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The Dying of the Light
Mine is a jaded story. It has been told a hundred times, a thousand times, in poetry and prose, lyric and verse. But it is new to me and as such adds a hard-edged tinge of reality to my perception of its significance. It’s funny. You hear these things all the time and no one thinks twice. Great inspirational piece, we think. Nice story. Messed-up bloke gets his life back together. Makes up with his mom. Good for him. Great for him, even.
But it’s different when the story’s about you. Suddenly, everything matters. It’s not the sob story of some stranger halfway around the world who speaks a funny language and wears funny clothes. It’s your own life you’re scrutinizing through the distended belly of a magnifying glass.
I pick the feather up off the ground and twirl the pearly shaft between my fingers. It’s ordinary enough. Speckled gray and white. Slightly bent. Honestly, it’s the sort of thing people with happy lives and trifling concerns bypass with indifference, blissfully unaware that they’ve just missed one of life’s small miracles. But I’m beyond the cares of ordinary life. When you’ve passed the point of desperation, you reach a plateau of sorts, a resting place of silence where you notice things like forgotten feathers. Locked in the eye of the storm, the world is terribly, wonderfully silent.
I continue down the trail slowly, plucking objects from their resting places as I go. An oddly shaped leaf here, a bending fern there. A long, serrated blade of grass. A daisy. I fold the stems in my palm, twisting distractedly until I look down and realize I’m holding a wilted corsage of grass and weeds, diversified here and there with the odd flower or feather.
So precious, I think, surveying my handiwork. So beautiful. And then, So fragile, so transient.
A thought flits across my mind:
Maybe what makes life so precious is its very transience.
I flinch. Whoa, I think. At least take Metaphysics 101 before you start waxing philosophical. I almost want to glance around me to make sure no one has heard my thoughts. I’m not the type of guy who goes around talking about fragility and transience and deep, soul-searching philosophy. But those philosophers are the ones who are supposed to have all the answers, right? The Big Three, them with their enlarged crania and swanky togas: Plato, Aristotle, Socrates. They’re the ones who are supposed to have it all together. Aren’t they?
The sun reaches long fingers through the woods, lacing the leaves with gold and playing across the branches and trunks. I actually pause and notice this. Which is weird. For me, at least. In a few minutes, I arrive at Gibson’s Cross, a solemn rock formation named for the man who discovered it and the strangely ecclesiastical profile created by the gray stone: roughly the shape of a cross. The trail down to Gibson’s has sat here for decades, a mere furlong from the house I grew up in. Still, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve ventured down its scarred track. I was always too busy playing videogames and hanging out with friends down at the arcade to bother with nature. When I was twelve, nature would always be around. Super Mario and Pac Man, on the other hand, demanded my undivided attention.
The afternoon sun explodes in a nimbus of bloody red around the cross’s outstretched arms. Feeling religious, feeling desperate, feeling slightly awkward but not really caring, I kneel down in the fallen leaves. Here I am now at the zenith of life, a successful, respected businessman with a promising career, the proud owner of a 2012 Buick Regal, a 32” LCD flatscreen, an upscale apartment in downtown Chicago, in full retention of my hairline, my waist size, and my teeth, kneeling in the mud.
See, I waited too long. There was a big project at work, and then another, and then another. I kept putting it off. I kept telling myself I would get it checked later. Later, later, later, always later. Later and later until it was too late. Until words like “terminal” and “six to twelve months” suddenly sagged with new meaning.
* * *
I hightailed it out of Baylis as soon as I graduated high school. Eighteen years old and off into the wide world. I wasn’t running away from the small town lifestyle like my buddies. I was running away from my mother.
My mother. Oi vey, my mother. Poor woman. She’s never been gifted in the delicate savoir-faire of basic etiquette. She’s never been gifted in much of anything, to be honest, unless it means sprawling on the couch watching pointless Animal Planet documentaries on the television. Not smart, not beautiful, not charming. As I said, not much of anything, unless you’re counting in pounds. Her social gaffes are notorious, like when she compared Mrs. Hollycross’s plum pudding to raw sewage or instructed her fifth grade class to write a paragraph on “why Democrats are going to H-E-double hockey sticks.” The school laid her off the next semester, claiming a tight budget. Everyone else knew it was because the principal’s inbox had more emails from angry parents than MTV, Howard Stern, and Eminem put together.
I couldn’t stand her. I couldn’t stand the obnoxious red lipstick she wore or the heavy perfume she spritzed beneath her pits. I couldn’t stand how she liked to gather me into her chest and squeeze until I could hardly breathe. I couldn’t stand how she insisted on packing me nice little homemade lunches instead of letting me buy cafeteria pizza like the other boys.
I would make her drop me off half an hour early in middle school so the other kids wouldn’t see me with her. Once, at a baseball game, I hit a home run, a beautiful, glorious hit that thrummed through my entire body. As I jogged around the bases, my mother stood up in the stands and hollered like a maniac. When people began asking who the woman in the fuchsia shirt was, I looked the other way.
After I left for college, I never looked back. Never called her. Never wrote to her. Never spoke of her. To my new college friends, I was a boy sprung from the earth motherless. I didn’t even invite her to my graduation.
But now, as I sit here and watch the sun slowly descend behind Gibson’s Cross, I’m painfully aware that this loud, proud, obstinate, opinionated woman would sacrifice her life for mine without a moment’s hesitation. Were there a death by proxy clause in my sentence, she would sign her name in blood over mine.
And I’m embarrassed by her.
* * *
The wet earth darkens my pants knees. The leaves beneath me have rotted into a pulp, their brilliant colors replaced with dull brown. What kind of world is this where death rules ascendant, trumping life at every turn? Everyone is familiar with the question, “What would you do if you had one year to live?” We all have our respective answers. Spend time with family, we say. Go to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Swim with sharks. Skydive. Free climb Devil’s Tower. We’d cram all of life that we possibly could into that short period of time. Why? Because that’s all we have left.
Normally, we spend our lives fighting, journeying, wrestling, trekking over years and years of existence, desperately trying to have a “good life.” We want to be able to look back ten or twenty or fifty years from now and nod our heads in satisfaction, bask in some well-deserved amour-propre. But sometimes seventy or eighty years is too long. “Live like we’re dying” is our mantra. That’s what we say. But who actually lives like that? Not to sound didactic or anything.
The sliver of the sun emits a few final, determined rays. As Gibson’s Cross settles into blackness, I know what I’m going to do with my time left. I feel impelled back up the trail. I want to apologize to her, tell her how sorry I am. I picture her alone in her little house with its shag carpet and claustrophobic ceilings. I can see her humming the jingle from some old radio ad, sashaying around the kitchen with an invisible partner, bellowing suggestions at the contestants on Wheel of Fortune. I know that a few hundred yards away, she’ll be waiting for me with arms wide open, beam spreading across her face, ready to forget the last decade of neglect.
For this brief moment, I allow myself to wax philosophical. I think, It takes death to discover the allure of life. Mine is a jaded story. But it is new to me.
Behind Gibson’s Cross, the sun sets.