I watch from the curb as two people pull out onto the road, just past my broke-down Volkswagen. The passenger forgets that she set her tumbler filled with freshly-brewed coffee on the roof before she got in, shutting the door and putting on her seat belt.
Screeching to a halt, she pops out of the car and scurries to swoop it up. Realizing I’ve watched the sequence unfold just a few feet away, she tucks her pride in with her shirt before she gets back in the car.
“It’s a Monday disguised as Tuesday,” she quips. “Didn’t you know?”
I watch the speed-limit break as they pull away down the road toward Starbucks.
An hour before I watch the tumbler take a tumble, I pop down into my car, finally ready to cruise home and get some much-needed work done. In routine fashion, I slip the key in the ignition, turn around and hug the passenger seat, gazing out the rear-window before I back up.
I turn the key and nothing happens.
I look back and blink twice.
I try again. Nothing. Not a click, or a thud, or a sign of life. In fact, the key won’t even turn all the way. Rather quickly, I deduce that the ignition switch that I just had installed in my 98 Jetta must be frozen and that I won’t have a car for 24 hours. I wiggle the steering wheel; I put the car in gear; I hold down different combinations of clutch and break as I try to get the key to go full-circle.
Having done this dance all summer—as the proud owner of what will soon be a licensed historic Florida vehicle—I get on the phone to AAA, grateful that I renewed my membership last week.
Not too much later the tow-truck driver arrives in a behemoth. Trucks like the one he’s driving could easily be featured on an episode of Ice Road Truckers and would be good for just about any roadside assistance…
…except for squeezing my car out of the caddy-corner spot on the narrow street it’s stranded on in the middle of rush hour traffic. 30 more minutes snail by and I sit on the curb drinking a Seagram’s Ginger Ale, before I see a smaller truck with a wench pull up, position itself accordingly, and hoist my car to salvation.
A few hours before the not-starting and hoisting, I’m sitting in Mikey’s Bakery and Café devouring a Reuben and a Diet Cheerwine. Their selection of “Old Timey” soda is second to none — an open invitation for me to make a weekly lunch date with myself. I’ve already finished the kettle chips, which were good, but not as good as the pasta-salad I had asked for.
It’s damn good pasta salad — enough to disappoint you when you don’t get it.
“How is everything,” asks the kid-who-works-there.
“Fine,” I say, with a mouthful of pastrami, too exhausted and worn down by the midday Tampa heat to complain.
Two hours before I sit down to sip on deliciously rendered cane-sugar soda and unrequested potato chips, I find myself sputtering around the neighborhood, making stops at every-other telephone pole. I’m armed and dangerous with a fist full of fliers and a heavy-duty stapler. Looking for strategic ways to display “Lost Dog” fliers is a sad day to spend an afternoon, particularly because I get acquainted with the other slew of missing pups whose banners, judging by their water-logged and sun bleached condition, have been flying for more than a few days. I start to wonder: who really gets lost when a friend is missing, furry or otherwise?
Telephone poles have to be the most analogue of mediums, seemingly incapable of the kind of feedback that soothes the soul in times of distress, whether by wood or by wire. We’re all lost when we lose a sense of confirmation that’s so vital to our being human in the world.
I get out every so often, leaving the car running in the middle of the road, undoubtedly agitating drivers on their lackadaisical lunch break who would rather not swerve out of the way. I whistle and yell, listening for a response, searching high grass in hope that out of nowhere the pup will show up. The reality is that my yells only beckon to other neighborhood dogs, all to ready to answer back in a language I can’t understand. I stand their clueless, wishing I could ask them if they’ve seen the little guy who went foraging on his own a few hours ago.
Stopping by my colleague’s new house, I ask if she’s seen him but looking at the tears in her eyes I know the answer before the words leave my mouth.
“I feel like I’ve lost a child,” she whispers, sitting on the stoop.
I’m all too familiar with the feeling. I reach out and give her a hug, telling her that everything will be alright, wishing I believed it more than I did. She smiles for a moment and we go back to sitting, staring straight ahead.
At 5 o’clock the evening before, I get home from school and say hi to Simba, my fuzzy white-and-tan Persian/Maine Coon buddy who greets me by the door every day. Dangling bags and holding books, I flop them on the couch as I reach down to pat his soft head and give him some love behind the ears. He does his usual sashay around my legs, wiggling his tail in excitement, as if to say his ready for treats and some brushing.
“Alright buddy,” I say, loud and in that tone he knows means he’s about to get what he wants. “Come on.” We both walk briskly into my office and he hurls his pantaloon-legs on the table I’ve put there specifically so he can watch me work from across the room. I lay out 5 treats in the corner, which he gobbles up nearly as fast as I devour a sandwich in the 20 minute break I get between classes. I gently scratch his raised back and softly pull his tail through my fingers as I head to the shower.
He follows and moves into his box, so I turn away to give him some privacy and slip under the hot water for a much needed after work-out rinse. A few minutes later, I turn off the water, step out, and see his tail. It’s in the same spot it was in before I got wet. He looks back at me, mixed up in distress and confusion, as if to say, “I don’t know Dad, it just won’t come out.”
In the next 30 minutes he moves back into the box three times, spending all of the time in between nursing the gap below his belly. It’s swollen and seems tender.
“Something’s not right,” I tell myself, grabbing the phone and calling a friend who knows more about illness and animals than I do. She tells me to keep an eye on him and give me the number to a vet.
“If he doesn’t get better in a few hours, you should probably take him in,” she says. “It’ll be expensive—“
“It doesn’t matter,” I tell her, cutting her off, “Simba’s the healthiest cat in the world. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to him.”
“Well it could be nothing,” she tells me. “So don’t worry just yet. But let me know how it goes, ok?”
I hang up the phone worried and upset. Darting to my computer I find others who describe the exact same symptoms. “Get him to the emergency room right away because you’re cat might die” is the last thing I read before I snatch him into my arms and rush down the steps to my car, heading north and calling the Vet as I drive.
I’m frantic, on the phone, shifting gears and stomping on brakes through what’s left of rush hour traffic. “You’re doing the right thing,” the receptionist says. “We’ll see him as soon as you get here.” I drop the phone on my lap, shift into 4th gear and tear through cars, keeping my hand on Simba’s belly, telling him everything will be fine. Surprisingly he’s not worried, which makes me worry more and realize that I’m really talking to myself.
After a few hours in the emergency room — with the vet techs telling me that he’s the “best looking urine-blocked kitty” they’d ever seen, and me asking the same questions over and over again — I make it home and sleep for a few hours. In the morning I get the call that they’re going to keep him for another day to keep pumping fluids into him and insert a catheter. “Otherwise,” the vet says, “he should be alright.”
For the first time since I walked out of the emergency room I stop thinking about the “Do Not Resuscitate” form I signed before I left. I get off the phone and notice a text message from a colleague asking if I can canvas the neighborhood with fliers. “They’re in your email,” she says.
We can’t help what happens to us when bad turns worse. In times of trouble and grief, it seems like we can’t avoid the harrowing “Why” that points a finger at us, charging us to figure out in some narrative order what’s happening, how it’s happening, and what to do next. Most of the time it seems like the mundane everyday sequence of things—which always lead to more things good and bad alike—are nothing more than events that punctuate our experiences, building them up just so we can be let down. Sometimes the interconnectedness of those things that happen appear to be prearranged, unrelenting, or unfair, escalating the pressure we feel to perform the best version of ourselves in the face of uncertainty at the very moment when that best version is something we’re not.
Famous folks like to suggest that we should try to do everything in life, but only ever in moderation. In my experience, that’s an idealist’s version of the way things tend to transpire: Everything happens, and it happens all at once. So yes, we do everything, but moderating that everything is hardly ever a choice. It’s great to be an agent of destiny, which is truly a virtue in the world we live in, but time and time again we find ourselves resigned to a story not of our own making and a world of experience that tries our sense of dignity.
On the worst days—what for lack of more eloquent language constitutes the shittiest of days—we might find ourselves pinned down by an unforgiving universe when the “minor events of daily life [are] unsettled or unsettling” (Zaner, 2004, p. 113). Since we can’t help to make sense of these episodes of our lives as we live them, often times finding meaning in them right before of immediately after they happen, it’s as though we’re dammed to the eternal consequence of the chaos we find ourselves amid. Sometimes it’s unclear whether or not what we wish will happen will or can prevail (p. 122).
I can remember as a little boy, trying to ride a wave in the ocean that was too big for me—way over my head—and finding myself tumbling again and again under a breaking tide, fighting my way up only to grasp the air that would give me the ability to keep fighting through the surf for the rest of the day—or week, for that matter—or however long I had in the water.
That breath of fresh air, in the chaos, among the crashing wave that puts us in distress when one thing after another throws us down and pulls us into the undertow is what can remind us that we’re not totally lost. It’s the grace we find twisted up in circumstances of grief, illness, and escalation that can remind us that an essential part of life is its tragedy. It’s up to us to remember that tragedy is all too certain, just as it’s always starkly unfamiliar when we confront it. It’s up to us to “refuse to give up or get out of the way” (p. 126).
Those times when we live with the constant, face-to-face reminders of ourselves seen by others—of our failings and misfortunes—we don’t have to remain resigned to our seeming fate, despondent yet reaching for dignity. We can look to others and communicate in trust, undergoing a sort-of moral transformation that changes our perspective (p. 139). We hug, have a sincere handshake, or sit side-by-side with another, and it’s their presence that supplies the air we need to keep breathing, fighting through the worst of it so we can go on and struggle through the rest; so we can go on, hoping for the best.
When we find those moments of joy and pleasure—maybe in a day where nothing goes wrong—we can realize in hindsight that everything that happens—good or bad, tragic or comic, awe-filling or gut-wrenching—is proof enough that we live in spite of the persistent possibility that all could be lost at any moment, for any reason, or for no reason at all. Be it the case that we find ourselves completely lost, we won’t be around to know it anyway, so the tragedy is worth all that living it entails.
We need our pain to remind us of what’s good, and that means incurring trouble as it comes. Of course, the most we can ever hope for is a certain realxedness to experience, something someone else famous once said (Becker, 1973).
Sitting outside at 3 in the morning, I can’t stop the memories from pushing past the nickelodeon in my mind. I see all of the times I can’t recall otherwise, remembering all of the versions of myself that I’ve been, and realizing that Simba’s been the silent observer to it all. He’s never failed to be there at night or in the morning, always by my side, not worried about what I’ve done or what I’m going through, but constant in his resolve to love and be loved back.
I do nothing but hope he’ll be ok. The breeze picks up and the trees shutter for a moment just as I’m reminded of the prayer they teach those people who go to those rooms on Thursday nights, to help each other cope with a life full of trouble:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Simon & Schuster
Zaner, R.M. (2004). Conversations of the edge. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press
A Monday Disguised as a Tuesday and The Wisdom to Know the Difference by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.