Still Lucky

I take a lot of liberties with this column: it's a journal, it's a slice of life, it's a metaphor, and once in a rare while, it's a pulpit. This month, my problem lies in having too much to say, being all over the map, with frayed ends and scraps of papers and too many leftovers in the fridge that have to get used up before they spoil.

I'm talking about the biggies. Human character. Life lessons. The purpose of it all. I came home tonight around ten o'clock after being at the office. There must have been a party happening somewhere on our block; so many cars lined our street that I couldn't slide my car into its customary spot without actually parallel parking, in the real pull-ahead-and-back-in way. I'm not very good at this, but I tried. And failed. So instead of prolonging my struggle (and embarrassment), I decided John would have to do it. I left the car sticking out, unlocked the front door, walked into the dark, silent house, skipped up the stairs, and flipped on the light on the landing. I peeked into the girls' room, figuring right away what had happened, and sure enough, found John there on the iron bed, fully dressed with his glasses askew, sound asleep with Lillie curled up under his arm.

A yellow glow filled my chest until it seeped softly through to surround me just like a light cotton blanket on a porch swing in summer. I've learned a lot about men and fatherhood from John. My own dad left home when I was two, and in those days, like every other kid from a divorced family, I just summed up my situation with the simple words: "I don't have a dad." By the time I hit grade school, I understood the biological preposterousness of that claim, but we kids weren't talking about biology. For us, the sixties children of divorce, frequent visits and joint custody simply were not routine.

Yet, I've come to know my dad despite the channel of divorce and geographical distance between us. I see my dad in me: his entrepreneurial spirit, his mellow countenance, his quietness, and right below all that, his ferocious stubborn streak. I thought about him last week, when I took my kids to Como Park for some promised good times on the rides. Except I forgot to bring cash. And the ticket booth refuses checks. And there's not a single cash machine in the park. "Come on, gang, let's see if someone will cash a check," I said to my crestfallen kids. Our first stop was at an outpost of the main gift shop, right by the primate house. "Do you take checks for over the amount?" I asked. "No. Definitely not," said the merciless fifteen-year-old behind the counter. "How about the gift shop in the Zoo Building?" I ventured sheepishly. "No, definitely not. Nowhere in the park."

So we visited Casey the gorilla and his friends; we watched the Sparky Show; we dropped by the Zoo Building ("No, definitely not, but maybe the concessions . . ."); and eventually wound our way to the snack building ("No, we're really sorry, it's our policy . . . but would you like a drink of water?).

Really, I wasn't trying to look thirsty and pitiful. I just wanted to cash a check for five dollars so I could take my kids on the rides. But our options were finally exhausted, and we trekked back toward the Wolf Lot, our car, and the possibility of leaving the zoo in pursuit of a cash machine. "How're ya doin'?" asked the Ice Cream Guy as we passed the gorilla pit.

"Not great, actually. I promised my kids some rides, and there's not a single cash machine in the zoo. I don't suppose . . ."

"You need to write a check? Sure, go ahead. Make it out for ten dollars. That'll be fine."

I thanked him heartily as the crisp bill hit my hand, and in the same instant, I recognized in myself another version of my father: the salesman, the start-up guy, the odds-and-ends wheeler-dealer who keeps asking until the answer is yes. Before we bought our book of tickets, I asked my kids what lesson we'd learned. "Always bring cash!" they chimed. Well, yeah. That makes it simpler. But I couldn't keep from pointing out the other worn-out truth of the day: don't give up.

And that, I'm glad to say, brings me to the original inspiration for this long and winding story. Were any of you fortunate enough to catch Christopher Reeve on Letterman a few weeks ago? John had it on while he folded about eight baskets of laundry and I worked away on a story in my upstairs office. I could hear John laughing and chattering along with the TV, and finally, curiosity overcame me. I went downstairs and sat on the couch (and didn't help with the laundry, now that I think of it) and saw that Christopher Reeve was on the show. I was curious about Reeve, and decided to watch awhile. Looking back, I wonder if it wasn't Letterman himself more than Reeve that drew me to this episode, because while Reeve intrigued me, the way he spoke so animatedly even while motionless in his wheelchair, Letterman confused me by being so . . . decent, straight, compassionate, unexpected.

Unexpected? Well, no, one really doesn't expect a person to poke fun at a quadriplegic, but have you ever seen Letterman refrain entirely from sarcasm, ask genuinely thoughtful questions, express awe and humility? Frankly, it was difficult to watch, because as a viewer, my expectation is static regarding David Letterman's allowable character, and seeing him step out of that shallow, albeit funny, box, unsettled me.

Reeve was promoting his book Still Me, written in the wake of the 1995 riding accident that broke his neck and left him paralyzed. "I'm so lucky," he kept saying, citing his family's support, his fervent belief in an imminent cure for spinal-cord injuries, his post-accident career as a director, his relationships with his children, the way he can still watch them play hockey, and use his wheelchair as the Zamboni between periods. "I'm so lucky," he kept saying. Clearly Reeve got to Dave. Hard enough, I'm sure, to sit next to a man strapped into a chair, a man with a machine pumping air in and out of his lungs, and to stay totally focused and at ease, but to hear this man go on so sincerely about how lucky he is. . . . No wonder Dave, a guy who makes his fortune in wisecracks, got all shook up. After extending Reeve's interview through the second half of the show, Dave finally sent him off with a pretty emotional half-hug to the shoulder. Alone again on the set, Letterman continued to fumble and display the effects of Reeve's presence. Needing to get his feelings off his chest and find a way to slip back into himself, he said something along these lines: I mean, if you can't take the example of a human being like this man, if you can't take that example and apply it in your own damn life. . . . I guess we all better learn to apply this lesson, every single day, not just when it's right before our eyes. I wonder if Dave can do it. I wonder if I can do it. I wonder if any of us can.

Many thanks to the hundreds of you that joined us at our wild and woolly Baby Affair celebration last month. It was great fun to rub elbows with such a big group of radiant families, and to meet so many of you face to face. I even discovered later that one fast crawler who won the diaper derby is a baby I've visited with all year while his father and some other patient parents and I wait through the French class our older children take together. Way to go, Julian! And thanks again to those of you who made the Baby Affair such a booming event.

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