Mountain climber faces test of courage more difficult than reaching the summit.
|"The Wells Creek Route" was published in "The Rambler" and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Please visit my website www.askwritefish.com. My novel "Where the River Splits" has received many excellent reviews.
The Wells Creek Route
by Jeff May (Jeffrey Penn May)
Everything about this story is real; that is, it actually happened and I am trying to relate the events to you as accurately as I can. If you don’t believe me, look at a map of the Wind River Range in Wyoming, find Wells Creek. I could rename it; I could rename myself and my climbing friend John Zavgren, give us fake names, give us large muscles, glittery teeth, and shining hair. But that would be inaccurate. Zavgren’s hair isn’t nearly as shiny as mine, even with all my premature gray. Lying used to be easy for me, and even now I would love to twist the truth a little, but some stories need to be told as they happened.
After the Wells Creek route, I felt compelled to understand why I seek arduous climbs to solitary peaks. In doing so, my thoughts centered on my Dad, the World War II hero, having earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts. He didn’t talk much about the war but my brothers and I proudly took his war medals to school, telling our own stories about how he captured a huge Nazi flag and liberated the concentration camps. When our turn came to fight in a war and be heroes, the politicians served up Vietnam and, though we would have gone, none of us volunteered. We gladly accepted our high draft numbers. After the last soldier in Vietnam escaped with his life, if not pride, Dad began telling us about his war, how his luck held when he was lying in a ditch with his dead friends. A full moon lit the bodies white and he lay there waiting for the Germans to pass, listening to them empty rounds thudding into their corpses -- he clawed his way out and ran. At that moment a lone cloud in the otherwise cloudless night slid in front of the moon and blackened the landscape, the Germans fired wildly into the dark as he escaped into the woods. War stories leaked out of him bit by bit over the years, shrapnel in the head, holding the wounded colonel who begged him not to leave, blood all over, vomiting, hands shaking, antitank shell thudding at his feet. Just when I think he’s out of war stories, he remembers another, and with a little prodding, he tells us about it. Except the concentration camps. He hasn’t been able to talk about them yet. He laughs and tells us that we are all very lucky. A stray bullet, a few inches here or there, and he would’ve been dead, and we would never have been born. Funny.
We grew up with badges of honor hanging from the image of our Dad, and knowing viscerally that those medals had something to do with why he woke from naps violently lashing out and sometimes smacking us in the face. We watched war movies in an effort to understand, and wanted to be just like him, but wondered if we would be able to stand alone against the enemy, and shoot, and fight, and sacrifice our lives. We were the sons of a war hero and though we didn’t talk about it much, we tested ourselves, seeking adventure, searching for those moments when we would share the same space with death, and perhaps discover our own heroism. On the same day that my Mom and Dad received a photograph of my oldest brother running the bulls in Pamplona, they got word that my second brother was lost in the Canadian boundary waters, and they also got my plain white postcard stained in Mississippi river mud, telling them about enormous ships in Baton Rouge swamping the small open boat I was piloting to New Orleans from our hometown, St. Louis. What were the chances of my parents receiving such a plethora of exciting news on the same day?
My Dad has a great sense of humor, even in the direst of circumstances, and he correctly believes that it helped him survive the war. While his sons have inherited his humor, there are times when puking in the wastebasket just isn’t funny.
I had to leave this desk for a while to play outside with my two-year-old. It’s cold out, windy, but Sam wanted to go outside. He stood next to me and looked at me with his very blue eyes and said, “Daddy, I want go outside.”
“Okay buddy,” I said, “just let me print this out, one minute.”
“One minute,” he said.
“Yes, buddy, one minute.”
Sam opened the file cabinet next to my desk, pulled out a folder full of bank statements and flung it over his shoulder, the papers scattering, then he reached for another folder. I finished writing the paragraph about my Dad’s sense of humor, then jumped up from my desk and rescued the title to our home from my son’s grasp.
“Daddiee, I want go outside.”
“Ask nicely,” I said, shutting the cabinet drawer, turning quickly to punch in the save sequence on my computer.
“Pwease,” he said.
“Okay buddy, let’s get our coats.”
“Get our coats!” he said and ran, leaving me to grab the coats and capture him as he pounded on the sliding-glass door leading from my basement office into our small backyard surrounded by woods. After wrestling him into his coat, we went out and played ball with no rules, except that we both knew we had to chase each other and fall and roll in the grass. Suddenly, Sam stood and stared into the forest.
“You want to go exploring?” I asked.
“Go ‘ploring!” he yelled and ran toward the thick underbrush. I went ahead pushing aside potentially disastrous sticker bushes and we marched into the woods, out of the chilling wind, and we found a small clearing where we sat and felt the silence of winter. For a two-year-old, it was a long time in that sun, warm on our faces, enjoying the woods, but for a forty-year-old dad, it was just a moment.
Everyone has stories to tell; anyone could be writing this or something like it. I make no special claim to humor, courage, anguish . . . and in fact the only reason I am making this disclaimer is to protect myself from an overabundance of self-esteem, from being too full of myself, which very easily translates into being just full of it. I have known personal suffering, but I also know it pales in comparison to floods, famine, war, children dying. There are countless others who have borne far greater suffering than I. On the other hand, such things are relative, aren’t they?
The decade was closing like the doors to a weeklong party, a youthful endorphin dance into adulthood. I scaled high peaks from Alaska to South America, kicking into the bright snow of smooth white cornices and peering over the edge of sheer cliffs, shimmering black rock lined with ice, fantastic glittering towers in sunlight, and I felt the adrenaline surge like a revivalist God singing through my veins, and tasted the rarified air at 18,000 feet. On Christmas morning, I drank aquardiente, firewater, the national drink of Colombia. In Mexico, I dug my hands into cool, loose dirt from ancient graves, uncovering artifacts, anxiously anticipating the next moment, and the next, ending up flat on my back in a sweat, deliriously hallucinating Aztec hearts ripped from screaming bug-like men while rapacious amoebas delighted in churning through my guts. I suffered a little, but mostly I had fun, flirting with Tijuana whores, chasing Paul Bunyan women in Juneau, and skirting the edges of death while searching for my heroic self.
John Zavgren, the mathematician with flaxen hair, was the only one left at the decade-ending party. He was unmarried, willing to climb Gannet Peak from the West. Even I was preparing to leave the party, succumbing to inevitable responsibility. On the twenty-second of November (a coincidental date), I wrote to my girlfriend, “I hike toward mountain peaks, and you call me home as I climb away from what I really seek.” Then I married her and took her to Alaska for a honeymoon on Admiralty Island, leaving her alone in a cabin while I climbed Eagle peak.
Zavgren and I hike the Highline Trail along the Green River and past Squaretop mountain, the sun warm on our faces, bright blue sky with only the thinnest of cirrus clouds spindling off the peaks. The route must be nearby, but we see no sign of a trail. On all our maps, Wells Creek is marked as a “route,” a dotted line toward the imposing west face of Gannet. We thrash through underbrush toward the sound of rushing water, then stop and lay our map on a fallen tree. John pushes his glasses back and I wonder how in hell he keeps them from falling into the woods, or down a crack in the rock never to be found. No need for me to say anything because we’ve had this discussion before. He’ll tell me that, without his glasses, the rocks look like cotton balls. Zavgren once gave me his dissertation to “read.” I skipped the seemingly nonsensical title and went to the first page. It said, “If . . .” followed by a frightening sequence of numbers, symbols, lines, circles, and so on in a mathematical blur. Not one single word until three pages later, where he had typed, “then . . .” only to be followed by six more pages of astonishingly complex mathematics. I think it had something to do with probability, but after a few scintillating conversations about it, in which I understood about as much as a monkey understands red and green buttons, I never brought it up again. I should give John a call and ask him what the probability was that a cloud could save my father’s life, and maybe a few other things that have been difficult for me to talk about.
I follow John into a glen where Wells Creek meanders into the forest, its glassy surface shimmering green and reflecting tall pine. We take off our boots and wade across, the icy water refreshing, then we hike along the creek, and a narrow path appears under our boots as if by magic, but John quickly points out that any deviation from the route is unlikely considering the sheer rock cliffs rising on both sides. Soon, the path disappears and we push through the brush, emerging between two huge boulders towering into the blue sky like pillars, and we hike through the cool, shaded passage to the other side where the sun is blazing on a talus slope, burning everything into barren, washed-out yellow waves of heat rising from the broken rock.
We sit in the sun and let our packs lean against the rock, the weight easing from our backs, giving us a strange feeling of lightness, as if our feet will float up the route without us, and I start thinking about Greek mythology, something I am not prone to do. Talus was a bronze sentinel who guarded Europa. When Talus caught adventurers trying to steal gold, he held them next to his bronze chest and leapt into the fires of hell, and the sentinel’s laughter would blend in with the victim’s howling.
I tell John, then ask, “Isn’t that where they get the phrase “sardonic laughter”? Something to do with the island of Sardonia?” I know that John is a smart man and he will come up with an answer or something like an answer. I’d try to do the same for him. On some rare occasions, we stumble upon an approximation of the truth.
“But,” John says, “I think Talus and Europa were on Crete.”
“Hmm. You sure about that?”
John makes a comment about us being cretins. I laugh, and respond that neither one of us is sure about anything; the sunshine feels good on my face and there is a cool breeze between the boulders in this mythological land. “Maybe we should camp here,” I say but immediately know that it’s too soon to stop. We are after all in our late thirties. People are married and having children. I am married and my wife is pregnant for the first time, one of the reasons she is not with us. We will meet her and my unborn child and some friends at Big Sandy Lodge after our climb. John has a girlfriend in Boston who already has kids. He will eventually move in with her and they will become very serious, but they won’t get married until much later.
John takes the lead following a line of dirt into the mass of rock fragments, some as big as trucks, or bigger, the entire slope narrowing to a pinpoint at the top where, presumably, we will pass beyond the cliffs and into the land of glaciers and long snow fields at the base of Gannet Peak. As the incline gets steeper, John balances on a rock slab and leaps to another while I follow and feel the rock teeter underfoot, sliding ever so slightly, then clunk just a few inches further down the slope.
In a few years, I will read about chaos, and complexity theory -- the idea that, for example, the movement of sand across a desert can be predicted, dunes forming and collapsing in a slow, rhythmic order, but no way to calculate when any one grain of sand will fall. Nor is there any way to predict which specific sand or sands falling simultaneously will cause the dune to collapse. I suspect the same can be said for talus.
John and I make sure we do not follow each other too closely. While I leap onto a wobbling boulder, and steady myself on all fours like a chimpanzee, I long for that glowing feeling that I often get when climbing, a feeling of great affection for the world. I have often muttered to myself something like, “I love it, God, I love it,” repeating the phrase like a mantra. But now each movement is grueling and winding me tight, as fragments come loose and leave us lurching, and the hard thud of one boulder sliding into another keeps reminding us that we are no match for talus. Such danger does not allow time for affection. Even though this is just the first phase of our climb, and we’ve yet to reach any sort of “base camp,” we begin talking in terms of false summits. We keep thinking we see the end, the passage to Many Bug Lake, but it recedes away like a mirage as we move and scramble higher and our God-awful heavy packs push our wobbly legs onto the hard, unstable rock. The slope always seems to level out and pacify our desire for passage, but it is just a trick of nature. And if you assume Nature is God, then it is a trick of God. John sits, carefully wedging himself partway into a crack, and he reaches for his water bottle. The boulder beneath my lunging right boot teeters and I slide to my knees. “God-damn,” I say, slumping down next to John.
He is studying the map and says, “I’ve never approached by just a ‘route’ before.”
“I’m not sure I’ll ever want to again,” I say.
“The map,” he says, “shows us following along this side of Wells Creek.”
We look at each other. “More like Hells Creek,” we say, simultaneously. Even though it may sound ridiculous, it’s okay, because I know such things happen all the time -- people expressing the same thought at the same moment.
My one-week-old daughter just came into my office in the arms of my wife, who for the third time had her womb cut open. Our son is taking a nap.
“Look at her,” my wife says. “Still sleeping. She needs to wake up so I can feed her.”
I watch my daughter yawn and stretch her tiny arms. She has long dark hair and looks like my wife in miniature.
“Look at her birdie mouth,” my wife says. “She’s hungry.”
I take some pictures of my daughter, in my wife’s arms, in my office, the two of them. A few days before the C-section, Kim had her hair cut short. In all the time I’ve known her, I’ve never seen her hair cut so stylishly, and now I see that her hair looks just like her daughter’s, and I wonder about the chances of something like that happening.
My one-week-old daughter starts to cry softly, and my wife takes her upstairs for a feeding.
Except for probable miscalculations on the height of boulders, the following is as close to the truth as I can get. I can only write what I remember because it is very unlikely that I will go back to measure things. Yet, in a way, I suppose I am trying to measure them now.
Another fifty feet, we curve around the southwest cliff and see more talus, steeper slope, and the sun arcing toward its inevitable descent. A few late-afternoon clouds slide overhead, shadows traveling up the slope with enviable ease. Our sweat dries quickly in a cool, dry breeze as we push on, the talus suddenly gargantuan, piles of massive boulders blocking our way with Wells Creek snaking underneath them. I feel as if the huge boulders have fallen recently, at least geologically speaking. Had we been there when they fell, we’d have been catapulted into eternity, squashed like bugs.
“We’ll need to rope up,” I say.
We don’t waste words. It’s late and we have a long way to go.
While tying on the harness and clipping on carabineers, I think about my wife and our unborn child. Then I climb and it feels good and I forget everything but the climb. The motion is fluid and I’m synchronized with the Universe and God and Nature and Death and I love it. On top, I watch the sun sinking toward the west ridge and thank God we’re not in the cold shadows of the east.
I dangle the rope over the edge, John ties on my pack, and I haul it up, pulling, and I feel my hands burn from the rope. I belay John up and we are both at the top of the boulder where we face the same monotonous talus that we’ve been fighting for six hours. We strap on our packs, feeling like we’re moving in slow motion, and methodically ascend. Soon, however, talus again forces us to a halt. Wells Creek is now crashing from the top of a giant bronze-colored boulder, exploding into a pool before tumbling over the next edge. We are facing a sheer cliff rising hundreds of feet into the darkening sky. We must climb through the pool at the base of the waterfall, and cross Wells Creek. It’s a passage we must make.
“Turn that on daddy.” My son points to the old computer still sitting on a table in my office.
“I do it,” he says, and presses the buttons before the computer has had a chance to warm up. It beeps error messages. “Beep! Beep!” he says.
He sits quietly for a few seconds, and I try to write myself across Wells Creek to remember, and maybe get rid of some things. But then he stands on his chair and looks at all the photographs on my office bulletin board. “Who dat?” he asks.
It’s a picture of me with him on my back, in his “tough carrier” backpack. He was one year old. Now he’s two. Half a lifetime later. In the photo, he is laughing and I am looking back at him also laughing. We are playing a peek-a-boo game. “That’s me, your dad,” I say pointing, “and that’s you.”
He points to himself and says, “Dat’s you.”
“No, that’s Sam.”
“That’s right. Remember?”
“Remember Daddy?” he says, “Remember?”
I look at John and say, “We’ll need to rope up again.” He agrees. We move quietly, understanding the situation. Not long until the sun slips beyond the ridge and the temperature will drop. The rock heated all day by the sun will cool gradually at first, then rapidly. We will want to get through Wells Creek before that happens.
I pull off my boots, shirt, shorts, then tie the rope around my waist, and with bare feet curling around jagged submerged rock, I plunge into the icy waterfall, frantically grasping for handholds, the water pushing me into the narrow pool, white swirling surges spilling over the edge and disappearing. Pounded by the torrent, I sink up to my neck, heaving and gasping, a slight backwash drawing me back toward the waterfall. With the sun receding into the horizon, I make the cold traverse. On the other side, I fix the rope around a boulder, pulling it taut.
We make several trips back and forth through the icy water, one hand on the rope, the other carrying our gear in small bundles, the sun slipping away. Shivering in the dusk light, gear heaped in a jumbled mess around us, we stare at the rope still tight across Wells Creek.
“I’ll get it,” John says, knowing that I’ve been in the water longer. “Why don’t you scout ahead?”
But without giving him a chance to object, I again wade through the frigid water, remove the fixed rope and tie myself into the loose end. John belays me back across for what I think will be the last traverse of Wells Creek. As I emerge from the dark pool, John makes a remark about me being heroic and it sounds strange in the cold air, not at all accurate.
I frantically pull on dry wool pants and socks while my teeth chatter and John disappears up the slope. The rock is dark, grayish-blue, and shadows appear everywhere. I stand and look around. There is a small somewhat flat area, shattered fragments sticking up like spears but, by comparison, level. A wrong step, however, might send either one of us careening about thirty feet onto the jagged precipitous incline.
John returns and says, “It gets better. We’re almost there. But we have to cross again.”
But I can’t stop shaking, and I say, “Let’s bivouac.”
We heave relatively flat chunks of rock into place, constructing a platform just big enough to loosely pitch our tent, the poles bent awkwardly, jammed into cracks, and the nylon roof sagging. John cooks us grainy cereal and rice mixed together into a pasty substance that sticks in our mouths, hard to swallow.
A breeze up the route flaps our tent and stars overwhelm the horizon. How many stars? How long to visit them? Can we travel at the speed of light? At one point all those questions seemed important to me, but they’ve receded into my past, and now I stare blankly at the bright starlight.
We crawl into our sleeping bags, our bodies wound tight, and we try to sleep on the cold rock. Lying like a corpse, teeth clenched, I hear something faint, but unmistakable. Rock fall. The hitting, braking, ricocheting. Long silence. Then more rock hurling out of the darkness and crashing down around us like artillery shells.
The rock fall continues on some complex schedule, faster than “normal” geologic time, and we both know that the other is wide awake, eyes unblinking, tight, trying to relax on the uneven slab bed.
“Hey John?” I finally say.
“You don’t suppose our nylon tent will stop one of those rocks?”
“No,” he responds, “won’t even slow it down.”
But it’s hard to figure. Why didn’t we hear anything during the day? Why at night when everything cooled down? Wouldn’t the rock stay frozen in snow and ice? Maybe they aren’t in snow or ice. Maybe the rock becomes brittle in the cold air and breaks off. Maybe there is someone up there.
“Maybe,” John says, “we should go on in the dark.”
“Hmm. You feel like I do?”
We wait, both listening, and it seems like a relatively long time before the next one, fragments shattering.
“I guess,” John the mathematician says, “we should just take our chances here.”
In a few months I will want to go back to that moment and ask him to recalculate our chances. Save some luck for later. But it will become a moot point, because the odds must be shoved further into the past, to some nebulous moment when my wife and I reveled in our passion and love for one another.
John and I try to get comfortable, but it’s impossible of course, and we push our heads near the flapping nylon door at the edge of the cliff. Another crack. I swear I saw sparks. We stare into the night, waiting for the next one, lulled into the possibility of sleep, then a “falling star” streaks across the sky, and I wonder what the chances are that a meteor will hit the earth, hit Wyoming, the Wind River Range. Something lands nearby with a crushing sound that makes me wince and I hear pebbles pelting our tent like machine gun fire.
I pray to see my wife again, and my unborn child. Please I pray, off and on all night, to the sky full of stars and meteors, and the unforgiving rock, wrestling through delirious semi-sleep, and I pray directly to God, please let me see my wife and my unborn child.
I will waver in and out of this restless slumber, my body jerking me awake and plunging me into sleep, until finally, the morning will come with long shadows stretching down the previous day’s route. John and I will pack quickly, and will climb the talus slope to one more crossing of Wells Creek, but it will be in warm sunlight. We will look back at our camp, a small area of nothing more than broken rock and a sheer cliff rising into the sky, and I will ask, “What are the chances we’ll ever spend the night there again?”
“Nil,” he will reply.
We will slog along a narrow snowfield past Many Bug Lake, and John will comment, “How many bugs squashed?”
We will approach Gannet Peak but will not attempt it. Rather, we will follow the path of least resistance up Mammoth Glacier to the Twin Peaks. We will only approximate the exhilaration of reaching a summit, trudging to the snow saddle between the peaks, and we will peer over the edge into Titcomb Basin where, near the beginning of the decade, we camped before climbing Fremont Peak.
John and I will hike the Tourist Creek Route back to the main trail, which will feel like an empty superhighway. We will drive around the high plateau on the mirage-like back roads and forget about Wells Creek. We will meet Kim and our friend Lynn at Big Sandy Lodge. Even though Kim is pregnant, she and I will hike into the mountains, a long way up into a meadow full of red and yellow wild flowers. Kim and I will sit together, holding onto each other at 10,000 feet, my hands on her stomach, and we will feel the faint kick of approval from our baby while a warm breeze gently stirs the wild flowers. The three of us will be happy there.
But right now I am listening to the rock fall in my mind and I need to write about our baby. I now know that I must confront it directly and write about it, at least as a form of catharsis. What point you can get out of it is problematic. I also know that courage involves telling the truth. Our crossing of Wells Creek was a mere wisp of geologic air, and it had very little to do with courage.
The doctors told us that our baby wasn’t growing, within the statistical range for normal babies in their seventh month. Ultrasounds came one after another, my wife’s round belly jelled up slick and cold, and the pictures showing that yes, under the rubble of our apprehension, there was life. The doctors assured us that, any sign of trouble, and they could take our baby early, a premature baby had an excellent chance at survival, a better chance outside the womb than in. Even hidden inside, however, it was clear that our baby was a boy. We rejoiced and hugged and fell on our bed happy at the normalcy and joyous in anticipation of the future. We searched for a name. But as each week passed, our son seemed less inclined to swim, kicking and turning in the fluids of the womb, not inclined to do the things a baby should do, statistically.
On the historically significant date of November twenty-second (also the same date I had written to Kim), our primary care physician said that we needed to go to the hospital for a “non-stress” test. Feel free to pun. We did. They jelled up Kim’s abdomen, attached their monitor, gave her a joystick with a wire and told her to press the button every time the baby kicked. Kim pressed at the faintest hint of a kick but despite her efforts, the doctors rushed in, surrounded her, and told us that they needed to take our boy now. Kim and I, without previously discussing it, both agreed upon his name -- Benjamin Richard May.
I watched them cut her open, and slide our son out into the world, and I kept telling Kim how amazing he was, how he was a beautiful little boy, and I kept repeating it, trying to convince myself that our son was normal, all right, beginning his journey into health and happiness. But he wasn’t okay; he had the color of gray clay, and silence pierced more than any newborn wail. The white-coats took him away. They returned without him, and they told us that he had a separated palate but otherwise seemed okay “externally.”
Later in the recovery room, while mentally making appointments to have my baby boy’s palate fixed, more white-coats appeared. It seemed they were multiplying. They were everywhere. One doctor, who neither my wife nor I had ever seen before, stepped forward to tell us that our son was a very sick baby. Chances are, the doctor said, he would not live.
They brought him into the room so Kim could see him through the plastic tent and the tangling array of tubes connected to his paper-thin skin. Kim was lying on her back like my son; she turned her head to look into his beautiful face, then reached across and pushed her hand past the plastic cover and touched his little hand.
Kim will tell me later that she wishes she could have held him. She will tell me more than once, and I will try to tell her what he felt like in my arms. She will tell me about the last month when she had to lie on her left side all day long in bed, how she sang Christmas carols to Ben. For many years, she tells me, and the thought of them alone together like that breaks my heart.
The white-coats wheeled my baby into an ambulance and drove him to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, and I followed. At the hospital, I stood over my baby. Very sick. The doctors all agreed that he probably had something called Trisomy-13 and they showed me a picture of another baby with it. I looked at the picture, read the explanation, the big 13 after the word Trisomy, and said, “I suppose they call it that because it’s unlucky.” I smiled grimly but they seemed to have no sense of humor. I looked at our friend Bob who was with me, helping, and said, “There must be time for a little humor.”
I asked the doctors about our son’s chances and they told me his chances were virtually nil. Even if I could have saved some of the Wells Creek luck for those moments, it would have done no good. We needed it at conception. So I told them to take off the tubes and let me hold my son and let him die in my arms.
A white-coat said they needed approval from the hospital director, but “in this case, it won’t be a problem.”
While I waited in an office that looked more like an interrogation room, I noted all the religious icons, an inordinate number of bloody sacrifices in such a small room. A priest dressed in traditional black and surrounded by white coats entered and solemnly asked me how I felt. “Fine,” I said. But he kept insisting that I needed to tell him how I really felt. After I insulted him, I told him nothing. The priest departed, shaking his head much in the same way I’ve seen experienced climbers shake their heads at novices on their way up dangerous peaks. A doctor handed me a phone, and I listened to the horribly abrasive voice of the director telling me that they had to give Ben every chance in the world to make it on his own. I was told to drive back to the other hospital, to be with my wife, twenty miles late at night on the superhighway. They would call me if something happened. I argued quietly and very logically, but knew in my heart that religion could at times defy common sense. “We want,” the abrasive voice said, “to give Ben every chance we can.” As if they could.
Standing in the white elevator light, rising to the floor where my wife waited for me, I still didn’t feel much like talking to anyone. Then I stood at her bedside and repeated the lies I’d been telling her for months -- everything would be all right.
A white-coat appeared to tell me that my son was dying and that I should return immediately to Cardinal Glennon if I wanted to hold him. I went, immediately, alone on the dark highway. When I got there, I watched them disconnect things.
And I still hold him. He is wrapped in a blanket, his small body warm in my arms. I tell him how much I love him and how much his mother loves him and I feel his tiny hand grip my finger. I hold him very close. I weep and tell him how much we will always love him.
Later, we will be told that it is not Trisomy-13, that it is a -4p chromosomal abnormality. And after genetic testing, Kim and I will find out that we are normal. Really. We will receive a piece of paper to prove it. We will be told that neither one of us has any chromosomal abnormality, that it could have happened to anyone. Unlikely it would happen again. We will be told that the odds are about one in 20,000, that it was a chance occurrence.
My two-year-old son pushes open the office door, and runs in, carrying a small ceramic statue of an angel. The statue was given to my wife shortly after Ben died, and I had paid little attention to it. In Sam’s other hand, he has a cup of sliced apple. “Here daddy, want some?”
“Sure, buddy, what else do you have there?”
“Baby Ben. See?” He holds up the statue, and I carefully take it, and feel the warmth from Sam’s hand in the ceramic, and even though I’m not a religious man, I set the angel on my desk.
Sam runs back out and reappears hugging a big ball. “Want to play,” he says and drops the ball bouncing across the carpet. “Dat ball crazy,” he says.
I hear our newborn stirring in her crib. Kim is taking a nap. I try to watch Sam, listen for his little sister, and finish writing at the same time. I’m almost there.
“Da baby’s crying,” my son informs me.
“Yes, she’s hungry.”
“Yes, buddy, you want to help me feed her?”
“Okay,” he says excitedly.
He takes my hand and we go upstairs.