We sit on the back porch, facing the low hedge of trees at the property border, the edge row between forest and yard. Perhaps the most neglected place in western civilization, it is also the most vibrant with life. Even now, with the wee hours of morning rushing upon us, as we converse our troubles and woes, the sleepy calls of birds, night rustlings of small predators and their ilk keep my attention at least partially diverted from the young man trying desperately to vocalize his demons to me.
For what reason, I wonder? Why do people tell me their problems, their misgivings, confess their fears, seek absolution from me, of all people? I am the least likely candidate for such a task. I have nothing to offer, no words of wisdom, moments of clarity or absolution. There are people who excel at such measures, when set upon by their lost brethren. Those wiser than I have something meaningful to say, the right words to fill the void of aching souls.
I try, in my own stumbling way, to articulate that fact to him. I feel that I have let him down, somehow. After all, he sought me out, told me of his battle with addiction after having learned of mine, and told me of his desperate hours, when all seemed bleak and desperate.
The tip of my cigar glows briefly for a moment as I shield the tip with my hand, a movement as lost in this time as an ancient warrior awakened from his long slumber to stalk the earth once more in confusion, sword and other clanking useless weapons at his side. There is no one out there in the fringe of forest from whence the rustlings of small killers emanate. There is no reason for me to keep my night vision by gazing constantly into the darkness rather than the light. I have no reason to fear someone, or something catching me unaware, predating me in space and time by the glow of a cigar, unwittingly allowed for a moment to be seen.
No reason at all. But I still do it, still block the ember from view. His next words hang between us. I had just vocalized that I have nothing to say, nothing at all. He turns to me again. “But, you are a survivor.”
I think of the time, many years past, when I laid in a frozen field and screamed at the stars in agony, my leg twisted beneath me, the broken bones pressing hard against the skin, bulging here and there. In my drunken stupor after an office party, I had stumbled out of the hotel lost, broken my leg just above my right ankle, and passed out. I awoke with frost in my hair and blood on my face, my dress shirt frozen in spots from the bitter cold.
Dragging myself along the hard ground, stopping to get my bearings and laugh hysterically at the pain in my twisted appendage, I made my way back to the isolated building, leaving my spoor in the frost behind under the hard gaze of the moon. I ground through landscaping, followed yellow parking space markings, and stumbled, partially upright, at long last to the front door. Still a long way from sober, I was coherent enough from the pain and terror of navigating what seemed to be miles of frozen ground through the pain of the bone fracture to realize my predicament.
The hotel was locked. The engineering firm I worked for had chosen the site for their yearly celebration of success in the moment before the great recession based on its remoteness from town, and in their wisdom, rented the entire hotel. The thinking was sound. Keep the debauchery contained to one location, remove the need for transportation after drinking all evening at open bars, then lock everyone in. Collateral damage minimized. Revelry contained. Except for me.
Fearing suddenly for my life as the realization that I was wounded, barely dressed, and exposed to sub-freezing temperatures with a rapidly plunging core temperature, I pounded on the door until the one person who did not imbibe the night before awoke and called the police.
The officer who helped me to my room was gracious, if not angry at being called out to such a stupid emergency. After I was safely placed in my room, my leg temporarily wrapped in an Ace bandage, he turned to me. “You should be dead.” I met his eyes for a moment. These are words I had heard most of my adult life. He shrugged for a moment, wanting to say more, but hesitant. “I can’t believe how far you wandered away from the hotel. I’ll have to give you this: You are a survivor.”
Management within the firm reacted quickly and harshly. The realization that one of their soon-to-be-senior engineers, one picked for upper management, had nearly died in a field next to the hotel during a company celebration did not sit well with the image they had created and carefully trimmed for themselves. I was targeted, so during my recovery at home from a torsional fracture of the right leg, my responsibilities were dissected, exposed and transferred to others. I returned to work with no fanfare, no get well soon card, no promotion and no job left. To save myself from the humiliation of being fired outright from a company for whom I had worked for years, I requested a transfer out of the office to one in a remote location. They happily obliged.
There was nothing for me to do at my destination office either, so rather than spend my days casting about, waiting on my termination, I left the company. My substance abuse worsened, and I vanished into the haze of addiction.
After recovery, I sought out my old bosses and tentatively felt out a reinstatement. I felt I owed them something. I was also desperate for work, needed to belong somewhere again and I deeply loved that company. I had first gone to work for them during college and spent many happy years under their tutelage. My former boss was honest, as usual. “I could never hire you back. They would never allow it. You are….” His voice trailed away on the phone. No other words were needed. I heard the explanation in the following silence.
Nobody really likes a survivor. The young man sitting by me on my back porch is not yet in that place, where his recovery would be earmarked as survival. He could enter rehab, clean up his life and carry on without anyone truly realizing how close to catastrophe his life was.
I start to tell him as much, then give myself pause. Life would, maybe, be better had I gotten control of my addiction earlier, before so much damage had been done. But, would it now be so precious? Would I appreciate the waxing light of the early dawn if I had more confidence that I would see another? Would the moments of warmth with my young son on my leg, my chin in his hair, be so momentous, if I took them for granted? Would I enjoy the miles passing beneath my feet as I run in the morning air quite so much, if my health were stable?
I don’t think I would. The brittleness of my existence is its greatest gift. I appreciate being a survivor. Regardless of how the rest of the world sees it, I am blessed. I pray a silent prayer for him, the young seeker of a path out of his own turmoil, for life is best enjoyed when the frailty of it is most evident. We put out our cigars and seek a few hours of rest before the sun if fully risen.