When I was in grade school, we played outside at recess. Hilldale Elementary had a small playground and a forever-scape of dirt and grass that we turned into our warzones, dragon lairs, and Super Bowl gridirons. A dormant but deep sinkhole sat on the north edge near Highway EE, and that’s where I was headed when the lightning cut out of the clouds. It was one of those bolts that carried its thunderclap on its nose, and for the noise it made, a bomb might as well have dropped on my head. Instead, because I was a pre-teen doofus, I jumped in the air, pulled my knee to my face, and knocked my nose sideways. My nose is still crooked, and I still know lightning doesn’t have to strike on target to hurt like hell.
Something looked different about Linda.
It’s been more than a decade since she started handling my finances. We handle most things online. I see her this time every year to settle my business and personal taxes. When I went to her office yesterday, I was struck by a niggling suspicion that something was wrong. She’d stopped coloring her hair. She looked tired.
I was distracted, worried about how much I was going to have to pay, whether I could get in a run before dinner, and every other silly thing that goes along with life as an adult. She asked if my family was planning any big vacations for the year. I babbled about my finances, and then asked her what she trips had planned.
“We usually go somewhere after tax season, but I don’t think we can this year,” she said. She drifted off and looked at my returns on her dual monitors.
“Why not?” I said.
I heard the words leave my mouth just as my brain figured out what was different about Linda.
She had no breasts.
“Oh, Linda,” I said.
Three months ago, she went to the doctor for an ear infection. Something seemed off, and her doctor sent her to a cardiologist. That doctor found a mass, and together they elected for the surgery.
“Don’t go to the doctor for a ear infection,” she said with a half-smile, and then went back to working on my K-1.
MONSTER IN THE FIELD
Last week, police say a man named Craig Wood snatched a ten-year-old girl named Hailey Owens from a neighborhood street on the west side of Springfield, Missouri. Wood, a stranger to Owens, then allegedly shot her in the base of the skull, put her in a bag, and hid her in a plastic tub. When I wrote about it, I took a modicum of comfort in the fact that such crimes were exceptionally rare. I called them lightning strikes without a god to blame for them.
The crime shook the Springfield community in a way few have. Thousands of people took to the streets in the hope of finding some peace in the kind of rare crime that will haunt a city forever.
When you have a career in news, desensitizing yourself to tragedy is a survival skill. You learn to turn off your heart to the daily earthquakes humanity inflicts on itself. I don’t know how many dead bodies I saw in my day, and I’m grateful for that. I moved away from Springfield more than 20 years ago, and I still felt my stomach clench every time I saw a new part of the Hailey Owens story come out.
As children, we feared bogeymen who would snatch us off the street. As adults, we fear what might come up from our guts, attack our insides, and confuse our brains. The rest of the time, we think about how those same invisible creatures might take our friends away from us.
Last month, in the span of a few days, the following things happened: a person I know committed suicide. A guy who went to my high school was arrested for murder in a Texas ghost town. Two of my friends died of cancer. It felt like a veritable field of lightning where every strike tore holes through my eardrums and shook the ground at my feet. It made me wonder which was worse: the fear of losing someone to a monster, or the sadness that inevitably follows.
And then I went to finish my taxes.
Linda is worried about the chemo. Six years ago, her mother struggled through it.
“I don’t want that,” she said, shaking her head.
The doctor has convinced her the chemo treatments have improved and that they could save her life. It’s tax season, though, and this is when she has to work. She literally can’t afford to be sick.
“I’ll do chemo on Fridays,” she said, but then as if just thinking of it herself, “but I do returns on Saturdays sometimes.”
She nodded again, as if saying to herself, “I’ll get through it, because I have to get through it.”
“I’ll be thinking about you,” I said when I left. Linda smiled and thanked me. I haven’t stopped thinking about her since. She was handling her cancer with a southern woman’s strength and poise that I couldn’t help but admire. It was like the lightning had struck, and she had managed to grab it with her hand and hold it tight.
There is a certain freedom in being a child. You’re expected to run with abandon, be careless, and live like tomorrow is as sure as today’s sunrise. That’s how it should be, no matter how dark the sky gets.
As adults, however, we know the dark skies mean more than hidden sunshine. We know they’re going to slam down on the people we love, and then eventually crush us, too. It scares us, this existential indifference and inevitable end we’ll all meet.
We leave the playground, and as adults we bandy our responsibilities while keeping a close eye the rolling gray in the sky. We worry about taxes, careers, schools, mortgages, and retirement plans. When something starts to look odd, we pretend like it’s something else, sometimes until it’s too late, and, too often, we do it alone.
I think about the people who’ve been struck around me: Frank check-raising with a weak flush draw, Texas Scott donning a tiara and laughing like a loon, Chris clipping coupons and proudly getting 60 cents off on chicken breasts. They were people I played with beneath the clouds. Their deaths have shaken me, but they also remind me of the power of childhood. Maybe life is not so much in its potential or its end, but in how much of its games, music, art, and friendships we can harness. Maybe that’s the only shield that can protect us.
Back on the playground at Hilldale, we grabbed hands and pulled each other into the field. Even as the teachers yelled at us to come in from the storm, we sprinted and laughed and dared the sky to explode. It was a child’s courage, but courage nonetheless. Maybe that was how it was meant to be.
Linda believes she is going to be okay. I’m going to believe that with her. To not would be to disrespect the bravery she’s discovered in a place I’ve not yet found.
* Linda’s name has been changed to protect her privacy.