Through it all, I could only think of one thing: Will I get to Europe? The doctor came in after I’d awaken. My swelling had gone down. But the drop in blood pressure spooked him. After some deliberation he released me and told me if I had no problems over the next 24 hours, I would be fine to fly.
I have not had any problems. At 8:45 I will board a ship. It will punch through the sky. At some point, God willing, that ship will emerge over airspace far from the beloved West Baltimore of my youth. Something is happening in this world. I think of my grandfather, lecturing from the daily newspaper, drowning in alcohol, addicted to violence. I think of my father, working all summer as a child, saving his funds for a collection of recordings that promised to teach him French. He didn’t learn French, but he learned to compel his son to want to learn French. I think of my grandmother pushing up from the Eastern Shore of Maryland raising three daughters in the projects, somehow sending them all to college.
I think of what these folks might have been had they not lived in world intolerant of black ambition. The world has changed. It has not changed totally, but it has changed significantly. When I fell out on the train, everyone on the car was white. So were all the paramedics and all the doctors and nurses. The challenge for someone trying to assess America, at this moment, is properly calibrating how far we’ve gone with how far we have to go. Too much optimism renders you naive; too much pessimism makes you cynical.
Je ne sais pas. What I know is I live in a time that people who made me possible only dreamed of. And then yesterday I almost lost it all.
Thank God he came through. The first thing I thought about when I read, then re-read, this short piece was this bit from Lyle Lovett’s mournful song, “Family Reserve”:
Now my second cousin, his name was Callaway
He died when he’d barely turned two
It was peanut butter and jelly that done it
The help she didn’t know what to do
She just stood there and she watched him turn blue
The song is about how we tell ourselves that these things aren’t going to happen to us, that “we’re all gonna be here forever.” Of course that’s not true. Life is a bicycle ride over a tightrope, and we can’t afford to look down or we may lose our balance and fall.
A bad peanut. Can you imagine? The personal drama, spanning generations, of TNC’s life, could have ended absurdly on a train to Boston, because of a single nut. The absurdity of it is unnerving.
A couple of years ago, when we lived in Philly, our older son Matthew crashed his Razor scooter into an iron fence in front of our apartment. He had tried to modify his brake by putting electrical tape on the brake pad — an idiotic thing, but exactly the sort of thing you expect a 10-year-old boy with more curiosity than sense to do. The fence was at the bottom of a hill, and when he tried to stop, he found he had no brakes at all. He face-planted into the bars. He was hurt pretty significantly, and his helmet was cracked. If not for that helmet — which, contrary to his mother, I’d always thought was silly to make a boy wear while riding a Razor scooter, for crying out loud — his skull would have fractured. All the love and care and agony and suffering and joy of the last 10 years, raising this boy, all gone, because of a stupidly but innocently deployed piece of electrical tape the size of a postage stamp.
And then there’s this, from The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming:
Everybody agrees it started with the jalapenos. In the late summer of 2009, Paw brought Ruthie some freshly picked jalapeno peppers. As she stood in her kitchen chopping them, she inhaled the vapors, and began coughing violently. Later, seeking a material cause for the calamity that befell her lungs, she blamed the jalapenos. From a medical perspective, that is almost certainly untrue. It can’t be denied, though, that Ruthie’s coughing started that day with the peppers. And it never left.
It had to be something, right? The chance that a 40-year-old woman who never smoked would get lung cancer is very, very small. The truth is, we’ll never know why Ruthie got cancer, but it’s true that the coughing did start with the jalapenos. What if somehow breathing in the irritant did antagonize her lungs toward a cancerous response? If she had been an employee at a chemical plant and had breathed something carcinogenic, it would have been less absurd. But to die from breathing in jalapeno fumes? It’s crazy. It’s TNC’s-peanut crazy. And it probably didn’t really happen here. But TNC really did almost die from a peanut. It happens.
I’m not sure why, but I find death-by-absurdity more existentially and theologically unsettling even than the idea that innocent people die. It’s hard enough to reconcile the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God with the irrationality of, say, a child’s death from leukemia. I find that contemplating a death like the one that very nearly came for Ta-Nehisi Coates is even more unnerving to my convictions. It shouldn’t be — we all have to do some kind of way, after all — but it is. A friend of mine (and a reader of this blog) lost his wife at dinner in a Chinese restaurant, when she ate something to which she had a violent allergic reaction. Gone, just like that, leaving behind a husband and a young daughter. A TNC’s peanut. I can’t bear to think about things like that for too long. We’re all gonna be here forever/Mama, don’t you make such a stir…
Anyway, I am sure that TNC’s trip to France will now be far more vivid and precious to him than it otherwise would have been. So there’s that.