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If I want to pet my cat, who often makes himself conspicuous on my overturned novels, thick crime thrillers with their spines staring mournfully and flashily at the naked ceiling, I lean over. My skinny arm strains and stretches and I can see the muscles ripple beneath pastel, almost anemic skin, my short guitar-player fingers fluttering to just skim the soft tabby head, only to find their groping longing evaded as Major yawns and rolls his pink tongue, and pulls himself into a sulky saunter, headed for the kitchen to gorge himself on Purina cat chow. I wish I could do that: get up and walk away, leaving behind the bundle of barely restrained worries and stressing situations, and that black abyss called anger that I find myself tumbling into every morning. I wake up and for a beautiful moment, I am suspended by that lazy shocked sort of incomprehension, like my mind is getting caffeinated while I reach to smear the gritty sleep from my eyes, and then it happens. No ceremonial procedures, no trumpets and fanfare, no note of warning. I get thrown, gut first, hurtling into an unspeakable terror that I have to live with now. “Burdened by grief” is so overused, but on one hand, it’s true. For me, it is true. My deficiency, my less-than-humanity, is something I drag and carry and curse at every day of my life. But on the other hand, I would give my beating, bloody heart, tear open my chest and rip it from the squirting veins and arteries, to have the ability to hoist a physical burden over my back. My weak, broken back.
I was at a football game. It was the third quarter. I was newly twenty years old, about to graduate with a bachelor’s in Early Child Education, sitting on the bleachers and cheering my team on. I was kind of a nerdy guy back then; brain stuffed with facts and a ready smile surrounded by pimples. People liked me and I liked people, and football. And popcorn, which I was holding in one hand and stuffing myself with the other. Funny thing I’ve noticed about football games, going to them since, is that nobody cares who they are or how they sound or what they’re wearing by the end of halftime. They’re done popping soda can tabs and pulling their T-shirts over too-tight jeans. They’re done peering over their shoulder at the guy behind them screaming “Call a timeout, you (and here might be a curse), call a timeout!” They’re done liking themselves or caring how much other people like them. That coursing adrenaline, that tangible sensation of win win win, that blast of sweat and chugging breath and cracking helmets in a pile of grass-slicked jerseys, has addicted them. They cram food into their mouths and actually notice the taste, they try and explain the logistics of football to their sticky-faced kids instead of keeping them from conking other people with toy guns. If they have the impulse to leap to their feet and cheer when their team is doing good, they jump. If they want more food, they spend their money on chili-laden hot dogs and salty popcorn that leaves long tire marks of grease on their jeans.
I’m glad it didn’t happen in the first quarter, maybe the second. Certainly glad it didn’t happen during halftime; too many people would have been distracted by bathroom breaks, zipping up their jackets, getting more food, slapping friends on the back or listening with mouths hanging open stupidly, listening to that blaring siren of the marching band playing the national anthem. Nope, I was lucky in the simple, devastating fact that it happened during the third quarter.
I remember tasting popcorn. I think it was flying out of my mouth in slobbery bits of puke yellow as our team snagged a touchdown and everybody was leaping to their feet, clapping, screaming, everybody’s breath hot on my neck. I’d put down my wet bag of buttery popcorn and was shoving my glasses into my eyes as I jumped, lean malnourished frame coiling into the sunburned sky, feeling the early autumn rays scrape against my shoulder blades, and for a glorious, eternal moment…I was flying. Soaring right over that stadium and over the shiny heads of the football players. Maybe I closed my eyes because somehow, my soul caught wind of my oncoming tragedy and scooted away from it, retreated from the icy corridors of reality, and was hurled into the sky for one last gulp of palpable freedom, one last huzzah to the world I had known, one last regretful glance over my shoulder through a door I was pulling closed behind me.
I fell. Beautifully, gloriously, slowly, I fell.
It doesn’t matter that I don’t know how someone jumping to pump his fists at the touchdown could trip on the bleacher right in front of him. I wasn’t even a clumsy person. It was one of those things, people told me, a freak accident. How many news reports do you see about people tumbling down bleachers? And sure, things like that happen, but why did it have to be me? I was close to graduating, happy at the game my team was winning, going to take my girlfriend to Olive Garden that night. I didn’t deserve what happened to me. I was a nice guy; I got good grades, never touched drugs, that sort of thing. I had committed no sin heavy enough to send me flying through the blue sky but like I said: it just happened. It’s just one of those things.
I remember a cheer being strangled in the throats of a couple bodies around me. I fell headlong into the space between two denim-covered rear ends and people were gasping, jolting away from me, screaming once it registered in their gray cells that hey, a guy was actually falling. Not a three year-old kid, toddling from his mother’s protective hands, and not some glitzy teenaged girl distracted by the txt on her cell phone. Your ordinary household guy, his body inexplicably grabbed from the metal bleacher bench and tossed randomly into the air. The players on the field were just running around glorifying their victory, people still clapping, only the bodies around me jerking to get out of my way. Ironic, that they moved away from me.
Contrary to common belief, made up by people who’ve never had a near-death experience, I didn’t see my whole life pass before my eyes. I got no heavenly revelation. I was flailing my arms and my eyes were wincing as I watched the shadow of my glasses, the dark patch on sunny bleacher thin and pathetic, fling in front of me as if that one tiny shadow, that one eerie concept of destruction, was parting the churning waters like the Red Sea and dragging me into breathless depths. I thought, man, this is going to mess up my date. And then the panic struck. I have never felt panic like that, never will again if I can help it. I thought, this is the end. I am never going to be the same again. I stopped feeling the warmth of a sunburn on my snub nose, stopped trying to catch myself after I realized I couldn’t. My heart was in contractions, sobbing and busying itself with being horrified, my brain hating the people who let me fall and just gasped, staring like goldfish, moving away from me as if to protect their fat hearts from painful, stark, black-and-white reality. My soul was plunged beneath the waves and I felt ice cold. Cold so intense it felt like the time I almost got hypothermia on vacation in Quebec; only this time it was worse because I couldn’t bypass this like I did hypothermia. There would be no soothing broth or warm mommy hands to save me this time.
In the middle of my black panic, smelling stale old woman perfume and popcorn and cigarette smoke, I screamed the name of God but I’m not sure why. I wasn’t cursing Him; I didn’t need curse words because I had a large vocabulary of proper insults. I think my very spirit had been pushed on the brink of nonexistence and it was a long, hoarse, sobbing cry, torn from the pit of my chest, wrenching up from my stomach and bursting with ferocious emotion, a last frenzied shriek into the boiling black meaninglessness of being. A plea for God’s hand to break the fuzzy clouds and save me.
I ducked my head between my knees and my spine bore the brunt of coming down on hard cement and metal bleacher. All feeling in my spine blinked out, like an old television set turning off. I flopped, rolled, bounced, only half with it. My body was hiccupping down, down, and being broken but my soul had somehow detached itself. It was something I have never been able to understand. My soul hovered, in stasis, above my bloodied corpse tumbling and being caught by disgusted hands of people calling for medics or dialing 911 out of sheer, jarred desperation. I was watching myself be destroyed and if souls could feel temperature, I would have been buried in shuddering, blankly cold horror.
I have never walked again.
I can hear Major meow for more chow from the kitchen, and wearily I push myself down the hallway, listening to the swish of wheelchair tires on the cherry wood. People have asked me if I had any regrets about that fateful day, as if I was incapable of regret after the day itself, while lying flat on an unfamiliar hospital bed or groaning during therapy. I don’t regret that God did not catch me; I don’t even regret that I went to the football game. I think I regret filling my mouth with popcorn right before my fall. Somehow, seeing flecks of puffy yellow corn come shooting from between my lips took the poetic tragedian angle off my life-changing happening, my step through a door, exiting everything I had known. It was as if life as I knew it stopped with my tragedy and a new life, filled with pain and rage and dark oblivion, had replaced my comforts.
But if I were meant to die, it would have happened that day. I live out of defiance. My girlfriend comes to see me every night. I just wish I didn’t have to reach up and she have to bend down for a kiss. I know now what I couldn’t have guessed before; life is a fall. We are all hurtling through a blue sky, not knowing where we’ll land and almost panicked to find out, just in case we might hurt ourselves. I don’t regret my fall because I will never land until this life, this new pained life, is cut off.
We are all falling. Maybe I know what the physical shock of that is, but we all do it. I will die eventually…but not just yet. I want to find out why I called on God at that pivotal point in my life, that snatch of suspended time stepping from one side of the door to the other and feeling it slam behind my shoulders.
Until then I will beautifully, gloriously, slowly, fall.