When I was about seven or eight, I went for a bike ride in our neighborhood with my dad. I rode my younger brother’s bike which was tomato orange, built like a ten speed but with coaster breaks and no gears.
Our neighborhood was a good sledding neighborhood, with gentle to not quite so gentle hills. My dad told me, “Whatever happens, keep pedaling. If you feel yourself losing your balance, just keep pedaling.” In retrospect, this was not the best advice I’ve ever received.
We set out, getting started on the relatively flat Yorktowne Dr, turning left to go up the Sledding hill on Queensberry and then making a right past John Brooks’s house to tackle the down-the-hill-up-the-hill combo on Foxworth.
And that’s when it happened. I had been repeating “keep pedaling” to myself like a mantra, and my little legs vainly attempted to keep up with the whickering pedals. Until they didn’t. Once I began to wobble, it was all over. Face, shoulder, hip, leg met and slid along the rough pavement.
I can remember sitting up and looking around after the accident, and everything seemed somehow unreal, surreal. Like I was no longer in my neighborhood but in a replica of our neighborhood built on a sound stage somewhere.
In 1996, The Beloved and I were hanging out in the living room of the duplex I was renting at the time. He still lived in Florida and had come up to spend some time with me. The phone rang, and I answered it. It was my father, and he said three words to me. “Greg has leukemia,” to which I responded, “Fuck!” I managed to hang on as he said some other words that I couldn’t hear, and as soon as the call ended, I began crying in a way that I had never cried before. My very soul was sobbing, and I could not catch my breath.
When I finally calmed down enough to say what was happening, I felt an otherness. A life-will-never-be-the-same-ness. At that point, I who had never expected the worst, who had always been positive and upbeat, for better or worse internalized the harsh lesson that begins “Just when you least expect it…” Who I was even as I answered the phone and who I was in the next second were two very different people.
Two and a half years to the day from that phone call, I made a series of phone calls from the phone at the nurse’s station, letting family, church friends and loved ones know that Greg was gone. Even as I spoke the words, over and over, to people who didn’t know him nearly as well as I did, I felt somewhat removed. I guess I had to be to keep saying words that we had all been adamantly denying we would ever have to say.
I felt like an actor. Like someone reciting a monologue. As my mouth spoke the words, part of my brain was holding the cue cards while another part was standing back saying, “Wait. What is she saying?” You have to set part of yourself aside to make phone calls like that.
I remember calling to tell my boss that “Things were winding down.” That meant that machines had been turned off, and all that was left was goodbye and a long rest of my life as an only child.
Green Day was Greg’s favorite band. This song always reminds me of him.
On September 11, 2001, as I drove west down state road 50 through the heart of Orlando, Florida, I listened to an opinion piece on NPR by a humorist who was gently making fun of President Bush’s accent. She kept mentioning “Bush and his friend Puddin’.” That’s Vladimir Puddin’ to you and me. I remember giggling as I drove through the predawn darkness.
As we were walking our classes to specials, this is the first news I heard, courtesy of a friend’s whisper. “They have flown planes into the twin towers and now they are bombing the White House.”
Since we taught at an elementary school and some of our kids were as young as three, we didn’t stay glued to the television like many middle and high schools did. We didn’t turn on any televisions at all, attempting to give the kids a completely normal day, even as a nation’s normal was irrevocably changed.
At lunch, we took turns going out to our cars to listen to the news and report back to the other teachers.. I was listening when the second tower fell. I can remember walking back to our trailer after lunch and feeling as if I had a target on my back. We lived in the vacation capital of the country. Would Disney be next?
I didn’t experience the trauma first hand as so many in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania did. But as an American, I was rocked to my core. It was almost impossible to believe what had happened. We are so used movie magicians painting pictures of devastation framed by our magic screens. The excessive Michael Bay slow-motion explosion. The grand, balletic Tarantino bloodbath. The operatic Spielburg slaughter on the sands of Normandy.
When scenes of devastation, anguish and terror bleed past our screens and into our lives, they affect us. They change us. They change us all.
Thank God for helpers.
We have recently begun watching some BBC series on Netflix. MI-5 is an action drama about a group of FBI-type agents charged with keeping England safe from domestic and international Bad Guys.
We have watched British comedies aplenty. They are generally randy and raucous and rude and rollicking. But this was the first long-running dramatic series we’ve ever tuned into.
As an American, I like my happy endings. I like my main characters to come a hair’s breadth away from death on multiple occasions only to live to star another day. I don’t even mind the fact that I give an eye roll now and then along with a “There’s no way s/he would have survived that!” I want the actors who starred in the pilot to take a collective bow at the finale.
That’s apparently not how British television works.
The first of many summary offings occurred thusly.
Tom and young blonde agent, posing as a young married couple, get found out and are cornered by a Very Bad Man in the back of a restaurant. Very Bad Man grabs young blonde agent and screeches as Tom to tell him what he knows. Tom says nothing. I expect the cavalry to ride in at any moment.
Very Bad Man plunges young blonde agent’s right hand into a deep fryer full of boiling oil. I expect the cavalry to ride in at any moment and hope that she is left-handed, assuming she will be relegated to desk duty.
Very Bad Man grabs young blonde agent by the hair and screeches at Tom to tell him what he knows. Tom says nothing. Very Bad Man plunges young blonde agent’s head into the boiling oil. I expect the cavalry to come riding in and hope that the burn unit is ready. And then, Very Bad Man shoots egregiously burned young blonde agent in the head, thus making the cavalry, when they did eventually arrive, too damned late.
Obviously, the cavalry is not big in British television.
As I was working on Monday afternoon, April 15, I checked yahoo as I do throughout the day and I saw a small yellow banner that shared some breaking news about explosions happening at the Boston Marathon. I assumed it was an accident, hoped that people were okay and then went back to work.
Awhile later, I checked again. And then again a bit later. I started reading words like “dismemberment,” “bombs,” “pressure cookers,” and “ball bearings.” I saw a photograph of a man whose legs appeared to stop just below the knee. Wait. What?
I felt like I was no longer in my country but in a replica of our country built on a sound stage somewhere.
Then I read the stories of the people who helped. Thank God for Mr. Rogers and his admonishment that we look for the helpers. Thank God for American television that is structured in such a way to allow us to remain hopeful in the face of grim circumstances.
I read a firsthand story on facebook from a girl who had not finished the race as she was still a few miles off when the bombs exploded. A man who had finished the race earlier gave her his Heatsheet and his medal.
The world snapped back into focus. My world. Our world.
We are all changed by our experiences. Our thoughts, feelings and attitudes are informed by both nature and nurture. Years ago, I very nearly succumbed to the worst case scenario disease. But I have been fighting back ever since, reaffirming to myself that there is good. That it outweighs the bad. That in looking for the good, we are more apt to find it, both in ourselves and in others.
Through all the page breaks in our lives as individuals and as a nation, we become who we are.
I have no answers. Like most Americans, I am still processing. Still trying to reconcile what I now know to what I knew. I mourn the loss of life, the horrific injuries, the shock and trauma to witnesses.
I am grateful for the helpers. For people who approach rather than flee. For people who think more of others than of themselves.
I believe that there are more helpers in this world than those who would do us harm. While the bombings at the Boston Marathon are another page break in the story of America and Americans, I know that we are not defined by tragedy but by our reaction to tragedy. Right now, that is all I know. I hope it is enough.