Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A Fork in the Road

Jesse was a small-town boy. Some small-town boys resented the limitations of small-town life. For them it was monotonous to have so few things to do. Doing the same few things time and again. They were itching to hit the big city.

Jesse understood how they felt. Felt that he, too, was missing out. Not that he hankered for the big city.

Yet he also saw the value in small-town life. A sense of community. A sense of place. A place where everyone knew you by your first name. A place where childhood friends were lifelong friends.

We live in such a transient society. Families separated by hundred or thousands of miles. Never living in the same place for more than a few years at a time.

Yes, it made for variety, but at a cost. To be an outsider your entire life. No place to really call home. No sense of belonging. Where coming and going are interchangeable. Where beginning and ending are interchangeable.

You aren’t coming “home” to anything. It’s just a place where you sleep. More like a motel rather than a home. “Living” from one motel to the next.

For some folks, home is wherever you’re born. Coming home is returning to your birthplace. But other folks never feel at home where they were born. They feel as though they were born in exile. They are trying to find their fatherland.

But Jesse wasn’t free to go wherever he pleased. He had obligations. His dad was a hopeless drunk. His mom got fed up with all the abuse and walked out on the family when Jesse was 7.

Jesse was raised by his grandpa. His grandpa was a kind, God-fearing man. But grandpa was now at the time of life when he needed a helping hand. So Jesse returned the favor. Grandpa cared for him when he was young and dependent. Now it was his turn to care for Grandpa when he was old and dependent.

While, at one level, his grandpa appreciated the help, at another level his grandpa could be difficult. In his prime, grandpa was a strong, self-reliant man. Becoming so dependent on someone else rankled him. Made him a bit crotchety. He could be unreasonable at times. It was a silly way of retaining a vestige of independence. A way of proving that he didn’t have to do what he was asked–even when it was for his own good.

For his part, Jesse felt the best years of his life were slipping away. His twenties came and went. Would his thirties come and go the same way? As long as he had his grandpa to care for, he wasn’t free to marry. But how long would she wait for him?

It was also painful for him to see old friends move away to make it big. Some of them trickled back after they failed. While it was nice to have them back, they were discontent.

Yet Jesse wasn’t resentful, just regretful. Not so much that he couldn’t do as much as he wanted to in this life. More that there was only so much you could squeeze into one life–even if you had the freedom to chase your dreams.

There were so many different paths in life. And, in many cases, each path was just as good as the other, only different. You couldn’t experience them all at once. And, what is more, if you did one, you couldn’t do the other. Not now, not later.

In life you hit a fork in the road. Sooner or later you always hit a fork in the road. You could either turn right or left. If you went left, you couldn’t go down that path, see what it had to offer, then go back to the fork in the road, turn right, and also see what that path had to offer.

When you hit a fork in the road, you had to turn right or left. Whichever way you turned, you’d continue down that path until you hit another fork in the road. One fork in the road led to yet another fork in the road. Each path had its own fork in the road. Each turn led to another turn, and another, and another.

Many of these might be equally interesting or equally fulfilling. Every life was a journey. And every turn you took excluded every alternate route.

That left him feeling a bit envious. He wasn’t resentful of the path that others had taken. Just sorry that life was full of so many scenic trails which he could never explore. His curiosity, his sense of adventure, was so much bigger than a single lifespan could begin to investigate.

And it wasn’t just about the present. It was about time as well as place. Not only were there lots of interesting different places to be from, but lots of interesting different times to be alive. Yet you could only grow up at one time or another.

What was it like to be alive in another century? To live all through that particular period?

One time, when Jesse was a kid, his grandpa took them to the beach on a small barrier island off the coast. They stayed a week. That was Jesse’s favorite memory. It was a long, warm, windy, deserted beach. He enjoyed walking the beach at night, under the moonlight. He enjoyed sitting by the campfire as grandpa told him old war stories from the time his grandpa was a soldier in World War II.

Jesse wished they could stay a month, or a year. But, more than anything, he was sorry that he couldn’t have more than one childhood. He enjoyed growing up in a small-town, with all his friends. He wouldn’t swap that for anything. The close-knit community. Horseback riding. Long hot summers. The local swimming hole.

Sure, his dad was a loser, but his dad would be a loser wherever they were. And he wasn’t living with his dad. He was living with his grandpa. When he was growing up, that is. Now his grandpa was living with him.

But it would also be fun to grow up on one of these barrier islands. Enjoy the pace of life on a small, sparely populated island.

In a sense, he was sorry that he only had one life to live. Not in the sense of reincarnation. He thought reincarnation would be a living hell. Life was already a long cortege of sad farewells. Saying good-bye to grandparents and parents and aunts and uncles and cousins, childhood pets and childhood friends. Your spouse, if you outlived your spouse. Sometimes a child.

If reincarnation were true, you’d start all over again, and repeat the process. Have to say good-bye to a whole new set of parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and friends and husbands or wives. Life would be one long funeral, followed by another lifelong funeral, followed by another lifelong funeral. While that might be a good way to punish some people in hell, that was no way to live.

Grandpa taught him the Bible. And Jesse was grateful, so grateful, to be a Christian. To have something to look forward to. Not a life-long funeral.

Yes, he’d have to say “good-bye.” But it didn’t have to be a final “good-bye.” For “Good morning” was waiting on the other side.

Grandpa died in his sleep when Jesse was 34. 40 years later, Jesse died in his sleep.

He was dreaming about the time his grandpa took him to the beach. At first it was blurry and indistinct around the edges. But as he dreamt, it came into focus. He could feel the sand under his feet. The breeze on his back. Heat from the fire. See the moonlight wafting on the waves. Hear the driftwood crackle in the firepit.

Grandpa was sitting by the fire. Only his grandpa wasn’t old anymore. He looked like those photographs–taken when he was still a young man in the service.

Like stepping into a picture, it was. As if the picture frame was an open door. It beckoned him to step across the jam, into the picture.

Jesse looked over his shoulder. He saw his bedroom. Saw his breathless figure in bed. Looking back was just like seeing a picture on the wall. Flat and lifeless–separated by a pane of glass. Unbreakable glass.

Jesse went ahead, into the circle of light–by the crackling campfire. Grandpa smiled. Just then a shooting star lit up the sky–like the heavenly host descending on Bethlehem.

1 comment:

  1. Dang, Steve, these cliff-hangers are killing me. It's like that Star Trek TNG where Picard was captured by the Borg and turned into one. That was the longest summer of my life.