This is a story about bravery, bumper cars and baseball. Well, kind of.
Even though he’s a diehard Dodgers fan, what with living in L.A. and growing up watching the Albuquerque Dukes groom players for the big show, my son Nate was wearing the St. Louis Cardinals hat I got him for Christmas when he took me to the airport last week.
I cried when I hugged him goodbye. Every time I leave a kid at the airport, I swear I won’t cry. Always do. Such is the reality for the mother of four kids spread all across the United States: fly in, pack in, head out. There are always tears in the kiss ‘n fly lane.
He is so thin. It’s that damn Crohn’s disease. I’m sure you’ve heard of it. I hadn’t until the day he was diagnosed fourteen years ago. What a dubious distinction, having a gut twisting disease named after you. I pray every single day that somebody will come up with a cure that will make them famous, making Crohn’s go the way of small pox. For now, it’s keeping him skinny. Nate’s a screen writer, neck deep in an industry that is so competitive it makes the Olympics look a field day. He’s got backbone, talent and tenacity, oh, and an agent too. I just wish he could put some weight on.
“It’s all going to work out, Mom,” he said after I let go my grip on him at the airport.
He is his mother’s keeper. Isn’t this a blessing, when our adult children give back some of the soothing we’ve been lathering on them for years? When my mother passed in 2005, I felt adrift. Nobody prepares you for the untethering of becoming an orphan. Then, like a scene from a Wes Anderson movie in which you see a page turn to advance the story, I distinctly recall looking at my four adult children sitting in the front row at my mother’s funeral and thinking, “I belong to you, now.” Their reassuring gaze confirmed that I was in good hands.
Now, we can rationalize that saying or hearing “everything’s going to be okay” doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Any one of us could get hit by bus tomorrow. I personally know two people to whom this has happened, swear to God, and they are both mostly okay. Conceding that they’re only words, offering such blanket assurance, “it’s all going to work out” or “everything’s gonna be okay” remains infused with invincibility and comfort. How we long for these respites from fear! We race along, looking for opportunities at every turn to bunch up, to draft, reducing the drag on our separate lives. More often than not though, we’re more like bumper cars, sparks flying, crashes imminent, bumping, jarring, stalled. It’s nice to look up and see somebody else flash us a grin, turn a crazy spin, bump the shit out of us, then help us climb out of our wreck, wobbly legged, laughing and shuddering at the same time, grabbing their extended arm with a “you okay?”
My younger sister-in-law Karen told me the other night she’s okay. She’s been a widow now for two months. Karen said she was doing fine until she heard Danny’s Song driving home from work. It laid her out. Naturally, it reminded her of my little brother J.R., the only person in her estimation who had any credibility in the “everything’s gonna be all right” department. She’d been with J.R. since she was 17 years old. It’s hard. And of course, she’s been around long enough to know, like the rest of us, that there are no guarantees in anything. We know better. We know that no matter how hard we try, no matter how conniving or cunning or contrite, there are some things over which we have no control. Zero.
This is where trust takes over. I wrote about this in the last chapter of Off the Leash.
Enter trust. We are totally dependent, aren’t we? On the benevolent forces of nature and timing, lust or love, design or accident which squeezes us into our situation, our plop on the planet, where we begin the lifelong barter of this for that, win some, lose some, pros and cons. We rationalize, calculate, scheme and plan and hedge our silly bets, all the while, we’re complicit recruits with an unspoken allegiance to trust. We must trust, mustn’t we? That snakes won’t bite in desert walks at sunset, that tires won’t blow, and rest stops won’t harbor murderers? Trust. Dogs do it. They don’t seem to need us to bark at them, to understand what they cannot articulate nor verify with human words. We can take a lesson from our dogs, to throw ourselves in to forces greater, stronger, longer lasting than our ability to manage them.
My brother Don simply called it faith. Shortly before he started chemo for pancreatic cancer, he told me he was eager to begin treatment. “I know it’s weird to think I’m actually excited about having my body bombarded with toxic drugs, but I am.”
He compared facing chemo to facing a major league pitcher. “There’s an infinite number of things that can determine how that ball comes across the plate,” he said in that muted voice that cancer had given him. “Standing there, is both thrilling and frightening, because you might get a piece of it and smack a line drive or a home run, or you might get hit with the ball. So I have two choices. I can drop my bat and walk away or I can stand there and take the pitch. I’m gonna stay in the box, because either way, it’s gonna be okay.”
With faith like that, really, what could harm you? It’s easy to live in fear. It calls us to a higher place to live in faith.