We lose things certain in pursuing things uncertain.
In Hammondsport, there used to be a large tree outside of the school. It was across the giant field used for games of football, soccer, or what have you. It was past a small corner where the chain link fence keeping students out of the river had a gap between it, and the wooden plank fence that did absolutely nothing. It may have served as a bench during a teacher’s strike, once. I remember that being the most ridiculous strike, as, at the time, most of the teachers owned either a BMW or a Lexus. Or both.
The gap was trodden to the earth – no grass dared grow the fifteen feet that more than fifty students traversed each way daily. It fed onto the sidewalk, where it hitched and bent askew onto a massive steel bridge. The bridge had been a deep, cerulean blue at one point, but was now barely more than a powder blue bordering on stark white, with graffiti, rust, and scrapes making up its more visible portions. To its right, a muddy footpath to a small landing just beyond school grounds that ran a river.
Hammondsport had many rivers. Being in a valley, and at the base of a freshwater lake, there were inlets all over the place. There were, however, only two that directly cut the town into portions – this little slip, and another that had been engineered to flow from a larger waterfall, along a mill, through a flume, and out to the lake. The mill had been closed and rotting since my mother was a child in this town.
This bridge was here when she was a kid. Much like when she was a kid, too, this was where I would encourage my nicotine habits in my earlier teenage years – before, during, and after school. Let me preface by saying it was not one of my smarter decisions (neither was stapling my hands together, but that’s another story that had a shorter heal time), and its habitual use was extinguished by the time I was nineteen.
The tree was on this muddied path between the fence and the bridge, and the sidewalk had not always had that hitch in it. When my uncle went to this school back in the god-knows-when era, he’d used that tree to save his life. Figuratively, and literally.
As he left the school, a heavy rain had fallen upon the valley. So, this was any day from May to August. The practical sort would have grabbed a newspaper, or modified a jacket or sweater vest into a rudimentary umbrella. Not my uncle: He just walks in it like a damn honey badger. He got to the far side of the field before the rain begins falling so hard he can see barely a foot in front of him.
So, now it’s likely any day in June.
Anyway, he pulls up under a tree to wait for the rain to let up. Thanks to the roaring rain on a new, blue steel bridge, he doesn’t hear the thunder as he rests his weight against the trunk. He didn’t see the lightning in the traditional sense. It hit the top of the tree, and followed the path of least resistance out into the back of his head, down his neck and arms, through his abdomen, and out his belt buckle – which is when he saw it.
A half hour later, he and my grandparents were at the local hospital. I love this hospital – when I’d had blunt force trauma to the skull and couldn’t move my head without vomiting, they encouraged me that it was a cold, and I should go home and sleep it off. For the record: the second hospital advised against that. Strongly.
So, they’re at the hospital with my electrocuted uncle. As it was described to me, every artery, vessel, and capillary that could be seen was working its damnedest to be seen as they all pushed out along the surface of his skin. The bruising from this would take over a month to heal. The actual shock had, otherwise, not harmed him – save the scar on his pelvis where the lightning seared his flesh on its way through his belt buckle. He made a bid with God that if he saved his life, he’d go into Seminary.
And that’s why he runs a church in Geneva, NY. There’s a lovely band out there called Gym Class Heroes – you may have heard of it. Hearing of its startup, my uncle tried to ban Matt McGinley from the church. A reasonable assessment for a man of the cloth.
That effing tree would be hallmark in my youth as well, it would seem. It may have been split in half, and cracked the sidewalks on its way down, but it was still standing in 1992. That year, I got in a fight with the school bully of the third graders, Chuck. Well, more him harassing me and my running away as he threw rocks at my head. I grabbed a fallen limb from a tree and tried to hit them away, hitting him along with it. He chased me past the tree, and over the bridge, where I finally dropped the stick to run better. He began screaming my name, trying to get my attention, and when I turned, his backpack met with my skull. The force was so powerful it sent my flying clean over the top of a three foot fence. It was a lovely white one, with little yellow flowers between each plank. I couldn’t figure out what had happened or where I was, and as I lay there, the little shit ran. Left me there.
As I’ve mentioned, the First Rachel ran for help. I tried to get up and yarked everywhere. I remember the feeling – it was if I was standing sideways, even when standing straight up. I couldn’t see out of my right eye, and fell just as quickly as I stood, puking everywhere again. A car pulled up – silver Mercedes; our French teacher (maybe that’s why I liked French so much). He offered me a ride home, but I didn’t get in cars with strangers. Puked again. Can he call someone? – No our home phone was disconnected again. Puked. Can he take me home? – No, but you can get my mother. Puke. He has no clue where she is.
At this point, I just didn’t care. If I didn’t do something, I was increasingly aware something even worse was going to happen. I managed to direct him to the town pharmacy, with our apartment over it. Helping me up the stairs, I went in, may have said something to my mother, puked, and then went into the bedroom, leaving her with my teacher.
I use the word ‘bedroom’ very loosely. This was an economy; a ‘studio’ apartment. Half of the giant room was the kitchen, table, and bathroom. The other half, separated by giant sliding wooden doors, contained one brass bedframe with box spring and mattress, and two other twin mattresses on the floor – my mother, sister, and I, respectively. In the corner was a little twelve inch TV that I would frequently use to watch Doug, The Simpsons, Rocko’s Modern Life, or Ren & Stimpy. This was the apartment I learned to cook in, as my mother had returned to full time employment. My sister being old enough to legally supervise me in her absence also had to learn. We ate a lot of eggs the first few weeks.
I’d barely had my shoes off and head down when she pulled me to a seated position. Her fingers ran down my spine as she tried to get me to focus on her. She pushed shoes onto my feet, held the container while I puked again, and walked me out to her car. I held this plastic bathroom trash can like a four year old holds a bucket at the beach. And I filled it just as often.
We arrived at Ira Davenport Hospital. After waiting a half hour, puking several times, the geniuses gave my mother the aforementioned conclusion. This was where I first learned the grammatically correct usage of ‘Dickhead’, ‘Fuckface’, ‘Asshole’, and other variants. We went to another hospital after that; I don’t remember where. I lost consciousness somewhere in there, but I do think I remember an ambulance ride. There were sirens, and some guy tapping my left cheek telling me to stay awake. I didn’t want to – every time I saw the look on my mother’s face, I was too afraid to stay awake.
The rest is a bit of a blur for a bit. There were pain killers involved, and I was in Elmira. I was high on some pain killer, freaked out and amazed by Eureka’s Castle on Nickelodeon. I mean, like Half-Baked quality freak out. I remember turning to my mother and exclaiming how the dragon could talk. She looked back at me, reading glasses on, slight smile to the corner of her mouth, and simply said, “I know, hon’ – I can see it, too.”
I didn’t go back to school right away. I don’t actually think I went back for at least another month or two. Just prior might have been the expanse of time where I discovered the library and decided I should read Homer’s “Iliad”. After a week I went back for Chronicles of Narnia. I only think that specifically, as I was reading “The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe” the first day I remember what my face looked like. There was a lot of bruising and swelling. With the bone around my right eye’s orbit crushed, it was akin to cro-magnon meets Yukon potato. The eye was barely opened, both as the musculature wasn’t in the right places anymore, and as the swelling was too great. What was visible, was an eye with a blown blood vessel that wouldn’t move left, right, up, or down. The inward crush of the skull had caused several fragments of bone to either pin the muscles, or sever them completely.
I thought it was the coolest thing. I spent days going around the apartment acting like a zombie with a mutilated face (thank you Rocko for that inspiration). I also kept asking why my brains didn’t squirt out the other side when I was hit with the backpack (thank you again Rocko).
Time hiccups again, and I remember looking at a calendar anticipating a mid-February operation. The operation is explained in great detail; I remember none of it. As they get me in my bare-ass outfit, my mother asks me if I know what’s going on. I apparently didn’t, because she broke it all down for me. They were taking out the fragments of bone trapped in the muscles. Then, they were going to cut down the remaining fractures. An implant was inserted to keep the eye from going back inside my skull, and to maintain the shape of the socket. After that, they were going to rearrange some muscles to make it all work. Also, they would be severing a major nerve as they work, so that should help with pain relief later.
Again, I was excited: this could be fun! I don’t remember coming out of it. I remember the cafeteria style meals delivered to the room. My amazement at the salsbury steak – although I would forever wonder what, exactly a Salz Berry was, and what did it look like if it could be served as steak? I remember the bruise that covered half of my face- my face! – It looked normal again. Well, swollen, but normal. The bruise would turn from purple, to brown, to green, to yellow, and eventually fade within a month. I had bought crazy ABBA sunglasses to wear when we were in public, because I didn’t want anyone to stare.
The sliced nerve was the biggest bitch. I remember that summer because, at our babysitter’s, she’d leave CNN on. Nothing says entertainment to a nine year old like CNN in an election year that has Ross Perot running for presidency. I would sit there, watching this tripe, feeling an itch on my nose. But it could not be scratched: I could feel the itch, but with the cut nerve, I couldn’t feel me scratching it. Later in life, I would learn that ‘itch’ was the nerve healing.
There are a few takeaways here, kids. First, lightning can strike twice – it just may not be in the way you expected. If there’s anything certain in life, it’s that nothing is certain. This ties us into point two: We lose things that are certain when pursuing the uncertain. We – whether it’s ‘we’ as a culture, ‘we’ as people, or even ‘we’ as a nation, indivisible – have this notion that everything we are doing now will certainly be the same a week from now, a month from now, or twelve years from now. I can certainly tell you in the experiences I’ve had – from this accident, to leg injuries; meeting my wife in a moment of serendipity; the ones we lose along the path – that we are pursuing the uncertain, because it is the most certain course we as living creatures are set upon. With that, to plan anything with certainty would be to plan not with failure, but without a vision for living.
And, despite the tumultuous risks of doing so, I am a man for living.