Saturday, January 18, 2014

Imagine, If You Will...

The hurt came on gradually. (It wasn’t pain. I had yet to experience real pain, although I didn’t realize that at the time.) It built upon itself until it was intense enough that I limped badly, and one arm hung lifelessly at my side. Still, I trudged along, towing the wagon behind me, and tossing newspapers, as best I could, onto porches. I had a job to do, and it would be done. It was slow going, given that I had really only one usable arm, but I was nearing the end. I was covering for open routes that were adjacent to my own, and so was delivering many more papers than usual that day. Dimly, in the back of my mind, I realized that my friend was likely going to get to the house before I got back. We had planned for him to come to me, for once, rather than I make the trek to his place. But what had been cause for considerable excitement earlier in the day was now a secondary consideration.

When I finally made it back home, I pulled the wagon far enough into the yard that it was clear it belonged at our house, and left it there, dragging myself up onto the porch with no other thought than lying down. My ankle and my arm were throbbing, and all I knew was that I didn’t know why. My little sister met me at the door.

“Your friend is in the hospital,” she said.

“That’s. Not. Funny.” I snarled, through gritted teeth. I didn’t know what she was up to, only that I had exactly zero time for it.

“No! Seriously!” she protested, as I pushed past her and headed to my room. “Mom!”

When my father came in, I was stretched out on my bed in a fog. His entrance barely registered.

“What’s the matter, June Bug?”

“I’m alright,” I mumbled in a blatant show of youthful deceit. “I think I hurt myself.”

“Where does it hurt?”

With my good arm, I pointed to my ankle and forearm.

“Your friend,” my father told me, “Was hit by a car on the way here. He’s in the hospital. Would you like to go see him?”

I nodded, even though, realistically, I couldn’t see myself even getting out of bed at that point. I couldn’t even muster up the sense of alarm that such a revelation should have triggered. My father frowned for a moment.

Seemingly apropos of nothing, he said, “Your grandmother believes that she has the ability to heal people.”

“My grandmother,” I reminded him, “Believes that people’s hairstyle choices are influenced by ‘the Devil’.” (Despite the fact that I was still nominally Catholic at this point, the Devil was a sore point with me - especially where my grandmother was concerned. It would be a few years before my skepticism about Satan would result in conflicts with my classmates, and from there to me formally dropping the religion I’d been raised in, and replacing it with a dour, misanthropic and mildly militant atheism.)

Normally, I would have paid for such open disrespect of my grandmother and her religiosity, but my father let it slide. He pulled up a chair next to my bed and gently took hold of my ankle in both hands. I don’t remember how long it took, although it seemed like just a short time; but the hurt subsided, then faded, and then ceased altogether. While I was still trying to work out what, exactly, had just happened, he took hold of my arm, and did the same.

“Feel better?” he asked.

“Yeah...” I said, not really understanding what was going on.

My father drove me to the hospital to see my friend. He’d been unable to find his way directly to our house, and while searching the neighborhood for the correct street, been struck by a patrolling police car at an uncontrolled intersection. (When I found the spot later, there were visible marks in the asphalt from where his bicycle had been pushed along the pavement. And I realized that I’d crossed that very intersection earlier, with a wagon full of newspapers. It was part of the open routes that I had been covering the day of the accident.) When we got to the hospital, my friend was sleeping off sedation. Among other injuries, his arm had been broken and his ankle separated.

I was confused. My father, who had known the extent of my friend’s injuries when I had come home from my paper route, didn’t say anything, and I couldn’t come up with any intelligent sounding questions to ask. I was having difficulty processing it all. Just a couple hours before, I had been hurting in the same places. It didn’t make any sense. ESP and all that stuff wasn’t real. It was just trickery that people on television did. You know, the kind of fakery that got people to tune into That’s Incredible.

My father than I never again talked about my grandmother’s supposed ability to heal people, or the fact that, apparently, it ran in the family. It was also the last time that he ever actively moved to soothe me when I was hurt; he reverted to the “real men are tough” position that I’d become accustomed to. I never really came to terms with whether I believed in physical empathy or not. There were a number of times in my teens and early twenties when I experienced what seemed for all the world like sympathetic pain, but without any knowing, before its onset that the other person was hurting. I always chalked it up to coincidence, because how would you ever confirm such a thing? “Okay, here’s the plan - we’re going to become friends and then at some random point, someone is going to injure you painfully, and we’ll see if I can feel it before I actually find out what happened.” Yeah. I could just imagine trying to get that past an ethics committee.

Every so often, I would talk about it with people; whenever we were discussing strange or unexplainable things. I always hoped that someone would come up with a “reasonable” explanation, but one was never forthcoming. A few people were critical of my holding on to skepticism in light of what really did look like evidence that strange things were afoot. And I have to admit that there were times where it did seem more like denial than anything else.

The world is a big place, even leaving aside the sheer size of the Earth. I know, intellectually, that I’ll never be able to experience, understand or explain all of it. Some things are just going to be mysteries. But I also know that I’ll always want to know, that I’ll always want everything to fit together nicely and neatly into a workable pattern that explains everything. And perhaps not coincidentally, tells me that I really see things as they are. But I know that I don’t see the world as it is. I see it as I experience it. And that those experiences sometimes rock the boat. I think I hold onto this story because I’ve learned to value that rocking, and the sense of wonder that goes with it. Perhaps it’s time that I learned to cultivate it, and again open my eyes.

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