The Curt Series, Chapter 7

The Worst Day

 

I was going to college in a town that was also where my maternal grandmother lived. I was her only grandchild, and she rather doted on me. For instance, while I was going to school, she insisted on doing my laundry, and she wanted to feed me now and then. And while it wasn’t the coolest thing in the early ’70s for a college student to be going over to Granny’s, I appreciated the clean clothes and free food.

(Plus, she let me drink a little, just a little, at her place. A little Seagrams in the Coke now and then. She grew up in Prohibition, and she said that pot was no different than the bathtub gin that she and her peers would whip up. Whether I indulged in pot then, and I didn’t, was she a cool grandmother, or what?)

It was on one of those visits that she said I needed to call my parents. So I called home and kept it short because that’s what you did on other people’s long-distance dime back then, but the upshot was that Curt’s cancer had returned and he was declining quickly. He was going to be moved to a hospital out of town for some aggressive treatment.

I came back to the home town that weekend and went to Curt’s house to visit with him before he left. It wasn’t a pleasant visit. He was lying on the living room couch, covered in a thin blanket, expression stern, mostly staring at the wall. His comments were brusque, gloomy, and without much eye contact. I wished him luck. He was not consolable. I understood that and didn’t try.

In the ensuing weeks, I got word that Curt was declining yet faster. I asked the parents to borrow the car so I could take it to visit him at the hospital. My mom declined, saying they needed the car. She acknowledged later that she was leery of me driving it to a city three hours away, plus she’d gotten word that Curt’s experience with this new stuff called chemotherapy was making his hair fall out and bloating him up, and she didn’t think it would do me any good to see him like that.

My mother (and father) are long gone now, but I disagree to this day. Advice to parents: If your kid wants to visit a childhood friend who just might be dying, help them to make it happen.

Back at college, my roommate, in an attempt to cheer me up one day, suggested that I take him on a motorcycle ride. He wasn’t the best passenger, and for those of you who ride motorcycles, you know there’s good passengers and not-so-good ones. But I acceded, and we rode out of town a little bit to one of the fire roads that I’d explored before with my other motorcycling friends.

We were a ways down that fire road when the front tire went flat. I had no repair kit, no pump. There was no way to call anyone. We just had to ride back carefully. I’d seen cases where, with enough speed, and with weight off the front tire, the tire would actually expand out just from the centrifugal force of the wheel spinning. I had hopes that it wouldn’t be all that bad.

But it was. Just getting back down the fire road presented a real struggle with the bumps and ruts. Then once we got out to the main road, we were going too slow with cars roaring by, and my arms straining to hold the bike in a straight line as it tracked its unsteady way on the asphalt. We came up to railroad tracks running obliquely across the road, waiting eagerly to snatch that floppy tire and hurl it to one side. I panicked a little and starting braking, which put more weight on the flat, increasing the instability. The bike shimmied viciously and threatened to get away from me.

I feathered the brakes and muscled the bars as best I could, and when we hit the tracks, the bike shuddered violently and threatened to dive to the pavement. I strained as hard as I could to keep the handlebars evened out as much as possible and the bike tracking more or less straight ahead. We came within the tiniest margin of getting pitched off. But against the odds and the momentary sure feeling of disaster, we stayed upright. And then we were past the tracks and relatively safe.

My roommate had been oblivious to my struggles, but he sure felt the bucking of the little motorized beast. “What was that?” he yelled over the wind and engine noise.

“Quiet!” I snarled back. I was relieved but shaking. In fact, I’d been fearful of a crash every second since we’d started out, and the encounter with the tracks had just about brought those fears to actual catastrophe.

We got to a gas station with a pay phone. I called my grandmother, told her what had happened and asked for a ride, and maybe we could put my bike in her trunk. She said she’d be right out (like I said, she was cool), and by the time she arrived, my bodily systems were crashing mildly from the letdown of the adrenalin rush that the ride and the railroad tracks had brought on.

She got out, hesitated, and said, “I’m sorry to tell you. Curt died today.”

The sounds of the world diminished as I took it in, and I know that sounds like some overdramatic overlay mixed into the storytelling, but in my memory, seriously, the world just flat muted.

Logically, I knew Curt’s death was coming, even though you always hold out hope for some Catholic or Lutheran miracle, but now that it was here, it was shocking and surreal. My grandmother and roommate were looking at me, watching my reaction. The shock washed out and left behind numbness. We stood in silence for a moment, then I said to my roommate, “Let’s get the bike in the trunk.” We did so and rode back to the dorm in silence.

When people say, “What was your worst day ever that you can remember?” which thankfully doesn’t happen often, I don’t have to dig very deep. It’s right there.

What followed in the ensuing days, of course, had its own share of sorrow and angst. Curt was young, and the death of a young person ripples out in large shock waves, and the funeral and its aftermath is especially tough. I’d like to think that I handled it at least as well as anyone else, and blessedly, Curt’s family told me that I did.

And in case anyone wonders, I have no regrets that my very last time with Curt was so gloomy. It’s simply not a memory that I keep handy. Lasting memories are far more important than a last memory. That last one is but one minor snippet buried under the mass of 40 tons of much happier and closer-knit times.

But let me step back now for a little perspective now, because, really, this “Curt series” isn’t about me, or the family, or the funeral, or the fallout.

All this is about a kid who was fascinated by fire and blew up a cistern, who loved Star Trek, who sought adventure, who had a fearsome throwing arm, who wanted three ice cubes in his glass (“no more; no less”), who with his friend invented their own private vocabulary so they could cuss and get away with it, who practiced climbing to the top of a free-standing ladder, who discovered the joys of Pink Floyd with its trippy sci-fi and avant garde themes, who brought his friend out of an asocial shell enough to ask out the friend’s future wife, and who persevered with charm and good cheer for a little while as a teenager on one damn leg.

And it’s about a kid who never got to see the really good science fiction movies that Star Wars (which he would have loved) begat, who never got to go on the epic road trip planned for years with his friend, who never got to discover the love of his own life or even if there was one out there for him, and who never got to stand with his friend and the friend’s girl at their wedding and then be “Uncle Curt” to their kids.

In Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, one of the minor characters gives a final, soaring speech about the advancement of human rights. When he talked about people dying for that cause, the soliloquy goes: “All the years of their maturity. All the children they never live to have. The serenity of old age. To die so young is more than merely dying; it is to lose so large a part of life.”

So was Curt’s death unfair? “Fair” isn’t even in the equation. A comet doesn’t scream, “No fair!” as it’s consumed by a star, or not as far as we know. “Fair” was invented by humans to help bring order to their treatment of each other and grease the gears of society.

Someone causing another’s death may well not be fair within our society. But otherwise, asking if a death is fair is like asking if gravity is purple. Death is the most natural part of life, and we all find our way there.

But still, some deaths sure do take on more tragedy and leave larger holes in the fabric of life for those remain. Every time I hear Pink Floyd sing, “How I wish, how I wish you were here,” I think of Curt.

Every.Damn.Time. And I like that song. And I’ve heard it about 478,293 times in my life. Every.Damn.Time.

It’s that, and things like that, which keeps that hole in the fabric open, and sometimes with a sharper ache than some other times.

And yet, perversely, I relish that ache. Because whether it’s Curt or anyone else, we can visit their grave; we can look at their photos; we can view the detritus left behind, scattered in the wake of their journey on life’s road. But if their lives have meaning to us, it’s kept locked in and on display in our memories. In our enduring thoughts of them, in our wistful visits to our own personal past, that’s where the dead actually do come back to life and still live on.

And really, those good and lasting memories are the best that we can do for them, and for those of us who remain, however short or long that may be.

— Grandpa

Comments

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