Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Leap

-- For Pam, on our twenty-fifth anniversary.

A lot of things happened that first year when I met her in Ecuador, and I can still play back the scenes. The night with the full moon on the boat in the Galapagos, when the crew caught lobsters and steamed them for supper. The walks with her in the late afternoon by the ruined hacienda house below my parents’ place north of Quito, watching the sun disappear behind the snowcaps. We listened to the Cumbia bands in the clubs downtown and danced into the morning. We parked on the overlook below the Guayasamín gallery on a crystal-clear night with a million lights glittering in the valley and stars falling out of the sky. We drank Argentine wine on the patio of a tiny restaurant by a baroque cathedral in Cuenca -- it was early evening, nobody else there -- on the day she bought me the white Panama hat and the gold chain. There was the time I got stranded behind some angry strikers burning tires on the Panamerican Highway and I broke a date with her and couldn’t call and she thought it was a lame excuse. (I should have just walked around the burning tires and the
manifestantes and caught a bus into the city.) There was the cloudy afternoon when I bought a ring in a shop by the Palacio and the jeweler who promised he knew English made a typo in the inscription and engraved it “Allwas yours.” And the night she insisted we go visit Señor Parche after his wife died, and we sat with Señor Parche in his living room with the maroon upholstery covered neatly in clear plastic, and the old man wept and she hugged him and cried too.

There was all that. And then this: I leave the flower stand with a dozen red roses and a spring in my step. I cross Avenida América and head up Villalengua, never breaking my stride as the street goes steep on the slope of Pichincha. It’s a crisp afternoon in Quito.

I stop in front of her apartment, but my finger hesitates on the doorbell. I coif my hair with my hands and loosen my tie just so. Then I ring. There’s no answer. I am pretty sure she’s in there. I ring again. I wonder if something is wrong.

I step back on the street. Then a bright balloon filled with water descends from the roof. It splats on my head, drenching my face and my clothes and the roses and all. The water is like melting snow and I shiver in the Andean air.

“Hey! It’s Carnival, Mister!” She calls down from the roof. I’m startled at her voice but it’s like music and I look up at her. I’m a little mad but I think she’s the most beautiful creature, with the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. A minute later I’m inside drying off and getting warm. She lays some eucalyptus logs on the fire.

A month later I cross over to her side of a candlelit table at the
Terraza del Tartaro and look down at the city lights. I pause for a moment, then take her hand and I’m an idiot and have no idea what I’m doing. I leap off a cliff into thin air and ask her to spend a lifetime with me. She says sure, why not.

* * *

We got married in a Presbyterian Church on a muggy August day in Miami in 1983. We drove away through the rice in her dad’s ancient black Delta 88 – it would be cool now – and at the hotel in Bal Harbor I forgot to leave the keys for the valet parking guy. The manager sent champagne up to the room but otherwise wouldn’t disturb our night, so the car sat in the hotel driveway till morning. The bellhops gave me grief, but when they saw her they were jealous and rolled their eyes. Then we flew off to Jamaica.

In Ocho Rios we woke up with the sun and drank Blue Mountain coffee in bed. We played chess on the porch and watched ponies running in the surf. We snorkeled in the azure sea with the fish of every color until afternoon and then climbed up a waterfall. We walked by a pink house that was Noel Coward’s and ate dinner in a fragrant garden, sipped rum and danced to a Reggae band on the white sand under the stars. I remember her laughing and laughing.

Back in Miami we bought a luggage rack for the top of the Olds to make room for all her stuff. Then we headed up I-95 to New Haven, Connecticut, and the rest of our lives.

At the reception in the President’s Room in Woolsey Hall, I introduced her around. Professor Erikson took one look at her, then turned to me and said, “Young man, even if you never finish your dissertation, I’d say your fieldwork in Ecuador was a smashing success.”

* * *

On Christmas Eve in New Haven there was snow on the way. “I have to run an errand,” she said. “Come with me.” I climbed into the passenger side of her 1970 yellow VW bug, her pride and joy.

“Where are we going?” I asked. She drove through the Yale campus, then west down Dixwell and into the poorest neighborhoods of New Haven. We passed blocks of once-handsome Victorian cottages boarded up and tumbling down and marred with graffiti. She parked in a housing project by a huddle of young men who looked to me like gang members.

“We’re not getting out here,” I warned.

“I am,” she said. “I know these guys. There’s a couple of families here that I visit and I got them something.”

I stayed in the car. She reached in the back and pulled out a shopping bag. It was full of small boxes wrapped in Santa Claus paper and silver ribbons. She got out and approached the young men. She talked and joked with them for awhile. She was wearing her blue Visiting Nurse uniform with a badge.

The young men called her by name. They smiled when they saw the gifts. “Thank you,” they said. “Merry Christmas to you too.”

Then the snow fell and covered the empty wine bottles in the street.

* * *

The crash happened on a cold, wet day in October, 2002, in my forty-fifth year. I left Chapel Hill in a torrent of rain that morning, and by the time I turned onto Whitfield I couldn't see the road. Maybe I should have stopped, but I kept driving through the storm and then my mind wandered and I starting thinking about all the things I thought about: I’m in the second half of life and what does it amount to? What would become of our children? There was so much work to do and I didn't have tenure and my grants weren't getting funded. And my marriage . . . Why were we like this? What happens to people?

On the turn down the hill before Whitfield meets Erwin, there was water flowing over the roadbed, and my car hydroplaned and spun out of control. I went off the highway and smashed head-on into a utility pole. The impact of the crash broke the pole and it came down and the power lines fell, too.

I was injured in the crash. Five ribs were broken and my spleen was shattered and I had a lung contusion. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I saw smoke coming from the hood of the car and power lines dangling just beyond the windshield. I managed to crawl out the window. I thought that I might die.

It seemed like a long time before anyone came. A man stopped and approached me. He kneeled in the downpour and held my head and comforted me. He told me that help was on the way. I remember thinking I was putting the man in danger because of the fallen power lines and the gas leaking from the car. Finally the police and the ambulance arrived and the man disappeared; I never saw him again. The paramedics worked on me by the roadside. They put an oxygen mask on my face and started an IV in my arm. They braced my neck and my head and loaded me on a gurney. One of the men took my wallet and got the phone number and called the house.

On the way into Duke Hospital, I coughed blood and felt excruciating pain. In the ER there were nurses and doctors hovering over me, but I felt terrified and alone. And then she walked in -- like she owned the place. It was the most amazing thing. She was as calm and collected as the experienced ER nurse she had once been. She wore her Duke Medical Center badge and found the attending physician and asked him "what was the verdict." He told her they were working up some internal injuries. He said they would do an MRI and then take me straight into surgery. She came to my side, leaned down and kissed my cheek. She smiled and held my hand. She said the doctor would put a tube down my throat in a minute and then I would fall asleep and the pain would stop.

“You’ll be fine, Mister,” she said. “I love you.”

* * *

It seemed like a good idea at the time. We were in Ft. Lauderdale at the beach with the kids and it was August 20, 2008.

“Let’s drive down and have lunch at that hotel in Bal Harbor,” I said. “It was twenty-five years ago today -- Mom and I got married and we went there on our wedding night.”

We piled everybody into the rented minivan, loaded Angela’s wheelchair in the back, and headed down I-95 in another soaking tropical storm. On the way, I told them the story of leaving Grandpa’s Oldsmobile in the hotel driveway with no keys in it.

“Arriving at destination!” said the disembodied voice with a British accent from the GPS box.

“Where is it, Dad?” Matt asked.

There was a hole in the ground where the hotel had once stood. I stared at piles of concrete rubble and recalled the eighth-floor balcony where we had sipped champagne and gazed out at the lighted pool with the palm trees and the vast Atlantic Ocean beyond. A quiet night that spoke of infinite possibilities.

In the lobby of the next condo over, I asked the doorman if he remembered the hotel. “Oh, they tore that down just a few months ago,” he said. “But they’re building a new one on the beach here. It’s going to be spectacular. That land was too valuable for something so dated.”

* * *

I walk back out to the minivan through the rain and suddenly we’re young again. We’re sitting on a park bench at the edge of a village green. It's a dappled summer afternoon in a tiny town in New Hampshire. The yellow 1970 VW bug is parked on the street behind us. We’re on our way back from a jazz festival in Saratoga Springs with our friend Jeff Leifer, and we’ve just stopped to get something to eat. Leifer is joking around and we’re laughing. And then we notice a solitary old man, slowly making his way across the green. He is gray and stooped and carries a walking stick. He’s wearing a sweater and a flat wool cap in the summer. The old man gets closer and then he looks straight at us -- meets our eyes and sees that we’ve been watching him. He walks on by, towards another park bench, and we think maybe he’ll sit down. But he just stops for a moment, looks back at us, takes a flying leap over the bench and clears it by a mile.

* * *

Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert
-- Isaiah 35:6

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