The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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There was a moment after the horrific car crash that I wish to tell you about.
It wasn’t the crash itself, which occurred because of the usual greed for time,
Because a guy pulled out when he shouldn’t have and then there was blood,
And it wasn’t the long moments after, when things slowly kept on happening,
A tall calm guy on his cellphone calling the cops, a woman crying in her car,
Smoke drifting, one of the drivers moaning, glass everywhere it shouldn’t be,
Soon enough the approaching demanding wail of cop cars and the ambulance,
The first impatient honk of a driver stuck a few cars behind where they can’t see
What happened or hear the guy moaning or see the woman sobbing in her car,
The first car inching past the broken smoking cars, the driver reluctant, but he
Has got to get to work, man, there’s nothing he can do, someone called a cop.
No, we know those moments, we have all seen those moments, we have been
In those moments, God help us, and we have each and every one of us driven
Through the shatter and the smoke, past the moaning and weeping and shock,
But there was something about the first minute after the crash that haunts me
To the point where I have to write it down even though I know I am not good
Enough to catch the shiver of it, the tremble, the way everyone within earshot
Stopped whatever momentous or thoughtless or normal thing they were doing
And focused on who among us was hurt, paid the most ferocious attention for
Once not to who we are and what we do, but who they are and what they did,
Or what was done upon them. I swerved out of the way, shocked and cursing
Like everyone else, but as I sat there, rattled and thinking my back was busted
This time for sure, I saw four people jump out of their cars and run like crazy
To where there was pain. All the rest of the day I’ve smelled shame and hope.
Imagine a man in a hat on a street early one morning in autumn.
This is my grandfather on his way to work at the brokerage firm.
He is a treasurer. He takes the bus down from the southern hills.
It is October 28, 1929. He stops for coffee on Ross and proceeds
Down Forbes to Wood. A dapper man: overcoat, a rakish fedora.
Hums a little. Notices a gull on a lamppost. The coffee is superb.
He knows these streets, he ran down these streets as a small boy,
He dreamed of strolling down these streets someday in a fedora
On his way to a job where he would wear a suit and grab coffee
On the way to the office. Brilliant day, cold, winter in the wings.
A Post-Gazette page in a window lectures the Pirate baseballers,
Done for the season, second place, if only, need a trusty slugger.
A second gull, wheeling and wheedling, sounding like Al Smith.
Poor old Al, he got hammered something fierce and disappeared.
By the steps of the office on Oliver he stops a minute, no reason,
Just because, lovely day, crisp and clear, something about a gull
Overhead makes a man ruminative, maybe it’s the Irish, our yen
For the sea even after centuries inland in one country or another.
But that’s poetic talk, the stuff of bars and losers, not treasurers,
He thinks with a grin, and takes the steps two at a time, his coat
Flapping fluttering; he nearly loses his hat. Tomorrow the world
Will end, the markets will crash, millions will lose their jobs,
And soon he and Sophia and their two boys will be on the road,
Moving from state to state, looking for work, never staying long
In one house or apartment, the boys never talking about this era
All the rest of their lives, the one boy remembering only looking
At trains far below once, he and his older brother staring quietly.
But there was this other moment — early one morning in autumn,
A grinning young man leaping up the steps of an office building
On Oliver Avenue, his coat opening like a wing, his dashing hat
Almost floating away, but he grabs it just in time, and disappears.
Long ago I dated a woman who turned out to be even more unbalanced than me.
This is a most remarkable statement because I was a parade of idiots at the time.
Our affair soured almost immediately but neither of us had the guts to surrender.
Finally one night we had a screaming roaring shrieking fight and I snarled, I quit.
She said, If you break up with me I will kill myself and have you beaten to death.
She said this very cold and calm and indeed she knew lots of thugs and convicts.
I knew her well enough by then to know she was completely and utterly serious.
Any intelligent man would at this point have approached police and/or attorneys
And moved abroad and changed his name and face and filed off his fingerprints,
But I drove home, at about two in the morning, and got into my basketball gear
And dribbled down the street to the park and shot baskets until the sun came up.
I remember shooting and shooting until I was sure my arm was going to fall off.
The streetlights clicked off as I walked real slow back to my ratty old apartment.
This sounds like a totally stupid male way to deal with a crisis but everyone has
Places they go when they are scared and exhausted and have to just go mindless.
The same thing happened when my grandma was dying when I was twelve,
We would go to see her in her clean white quiet room where she got tinier every
Day and when we would get home my sweet mama would say, Is there anything
You want to talk about? but I would already be down the street with my holy ball
And at the park I would run past all the games and all the guys waiting for nexts
And find an empty court and just shoot and shoot. It’s sort of hard to find words
For what it meant to me, and the ball is so far gone from my hungry hands now
That it seems crazy to even try to articulate it. You will think I’m melodramatic
When I say maybe basketball saved my life, but I leave you with this one image:
A guy in the middle of the night in a city long ago with his hands shaking so bad
He could hardly get a grip on the ball, but an hour later, under the old streetlight,
I hit like eleven in a row and was panting and pleased and something was healed.
Where I am wandering one afternoon thinking of my second son, who not once
But twice had a surgeon’s fingers milling through the muscle of his wild heart.
Eleven years ago now. He doesn’t remember those hours, my boy, but I sure do.
His chicken chest gaping open like a mouth. Me eating a word like septectomy
For breakfast, bending it this way and that, trying to find any way to get inside.
Situs solitus & ventricular inversion & tricuspid hypoplasia & anastomosis
Ranged across the horizon like the most incredible and unimaginable mountains.
Who ever thought there would be a time when we could remember those times?
But here we are on the other side of the mountains, and of all things to see, what
Do we see? Mountains beyond mountains and yet more mountains beyond them.
We have such an itch for pattern and narrative, such a ravenous hunger for order,
But there is no pattern, there is no order, there isn’t really even a hint of coherent
Narrative shape. The fact of the matter is that at best we maunder forward with all
Possible grace in the moments when we are not thrashing and sobbing and crazy.
Believe me, I know about thrashing and sobbing and crazy: he’s a teenager now,
Arrogant as sin one moment and weeping from the bottom of his bones the next,
Making everyone weep with laughter one day and roar with fear and fury another.
Mountains beyond mountains and yet further mountains beyond those mountains.
I used to think if we could just get through this time everything will be peaceful,
At least we won’t be terrified and exhausted, but it turns out there’s lots and lots
Of ways to be terrified and exhausted. Who knew? So hold my hand and let’s go
Up this next mountain. Who cares about other mountains? Isn’t this one lovely?