Taking Care

Posted by jdg | Thursday, August 19, 2010

Your father was driving north along a country road at night with one beer sputtering in his capillaries, far from enough to create any real risk but just enough to get him thinking about danger. The road itself was lit only by his car's headlights for twenty miles. The occasional window on some hillside glowed warm and yellow, saying someone is in here; someone is home safe and sound when you are not. The high beams had been burned out since they bought this car but he'd never needed them: city drivers don't. Besides, he never had to drive so far at night when you were safely in your beds.

There were deer around, your father knew this. He sensed them watching him, sensed their kamikaze urges. He passed two bucks together in the southbound lane. Sometimes it all comes down to their blank-eyed whim not to take that sudden step. And to your ancestors, they would have been no concern at all, only food. 

Your mother lived in China once. Your father will tell you his side of the story: Every Sunday night, he would buy a $20 phone card from a man slurping ramen in the back of an Asian video store and sit on the floor with a rotary phone to hear your mother's voice for five minutes of her Monday morning. They were supposed to be broken up, but he lived all week for those five minutes. Nine months later, when she returned, your parents moved in together. They were 22. Your mother got a job waiting tables at a restaurant with too much Jimmy Buffet in the jukebox. Drunk old men would pinch your mother's ass when she walked past but she was young and poor enough that tips mattered more than dignity. Your father hated this. But he hated more the drive home she made every night, forty miles each way, out there on the road in the hours when all reasonable people were asleep. One rainy night, her pickup truck slid across a lane of oncoming traffic and ended up in a ditch. By some miracle of fortune your mother survived that night.

* * * * *

Your father had a place he would visit in San Francisco, a Victorian Columbarium filled with the ashes of the dead. It had large stained glass windows of the Fates: Clotho, the spinner; Lachesis, the measurer; and Atropos, the cutter. He found this place by fated chance one June while walking home from visiting classmates out in the avenues, friends stunned and mourning. They all got the same e-mail from the Dean of Students that day. A car crash, it said. It was a weekday afternoon and they all walked out of their offices. It seemed to them that Death had looked into a crowd of thousands, saw the best one of all, and said I'll have her. Your father used to walk with her after their classes, after meals during their first year of law school. When he reached his door she would walk on to hers just a few meters further, and when they'd part he'd always say, take care. "You're so silly," she'd say, and she was right: they hardly ever left the law quadrangle. Still he said it. He couldn't help himself. He still can't. By now you know this.

Two years later, after those buildings fell and everything almost changed, he moved a block or so away from that Columbarium with its Fates and faint smell of old flowers. It became important for him to go in there once in awhile, for all its reminders that life is not something that should be taken for granted, and that taking care is only part of it.

* * * * *

Sometimes your father can hardly believe that you happened.

Picture your mother on a motorbike in Cambodia two years before she married him, dust in the face of peglegged beggars, starving children; picture men on the street with automatic rifles; picture her in some NGO jeep driving deep into a red-light district where she visited brothels to see the conditions for herself. Picture her on small Asian airplanes, chickens under the seats. When her hand slipped out of your father's at the airport a month earlier, he'd said it:"Take care," even when his drive back up the 101 might have been more perilous than all her adventures combined. By some miracle of fortune he saw through those tears and made it back alive.

And there are things almost harder to imagine, things you don't want to know about: the many almosts that might have torn them apart. And all that distance, and all those real regrets and separations that only proved what they had was worth holding onto. And then there's you. The ultimate proof.

Think about it. You are standing on the shoulders of thousands. Immense have been the preparations for you. Faithful and friendly the arms that have help'd you. An immigrant bricklayer. A homesteading widow. A long line of hard-working farmers. Schoolteachers. Shopkeepers. Fearful refugees. Persecuted Huguenots. Soldiers who survived wars and soldiers who did not. A devout carpenter. A thrifty newsboy. An auto-body man. Hordes of Vikings. A famous inventor. A murdered Sheriff. Adoptive uncles. An engineer. A golfing postman. A cinnamon merchant. Bakers. Fishermen. Daughters of the American Revolution. Revolutionaries. Highlanders. Low country peasants. Irish Catholics. Prussian seamstresses. Pennsylvanians. Metalworkers. Midshipmen. Deer hunters. Berry gatherers. Drovers. Ancient chieftains. Common slaves. And yes: at least two lawyers. They all dreamed about you.

All of them survivors. All of them surviving, to this day, in you.

You are the direct result of many millions of tiny miracles, an endless stream of fortune good enough to bring you out into the sun. What incredible people you are, already.

* * * * *

You were on my shoulders, half a mile from shore before you turned me back. Perhaps not half a mile, but far enough that your dog watching from the beach looked worried (before he turned into a speck bouncing on the shore). The shoal ended suddenly in a steep grade, and your legs were in the water as I stood on my toes to keep my chin above it. Once in the cold, your legs clenched around my neck. "Turn around," you insisted. "Go back."

We were ten feet from the boulder I was hoping to reach. I showed it to you, with the waves breaking against it. Your mother and I had been out there already, another shoal where the water would have been up to your waist. Someday, I thought, turning my torso back towards the shore and away from the endless water. Someday you will swim there yourself.