 92, my grandmother's mind is still lucid and her memories  vivid, so I am learning as much as I can in the time that we have left.

I know that every cinematic genre is represented in the sweeping screenplay of Grandma's life—action, comedy, adventure, tragedy, romance—and at this late hour, I am realizing how much of the plot is simply mystery—at least to me. Having casually walked in near the end of the show, I am now scrambling to find out how to stop and rewind to the better scenes before the screen fades and the credits roll.

• • • • •

In revisiting the the Little House series of books this year, I have been struck by the gift that Pa had for telling stories to his girls—stories about his own life and about his family. His daughter Laura committed those stories to memory and was able to put them in writing so that generations of readers can still enjoy and learn from them. What a gift. What a legacy.

I suspect that we as a culture are losing the art of handing down family stories. We bequeath physical objects—furniture and jewelry—to our posterity, but how often do we think of stories as a valuable part of our inheritance? I have only recently begun to think of stories in that way myself. But now that my grandmother's story is nearing its final chapters, I want to hang on—and hang on to—every word of her recollections. I want to remember them and bequeath them to my own children, precious heirlooms that cannot be broken but that can be easily lost.

As I've considered what questions I should be asking my grandmother, I have also been asking myself what family stories I hope to pass on to my own children and grandchildren. What form should these stories take if I want them to be remembered? What can I do to make these stories a joy to hear? A good story well told can express powerful truths that will stay with us far longer than any abstract proposition. Good stories give shape and color and texture to ideas. Good stories put flesh on words. And family stories can also help us to understand our own lives in the context of history.

My great-great grandmother raised two sons on her own by cooking meals for men who worked in the mine that had killed her husband. As a child, my grandfather was struck on the knuckles at school for speaking Norwegian instead of English. And years later, those same knuckles were lost entirely in a logging accident involving a chainsaw. My great uncle narrowly escaped being shot to death in the South Pacific. When my great-grandmother's dear friend fell ill and came from St. Louis to live with the family until she could recover, my great-grandfather had to seek special permission from the city council to have this woman stay with them—because she was black. These family memories help me to see my own experiences from a different perspective. Their lives helped shape the story of my own life. This is part of my inheritance; those stories are my stories.

So what if we made a point to not only read to our children but to share our own stories with them? What if our children grew up with a sense of their own history, of their unique place in the greater narrative arc of time? We have a history that bears repeating. In Scripture, the people of Israel were commanded to tell the story of their Exodus from Egypt to their children (Deut 4:9-10). The people were told to take care lest they forget. And if we are able to see our own lives in the context of history—as a brief chapter in a tale that stretches back to the first "Let there be"—then we may realize that the Exodus is also a part of our own story as much as it was part of theirs. And we forget it at our peril.

But forgetting is all too easy. Remembering will take work. It will take writing and repeating and re-telling. It will involve more talking around the table, more asking, more listening, more patience. In this tweet-riddled age, we rarely produce so much as a handwritten letter to save in a box of keepsakes, let alone a book of family history to pass on to our posterity. So, as I focus on collecting my grandmother's stories, I also need to think about how to collect my own stories and how to teach my children to do the same. We may need to spend some time learning the Calormene art of storytelling if our lives' narratives are going to amount to more than a disconnected series of status updates.

I want my sons to know that they are characters in a grand epic that includes all of us. I want my sons to learn and remember the best tales from their own lives, from their parents' lives, from their grandparents' lives. I want them to learn the stories from their great grandmother's life. But this means I would do well to learn them first, before her final chapter closes. It's time to look my grandmother in the eye—the one that was swollen and black and blue—and ask her to tell me a story.

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