Wednesday, October 6, 2010

An Impossible Bump in the Road

"If only, if only," the woodpecker sighs,
"The bark on the tree was as soft as the skies."
While the wolf waits below, hungry and lonely,
He cries to the moon,
"If only, if only."

If only, if only, the moon speaks no reply;
Reflecting the sun and all that's gone by,
Be strong my weary wolf, turn around boldly.
Fly high, my baby bird,
"If only, if only."

 - Edward Cullen

*  *  *  *  *

On the InterWeb a few days ago I read of a possible "Goldilocks" planet that researchers - those starry eyed men and women who scan the heavens doing this sort of thing - recently discovered. A mysterious orb in a galaxy many light years from our own that might just be not too hot, not too cold, not too big, not too small, not too young, not too old, not too near its sun, and not too far away. The kind of planet that might just have all the right personality traits: all those intricate, perfectly timed and calibrated conditions necessary to spring forth water, to promote and possibly harbor life as we know it. Okay, maybe not as we actually, currently know it - with two arms, two legs, two eyes and ears, a nose and a mouth and, alas, Paris Hilton - but a form of LIFE just the same.

Other stuff. Out there. Being.

That scientists can probe so far into outer space is amazing in and of itself, and slightly mind-boggling. That they have found a new Goldilocks darling - named Gliese 581g, in the constellation of Libra - is exciting news, even if a long, long way from confirmed. That I can turn on a computer and have at my fingertips access to information like this - fun news, interesting news, hopeful news, sort of, and to my mind much more refreshing than the usual bombardment of dismal, fearful, hateful headlines - well, let's just say that 25 years ago it wasn't such an easy, mundane occurrence.

We've come light-years within my lifetime (50 years, for those of you who don't know...LOL), but some things remain as they have for millennia.

In a universe that is perhaps 15 to 20 billion years old and on a molten, medium-sized planet that is perhaps 4.5 billion years old, we Earthlings share - whether we like it or not, whether we're Catholic or Muslim or Jewish, whether we're Chinese or Brazilian or Icelandic - the glorious gift of life, so far unique to our blue planet. We share it with the rest of the animal and plant kingdom: a miraculous existence on a watery yet fiery, astonishingly beautiful yet unbelievably turbulent, rotating, orbiting, lonely sphere in the midst of the apparently sterile, endless void of space.

But now, perhaps not (C'mon, Goldilocks!). And if not now, perhaps in the future. I've often found myself thinking - believing, wanting to believe - that if the universe is indeed infinite, that if as science claims there are hundreds of thousands of galaxies out there, home to hundreds of thousands of solar systems, containing hundreds of thousands of stars and planets...well, odds are pretty damn good that we are not alone.

The odds of it, whatever "it" might be, looking even remotely like us as opposed to some sludge-like, oozing primordial goo - or even better a pack of giant, mutant grass-hoppers - are pretty slim, I admit. Whatever. It'd still be cool. So yeah, I believe we may discover something out there, but we'll probably never discover a something as unbelievably lucky as (wo)man.

*  *  *  *  *

Some of us may seek fame and fortune; some a simpler, less glamorous life. Some may want a rock-hard, six-pack abdomen or an hourglass figure, and some may be content with a more Falstaffian or Rubenesque disposition. Big, tall, male, female, straight, gay, short, fat, smart, not so much: Whatever the case, in the annals of life on Earth and the Big Bang that surrounds it, as far as we know we are bound together in our human uniqueness. Doesn't matter the petty differences (well, it shouldn't matter); in the grand scheme of things we are all homo sapiens. We are one.

Unfortunately, as such we share a wicked sense of our own mortality, perhaps also unique in the animal kingdom and in the greater cosmos: a knowledge first gained by Adam and Eve (yup, born and raised Catholic) that we'd better make the best of things while we got 'em because Eden ain't gonna last, and we're gonna die.

If you're lucky that'll be when your 80 years old, or older. And in your sleep.

Not like my younger brother Stephen, who died of AIDS after a brief but incredibly heart-wrenching illness at the age of 25. Or even worse, perhaps, like our youngest sister Susan who was recently killed on the freeway: her small, rented Ford Focus shoved under the back end of a semi-tractor trailer when another one smashed into her from behind. Susan was on the verge of turing 48 years old, the mother of two young boys, a wife, a stepmother to a pair of older children, and an absolutely extraordinary teacher. The black hole her death has created is mind-numbing.

We may all share the same human existence, the same human experience, but our path on Planet Earth and the many narrow foot-trails we wander as we age are often different and sometimes drastically singular. At least it can feel that way.

A case in point: Why is it that families world-wide, some families of seven kids and two happily married parents like mine, go through their entire lives without a misstep, without a severe illness, without a premature death, without a tragedy even remotely close to the scale of the one that has shaken my mother and father and siblings, shaken our friends and relatives, shaken colleges and communities from Ohio, Missouri, Alabama and Maryland, shaken people we don't even know, to the core. Why?

And what would have needed to be different; what series of events would have had to transpire for Susan to still be a phone call away? Would it have taken just a few small interactions, a few microscopic atoms bouncing off each other in a way that they didn't? Would it have taken a hundred-thousand atoms? Would our hug and kiss goodbye, the morning she left Ohio, if only a second longer and tighter, have changed the outcome? Or would it have taken something much, much bigger - an asteroid hurtling in from outer space - to alter the course of events that led to August 16, 2010, to right then, to right now?

*  *  *  *  *

I have not been hiking much lately. I have been driving to and from hospitals with the rest of my family, setting up memorials, attending wakes (my Aunt Mary Helen, my Godmother, passed away several days after Susan), shaking my head in disbelief, crying softly to myself and loudly to the rest of the world, laughing somehow, surreally thumbing through The Bible at 3:00 in the morning, choosing Old Testament verses and communion songs and offertory psalms, deciding who is going to read what at my sister's funeral for Christ-sakes. I have been cut off at the knees.

But I was hiking when we heard the news. My two sisters Anne and Molly, along with my nieces Emily, Meg, Myia and Betsy, were just finishing up a tramp through Nelson-Kennedy Ledges in the Cleveland MetroParks when Anne answered her cell phone. It was Ed, Susan's husband of 18 years, calling from their home in Baltimore, and it was alarming from the start. There had been an accident.  Susan and her boys Peter and Matthew had been in an accident.

For an all too brief length of time no one really knew what was going on, but the phone calls started to come in quickly. Ed had first heard that the crash had happened near Toledo, west of Cleveland, which was odd because Susan and the boys were driving back to Baltimore; then he heard it had happened nearby, on the Ohio Turnpike south of where we were hiking, and that Susan and the boys were at a hospital in the small town of Ravenna. We learned that mom and dad, who were driving back from a funeral for a long-time work associate, had been notified and were on the way; we heard Susan, Peter and Matthew were in Akron General; no, they'd been taken to different hospitals for some reason; no, Susan was being taken to Ravenna and the boys to Akron General; no...Akron Children's.

Anne was behind the wheel and heading south in the vague direction of several hospitals when Ed called back. If the details from the previous phone calls were confusing and muddled, this one was as clear as the day had been up until that point: Susan was dead, had been killed at the scene, and her boys had been airlifted to Akron Children's Hospital.

Dead? Airlifted? What the fuck!

I felt myself immediately closing down, closing up, pulling back from a world where things like this could happen, a world where one minute you might be basking in the fresh air of a State Park and the next learn that your younger sister had been suddenly, violently killed.

The driver of the truck later admitted that he fell asleep at the wheel.

Make that suddenly, violently, mindlessly killed.

"Pull over, Anne," I said. She was stomping her foot against the floor of the van, rocking back and forth in her seat, not saying much. The four girls were crying in the back; Molly was on the floor behind Anne, calmly trying to get some information and help. "Pull over and let's talk," I repeated. "Let me drive."

She was having none of it: "Just find me directions to the hospital."

The iPhone app Around Me improbably came to my rescue that afternoon. Through the cloud of those initial moments I had been trying with Google maps but couldn't for the life of me get it to work, find what I needed, which was probably my fault in an addled state, and my battery on top of everything was draining swiftly. Then I suddenly remembered: I had used "Around Me" to track down a bagel joint when I was staying with Susan and Ed in Baltimore the previous summer. I had wanted to surprise their two boys one morning with Panera's fresh baked goods so I hopped in the car, logged on and voila!, got directions and was back home before anyone was even awake.

The screen lit up: "Around Me would like to use your current location."

"Allow" I entered, then watched the categories load: Apple Retail Stores, Banks/ATM's, Bars, Coffee, Favorites, Gas Stations, Hospitals, Hotels, Movie Theaters, Parking, Pubs, Restaurants, Supermarkets, Taxis. With a touch of my finger the choice Akron Children's Hospital was before me, and with another touch the route from our current location was displayed.

*  *  *  *  *

I know how to get to Akron Children's Hospital now. I know it all too well. My family and Ed's family spent over three and a half weeks on site, or driving there or driving home from there. We slept there, napped there, sat in stunned silence, talked quietly or not so much amongst ourselves, ate in the hospital cafeteria, got to know the woman at the coffee stand in the main lobby, learned to recognize the volunteers who issued us visitor badges for not one but two young patients, discovered the quickest way between Matthew's room in PICU and Peter's room two floors below, quickly learned to know, love and admire the incredibly talented, dedicated nurses and doctors on staff. And they got to know us.

Peter, who is 16 years old and was asleep in the back seat of the car when tragedy struck, suffered a fractured pelvis, a fractured face bone under his eye, a lacerated foot and other scrapes, bruises and cuts. He shall, insert your god and pray long and hard, make a full physical recovery. Matthew, 12 years old, was upfront with his mother and sustained a severe head injury, severe brain trauma from which he may never fully mend. I am still full of positive thoughts, still aware that miracles do happen, but he remains in a coma as I write this. Susan, hopefully, was killed instantly.

Those last are harsh, abrupt and very difficult words, but I can only imagine what it would be like for Susan to have survived and faced the aftermath of the accident, to see her youngest in a coma, to see her oldest in a wheelchair, to live with her family so irrevocably changed. Yes, I wish with all my heart that she were still alive. Yes, she would have been the strongest among us all, like she always was. But yes, she would have been heartbroken, scarred, shattered, leveled, and no doubt wishing she had died to save her sons from harm. She was like that.

My mother and I have recently discussed the following more than I care admit. My sisters and I have as well. What's better, if the world can't wait until you're 90 years old: dying like Stephen or like Susan? What's better for those left behind? This is, of course, when we're not saying to each other, or at least thinking as we stare across the Scrabble board or the deck of Quiddler cards: "How in god's name could this have happened? Two? Are you fucking kidding me? Really?"

We have come to the not-so-earthshaking realization that parents are supposed to go first, at a fabulous ripe old age. Beyond that - and this is kind of earthshaking in my opinion, only because most people never, ever have to chose - we'd take a death like Stephen's any day, god love him.

Is one way a better way to lose a child, a sibling? No: it all sucks. But the two we have been forced to accept are light-years apart in their singularity. It's the specifics that can be, and have been, an unwelcome education in what it means to live as a human being on Earth, and know it.

Stephen was a bachelor; he didn't suddenly leave behind two young boys and a spouse; he wasn't the emotional, cerebral and physical cement that bound a family together as Susan had; he didn't set two kind of floundering young adults from Ed's previous marriage on the straight and narrow; and unfortunately he didn't have an extra 20 years to make the indelible, far-reaching mark on the world that Susan did. Had he lived he certainly would have (he was at a company in Silicon Valley when the stuff we now take for granted was just writing on a wall), but Stephen was ill; he contracted a disease at a time when HIV patients didn't live as long as they do now. We had a little bit of time; knew he was going to die.

Susan didn't die; she was killed. Susan was out of the freaking blue. A shocking, devastating tragedy in the true sense of the word; the aftermath so much more complex, and not yet resolved. I don't know, quite frankly, how my mother or my father are still standing. Then I realize: they look around and see their remaining children, see their suffering, and know they need to be strong. Strong for us.

*  *  *  *  *

I did not clam up and remain emotionally unresponsive, removed, pulled away, pulled inward, closed up that day, like I had initially thought I would, like I initially feared. I broke down with the rest of my family and sobbed, cried and cried hard, over and over again, in between shaking my head in disbelief.  I still am.

*  *  *  *  *

I have only two pictures to post, now that I'm somehow back hiking and online with the Headlands Report. Now that the world, I am dismayed to learn, continues to rotate, continues to orbit our life giving star, our sun, in spite of all that's happened; now that people who scan the night sky have found another planet in the Goldilocks Zone. The first photograph is of Susan and Stephen, our lost youngsters, and a duck, circa 1967 in Cleveland, Ohio. The other is of Susan and her handsome, intelligent, kind, respectful, beloved boys from just a few years ago at Harper's Ferry, a stop they probably made on the  drive from Cleveland to Baltimore or Baltimore to Cleveland.




I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse myself in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

- from Song of Myself, by Walt Whitman

*  *  *  *  *

If other watery worlds exist out there in the cold, stark, undiscovered beyond our own - if life exists on other far-flung planets - do they also know of death?

I hope not death like this.

To Susan and Stephen...If only.
Peter J. Palmer


3 comments:

  1. As I wipe the tears from my eyes I can't help but think what a gift you are to those boys and your family Pete.
    Thank you for sharing this story with the rest of us that are trying to figure out our place in this crazy, mysterious world.
    You are loved,
    Gwen

    ReplyDelete
  2. Peter your words, understanding and love are guiding inspirations to live each day, as you do, to the fullest. Thanks for sharing yourself and your family with us.
    Chris

    ReplyDelete