Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Two Random Memories

I was on a walk with a good friend several years ago on a cold November night in a nondescript Chicago suburb when our conversation was interrupted by a scary, angry man.

He ran out of a corner house, towards an astro-van that was pulling away, yelling "die! Diiie!" and wielding a large frying pan. My friend and I stopped and were a little scared and did not know what to do, so we planted our feet and watched from the other side of the street.

"Die!" yelled the man in the white undershirt as he ran towards the van, pan raised above his head.

"Die!" yelled the man again. Brake lights cast a demonic red glow over him as he neared the back bumper.

"Die," he said as the van stopped. He caught his breath and lowered his weapon. A moment of pre-meditation passed.

"Die, you almost forgot your pan!" He handed the pan through the driver's side window, and exchanged muffled pleasantries with the driver. At this point, I believe I went from biting my lip to staring open-mouthed.

"Okay, bye!" Hugging his arms to himself, the now-kind man ran back to the house over small patches of snow, and the van drove off.

My friend and I remained for a moment as the man re-entered his house and the van turned a corner several blocks away.

"You know, Marty," my friend Stephen said,
"sometimes real life really is stranger than fiction."

We kept walking, starting a new conversation since we could not remember what we had been talking about.

* * *

When I turned six or seven, my dad got me a Lego Technix (TM) Hovercraft set. Technix sets weren't your ordinary, pedestrian "5+" hundred block-piece structure-without-moving-parts-except-doors sets; Technix sets were for the gifted kids, the ones who would go to engineering school on scholarships and a sheer love of complicated design and construction. Always recommended for ages "12+" or higher, Technix sets were complicated, with numerous unique pieces, three-dimensional connector-joints that snapped plastic beams and shafts together at odd angles, and thick instruction books that probably even had spines. These things weren't even that fun to put together; each was an accomplishment - the kind of thing a kid puts on his shelf like a college grad puts his diploma on the wall.

Anyway, I was delighted to receive this gift from my father, and was even more delighted when he offered to help me put it together. In fact, I was almost giddy. I would gladly have accepted the task of working on it alone for several hours, both for the challenge and for the moment when I would be able to show it to him in its completeness and perfection. But he had volunteered to be involved in this hovercraft's creation with me, which doubled the gift; we were going to work together like fellow craftsmen on the difficult project. The father-and-son team. Send us your orders, I proclaimed in my head to a gathered crowd of delta-dwellers, and we will send you the most advanced plastic hovercrafts imaginable.

So we set up shop in the master bedroom, sitting with out backs to the bed in the space just inside the door, which was partially open next to an enormous mirror. The doorway was on our right; the mirror was just in front of his feet, propped up against the wall. This allowed me to see me and and my dad at work, just like I imagined some passerby on the street outside our hovercraft shop would see us through our shop's display window, wondering about our wares. I made faces that I imagined a hardworking hovercraft artisan would make, concentrated yet friendly enough to make non-threatening eye contact with intimidated civilian onlookers.

"Well," my dad said after at least an hour of co-working. He gazed soberly over the glasses perched on the end of his nose at the half-constructed vehicle in his hands. "I think I may need you to grab something for me from my toolbox."

"Sure, dad!" I leapt to my feet exuberantly, feeling what Gadamer describes as the 'superabundance of life' that attends the experience of play. "What do you nee-eed?"

"How about you get me a screwdriver and a glass of water?" Squinting, he held our project close to his face and picked at a mislaid piece with his thumbnail.

"Okay!" I jumped over his outstretched legs and hopped out the door, swinging it open behind me as I went out without thinking why.

I was startled to hear a "thump" behind me as I left. I stopped and spun around in the hallway to face my dad. He still sat with his back to the bed, still focused, pieces still scattered around him. But the door I had casually swung open had swiveled around to hit the side of the propped-up mirror. I now realized that the mirror had been leaning at a precariously shallow angle to the wall.

A sick sour sensation grew in my belly; the gently-swung door had somehow disturbed the uneasy rest of the six-foot tall, inch-thick monolith, and it now stood upright, unsupported, Frankenstein-like. It wavered above my unsuspecting father for an eternal moment. Then it began to lean in the wrong direction.

At this point, several things bubbled up together in my terrified mind. I decided immediately that there was no way I could save my father from the falling mirror without fatally injuring myself. The shock of grief over my dad's imminent demise, coupled with the shame of my cowardice in a dangerous situation, plus the knowledge that I was unmistakably the cause of this terrible event, sent me sprinting into the living-room where my mother had been pleasantly talking with a friend over tea. "I killed dad I killed dad I killed dad!" I screamed, jumping and landing with my knees on the couch, clutching my face with my hands and sobbing. My mother even had time to ask, "what?" before we heard the earth-shattering crash of the enormous mirror, which I knew at that moment was breaking on the plane of my hapless father's forehead.

I went with him to the ER, crying to a point of exhaustion in the waiting room after they took him in as my mother did her best to reassure me. She spoke with a doctor, and he then allowed me into the room where they were doing small surgical procedures to remove shards of glass from my father's body. I held my left forearm behind my back with my right hand and shot rapid-fire questions at the doctor leaning over my father's wounds, who chuckled at my anxiety and irrepressible candor. "You know what, you know what I think you have a very large nose," I said to him. My dad closed his eyes and smiled hazily from the table, and the doctor laughed.

By some miracle, although my dad's face and arms had been covered in cuts of various lengths and depths, the glass had only entered the skin on his right hand, so the surgical work was finished by dinnertime. "I'm really hungry," I mentioned somewhat absently to the doctor as he led me back out to the waiting room. "It's because you've seen a lot of blood," he said.

The rest of the day passed in a mist of guilt over what had happened, relief that I had not killed my dad, and bone-tiredness. That evening, as my mom put me to bed, I looked up to the shelf over my pillow before turning off my light and discovered the hovercraft. It was finished and looked even better than it had on the box, a glorious technical achievement and marvel of micro-engineering.

"What is this?" my mother asked, in faux-surprise. "Looks like your father finished it!"

I was amazed and near tears with gratitude, as this vehicle now signified, with so much else, the things my father had been repeating to me that evening whenever he saw me mulling over my tragic mistake from earlier: "It's okay, Martyn. It wasn't your fault. I'm fine. I love you." Even though it really was okay, it would prove impossible to forget the decisive moment when I ran instead of trying to stop the falling mirror, or even attempting to let my dad know that he was in danger. 


  1. What vivid and terrifying memories, yet so infused with grace. Thanks.