Archive for death

For Benji, Forever Ago

Posted in real life with tags , , , on September 13, 2017 by sethdellinger

I never envisioned it ending that way, Benji.  Not in that small, fluorescent-lit room, on the floor there, by the diagram posters of canine mouths and the end table covered in year-old magazines.  I don’t know how I pictured it, but it wasn’t there.  I’m so happy I was able to be there with you for it though–although truth be told, I’d have liked to have been anywhere else.

So that was how it ended for you.  The culmination of your significant sixteen years of life experience,  all your moves and joys and sadnesses and all the people you knew and everything you smelled–all the stuff that was you drew up into itself and stopped, right then, in that tiny room.

I’ve had thoughts like this before, Benji.  When my grandma died, she was there in a hospital bed (I wasn’t there, I didn’t see her.  I have regret! I have guilt!) surrounded by, I suppose, pillows, blankets, and unending medical gadgets (one of my favorite songwriters put is perfectly in saying that, as we die in hospitals, we are “swathed in inventions”.  How terrible!).  And that is where her story ended, many miles from where it started, after years of toiling away, gasping for it all, forming and nurturing relationships, it petered out right there in that adjustable-back bed, probably drinking through enormous straws.  When it ends, typically, it just fades out, like the last drips through a garden hose, and practically everything you’ve done just blinks out along with you.  We have lots of grandma’s stuff, but the things she thought, or felt, or knew–those stopped right there, swathed in inventions.

It’s difficult for me to imagine that you had a mother, Benji, but I suppose you must have.  A biological mother, of the dog variety.  You were born on an island in Hawaii, which is so, so very far from here.  I’ve typically thought of your story as starting in the animal rescue that Karla found you in when you were about seven months old, but certainly, for you, your story started before then.  I strain to imagine the circumstances of your birth.  Were you born in an alley in a city?  Or as part of a litter that “belonged” to someone, and they gave you away?  Or were you born in a wild part of that tropical paradise, under some sunny palm tree copse, shadow-dappled, to a gorgeous pure-bred Basenji mother who couldn’t take care of you and your nine siblings?  Your genesis will sadly always be hidden from us; it was locked away from us behind the barrier of language.  How terrible, I say!  How terrible.

When someone dies, I picture their life like a long, squiggly line, moving this way and that, to and fro.  Not just geographically, but up and down as fortune favors or frowns on you, as things go good or bad, as you love or hate, are happy or sad, as you move across the globe, or spend all day in the living room, life is long (it aint short, it’s long!) and the line moves all around as you collect all these vivid experiences, and then, suddenly, there’s a big dot where it ends, on the floor next to magazines.

What was it all for, Benji?  Why did you do it all?  Why go through all the immense machinations just to drip out like drops from a hose, like everyone else?  Well, not to be too dramatic, but I gotta tell you, I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to figure out the answer to that question.  Almost everything I’ve written has been an attempt to get to that (I’ve never told anyone this, out of embarrassment, but when I write, I think to myself that I am trying to “crack open the shell of the world and see what’s inside”.  Isn’t that dreadfully pretentious? And now I’ve gone and told everyone), and all my favorite art and media is mostly more sad or deadly serious than most people prefer (my father-in-law and I joke about my predilection for “feel-bad movies”); I am always listening to music and looking for the answer, reading books and looking for the answer, watching films and looking for the answer.  And Benji, I do think I’ve found it, and here’s what I would have told you if I could have, through the barrier of language:

There is legitimately no reason or meaning to life.  Isn’t that awful? But really, it is quite obvious.  How could it not be so?  We are just little squirmy critters scampering over the surface of a fantastic planet.  We are summoned forth from the void by the power of biology, and once summoned, have to complete the maze until the very end.  That’s about it.  Dreadful.

But, Benji, there is good news! In the absence of any “reason” for living from outside of ourselves, we are free to conjure our own.  And that’s what I have really spent all these years trying to figure out.  If there’s no real meaning or reason for all this, what is the right one to create?  And that, too, seems obvious:

Bring joy.  Be joyous.  Spread joy to those around you and find joy for yourself.  We are but squiggly little creatures on this planet just once, and I lied earlier when I said life was long, it’s short, it’s short!  And its hard, my goodness this life we live from beginning to wherever it ends for us is so damn hard, all you can do is try to find some joy, to bring some joy into your house, to spread that large multi-colored burst whenever, wherever you can, as often as you can.  It’s not easy to do, Benji, because life will discourage it, but hey: it’s all we’ve got.

The best news yet, Benji, is that you were terrific at this.  To the last, you smiled, despite all that life had thrown at you.  You smiled your smile and wanted to be right in the middle of the action, all the time, and love us all up, and prance around feeling the carpet or the grass under your paws, angling your head up to the sun like the vaulted Hawaiian king you absolutely were.   So, I say (too little, too late), thank you.  There is never too much joy.  Someday my line will stop at a big dot somewhere, and until I get there, I want to soak up as much of the joy as I can, and I aspire to spread it around like you did.

Joy.  That’s the answer, right Benji?  It has to be.  We can make it be the answer.  Because other than that, there is only one fact in life: it ends.

Posted in Snippet with tags , , , , on March 22, 2017 by sethdellinger

Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes
by Sun Kil Moon

Richard Ramirez died today of natural causes. He got amped up on speed and broke into houses, bludgeoned people to death, wrote shit on their skin and left them. They finally got him and he went to San Quentin. His last murder was south of San Francisco. A guy named Peter Pan, from the town of San Mateo. The little girl in the tenderloin was his first, and in the laundry room he took a dollar from her fist. His last free days were at the Bristol Hotel. I was reading “Nightstalker” when I went and rang the bell. The doorman buzzed, said, “You’re just like them all.” He gave me a key and a black cat led me down the hall. I had a flight today from Boston to Cleveland. Got a death in the family, gotta do some grieving. Lost my baby cousin and it’s eating me up. And I’m achin’ real bad and I need a little love. Richard Ramirez died today of natural causes. These things mark time and make us pause and think about when we were kids, scared of taps on the window, what’s under the bed and what’s under the pillow. And the Jim Jones massacre got in our heads and the TV headlines, “Elvis Presley’s Dead”, and the Ayatollah Khomenei hostages and Ronald Reagan dodging bullets. One day I’m gonna stroll through the old neighborhood. Rick Stan’s my age, he still lives with his mom when he’s not in jail from menacing and stalking, writing bad checks and cocaine charges. Mark Denton had such a beautiful smile, always sat on the porch passing the time, and drinking a beer and smoking a pack until one day poor Mark had a heart attack. My friend Ben’s got a good job as an electrician, his sister married the pool shark Jim Evans. And my next door neighbors whom I love so, and they love me too, but they passed long ago. And if you walk just a few blocks down Stahl there’s a house that was the scariest of them all, a cute little palm with a sign “For Sale”. For those Sexton’s kids, life was Hell, and I’m telling the truth and if you don’t believe it, pick up Lowell Cauffiel’s “House of Secrets”. Had to fly from Cleveland to SFO. I got 3 months off until my next show. Gonna spend time with my girl, make a record this summer, fix my kitchen up and hire a plumber. The headlines change so rapidly. Today I came to the studio to work on something pretty, then I saw the news on James Gandolfini while I was eating ramen and drinking green tea. The “Sopranos” guy died at 51. That’s the same age as the guy who’s coming to play drums. I don’t like this getting older stuff, havin’ to pee 50 times a day is bad enough. I got a naggin’ prostate and I got a bad back, and when I fuck too much I feel like I’m gonna have a heart attack. I woke up today, I saw the headlines, an airline crashed and 2 people died, and I’m at a barbecue in San Rafael, and everybody’s drunk and feelin’ pretty well. At 53 years Richard Ramirez died but in ‘83 he was very much alive. He was the scariest killer in the band. He had a pentagram in the center of his hand. And everybody remembers the paranoia when he stalked the suburbs of Southern California and everybody will remember where they were when they finally caught the Night Stalker. And I remember just where I was when Richard Ramirez died of natural causes.

 

Sea of Ice

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2016 by sethdellinger

Famous people I know I would be good friends with if we ever got to know each other:

–Werner Herzog
–Kiefer Sutherland
–Anderson Cooper
–Emily Wells
–Dave Eggers
–Joaquin Phoenix
–Rachel Maddow
–Adam Savage

Oh hey, Karla and I were in line at a store last week.  We were next to be rung out.  We were standing kind of arm-in-arm.   We looked at each other and gave each other two or three quick, successive peck kisses.  The man behind the register threw his arms up in the air and bellowed, “FOLKS!  There’s other people here,” at which point he motioned to the other people in line behind us.  Then he said something along the lines of “Stop that” although I can’t remember his exact wording there.  We were flabbergasted!!  We hadn’t even been close to making out or kissing in any excessive way–whatever that would be!  It’s fair to say my anger was intense.  Karla pointedly asked the man behind us, “Were you offended?” and he said “I’m too tired to be offended.”  We were silent while he rang up our items.  As we walked out I said a very mean thing to him, which I do not feel bad about.

Oh hey, watch this video of Kay Ryan reading her poem “The Turtle”.  I mean wow.  “Her only levity is patience,/ the sport of truly chastened things.”

 

It’s not something you really wanna think about very much, but what songs would you want played at your funeral?  I actually used to think about this a lot, back when I was much more sad all the time, but even now the topic will cross my mind every few months.  Naturally my selections have varied wildly as time goes on and my tastes changed.  For many years I held tightly onto “Light Years” by Pearl Jam being one of the songs played, but that finally slid off the list a few years ago.  And thank goodness–in retrospect I can see that would have been gratuitously sad.  Just way TOO SAD.  Currently I am going with “A Three-Legged Workhorse” by This Will Destroy You, “I’ve Been Asleep For a Long, Long Time” by Hey Rosetta!,  and “Brian and Robert” by Phish.  I recommend trying this exercise yourself.  I think you’ll find it is quite revealing, not just about your musical tastes, but about the entirety of your life.

Here is a (partial) list of things I would try to get good at if I had unlimited time on this Earth:

–playing the guitar
–hiking/camping/climbing
–painting
–the yo yo
–acting
–ice skating

Oh hey, I’m reading a book about the earliest art to depict the polar regions after human exploration had begun there.  It’s a truly intriguing topic and some of this art is just spectacular.  Somewhat realistic based off the descriptions of the men who’d been there but also rather exaggerated and mystical as the place was still one of imagination and perceived danger and death.  Check out “Sea of Ice” by Caspar David Friedrich:

309fried

 

 

You Vanish

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on December 8, 2016 by sethdellinger

Grandma was a short, stout woman who made puddings and hoarded swaths of uncut fabric in an upstairs walk-in closet.  Earlier, she had been a farmer’s wife, raising four children and taking on city “Fresh Air” kids in the Sixties.  Her husband came down with Parkinson’s disease and eventually she had to wheel him around the house in a big wheelchair, help him swallow enormous pills.  She tended a garden out back and taught me how to pick peas.  She watched professional wrestling and baseball with the television on mute.  Then one day she vanished.  She’s no longer here.

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Jenny was a girl I met in college–or so I’m told.  I was a very heavy drinker in those days, and I literally do not remember knowing her in college.  She found me on Myspace about ten years later.  She had stories about me from college that I didn’t remember but we knew all the same people.  Her father had been my philosophy professor, and I vaguely remembered that.  We texted a lot for a while; we were toying with the idea of romance but after getting together in person, it just wasn’t there.  She liked horror movies and had lots of tattoos.  She was a fairly big woman but something happened at some point to make her lose a remarkable amount of weight–suddenly she was tiny.  I never asked what was wrong with her and she didn’t seem to want to tell me.  She’s gone now.  She’s not anywhere you might look for her.

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I went to high school with Nate.  We weren’t really friends, but we knew each other.  We ran in mostly different circles.  But we both went on the class trip to England.  We got somewhat close over the two-week trip, even though he thought he was a little cooler than I was, and I didn’t disagree.  We bonded over being heavy smokers and enjoying a good adult beverage.  When we got back home we mostly went our separate ways, aside from a minor power struggle we had over a female, and one time I accidentally set off the alarm in his lowrider truck.  He was a moody guy who liked the bass in his truck and wore backwards baseball caps.  He was really, really funny.  He disappeared in his mid-twenties.

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My first real girlfriend’s father was a nut about World War II aviation.  He’d sit in his chair in the living room and watch History Channel aviation shows all day long.  He was balding in a very adorable way, he didn’t try to hide it but a combover look came to him naturally.  He’d worked most of his prime years for a shoe company that went out of business at just the wrong time.  There was always a dog or a cat in his house that everyone else was mad at but he seemed content to ignore.  He enjoyed “black powder shooting”, which is the hobby of shooting antique firearms.  He never really said much to me–maybe “hi” and “bye” at the appropriate times.  The past seemed to weigh on him.  He has vanished.

********************************************************************

What is it, this business we have of ending?  It’s tempting to say we go somewhere–even if it’s just energy, even if it’s another life, anything, anywhere.  Of course, that’s just the rub of it–there is literally no way of knowing.  There is only the ever-present mystery. Although when you confront the thing head-on, there isn’t really much mystery at all.  We all know, at our core, exactly what it is (or better yet, exactly what it isn’t).

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Someday I, too, will vanish from these daily comings-and-goings, in a poof, like mist, like a lantern you thought you saw in a window.

Attendance

Posted in My Poetry, Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 30, 2016 by sethdellinger

The minister in silent thought
among the stone markers
on the misty morning
frowns his face,
surveys the flock.

Three years, four years,
I know you still.

Shuffling gently now down
the weedgrown path
his moving hand brushes
the obelisks, the mausoleums,
the taller-than-they-weres.

Ten years, twelve years,
have you found yet a home?

Pausing at the gate
turning ‘round,
the elms at the edge of the clearing
shimmer with Northern wind,
the load of winter
promised the branches.

Twenty-five years,
I wait still to join you.

Her stone is tilted to a wavering angle,
watersluiced and mosswearing.
The world recedes in the blackness of memory.

The Moon is Down

Posted in Prose, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 24, 2016 by sethdellinger

Rivers of items pour into the thrift store.  Hats and golf clubs and rusty saws; side tables and lamps with no cords and plush prairie dogs and embroidered pillows.  All day long these pieces of lives slide into the thrift store, glimpses past your neighbors window, views into the locked houses.  Sometimes it’s collections; thirty John Wayne movies, complete sets of Alex Haley figurines, fifteen Danielle Steele hardcovers.  It’s when you see the large collections of things that you know–you know someone died.  Dad died and the kids might have looked over his stuff, piled in the deepest corners of the den and stacked like waffles in the garage, and just not known what to do with it all.  Do you want this? they asked each other, nobody wanting to say no, not wanting to seem careless, but he made them watch “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” ten times as kids and they can’t imagine keeping it, even if they did love Dad.  These collections terrify me when I see them.  I have collections.  I have lots of collections.    The ability of someone else’s–some poor dead someone else–amassed material goods to bring me face to face with the abyss seems unfair.  There are so many other ways to find yourself face to face with the abyss, to have Danielle Steele novels from 1982 do the trick makes me think I’m getting too easy.  I like to be near water.  Any body of water will do. Oceans, rivers, lakes, creeks or rivulets, what-have-you.  There’s something about depths.  Fathoms.  Great distances and quantities unknowable.  My mind can fixate for hours on the questions of depth.  It must be so dark down below so much water, it must be so muddy, so briny, so devoid of light and life.  And yet things do live down there.  Organisms thrive.  Little creatures scurry about amidst all the pressure, never knowing sunlight.  I currently live very close to a river.  Not a huge river but it’s a river.  I like to ride my bicycle across a nearby bridge onto an island that is smack center in the river.  I ride out to the tip of the island where the water is spliced, diverted to either side.  I watch the river roll toward me in vast sheets, then split in two and slide past.  It is best to do in the summer.  The boats are out.  Fishermen in tiny outboards, their high-pitched whine echoing off the banks.  The heat of the summer makes the sound pungent.  Pungent whiny motor sound bouncing off river banks, and the sky above can get so blue, so blue.  Then there are river birds, usually.  Some white egrets off in the distance, a heron or two swooping by occasionally.  They call out to one another and their calls mix with boats, the lapping of the water, my own measured, shallow breaths.  It’s enormous things that get me, see?  The enormity of the river–it doesn’t care about me.  It doesn’t know who I am or even acknowledge my life.  It is benign but it is still a faceless monster.  It doesn’t feel but it will keep sliding past this island long after I am gone.  There is comfort in my littleness.  The river is pure and elemental and outside of time.  The river is not nearly as big as the ocean but it might as well be, next to me.  I take my boy to playgrounds.  We go to playgrounds frequently, almost daily in the summer.  We walk there through the humid city streets.  He likes to point at things and name the ones he knows–like house and truck–and ask questions about the ones he doesn’t know yet.  I tell him how water comes down the spouts when it rains.  He can say rain, but not water, not yet. We get to the playgrounds hoping other kids are there for him to play with, but usually there aren’t.  I play with him as much as I can on the tiny kids playground equipment.  It is fun.  It is not at all a task or a burden.  Just a few months ago the little guy was all burbles and gurgles and now here he is holding conversations with me.  It’s electric.  It’s just as elemental as the river.  Often I end up putting him in the little kid swing–the one that looks like a vinyl diaper.  I push him and make faces and he giggles.  It’s usually early evening and he sees the sun starting to nuzzle the horizon.  Sun down?  he asks.  He doesn’t want the sun to go down because he knows that means we have to go home.  Is it down yet?  I ask him.  No, he says, moon down.  That’s right.  The sun is up, the moon is down, all is well with the world.  Often on my days off–while my love is at work and our boy at the sitter–I like to take walks by myself.  It’s astonishing how few people are out, physically, in the world during the day.  Actually walking on sidewalks.  There seems to be very little need for it any more, even in a city.  I walk mostly alone from block to block, neighborhood to neighborhood.  In the hot summer months it feels even more deliciously lonesome, the hot, heavy air pushing in on everything.  The abandoned tricycle on the street corner seems pressurized by the hot air, more solitary but more graceful.  The squirrels in the dogwoods seem to know me, turning their nuts over in their hands like airborne otters, they seem to say It is hot and pressurized and we know you, we are out here, too.  I look at all the houses–so many of them!–with all the windows dark in the middle of the day, and everything so quiet.  I wonder about all the dark quiet houses.  Where are the people?  At their jobs, working to pay for the houses we rarely get to be in, and the cars to get them there (and keep them from having to walk on sidewalks).  Life doesn’t happen here, in the houses, but elsewhere.  Life happens on the move, in transit, on vinyl swings, we swing, we swing, we swing.  I walk until I get sweaty and thirsty and I turn around and head back home. I turn the air conditioning up and pull the blinds and turn on the television.  Everything out there is so big and elemental and universal and here on the screen everything is so small and incomplete and digestible.  I suppose we need the small to balance out the large.  The massive iron oceanliner swaying in a distant harbor at night, the moonlight on its riveted hull.  Things so huge, if you think about them hard enough, just the thought will crush you.

Origin Story, or: Where I Started

Posted in Memoir, Prose, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2016 by sethdellinger

1.

I hunched inside my filthy, smoke-laden 1983 Ford Escort in the parking lot of the corporate office. It had been a three hour drive in the early morning, from my home in Central Pennsylvania to where I was now in Pittsburgh. I had worked for the company for eight years, but this was the first time I was seeing the home office. Although my excitement and nervousness was palpable, I couldn’t deny some disappointment with the plainness of the building. It wasn’t in bustling downtown Pittsburgh like I expected, but in some suburban shopping village, and although it was not a small building, its common brick exterior and clean design was reminiscent more of an upscale middle school than what I had been expecting. But nonetheless, here I was nervous. I was preparing finally for an interview to get into management. I had been a dishwasher and then a cook while I struggled and slouched through my early twenties, and now that I had begun to straighten myself out, my boss was taking notice, and suggested I become an actual manager. It seemed ludicrous to me at first, the idea that people would let me be in charge of something. But more and more, the idea took hold within me. I had, after all, basically been running the kitchen in that restaurant for years. The more that my bosses told me I had a bright future with the company, the more comfortable I became with the idea that I was a leader, that I was already a leader. I didn’t know anything about doing it officially, but it did start to seem like a natural idea. I was nervous as heck though. I had no idea how to answer questions for a job that entailed real-world grownup things. And now that I had been thinking about it so long, it became something I wanted very much, so I did not know what I would do if I just bombed the whole thing. My manager had done the best he could to prepare me, but this was all uncharted territory for me. I was wearing a clip-on tie that I had stolen from my father’s closet. And pants that I had gotten from JCPenney just for the occasion. I swung open the Escort’s door, and, putting on a fake face of bravery and confidence as much as I possibly could muster, I walked toward the bland brick building. Once I swung open the big glass doors and walked inside, I ceased being unimpressed.

2.

I’m in high school.  I think I’m probably 17.  Maybe I’m 16.  Who can remember details like that all these years later?  Details like how old you were.  Those kinds of details or statistics rarely matter.  Anyway I was a kid still, a teenager, you know?  I don’t remember anything about the evening that lead up to this night I’m telling you about.  I know I was with three of my friends–or more accurately, two of my friends and one of their girlfriends.  I began the evening in the backseat of one of the friends’ cars.  We were going somewhere to drink, to get drunk.  But this was a special night, because I had never drank before, or at least, I had never been drunk.  Sure, I’d had a few glasses of watered-down wine at some family wedding when I was a tyke, but I’d never felt any effects.  My friends and I had never snuck or stolen any kind of alcohol yet. Tonight was our first.  One of my friends–the one with the car and the girlfriend–knew a grown man named something like Darius who lived in Carlisle, which was the bigger town closest to our smaller town. I have no idea how he knew this man.  We arrived at his house sometime after sundown.  I didn’t know Carlisle very well then but later I would end up having my first apartment by myself very close to this Darius’ place.  Life is cuckoo like that, no?  So I settle into a deep, plush chair in this guy’s apartment–he has a girlfriend there, too, and they’re so much older than us I assume they’re married.  Darius has procured us all “forties”, or malt liquor that comes in 40 oz bottles.  I crack open the cap with a high level of anticipation.  It tastes horrible.  Wretched.  Very, very hard to drink the whole thing.  But I want it.  I want the buzz, the feeling, whatever it is–I’ve seen other people have it and I want it.  We all sit there nursing our 40s for awhile–I can’t tell you how long, who can remember those details?–and it gets a little easier to get it down as the night goes on.  I feel slightly light-headed but nothing to write home about.  I was disappointed to slowly learn throughout the evening that there was no more alcohol, just one 40 for each of us.  At some point I said to Darius (or whatever his name was), “Hey, I’ll give you a few buck to go get me just one beer.”  Everyone laughed, because you can’t go buy just one beer to-go, but I didn’t know, I didn’t know.  We left then shortly thereafter and by the time I got home, even my light-headedness was gone.  I knew, as I lay there in my bed, that I was gonna chase that feeling, that I was gonna find it.

3.

It’s 5 AM. It is still very dark outside, and it’s cold. I’m taking my very inexpensive bicycle out of the back of my car. I’m in Presque Isle State Park, in Erie, Pennsylvania, way up in the upper left-hand corner of the state. Presque Isle is a forested peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie–Pennsylvania’s northernmost point and only seven miles from (still not-visible) Canada.  It’s about seven years since I started my management career, about 16 years since I took my first drink in that cushy chair with Darius, and about eight years since I had my last drink. I am putting a bicycle on a road that goes the length of Presque Isle, tracing the peninsula’s outer edge. I had set my alarm for 4:30. I wanted to be the very first person out on the peninsula this morning. It was awfully fun loading my car up in what seemed like the middle of the night, driving the 15 minutes through the city out to the lake, but when I got to the entrance to the park, there was a car already there waiting. But shortly after the gates opened, the car went a different direction, so I still felt like I had the entire peninsula all to myself. The crooning of the insects, the chirping of the birds, seems all for me. This solitary performance of nature is just another extension of my current life, the manner in which I am completely alone. Five hours from all my family and friends, when even a trip to the local Walmart poses zero possibility of running into anyone I know, it’s easy to begin to think that the birds and insects sing only for you. As I hoist myself onto my bike, I smile more broadly that I have in years. I recently discovered the joy of bicycling, and having this peninsula cutting into Lake Erie all to myself on this chilly but slowly brightening, slowly warming morning, somehow becomes the most delicious moment I could have possibly imagined for myself. As I pedal faster and faster, following the road that faces the outer limits of the peninsula, that happiness simply grows and grows. How did I come to live this life? How did I come to be so lucky? The birds and insects above increase in volume, as the lake reveals itself on my right, at this time of morning still a black mirror stretching out farther than I ever would’ve imagined, more vast than I want to ponder.

4.

I haven’t experienced as much death in my life as many folks have, but I have seen more than a few people I knew and loved shuffle off.  What a strange thing, too, when people die, right?  Suddenly they’re just not there anymore, like a phantom limb, or a dream you can’t shake.  What always rattles me most is how often the person truly fades from our lives.  Sure, we mourn them, we miss them, we still love them.  But usually we get rid of their stuff right away, clear out everything they spent their whole lives acquiring.  We loved them but not their stuff.  Then shortly after they die we consider it poor form to talk about them too much; why dwell on the past?  It might be considered obsessive to ask too many questions about what their life meant, what it meant to you or the universe, and what they might be experiencing now.  When I used to think about my death a lot–when I was sad, which isn’t now–I would imagine my loved ones saving the books and movies from my shelves, saying Oh Seth loved these, I will read them all as a tribute!  But I know now they won’t, and even that they shouldn’t.  I’ll just be gone, and this mountain I spent my whole journey climbing, crafting myself carefully out of nothing, will just fade, fade, fade.

5.

The boy had me in a headlock.  I’d never been in a headlock before—at least, not one that was meant to hurt—and so I was confused.  There’s not much worse than being confused, hurt, and restrained all at the same time.  Especially when you’re seven years old.

Really, I should have seen it coming.  Even though I was only seven and had never been in a fight in my life, I knew that the boy was bad news, and I had seen him in the church yard before I went in there myself.  And he’d been giving me awful, evil kid-signals for months.  I should have seen it coming.  But what do you want from me?  I was seven.

I walked into the church yard with a tennis ball and a baseball mitt, planning to throw my ball against the big wall on the south end of the church and catch the bounces; to this day, one of my favorite things to do.  But I saw him. The neighborhood’s resident bad kid.  The badass. His family lived in that gross house with all the trash in the back yard, and he never seemed clean; always had a brownish undercurrent to his skin, as if he’d just survived a house fire.  And the neighborhood was filled with the stories of the kids he’d beat up, spit on, ran his bike into.  I’d never been in his class at school but I’d seen him on the playground, and it seemed he lived up to his reputation.  But I must have assumed, for whatever reason, that I would somehow be safe from him.

And there he was, in the church yard on an otherwise abandoned afternoon.  Who knows what he was doing?  Probably breaking branches off of trees, throwing rocks into bushes.  Something pointless that seemed mildly primitive.  I chose to ignore him and walked around the church’s large beige utility shed toward the wall where I’d throw my ball.

(most of my life, this day at the church yard stood as my definition of terror.  Powerlessness.  Rigid cold fear.  What death might be like)

So I threw my ball.  Plunk, plop.  Plunk, plop.  Plunk, plop.  A joy in the mindlessness, in the solid feeling of the ball entering the glove’s sweet spot, in the lively reaction of tennis ball meeting brick wall.  And the emptiness of the church yard, the silence, the perfect echoes.  No cars, no distant sounds of grown-ups on telephone calls, just me, the ball, the mitt, and the echoes.

And then the boy was beside me.  I managed a weak “Hi” but I could see this wasn’t friendly.  The hairs on my neck stood up, my heart dropped to my knees.  He ran at me, but neither a fight nor a flight instinct kicked in.  I did not fully understand this development.  The moment before he struck me (with what the kids back then called a ‘clothesline’) I tried to speak, to say something, to reason him out of this, but it was too late, and I flew to the ground as though I’d been pulled by stage wires.

I stood up, not yet crying.  Bewildered and disoriented, trying to focus my vision,  trying to ask him why he did that.  I mean, I was just playing with my ball.  Had he mistaken me for someone else who had wronged him in the past?  Was he rabid, like the dogs my parents told me about?  Was he—

—and then I was hit again, with another clothesline, and was knocked down even harder than the first time.  I hadn’t even seen him coming, I simply felt the hit and went down without any warning.  But now I had wizened up just a little bit.  Still having no idea why the attack was occurring, I had at least figured out that it was occurring, and I got up immediately and began running.  I did not run toward home, as it was too far away and he would catch me for sure.  Instead I ran toward the swings and the slide.  Kids seem to figure out pretty early that playground slides are an excellent tactical position; once you’ve climbed the stairs of the slide and are safely perched atop it, others trying to get at you will have a tough time; if they try to come up the stairs, you can just slide down, then as they are coming down, you can go back up.  This is not a foolproof system, but it does buy time, and so it was to the slide that I presently ran.  And I made it to the landing at the top, swiveled around, scanning for the boy.  Sure enough, there he was, ten yards away, in front of the slide itself, as though I might be foolish enough of a child to just see a slide and go down it; as though I would have some Pavlovian play response.  He stood there grinning like the Devil himself, like he wanted to kill me.  And at that moment I believed he would.

As far as I knew, I was not just in some childhood tale of woe.  I was in a fight for my life, and I knew nothing about fighting.  I was a tiny kid by any standard.  Short, skinny.  I was also quiet, shy, a little withdrawn.  Nothing had prepared me for a moment like this.  I knew to go to the slide by watching other boys fight during recess.  It’s been largely my experience that contrary to what is portrayed in films and television, boys typically avoid beating up small boys.  It does little to advance their hierarchical positions and may even make them seem weak.  Up until this day in the church yard, I’d been left alone.

I held my ground on the slide fairly well.  He came up a few times, I escaped down the slide, and then I made it back up again after he came down after me.  A few times, as he lurked below, simply watching me atop the slide, I called down to him, asking him why he was doing this.  I imagine it must have sounded pathetic, pleading, like a man begging his executioner for his life when he knows he’s doomed.  I pleaded my innocence and the senselessness of what he was doing.  I did cry.  He was sinister.  Truly sinister.

After an interminable amount of time, he did a perplexing thing.  He sat on one of the swings that was directly beside the slide, and he started swinging.  I was, however, only perplexed for a short time.  I saw the ruse.  I would either think he was done with the attack and try to leave, whenupon he would murder me, or I’d actually go sit on the other swing to swing with him, whenupon he’d murder me.  I decided I could do neither, and so I simply continued to stand atop the slide, watching him swing.  It felt like days passed.  I wasn’t sure if maybe I could actually die atop the slide merely from the passage of time.  It seemed I probably could.  But leaving the safety of the slide also equaled death.  My young mind swam.

I finally made a run for it.  I wooshed down the slide steps, through the lawn of the playground area, onto the newly built, woodsmelling porch of the Newville Area Senior Center (an old house that stood and still stands on the church property), around the side of the Senior Center and into the bush-lined, circular sidewalk toward Big Spring Avenue.  Only about thirty more feet of church yard to go!  I could see Big Spring Avenue, and the houses that lined the street!  Civilization, and grown-ups, and policemen inhabited that street.  Certainly I couldn’t be killed within sight of the street!

But then he hit me from behind.  I catapulted through the bushes, off the Senior Center’s sidewalk, and out of sight of the street.  And then he was upon me.

He had me in a headlock.  I’d never been in a headlock before—at least, not one that was meant to hurt—and so I was confused.  There’s not much worse than being confused, hurt, and restrained all at the same time.  Especially when you’re seven years old.  But he was also seven—a thought that hasn’t occurred to me until just now.  How two boys can have such different breadths of experience with headlocks mystifies me.

I couldn’t breathe.  He had all his weight on me.  I was crying without breathing, the most alarming bout of terror I have ever experienced sweeping over me.  Here was death, here was the end.  I did not think of any of the cliché things dying folks supposedly think about.  I simply thought how horrible dying was going to be.  I was pretty sure nothing happened after you died—nothing at all.  Just an infinite blackness.  Why would he do this to me?  I had just been playing with my ball.

And then it was over.  He was off me.  I still don’t know how or why.  I never saw him get off me, or waited to speak to him.  When I felt him release me, I got up and ran as fast as I possibly could toward home, which was only one block away but to a seven year old it’s a decent little distance.  I was crying so hard I thought I’d throw up.  I was so mad, and sad, and confused.  Then, as now, being made helpless is about as bad as it gets.

I hated him for showing me that for the first time.  As I ran, I thought of the most horrible things a seven year old can conjure and wished they were at my command:  the light that shines on nothing, the mirror that reflects only another mirror, the fruit that ate itself.  These things were worse than helpless, they were hopeless, and I would engulf the world with them.

When I got home, Mom was working in the garden out back.  I hugged her so hard and cried so hard.  So much of my life has been about fear: about how much I had or how much I didn’t have.

6.

I was born on a frigid Friday in January of 1978.  There was a snowstorm, this much I know because the story is often told by my family.  It was snowing and maybe somewhat icy that day and it was a treacherous trip to the hospital.  Many of the finer details have been lost to time.  It seems as though maybe my father stayed home with my older sister–she also famously fell on some ice on the day of my birth, when she was home with Dad–but I have always got conflicting stories about when and how everyone arrived at the hospital.  It was cold.  It was snowy.  All these people that would become my family were probably very nervous and confused.  How challenging to think there was a day when you weren’t here, and the next day, you were.  Or: one hour you aren’t here, and the next hour, you are.  All crying and red and scrunched-up, a big ball of mushed-up senses.  You just…popped into existence.

7.

On this gloriously sunny and hot day just a little under a year ago, I found myself at a park about an hour from where I live, with the woman of my dreams and a delightful young boy. The boy is her son, who I am helping to raise, both of whom I found myself suddenly and joyfully living with. On this day, it’s a weekend that we all have off together, and my love has found this fantastic event for us to attend, a kind of history-themed craft and art fair. I have not been playing the role of family man for very long at this point, but already I know that this is what I want, what I need in order to become me, the real version of me. We walk together as a unit, commenting on the smell of the french fries, or the historical paintings made by local artisans. When our little man wanders away, I chase after him as he giggles, imploring him in a high-pitched comedic tone not to run too fast. My lady love buys me iced coffee, holds my hand tightly. We stop at the little kids’ events, little painting and craft tables, things where you spin wheels and automatically win tchotchkes. I love seeing his face light up, and I revel in taking pictures of her with him, as they are experiencing things together. In previous versions of my life, I would’ve come to this fair by myself, taking it in almost as a cultural anthropologist, loving the fact that I was able to be so alone amongst so many people. But here and now, I don’t miss that. I wonder who I was then, how was I like that? These two people are everything I could ever want. Eventually we make our way to one of the smaller event stages, where representatives from our local zoo will be bringing out animals to show kids. First there is a falcon, and the three of us, in the front row, are rightly impressed.  One after another more animals come out, and he shrieks, sits on her lap and then mine, and she leans into the crook of my neck, I can feel her smile against my skin, and when the zookeeper brings out the snake and walks just a few feet from us with it and the boy surprises us by saying snake, she squeezes my hand even tighter, we are so surprised together, and he squirms on my lap and coos at the animals, and I can feel myself, with such absolute astonishment, being born.

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