I hate telephones.
Yes, they're indispensable tools of communication, but I hate them for the tension of that moment between the ring and the answer, that instant of apprehension before you know what the call will bring. It is a fraction of time when all nightmares seem possible.
I trace the feeling to an awful night 13 years ago when the telephone yanked us up out of sleep to the news that my wife's brother had been murdered 3,000 miles away. Ever since then, I've been this way. Intellectually, I know that a telephone brings tragedy only once in a thousand rings. But those seconds when you just don't know, when it could be anything, still call the hairs on my neck to attention.
So Tuesday afternoon, the phone rings. I pick it up and hear my daughter's voice. Her tone seems normal and I breathe easy. I figure she's going to hit me up for money, tell me we're out of milk. Then I hear her say, "Eric got hit by a car."
And suddenly, I am hurtling. Out of the office. To the parking lot. Down the highway. Eric is my grandson. He is 10.
I hate Eric.
This occurs to me as I am driving. I hate Eric and all my children and my wife and everyone else I love for how much I love them and for how love inevitably brings pain. They get hurt, they get sick, but it might as well be me for all the fear that stabs my heart. To love somebody is to make yourself hostage to the fortunes of others. It is to give a hundred people veto power over your happiness. Sometimes I think the smartest way to live is without affiliation — no family, no friends, no children, no spouse, no pet, no nobody who can hurt you.
You might say it's a pathetic man who goes through life neither loving nor loved. Most days I would agree. But there are days it doesn't sound like a bad deal. Days like this.
So here's what happened: Eric was trying to cross the street. Going to a friend's house to play video games. He looked both ways — twice, just like we taught him. When he was halfway across, he saw a car, an SUV, coming around the bend. Instead of continuing safely across, he tried to make it back to the curb.
The car hit him. He smacked the hood hard enough to leave a dent. A shoe flew one way, a video game another. My wife saw it happen. She ran to him. He was writhing in the street, crying. He kept saying, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
I am sitting beside his gurney in the emergency room as these words are written. The doctor has been in. His diagnosis: two lumps on the head and two skinned knees.
Let's repeat that to make sure you got it. The boy gets hit. By an SUV. He bounces off the hood. And he winds up with lumps and skinned knees. I am reminded of the refrain from a gospel song I've always loved. It says, "There must be a G-d somewhere."
There must be. And obviously, He was in a forgiving mood this day.
Eric is more voluble than usual. He says Spider-Man would have dodged the car. He says that like Wolverine, his "healing factor" kept him from serious injury. He says he is glad to be alive.
I keep thinking how all the uncertainty of life can be summed up in the ringing of a telephone. But it comes with the territory, doesn't it? Uncertainty, I mean. You just never know. Life is a dance on the highwire above mortality. It unfolds in the shadow of tragedies past and tragedies yet to come. There's nothing you can do about it except use the time in between to laugh, sing, hug, read comic books with your grandkid as often as you can.
And try to forget that you are a wisp in a wind. I hate that, too, but what are you going to do?
Eric is still chattering away, all nervous energy. He complains that I forgot to pay his allowance. He wants to go to Ruby Tuesday for dinner. And he says, he keeps saying, that he is glad to be alive.
I know just how he feels.