I was sitting in an aisle seat, 11D, on a flight from Denver to Phoenix (Frontier Airlines #1735), and I was absorbed in kind of a heavy (though slim) book, W.G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, an account of the lack of post-war German literature on the somewhat taboo subject of the suffering of the general German population during the Second World War. As Sebald details, this hardship was compounded by the destruction of many of the country’s cities, which were consumed in hellish conflagrations ignited by “a million tons” of incendiary bombs dropped by the Allies over the course of a few years, leaving some 600,000 German civilians dead, 3.5 million homes destroyed, and 7.5 million people homeless. He reports: “There were 31.1 cubic meters of rubble for every person in Cologne and 42.8 cubic meters for every inhabitant in Dresden.” And while Sebald, a German, ends this treatise by essentially saying, “Let’s not get on our high-horses just yet, maybe we had it coming,” the sheer carnage of it all, described there in that slim book between my fingers, depressed the hell out of me. I also abhor flying, fear it like I fear Ebola (or more accurately, I fear it like I fear death and the deaths of the loved ones I am with) and these concurrent activities, this particular bat of reading and the winging around breathing recycled crap air, had sunk me into a dark, superlatively pessimistic mood. And, succumbing to this state, a state of roiling cynicism and fear, surely played into my interpretation of the situation that unfolded in the row of seats directly behind me.
Traveling, my wife and I routinely joke about being jammed in a row with a screeching toddler. As irony befalls us all, we were stuck in a row in front of a screaming, abusive mother. The mother—early to mid-twenties, well-enough dressed, pale skin, long brown hair—appeared harmless at a glance. Her daughter—toddler-aged, quiet, stylishly bedecked with a red barrette fixed atop her curly blond hair, complementing a pair of red OshKosh B’Gosh overalls—was named Rowan. I knew this was her name, as did (presumably) everyone seated between rows seven and fifteen, because it was shouted several times.
While reading I was scratching notes on the last page of the Sebald book, and so, naturally, I wrote down a few highlights from the scene playing out behind me. Looking back at this recorded evidence I see a weird juxtaposition of my own thoughts (“email B about WGS,” “Sebald quotes Elias Canetti quoting Albert Speer p103,” “fucking awful p56 relate to war project”) and a strange one-sided dialogue punctuated, by my ear, almost entirely with exclamation points:
“Don’t cry like a baby!”
“You’re so stupid, just shut up!”
“You swallowed it! Stop taking off your clothes! You can’t see it—it’s in your stomach. I told you the point is to put it in your mouth and just chew it, not eat it!” (I was befuddled by this; it took me several minutes to realize she was talking about gum.)
“You’re not a big girl, sitting hear whinin’ and cryin’.”
“You better not take that off again!” (My wife was listening to music and she offered me one of her earbuds to help tune out the barrage; I declined, preferring to subject both of my ears rather than one of hers to this woman’s shrieking. I was also frantically over-stimulated already, what with the Sebald, and the flying, and the rumpus behind us, and I thought it possible that asking my brain to also process Arcade Fire might make my head explode.
“I told you, you eat at mealtimes or you don’t eat!”
“No, I don’t have snacks.”
“I told you, you eat at mealtimes or not at all!” (This went on for a while, the daughter crying, the mother motherly berating her, until finally I got up and ruffled through my overhead luggage for a Nature Valley Oats ‘N Honey bar, which I offered to the girl. The mother took it, thanked me, and we were graced with a few minutes of relative quiet.)
For a few seconds there on the plane I had genuinely thought that that mother might have smothered her daughter, there, in the seat behind us.
Then it kicked up again: “Take your hand off that!” “Be quiet!” “We’re almost there, we’re not gonna frickin’ switch seats again!” And then suddenly, in a real outburst, the mother shouted again, an embarrassingly loud, “Shut up!”—and this was followed by a strained silence, total silence (minus the mechanical hums of the airplane), a silence now involving everyone within the vicinity. And in that moment I imagined an awful climax to that awful scene, imagined that rude mother’s hand smothering—probably inadvertently—her crying toddler. I turned around to look, just to make sure my imagination was not intuition, and yes, I saw the girl, and no, she was not smothered. She was sitting quietly next to her mother, who was suddenly calm, languid even, exhausted. Apparently, she had tired herself out.
Safely landed and coming off the jetway, we heard the mother behind us. She left our lives with this: “You can’t run! You’re on a leash!” There was such a taunt in those words that I inadvertently laughed out loud. I turned around and sure enough, the girl was bobbling along on her clumpy toddler legs, sadly bridled by this sneering woman’s giraffe-themed reins. We emerged into Gate B7, and the two of them dissolved into the walking masses.
Our layover between Phoenix and Tucson was an hour, and I spent that time obsessing about this: For a few seconds there on the plane I had genuinely thought that that mother might have smothered her daughter, there, in the seat behind us. I’ve seen this dramatic situation before—in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, in the last episode of M*A*S*H, in the Tom Selleck film frolic Quigley Down Under—and my imagination had suggested this to me as a real possibility. I remembered an old adage that “If you can think of it, then someone, somewhere, at some point in time has done it,” and there I was, slumped in a piddily padded plastic seat in a boarding gate lounge, the sun set, my legs bouncing but my brain beat, wondering if, because I had imagined it, it was possibly true that some mother, somewhere, had, at some point in time, actually smothered her crying daughter while traveling on an airplane. It struck me as unlikely, but possible—and so it is possible that this old adage might prove true, a thought that scares the crap out of me because I can imagine some horrific things happening and I would rather have these terrible things restricted to my imagination than imagine them loosed upon the world.
There are only so many ways we might die. There are only so many ways our loved ones might die.
I am not sure where I first heard this adage, though I think it initially came up in the context of sexual positions, that is to say, in a context defined by necessarily limited options. (There are, after all, only so many ways even our most pliable bodies can bend.) And this adage unnerves me because in addition to this wonderful (wonderful to daydream about) context, there is that other context similarly bound by a limited range of possibilities: that is, death and dying.
There are only so many ways we might die. There are only so many ways our loved ones might die. And so if we can imagine it happening to us, to our loved ones, then chances are it has happened to someone else, to someone else’s loved ones, somewhere, at some point in time. And this thought bothers me.
I imagine my wife driving home from work and being T-boned by an afternoon lush speeding through a red light; I imagine thieves, bandits breaking into our home à la In Cold Blood; I imagine illness, my future children dying of leukemia at a young age; I imagine aneurysms, strokes, tumors, depression, suicide; a mother’s melanoma; a father’s heart disease; I imagine a nephew leaping to a tree from the garage roof and being stabbed through the eye by a branch; I imagine natural disasters, hurricanes, floods, famine; I imagine 10,000 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs being dropped on our city; our neighbors coming at us with machetes; snakebite, shark attack, lightning strike, a child’s throat swelling closed after accidentally ingesting a bee ensconced in a gulp of cola; I imagine being forced at gunpoint to watch my wife raped against the desert caliche, then shot; I imagine myself, or worse, my wife, my future children going to the local Safeway to do our Saturday grocery shopping and being caught in gunfire.
I imagine these things knowing that they have happened to others, that they continue to happen. And if these things have happened to others, somewhere, at some point in time, it is not so difficult to imagine them happening to me, to us, to my family.
Of course, here I might also imagine angels descending, finding a winning Powerball ticket gummed to the sole of my shoe, being delivered a cure for the Wednesday afternoon blues (and all currently incurable cancers), a Dodge truck with the gas mileage of a Prius in my driveway, and socialized health care, general peaceful easy feelings, and well-stocked cupboards for all—but given the current state of things, these happy happenstances seem, well, unlikely.
That said, considering the previous short list of terrible things that have happened to others, it is true—probable even—that none of them (or at least not all of them) will come to bear on me. But there is no guarantee. They could. And we cannot take our safety, the safety of those we love, for granted.
There was a shooting recently in Tucson. Nineteen people were shot in front of a grocery store. From the shooter’s perspective most of them were presumably random targets, having nothing to do with anything. Six people were killed.
And what does this mean for us? How, if at all, does this change things? If we do not feel safe now, have we ever felt safe?
“We will all die someday,” my wife tells me. It’s a fact of life. “Well, I hope I go first,” I say (and this is a selfish thought, I know, wishing upon her the loneliness I don’t want to bear), but in any case, really my wish is simply that when we do go, either of us, that we pass peacefully. It is hard enough to imagine the sad, traumatic deaths of others; I try here not to imagine such an end for her. My girl will live forever, I tell myself. And if I must admit that she won’t, then how do I get myself through the Saturday mornings when she goes to do the grocery shopping and I stay home and while she’s out anything—literally anything I might imagine—could happen, could take her away from me forever? This has always been a possibility, on some level, sure, but really more of a concept, an idea relegated to the abstract. No longer. And how do I push on with this suddenly new, visceral understanding of the awful possibilities that lurk just around the next corner from us all?
You might say this mania is irrational. Here, now, I don’t think so. Complacency, our sense of entitlement to abundance and comfort and peace and safety—this seems irrational to me, here, now. Read Sebald; read the news: people are dying, communities are dying, the world is dying. Observe the state of things around us for just one open-eyed second: a slight paranoia seems reasonable.
I arrived at this truth again via Sebald, revisiting a passage I’d read but glossed over earlier. In describing the aftermath of the Allies’ campaign of area bombing, he refers to a memoir by Lutz Heck, “which paint[s] a picture of the devastation of the Zoo by the air raids… ‘The great reptiles, writhing in pain,’ writes Heck, ‘now lay beneath chunks of concrete, earth, broken glass, fallen palms and tree trunks, in water a foot deep… while the firelight of the dying city of Berlin shone through a gate knocked off its hinges in the background.’ The elephants who had perished in the ruins of their sleeping quarters had to be cut up where they lay over the next few days, and Heck describes men crawling around inside the rib cages of the huge pachyderms and burrowing through mountains of entrails.”
Reality, it seems, is often much worse than I can imagine.
It’s possible that given the right circumstances I could have imagined such a thing as Sebald quotes Heck describing here—but maybe, probably, not. He also mentions an old practice of roping prisoners’ heads “to the mouths of cannon” (one imagines such a death would be so quick you wouldn’t feel a thing, and yet it’s impossible—isn’t it?—not to imagine what such a death might feel like), and this is also a gruesome thing I would probably never have thought of. And then, of course, there was the entire Holocaust as well, and while I believe it would be impossible for a twentieth-century consciousness not to feel at least some of its weight, I also believe that had I been around in say, 1932, I would never have dreamed up such machinations. Were I around in 1913, I probably wouldn’t have thought up trench foot either. My imagination just isn’t that great. So it goes.
And so pondering this Sebald, I see, yes, my imagination fails. Reality, it seems, is often much worse than I can imagine. And thinking of all that might befall me, my wife, and those I love (let alone the rest of the world), not only need I fear all the shit that I can imagine, now I realize I should also fear all that I can’t. A daunting task indeed, all this living in fear.
How might we, I ask, ever be expected to push on?
This comes ten days after I read that Sebald. My wife and I are listening to Obama’s speech on the radio, having opted to stay out of the crowd that has been assembling all day, some 26,000 people gathered a mile from our house. She has experimented with a new dish, butter-broiled shrimp and vegetables over rice, and it is delicious. Our round dinner table is small enough that our legs come into contact randomly; we have to look out for the other’s feet. We split a Hoegaarden, a Belgian wheat beer, a favorite of ours.
It’s cold in the house; I have a stocking cap on, pulled over my ears. I watch my wife lower a nibble of shrimp to the dog, our 40-pound border collie/black Lab mix. She catches me watching her, flashes a smile, gives no excuses. We listen to Obama talk about the victims of the previous weekend’s shooting.
Dorwin and Mavy Stoddard grew up together in Tucson. They moved away, had families, were both widowed, and somehow found their way back to each other.
When they weren’t out on the road in their motor home, you could find them just up the road, helping folks in need at the Mountain Avenue Church of Christ. A retired construction worker, Dorwin spent his spare time fixing up the church along with his dog, Tux. His final act of selflessness was to dive on top of his wife, sacrificing his life for hers.
The Church of Christ, up the street, is where we run our dog. We go there because it’s a big space, their parking lot, and it’s fenced, and they don’t seem to mind. And the view is spectacular—four-story palm trees lining Mountain Ave., the imposing Santa Catalinas overlooking the city, the canyons in shadows, the peaks and slopes rendered orange and pink and the color of rich coffee by the sunset. Just before Christmas the church held a potluck, the parking lot was filling up, and a woman emerged from the main building and walked right over to us. I expected to get the boot, but instead she invited me inside to share the meal with them. She invited the dog, too.
Dorwin had a trim, silvery, Abe Lincoln beard. He was seventy-six, a year older than Mavy. He’d been a year older all their lives, but now by this time next year they’ll be the same age. Their pastor put it this way: “He did what most husbands would do when their wives are in danger. He threw himself on the grenade for her.”
“You can’t protect me from everything,” she says.
Obama is still talking. My wife looks at me over the table, making a big gesture with the glass in her hand, and tells me I better never do anything so foolish.
“So foolish as what?”
So foolish as to try to shield her body with my own.
“Of course I would,” I say. And I hope this is true.
We do our weekly shopping at Safeway, not at the one where the shooting took place, but at another Safeway just up the street. Thirty some shots in fifteen seconds. I wonder how I would have reacted in that split second that mattered. I wonder if I would have tackled her to the ground right away, wrapped myself around her, or if I would have been too slow, worrying that I might hurt her tackling her to the ground.
She asks what I’m thinking about. I tell her, and she laughs. “You can’t protect me from everything,” she says.
“I can try,” I say.
And then, on cue, Obama tells us about George and Dorothy Morris, high school sweethearts who married and had two daughters. When the gunfire rang out, George tried to shield his wife, and Dorothy, “Dot” to her friends, was killed anyway.
But the attempt is the important thing, I think—the only thing we have any control of. And though George will live without Dot, without his partner, maybe he’ll be able to live with himself. He did what he could, the best he, or I, could ever really hope to do. And it was an expression of love to the utmost.
I carry our plates to the kitchen, clatter them into the sink. Rinse my glass, fill it with water. When I come back, my wife has draped her legs over the table. I sit down across from her. Looking over my shoulder I watch the dog, now on the couch, mouthing a tennis ball—the dog looks up, winks at me.
My wife kicks one of her slippers to the floor. I rub my fingers into the high arch of her foot.
That’s what love does: it does what it can, and when we fail, forgives.
I do not long for a chance to throw myself through peril to protect those I love from, from whatever—but I wait for it. And in the meantime, if they need a Type O transfusion, I’m ready. If an illness calls for an organ from me, it’s theirs. If my lady craves a strawberry-infused tiramisu cupcake, I can (probably) learn to make that. If she needs me home by 6:00 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays to run the dog and fix dinner, that’s the least I can do; I’m hers, I’m there. If she’s tired later, I’ll clean up—each dish scrubbed like a peck on her cheek, a quiet word of affection from me to her.
And if I look back on this profession ten or forty years from now and find I was unable to live up to my own expectations, at least I will have tried, the attempt being the important thing here. And if I work late next Thursday and can’t get dinner on the table before nine, I’m sure she’ll understand—because that’s what love does: it does what it can, and when we fail, forgives.
I read somewhere that prior to taking over the White House, Barack and Michelle hadn’t spent a night under the same roof in four years—he’d been so busy campaigning, politicking. Even if this claim isn’t factual, there’s probably some truth in it. My wife wonders if it’s been worth it. We suppose the public answer will always be, Yes, of course, and we the public will never know what’s said between the two of them behind doors. A lot must happen behind those doors—we imagine all kinds of things.
Obama’s wrapping up the speech. We stretch our shoulders over the backs of our chairs. I wonder out loud where the president and his first lady will stay the night in Tucson, then suppose they will probably fly on home. They have their own airplane. Spend the day here, fly back to D.C., say goodnight to the girls, go to sleep in their own big bed. “That’s the life,” I say.
Sudden loss… also forces us to look forward, to reflect on the present and the future, on the manner in which we live our lives and nurture our relationships with those who are still with us. With those who are still with us… with those who are with us…
“I’ll bet there’s a bedroom on Air Force One,” my wife says.
“Oh,” I say, “I’m sure there is.”