I was six, maybe seven, the first time I felt pain for another person. Not quite heartbreak, but something like it.
I was still unnerved by the large slide at the playground. Ten feet high, but it might as well have been ten thousand. Metal stairs as far as eyes can see. I wasn’t a courageous kid, nor was I likely to pretend otherwise.
These were the days before fear paralyzed the suburbs. Back when kids were kids, when the biggest threats were skinned knees and fist fights. Most days I would’ve been at that park with others, a friend or a cousin, but that day was different. My older sister was playing softball at the other end of the park. My parents were there, too, sitting in their rusty webbed lawn chairs. A storm was coming in, one of those ominous Midwestern heaters that’d send all eyes in search of the funnel cloud.
I was sitting on the grass next to the highest slide in the world. The sky darkening. Instead of thunder, I heard a voice.
“Hey. You. Look up here.”
I looked up. Maybe it started raining. Or maybe I was sweating. I was a shy kid, so I said nothing.
“I wanted to say hi before I jumped.”
The thunder probably started then, some lightning off in the distance. Or the meat of a softball hit the aluminum bat, the shot heard round the world.
“I said I’m going to jump. Come up and watch me.”
I said nothing. Back then, I always said nothing. But if she waved at me, I would’ve waved back.
Those summer nights so hot and humid you could smell the rain forming into drops. And there I was, staring straight into the storm, those endless metal stairs climbing halfway to the moon. Even at six, maybe seven, you know lightning loves metal--the higher you go the shorter distance it has to travel.
Fear tastes like rain. And metal. It sounds hollow, tinny. The wind was picking up, trying to push me off as I climbed those stairs, that girl cheering for me. Or taunting me. A brief moment of victory, an exhale. She was so close I could smell her bubble gum breath.
“I’m still gonna jump.”
She was ten, maybe eleven. Blond curly hair. Wide-open blue eyes. I’d never seen her before. That town was small, and you knew every other kid, even if you couldn’t remember a name, or attach a face to a family. But this girl, she wasn’t from here. I would’ve remembered her.
And that’s when the storm started, when the fields cleared. Equipment dropping, girls in uniform scattering as they ran to their families, to their cars. Lightning splitting the sky. And then my Mom yelling at me, her words trapped in thunder. As I was side by side with the saddest girl on the highest slide in the world. I sat down on the metal of the slide. Watching her, even as she pushed me. Watching her, even as I ran backwards towards my Mom.
And that’s when she waved goodbye.
We waited out the storm in my Dad’s old Chevy. It lasted minutes, weeks, months. Time doesn’t matter when you’re six, maybe seven. And then the late-day sun came back out, and I was running back to the highest slide in the world.
But I didn’t see her. Couldn’t hear her. I climbed, slipping up steps one another after another. And then, at the peak, I was alone and looking down, my fear of heights forgotten. I saw a shoe. One muddy shoe, still laced, out on the grass a few feet from the slide.
One shoe. No blonde hair, no big blue eyes.
Maybe I wondered what it’d feel like, falling like that. And even though I now know she didn’t jump--everyone knew everything in that small town--it didn’t change what she’d said.
The vertigo always strikes first, a stomach-churning gut punch. Sounds bleeding together, that dull whoosh. Caught between breaths, those quick gasps right after you stop yourself from falling.
They broke ground on a new high rise condo building at 8th and Harrison in San Francisco right around when I started my job. I walk past this construction site, twice daily. This is one of the ways I mark time now: days and months passing by as the building grows taller. It’s set to open in 2018.
The other way I mark time is by the three men who live in two tents beneath the 101 underpass, steps away from the short alley I walk down, where I flash a badge at a sensor to open this door that welcomes me into one of the most beautiful office spaces in the world, inside this building where it’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer, where hundreds of people smile at me and say hello, where a full culinary team prepares and feeds me fresh, restaurant-quality meals multiple times each day, where I get to do what I love while supporting my small family.
First time I saw these men, back in July 2014, they were hosing down the sidewalk beneath the underpass. They’d connected the hose to a faucet attached to one of the buildings in the alley, and they sprayed the fence that separates their 5x5 home from a parking lot. They sprayed their tents, inside and out. They sprayed parts of the alley, and sprayed their toilet--a small plastic casserole dish sitting up against a concrete pillar, a makeshift bathroom still visible but at least slightly more hidden from the passing traffic.
These men clean once or twice a month, on no set schedule because when you’re homeless I don’t imagine time matters much. They take down the home, placing their few belongings in a rusty old shopping cart--one of the guys has a torn-up stuffed bear, which I’ve spotted on a few occasions. I don’t acknowledge them simply because they don’t acknowledge me. This is their home, and they seem to take good care of that tiny concrete space beneath the underpass. I walk by each morning, each evening, and give them the privacy they deserve. I don’t know if this is right or wrong, what they want or don’t want.
I don’t stop thinking about them after I pass, especially after the all-too-frequent meal when I’ve portioned too much thoughtfully-prepared food onto my plate, or when I’ve caught myself composting a barely-bitten piece of bread. I think about them on my way back to BART each night, even as my eyes study the pavement for piles of human excrement, these sad streets the only place where so many in this town call home, these commuting streets that double as the only available toilet in town.
It’s always the same three men. Sometimes I overhear them talking. Put this here, put that there. Move over, come here. Once, I saw one of the guys smile at the other two.
But it’s been a cold, wet start to the winter. And with El Nino brewing up historic ocean temperatures, it’s only shaping up to get worse. I haven’t seen these men clean in quite some time. And though they’ve always been gaunt, as one would expect, they seem so much more broken now, less active. Thinner, ill. I haven’t heard them talking, haven’t seen them out of their tents much. Yesterday, it was 38 degrees when I woke up. I kicked around slush piles of hail a few days before that.
Now, I could mark time by how these three men seem to be fading away.
I don’t remember much of what was said to me, or the smell of the flowers competing for attention in that room of beige walls. I don’t remember what I ate, if at all, or what drugs I took to sleep at night. I don’t remember what I was wearing, or how often I talked to myself, as if I were directing a film, as if I were an actor improvising the role of mourning son.
But I can’t forget the worst of what was said to me. “You look so much older than my son,” said the owner of the funeral home, this marionette of a man, this father of a classmate I never much liked, this man who dealt in loss but knew nothing about it. And, “There’s so much evil in the world, God needs to punish the good ones and Diane was tagged,” said a man who claims to speak with Jesus and who calls himself “Pastor.” And, “I know your Mom died--and I’m so so sorry that sounds awful--but do you think you can join the client call for like 15 minutes?”
I don’t know how soon after the funeral I started--maybe even that night--but I began placing everyone in one of two categories: those who lost a parent, those who hadn’t. Sometimes it’s obvious in the way someone uses past tense where you wish it didn’t belong, or in a knowing shrug, even in those small cracks in the skin around the eyes. It’s in how insignificant moments are measured, in how some of us become more existential and others more adventurous. It’s in how some of us talk about death as something real and not imagined. Or in how some of us move across country, change everything, settle for nothing. Sometimes it’s in how a stranger hears of your loss, smiles, and says, “Everything’s shit for a long time. And then one day, you’re just fine.”
But once you’ve accepted this new truth, you realize you’re not alone. This is a club, after all. A club for which there’s no invitation, only initiation. Here, we don’t always know what to say or how to say it--but we do know what not to say. Here, we know that death isn’t a metaphor for something else. We know it’s the end of one sort of life and the beginning of another, the unmistakable line drawn between two categories.
In this club, some of us move on and some of us don’t. Some of us wander and find our way home, others stay lost. Losing a parent is a scar, but losing a parent when you’re too young to lose a parent is white-hot pain, a fracture for which there is no cast. It’s directionless, it’s endless.
Loss like that doesn’t fade. It changes. In some ways you grow, it others you regress.
In this club, initiation is the same for everyone: it’s raw, it’s real, and it’s permanent. You’re alone, no matter who’s there with you for those first few moments, or how well they know you, no matter how many people hug you or whisper the same thing to you in different ways over and over.
Loss like that changes you. It distances you from some, brings you closer to others. But once you’re there, you’re glad to know it exists. When I hear of someone losing a parent--and it’s been happening far too often these days--I’m sent backwards, to when I was wandering lost between those two categories, back there on that cold, wet January morning watching as a wooden box dropped down into a hole in the ground. Back before I was just fine.
I can’t cancel my membership in this club, but I can at least make it known--to those who need to know--that I’m here, too.