My husband and I are driving to Canada. I sit in the passenger seat, writing a story about my crazy son on a napkin.
I am the self-appointed conservator of his legacy. I have no poem, painting or song to present. Scraps of a life, one piled up on the other, form the work of art that is his story. I will continue to document it and put it into the world as long as I am here. Perhaps he is stricken, but perhaps he was just too magnificent for this world, a blazing light they didn’t have eyes to see. But I see. A mother's eyes can see. Super tough, I can look directly at an eclipse without damage. Blindness is not an option.
Driving a grey serpent of highway, we descended into a valley. Immediately, I could see the blue and red lights. It is the blue that catches your eye. We are all used to seeing red, yellow and green, but like the black and white of a police car, blue calls out: calamity. “What is going on down there?” I said, sitting taller, straightest spine. The traffic slowed as we drove, and I could see people on the median, an upside-down van, personal belongings strewn everywhere.
"Pull over, I need to go there," I said. My husband knows me well enough not to argue. There would be no way for me to pass and not go see what I could do. It is how I am wired, I am addicted to trying to help. I need to know I tried. I want to be a hero but I never am. Nonetheless, I will jump into a river any old time. I read about a woman who was electrocuted running into water to help a man stranded in a storm, ignoring the downed power lines lapping creepily at the edges. I thought: “I would have done that.”
I grab a water bottle and open the door before we have even come to a halt. My husband admonishes: “be careful crossing…” but I am gone.
I can’t decipher the situation at first, it takes time. First, I see two women attending to...what? Oh, a little dog. “He was thrown from the vehicle,” one says, as she pours water on his head. “I’m trying to cool him off.”
“Do you need more water?” I ask. No, they don’t.
The van is about a hundred yards further, several people lean in, wearing blue latex gloves. Where did they get gloves? The ambulance hasn’t arrived yet. The air has a very still, artificial feeling as I walk over, through the debris. Artifacts of a trip, a life. My foot smashes on a package of mushrooms. I see shoes, papers, a book, an open box of spaghetti that landed like pick-up sticks. A young woman bends over and retrieves a wallet, “Here is his wallet, now we know his name.” I wish I had found it. As I approach the car, sound reduces to a muted decibel, wind moves slowly, and I see the two people in the vehicle, roof ripped off. I think of an Edward Kienholz installation I saw at the museum in L.A., the whole world in the corner of a room.
Kienholz left detailed instructions when he died in 1994. He was buried, sitting in the front seat of his brown 1940 Packard Coupe, a dollar bill and a deck of cards in his shirt pocket, and the ashes of his dog, Smash, on the seat beside him.
The couple in the van look pale, not just their skin, but the entirety of them is a shade lighter than the rest of the world. Arms and legs splayed out stiffly, they look a bit like big dolls. Blue gloves steadily hold a red-soaked towel against the old man’s head. “Hang on, hang on,” someone says. It sounds to me like they are all under water. The girl with the wallet says, ”His name is Fred.” The woman in the car moans that it is her shoulder which hurts.
There is nothing I can do. There is nothing for me to contribute. My fingers moving as if I could feel the air at my sides, I just stand there for a minute. The man and woman, holiday careened off-course (mushroom sauce for the pasta no longer relevant), are tended to by other drivers until the professionals get there. I consider the stillness of the tableau in front of me, and realize that I am just using up important oxygen. I return to my car.
As we drive away we pass a fire truck, siren cutting the day, on the way up to help Fred and his wife. The radio is playing one of Chopin's 24 Preludes, piano fills the car. My fingers continue to caress the air.