2017 was tough. Even setting aside the obvious travesty of Trump’s presidency, the past twelve months have battered me. My closest friend was killed in a freak sledding accident. My family’s cat of nearly twenty years died of renal failure. My parents, married for 30+ years, separated. My health suffered after months of working 100 hours a week; I developed a crippling viral pneumonia that left me wan and exhausted. The sable talons of depression have sunk into my flesh once again. And yet, I’m here. Bruised, thin, quieter. Wiser, kinder, more empathetic, more spontaneous, more appreciative of life’s precious tenuousness. On net, a more complete person, but the transaction has been hell. 2017, I won’t miss you.
I stand quietly outside the patient room,
The room in which currently sit
A young couple
And their eight-month-old daughter,
Whose new cancer diagnosis
In the printed lab results
Clutched in my trembling hands.
I glance at my watch:
It’s now officially Christmas.
O Come, All Ye Faithful
Plays faintly from a nurse’s computer.
In the moment it takes me
To open the room door,
Kids are already unwrapping presents
Just a few time zones away.
There’s a fucking nativity scene
On the front lawn of the hospital,
I’m telling a mother and a father,
“Her lab results came back…”
Lying in fetal position, turned to right side, on furthest edge of mattress.
Past midnight, room dark, neighborhood quiet.
Staring through frost-rimmed window at stark moon.
Anti-abortion activists on undergrad campus earlier today,
Decrying murder of potential lives.
If potentiality is the criterion,
Then every adolescent boy in history has committed genocide.
Into wads of Kleenex, old socks, and toilet bowls.
Future entrepreneurs, researchers, concert pianists, presidents,
Pulitzer winners–millions at a time–mercilessly flushed to the sewer
Among the banana peel
And Pop-Tart crust
From this morning’s breakfast.
Attending guest speaker event at the college.
Open to public.
Evening, already dark outside.
Semicircle lecture hall filled
With rosy undergrads,
Pensive graduate students,
Professors in tweed sports coats,
Smattering of retired professionals from town,
My chair squeaks softly.
Glance at an older student further down my row.
Knitted charcoal sweater, black skinny chinos, stark white Vans hightops.
Hair pale caramel, perfectly tousled.
Tapered sideburns point to smooth angular jaw.
Slate grey eyes meet mine.
Flicker of gentle smile.
I stare down at my worn Nikes.
Throw on heavy coat,
Flip up collar,
Stride into frigid night,
Overcast Sunday morning.
Brisk north wind.
Two boys play soccer in practice field next to deserted high school.
One wears olive green hoodie, red mesh shorts, fluorescent orange cleats.
Friend wears grey beanie cap, black Adidas sweats, blue t-shirt over black long-sleeves.
Early teens, perhaps thirteen or fourteen years:
That tender age when child’s body stretches
Over a lithe, growing frame;
When youthful energy meets budding strength,
Resulting in effortless, tireless athleticism;
When cell phones and Snapchat porn
Vie equally with Legos and hide-and-seek matches;
When dreams begin their inexorable march
Against the onslaught of daily existence.
Hoodie boy scores goal against friend;
Yells in victory, voice cracks;
They switch places.
In ten, fifteen years’ time, where will the boys be? Who will they be?
Will they remember this cold November morning?
Will they remember to dream?
Would that I could talk to my fourteen-year-old self.
Why does it take us a lifetime to figure out how to live?
Walking through town today.
Fallen leaves, assorted browns and faded oranges,
Lie scattered along path.
Air is crisp.
Football game at the college.
Some sort of sporting event at the high school.
Dull roar of crowds from both fields.
With families and young people:
Elementary school girls playing tag on the church lawn;
Adolescent boys, effortlessly slender, strolling languidly in their hormonal pack;
Entitled fraternity bros
In designer skinny jeans
Smoking vapes and laughing
With perfect dentition.
I go unnoticed.
Slows my gait to a shuffle as I walk through leaves.
How badly I long
For a friend,
In the wake of the horrific Las Vegas shooting last week, there was–justifiably–a great deal of media coverage on the first responders, police, and healthcare workers whose actions saved hundreds of lives. But there was also attention paid to the actions of ordinary citizens who risked their own safety to save others, and those stories prompted me to think about the untold heroes in our everyday world. Contemporary society idolizes pop stars, Youtubers, Hollywood names, and sports players, but the true heroes reside among us:
The blue-collar construction worker who rises at 5 AM on a blustery January morning, sipping cheap 7-11 coffee from a thermos, frost on his beard, to pour asphalt on a new county road for $9 an hour to feed his wife and three daughters.
The fifteen-year-old, openly gay sophomore boy who faces daily jeers and abuse in the halls of his high school, routinely shoved into lockers, tripped in the cafeteria, and bullied online, to advance our social mores by an almost imperceptible margin.
The young black couple in inner-city Baltimore who determinedly raise their two sons to be upstanding, polite, scholarly men amid the crushing weight of poverty and neighborhood gang violence.
The first-generation college student from an uneducated rural Hispanic family who stays awake until 4 AM studying her pre-med coursework, sacrificing friendships and social engagements, to fulfill her dream of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.
The 85-year-old widow with crippling rheumatoid arthritis and depression who grimaces through a 1/2-mile walk every Wednesday to read to elementary school foster kids at the local library.
The heroin addict struggling to come clean, bouncing in and out of rehab centers and methadone clinics, barely holding onto her waitress job, in order to give her 3-year-old daughter a better life.
The recently graduated, debt-strapped teacher who spends hours crafting original lesson plans, buying classroom supplies with his own food budget, because he is fixedly intent on not simply instructing but inspiring his students.
Often, when I walk the streets or in public places, I watch the people around me and wonder about their stories. After the tragedy of last week, I am more certain than ever that each of them, and each of us, is heroic.