Monday, October 10, 2005

The Oldest Story

Exactly two days ago I was taking stock of an irrational decision I had yet again committed myself to. It seems I was skittering down a narrow country route, in eastern New York, bravely fording a fresh Hudson River tributary, formerly a road, in what was the worst weather I had seen all year. My SUV was being attacked by columns of heavy rain and the road (what was left of it, again) was innocent of street light, making this trip especially brainless in retrospect. It was only 6:30 in the evening yet there wasn't another car in sight. And all this for what? For a beer. No, not just for a beer; for a beer and a meeting in a slimy bar with two relations, only one of them amorous. I was cursing myself aloud, wondering very deeply what the hell I was doing hydro-planing in this unsturdy 1997 Ford Explorer, at my advanced speed, in terrible weather on a hash of a country road.

You're a real idiot for this, you know. You have to pull over and let this pass. You could crash the car out here and they wouldn't find you till tomorrow. Maybe later than that. PULL OVER.

Anyway, I made it. I didn't pull over and I didn't crash the car either, but I considered very seriously the reasonability of both. The decision to keep going was mine alone and if it all ended badly, well, whose fault was that? I could accept the accumulating danger as long as I had a choice in the matter. Now place all this alongside the experience of my co-worker, a pleasant young man of equal age, whose mother was instantly killed in a car wreck here less than two weeks ago. I did; I thought about this woman's death, plus the possibility of my own, as the Explorer lost all purchase with the road on that flooded Saturday night. She had been driving very early in the morning along a west-to-east interstate route, from Poughkeepsie to Danbury, Conn., or perhaps some indistinct point between. The car was struck from behind by a driver in the left lane -- a thoughtless girl, only twenty-three, sleep-deprived, careless -- and was propelled forward across two lanes of oncoming traffic from its original place on the right, fish-tailing, swerving, flipping, disintegrating. The next morning's newspaper framed it starkly: in the feature photo, dropped dead-center, was an overturned slab of metal embedded in a grassy depression on the interstate highway's shoulder; it was difficult to locate the ghost of the car anywhere in this picture. It was very bad.

Most of us will continue to be lucky in matters of life and death. The people we love will not be ruthlessly taken away. Our time here will not be unexpectedly cut short. We must all experience loss, yes, but not so sudden -- above all not so painfully sudden. Our entire health-care industry is dedicated to the banality of death: the slow decay; the gradual slipping away; the final goodbye in the hospice. Without this kind of preparation, death defies all forms of explanation. Collaterally, it makes life seem hapless and random. When my brother returned from Iraq after a tour of more than a year he was graciously unscarred. I never contemplated for even a second what it would feel like to see a newspaper photo injuncting me to live life without him, to pick up the pieces after that kind of inexpressible grief. Now this young man, my co-worker, must do just that. When I saw him last I was confronted with the possibility that I would never be ready for that type of death, for an absence of choice or preparation in the most severe circumstance confronting a human being. I wanted to be comforting. I didn't know what to say but I tried. I think I attempted to offer Shakespeare or John Donne but they were insufficient, so I stopped myself before sounding like a fool. Hemingway was the same thing. Yeats too.

The only reason I write this now, in what could fairly be construed, I agree, as a criminal attempt to insinuate myself into someone else's personal pain, is the fact that a) the car wreck story is public knowledge, and b) enough time has past to allow me to weigh my words infinitely better than I could ever chance to speak them. I had hoped to understand, in plotting out this essay, what this poor person could be going through, but that is elusive and maybe even impossible, as I now realize. Writers today talk as if they're confronting the possibility of occupational obsolescence: they say the language, via technology, is changing too fast to commit to posterity. How can one capture a fluid reality when the words don't even exist to define it? But they forget another side: the evergreen failure of these words and narratives to conquer, let alone describe, the elemental facts of life and death. In moments of incredible pain, the receding power of language and words to combat ugly randomness, not the corrective power of art, remains the story most familiar.

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