The Life I Could Have Had

A true story.

In my mid-twenties
I applied to and was accepted
Into the Princeton graduate / post-graduate program
In Philosophy

I had been accepted by two of the three other places I applied

I was maybe five months from leaving my Civil Service job
As a mathematician
Trying to figure out how to stretch the money I had saved
Hoping to talk my way into an assistanceship

It was Spring
One of my best friend’s weddings was coming up in a couple weeks
I played basketball with some friends on a Sunday
When I went home, I crashed on the bed
When I woke up, it was Monday evening
And I was on the floor

I got up
Fed my cat
Left a message on my boss’s phone at work
Went back to bed

Woke up, and it was Wednesday
Fed the cat again
Noticed I had bruises all over my body
Went back to bed

Woke up on Friday morning
Fed the cat
Got dressed for work
Showed up right at lunchtime
Looking like death
Some co-worker friends asked me
To come to lunch with them

During lunch
I had a massive seizure
I had been having them for days
And didn’t know it

I missed my friend’s wedding
I was in and out of the hospital for two years
I lost all my money
I lost that chance at graduate school
But, even at death’s door
I made sure my cat kept getting fed

I am an epileptic
I gradually carved out a life
Through grace
Rebuilding my body
Recovering from years of depression

I finally went to graduate school
But it was nowhere prestigious
And it was in Statistics, not Philosophy
But I used that to become an actuary

I have a wonderful job
I work at a place that genuinely cares
About its customers
And employees
And the community at large
As well as shareholders

So, I missed out on my dream
Through illness, depression, near-suicide

But recovered to one day
Fall in love
Have a family
Find a rewarding career

And write about it

But

I would still rather not have seizures


 

(“The Life I Could Have Had” – 3/26/2015)

Waiting For

I was in my early twenties. I was not at that time dating anybody. I sat at my parents’ kitchen table (always the gathering and talking place in that house) explaining to my mom and seemingly half-listening dad about what my life was like.

“I go on these sort of extended trips for work, and they’re fine. I mean, the people I work with, are super-nice, and the work is good, and the cities we go to are really cool, and all, but, whenever we get back, you know, when we fly into the airport, and we’re trudging off the plane, everyone has people waiting for them, to greet them; wives, girlfriends, husbands, boyfriends, kids. There are smiles and hugs, and I just kind of shuffle by on my way to baggage claim, then to my car, then out to the apartment, you know. I wonder what it would be like to have someone waiting for me when I got home, who was glad to see me.”

“Lucia is always glad,” my mom pointed out. Lucia was my cat.

“True. For whatever reason though, she never drives out to the airport to make it a few minutes earlier to see me.”

My mom laughed. “She would if she could.”

I had to agree. That cat was very affectionate.

At that time, I lived about twenty-five minutes away from my parents (if traffic was light) in a little apartment out on the beach. I think it safe to say I was feeling rather sorry for myself. I was getting ready to go on a three week work-related trip to Washington, D.C., and environs, and I needed to get back home and finish my laundry and packing. There is no way I know of to pack three weeks worth of clothes, so you pack something less and plan to do laundry while you’re there, which is what I did after making the drive home.

The next morning, after a few words on the phone with my friend Janine who would be feeding with the cat while I was gone, I was up and off to our local airport. Several of my co-workers came in after I had arrived, and we greeted each other in the customary early-morning fashion, that is, without undue enthusiasm, to show the proper level of grief at having lost sleep getting up so early. Once in DC, we headed over to our crummy hotel, where others (who had flown in the night before) were already encamped. Our first official meeting was that afternoon, so after leaving our bags (the hotel wasn’t ready for check-in) we headed off to work.

I remember it rained a lot those three weeks. The first two weeks were working with another project team, then the last week was a series of presentations to various department heads, ending with a presentation to the Secretary of the Air Force. We were in and out of cabs every morning and night, usually in the rain. On the two weekends, we went out as a group, seeing the Verdi Requiem at the Kennedy Center (Dies Irae, indeed), and spending a memorable night near the waterfront up in Baltimore.

I was chosen to be the presenter for our joint teams, and the various presentations were nerve-racking adventures in a place somewhere between aeronautical engineering and rhetorical fatuity. Still, when our final presentation was over, we had approval of our project, and the team celebrated that last night down in Old Town with genuine enthusiasm.

There was one last task to do the next day, which I didn’t quite understand, but that kept any of us from leaving until late Friday afternoon. Our flight was delayed two hours (at least it was a direct flight), but it did finally take off, and we left D.C. sweaty and exhausted. As we touched down back at our small-town airport, I realized it was raining there, too. But in a just a little bit, I’d be clicking the lights of my little apartment on, and I’d see Lucia, and she’d greet me by standing up on my dresser and purring. So I had that to look forward to.

Rusty, one of my co-workers, was just ahead of me in the slow line off the plane, I was very near the back. As we rounded the corner off of the tunnel leading out of the plane, I saw his wife and kids smiling as he moved towards them, and they began a round of hugs. I pulled my brief case up to get a better grip on it, then saw something else, something I hadn’t expected.

It was my father. He was standing by the guard rail, smiling.

He was waiting for me.

“What are you doing here?”

“You know, I just thought you might… like having someone here to greet you.”

I did, very much, and I told him so. You see, it not only never occurred to me that he would do that, it never occurred to me that he was even listening.

But, looking back on it, it is easy for me to see now which one of us wasn’t paying attention.

Falling, In Love

[30 days of prose, day 10. – Owen]


Falling in love is like stepping off of a flying airplane; them loving you back would be the parachute. But that parachute doesn’t always open.

Splat.

Love in relationships always comes with risk. We can’t know what others are really thinking, and we can’t know how years or circumstances might change them. But we step out anyway.

And sometimes, we crash.

Hearts, however, are usually stronger than bodies, kind of like the flight recorder on a airplane.* They are usually ready shortly for service on another flight. The decision to step off a plane again, though, gets much harder.

Before I met my wife, I had lots and lots of practice at falling in love. Many of these were more like falling of a curb than an airplane: short fall, easy landing, right back up, no problem. But others were harder: awkward falls off of bicycles, and diving boards, and even a roof or two.

Finally, I stepped off a plane for real, and man did it feel good. Scenery rushing by, blue skies, green pastures, and another person there with me. It was such a rush.

Then I hit ground, hard, in a fenced off area called “divorce”. As I lay there, wounded, I saw her (my ex) bounce immediately up and get on another plane.

One person’s crash is another person’s escape, I guess.


So why do we do it? Why do we try again?

I can’t answer for you, but I can answer for myself. I loved the feeling that came with stepping off of that airplane, and I wanted to feel it again. In addition, I wasn’t going to let one person stand in for any other person I might love for the rest of my life. For that next person might be my parachute, and I might be hers.

The other reason I had for trying again came from an observation I’d made, which was: planes can crash whether we ever get off them or not. Isolating myself hadn’t prevented crashes in the past, but it had prevented joy.

In the end, we love because we’re made to love, and because the choices of others do not determine who we are.

But it sure feels like they do those times we hit ground.


* I innocently asked my dad when I was a kid why they didn’t make planes out of the same material as flight recorders so that people would survive the crash. I got a long explanation on the aerodynamics of heavier metals.

Carnival

[Day 5 of 30 days of prose. – Owen]


“When you can express yourself with your body, you don’t need words,” he said.

“And vice-versa,” I answered.


At twenty-two years old, we went to the traveling carnival: my best friend and I, at twilight on an early summer day, amid a swirling crowd, because two girls we knew were going to be there, and we were going to find them. He was on the lookout for Vonnie, with her shoulder length blonde hair and blue eyes; while I searched the throng for Alisa, with her short brown hair and green eyes.

The two of them were always laughing, and lots of boys came around to try to get in on the joke – mostly unsuccessfully. But we were undaunted.

By the time we caught up to them, all the lights were on and the night surrounding the carnival had swallowed up the rest of the world. For the next six and one-half hours, it was just the four of us, there in the spotlight.


“Look how dark the woods look,” she said, pointing.

“I really can’t see anything past the edge of the fairgrounds, except a few cars over in the other direction.”

We were on top of the Ferris Wheel, and for some reason, we were holding each other’s hand. Vonnie and Garrett, in the next car, appeared to be getting along pretty well.

I looked at her. We were very close together, and the lights made her face seem to be many colors at once. She was looking straight at me, and I knew what I was supposed to do, but my mind was overloading. So she took over.


An hour or so later, we had bought food and drinks and were leaning up against a makeshift fence so as to better enjoy our dining. The girls were laughing about something.

“Do you want to go into the dance tent next?” Vonnie asked.

“Sure,” we two guys said.

The girls went back to whispering to each other, and Garrett said quietly to me, “The dance tent will be perfect. When you can express yourself with your body, you don’t need words.”

“And vice-versa,” I responded glumly.

“What’s up with you? Things seem to be going great.”

“Yeah. They are.”

“But what? You’ve been after her for months.”

I had no answer. Something felt wrong, but I couldn’t say what it was. Several things felt right, too, and those were more easily identified.

“It’s all good,” I responded laughing. “Let’s see how the dance tent goes.”

“Now what are you two laughing about?” Alisa said, suddenly.

“Oh, you know, just boy talk,” Garrett said, innocently.


The girls stopped to get face paint before we went on. Vonnie’s was fairly subtle, but Alisa got a complete makeover. I was, if anything, even more entranced. This whole thing was such a dream-come-true, that part of me kept thinking I was going to wake up suddenly, and it would all be gone.

We paid the extra charge to get into the tent from which loud music was issuing, and walked into a strobe-lighted dance floor, where hundreds of couples were dancing. These were the days before epilepsy hit me.

We danced, and danced, and those two girls looked like they were having the time of their lives. When a slow song came on, and I held her close to me, I felt something I had never really felt before: like the two of us, she and I, had invented human attraction, a thing that was completely new, and that only we knew of.

I was completely taken over by the feeling.


The carnival closed at 1:00 AM; since they both had college classes in the morning, we had to say goodnight out by the cars. I had ridden with Garrett and Alisa had ridden with Vonnie, so tons of privacy wasn’t really an option: in addition, we were all, in spite of everything, trying hard to be good people, as we understood those words.

At 2:30 AM, we watched the lights of Vonnie’s Oldsmobile drive down the winding fairground road, and we headed back to my house. In the car, Garrett (who was the quietest of all my friends) said, “That was fun.”

“Yeah, it was,” I said. “So — did you two make any future plans?”

“Yeah, I’m supposed to call her Thursday and we will set up something for Friday night. You?”

“I’m supposed to call her in the morning and make sure she’s up in time for class.”

“Will you even be awake?” he laughed.

“I doubt I will have gone to sleep,” I answered back, laughing.



Five years later, and I am sitting on the edge of a bed in a small dark room, exactly o.67 miles from the entrance to the fairgrounds.

Vonnie is a emergency room nurse, living in Orlando.

Garrett is an IT programmer, working out of Chicago.

Alisa is clerking for a Federal judge in Atlanta, having graduated 4.0 from Duke Law School.

I am in the mental health wing of our local hospital, having been ravaged for two years by physical illness and depression.

The room is gray and almost empty: they don’t want objects we might hurt ourselves with in here. My roommate is asleep, but he’s on Thorazine, so that’s pretty much all he does. I am struggling to bring up the memory of that night, trying to remember what it was like to feel… anything.

… there were colors on her face, for some reason? is that right?

… i think i remember those lights shining in her eyes, we were on, like, a ferris wheel, right? yeah, that part’s right …

… and she and the other one got their faces painted? and maybe we danced? that can’t be right, i never dance …

… she touched me… i forgot anybody ever did that …

… yeah, we were laughing and touching each other …

… i was like a real human once …

… maybe?

Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying)

From cold and distant mountains came
The news that you were gone;
A thousand stars stood silently,
Upon the edge of speech and thought,
While I — I held you one last time:
A shadow, frail and tiny, not
The storm, the ocean wave
You used to be

And there, amid the midnight chill,
I heard a song like summertime;
Like fireflies, the stars,
Those faithful thanes,
Were swarming overhead
To leave the skies in drops I knew
Had not come from
The eyes I show the world

Tiles

Entering for the first time, we saw a room, big and new, that smelled of newness and spare furniture; its most conspicuous feature was a series of brightly colored tiles covering most of the back wall. These followed no pattern my eyes could make out, but I was fascinated by them: it was as though, even then, my heart knew that art itself resides in the stories we imagine as much or more as any story explicitly told.

Prize, Price, and Prying Eyes

Who were those people anymore to tell her what to do?
She rang the changes as she felt inclined —
What was this bit of foolishness that they said was ‘the true’?
She would not by their rules be so defined —

She set out to reclaim her self;
To live with feeling, and to feel her way.
She needed no permission slip
And took on love as a bioassay —

For she would claim the prize, and be the prize.
The price was jealous talk, and prying eyes,
But all that social nonsense was just so:
It would not shape where she would play, or go.

I wandered into her when I was young,
A part of her experimental phase.
She gave me keys, then took each slowly back,
A few short nights that felt like holidays,

Then I was pushed aside
As she went on for more
A boat with only one
Left stranded on the shore

She went away
I heard the news
Of someone else
She deigned to choose –

But I would not speak ill of her:
There were no lies, no conscious work to hurt.
So I was a philosopher,
I’d my own life to live, to reassert —

Relationships are merely games for those who choose to play them:
And yes, there will be costs, but many merely, simply pay them.
It might feel less than human, but, I did feel human there for just awhile.
For some, amid the storms, find out that they, indeed, become a rheophile —

What moral is there now to this, you say?
Just this: we don’t control the sun or seasons,
And much that happens to us isn’t in us,
For other humans have their sundry reasons
To live and love as they see fit, and when —
And we can only live life now,
Not then