There have always been things in the air that make living and breathing hard. We can’t see them: wind and heartache, ragweed and grief. But they are there just the same.
I was seven when I first began to understand that. I woke gasping one morning, and my worried mother hurried me to the doctor.
“Very severe,” the doctor said. “Ragweed.”
His face fell, certain it was the kind of trouble he couldn’t fix.
“Nothing to be done for it,” he whispered. “It’ll be hard on him. Poor little guy.”
“What’s ragweed?” I wheezed.
He touched my hand. “There are things in the air, son. Things we can’t see.”
My mother thanked him, took my hand, and we stepped back out into the world and the air, filled with things that made living and breathing hard.
That year I learned there were other things in the air, too. There were songs that poured from the radio. Every night as they filled the air my sisters danced and dreamed about boys that might love them forever. And later they would listen for the sound of a phone that refused to ring.
When my father got home from work he would pour a glass of scotch and listen to the news on the radio.
“Where do the voices come from?” I asked.
“Airwaves,” he said. “There are voices in the air.”
So I would climb into bed and wonder at the invisible voices all around me. And as I fought each night for the unreachable air, I would sometimes hear my brother in the next room, singing softly to himself.
I began to understand. The air was full of unseen things. It carried hope and loneliness. And it was full of voices and ragweed and the sound of phones that don’t ring.
One Saturday that summer my father loaded us all into an old van and drove the 50 miles into a faraway city to the new World’s Fair.
“It’s the future,” my brother said. “We’re going to see the future.”
As I sat in the back seat next to him, with my head out the window trying to breathe, he sang softly, “We shall overcome … We shall overcome.”
Overcome what? I wondered.
“We shall overcome … someday.”
That day the World’s Fair — the future — didn’t look like any of my young boy dreams. It was crowded and shiny and in the future it was hard to find parking.
The future was full of buildings they called pavilions and new machines that were supposed to make life easier. But in the future people still had to wait in line, everyone still had to pay for ice cream, and I still had to hold my older sister’s sweaty hand so I wouldn’t get lost.
At the center of it all was a huge globe. “What’s that?” I asked my father.
“It’s the Unisphere,” he said. “It’s just the world.”
But I noticed this world, the Unisphere, was damaged. It was gleaming, but crooked too, like something had hit it and knocked it nearly on its side. It seemed broken somehow.
And I thought if I was ever in charge of the future, I would try to fix the world.
But that day, though I still could not tie my own shoes, I wandered through the future. I rode a monorail. I learned about unseen things called atoms and how only something sharp could split them open to release light. And I saw a machine that would let a doctor look inside you. Mostly it was blood and bones, and inside everyone looked the same.
Later, while my sisters scurried off to the fashion pavilion and my father and brothers talked to the GE robot, my mother took my hand. She wanted to see something called the Pieta. I asked her what it was. She said it was a statue. A statue of a mother and her son.
“Pieta is a special word,” she said. “It means pity.”
“What’s pity?” I asked.
She looked into my eyes. “It’s when you feel someone else’s hurt.”
I asked if I could go on the monorail again instead, but she said no. So we waited in a very long line. But this line was different. In this line, no one talked. All the adults stood quietly looking down, like in church.
We stepped onto a slow-moving conveyer belt that carried us away from the late afternoon light to the edge of a darkened hall. The line moved slowly, in fits and starts, and there wasn’t a sound except the creak of the conveyer belt and an occasional muffled cry. At the center of the room a spotlight shone on a large stone statue.
I had seen other statues in my little town. But nothing like this. Here, just a few feet away, was a mother holding her grown son. But he was broken, lying collapsed across her arms. The conveyor belt moaned and edged ahead. I looked up into my mother’s face and felt her hand tremble in mine.
“That’s Mary,” she said.
And when we were close enough, I could see that Mary was broken too, broken in another way … but beautiful. Like broken and beautiful were somehow the same.
But there was something else. Something in her face. A kind of light from the broken in her. Like a split atom.
I looked up at my mother and saw she was crying without a sound. The conveyer belt lurched forward again and we stepped from the darkness back into the afternoon light.
And as we stood in the shadow of the Unisphere I wondered: Was this the future?
We climbed back into the van and drove away, back to my little town. And all the way home my brother sang, “We shall overcome … we shall overcome … someday.”
That summer I couldn’t breathe. All around me in the air were things that made every breath a fight.
My mother finally took me back to the doctor. He listened to my chest and gazed at me with weary eyes that seemed to say boys like me had to suffer. Suffer with the world as it is.
I wanted to ask him why don’t you get that machine, the one from the future? You could look inside me. On the inside I’m blood and bones, just like everyone else. You could find out where the air went. You could find the leak in me.
But he just shook his head and whispered “I’m sorry” to my mother as we left.
The worst part of that summer, the summer I could not breathe, was the alone of it. All of us were the same blood and bones inside, but no one else had this. None of my brothers or sisters. None of my friends. Each night alone I would lie down full of dread. Certain that somewhere in the dark I would have to fight off something I could not see just to breathe.
One night my oldest brother down the hall heard me and came into my room. He stood at the foot of my bed for a long moment. And then, in the darkness, he quietly lay down on the floor.
And each night after that, when I was sure I could no longer stand the alone of it, gasping and crying and calling for help, I would feel a hand reach up out of the darkness and take mine. He would squeeze it, and the loneliness and uncertainty would drain from the air.
Small kindnesses grow larger in time. And small boys become men. I am a man now and that was long ago. But sometimes, late at night, I still feel his hand. The memory of that summer has grown larger, as kindness always does. And that simple gesture, as profound as the next breath, has far outlasted the things in the air trying to stop me from living and breathing.
Later that year my brother developed that same paralyzing night asthma. I know now it was just happenstance or perhaps some shared DNA. But in the part of my heart that is still seven, the part that still feels his grip and hears his whisper, I am certain he took it on for me. Just so I wouldn’t have to go through it alone.
I will believe that forever.
Some things have a kind of truth that facts can never reach.
I recovered in time, and as the future drew closer, I discovered there are other things in the air. There is war and doubt. There is anger and uncertainty. There are mistakes in the air and a kind of wind that always blows away from home.
And my brother, still a young man, was swept up into that wind. He was battered by it and died suddenly and alone.
My mother asked me to go with her to the funeral home where they had taken his body. They ushered us into a dimly lit waiting room where we stood quietly looking down. Finally they led us into a chamber where he lay motionless. Like a statue.
And once again, it was hard to breathe.
The air was thick. Thick with love and with loss.
My mother leaned into me, her hand trembling in mine. Seeing him, she gasped, the very breath taken from her.
Grief is strong.
But love is stronger.
She let go of me, and drawn past the pain, stepped toward him. She hovered over him, then reaching down, tenderly took her lifeless son into her arms.
For just a moment I saw a light in her face. Her heart, like an atom, split open.
And suddenly I was seven again standing in the dark at the center of the future, staring into the light of another mother holding another son. Both broken, both transformed by the collision of enduring love and unendurable grief.
My mother and brother are gone now and that was a long time ago, but that moment remains incandescent in me. It has become a source of heat in the cold and light in the dark of my memory.
The last time I flew into LaGuardia, we passed over Flushing Meadow and from the air I could see the Unisphere below. I decided to rent a car and drive past the site of that World’s Fair so many years ago.
All the pavilions had been torn down. All that was left of that long-ago future was the Unisphere.
When I was seven, I thought if I was ever in charge I would try to fix the world. But the world and the future, it turned out, were far different than I could have ever imagined.
And the only pavilions that endure are those we make of our own memories.
Around the Unisphere, old men and women sat on benches and children chased each other. A few teenage boys, trying to become older, stood cuffing cigarettes, and off to the side, a solitary young man, selling nickel bags, waited for buyers. Some wore masks, while others ignored the virus in the air. All of these children of the Unisphere, fighting just to breathe.
Above me the globe was still gleaming, still crooked. Battered but intact. This I could finally see was the true shape of the world. Forever wounded, forever hopeful. Struggling and determined and spinning still. Far more beautiful and far more terrible than my young heart could have ever conceived.
“Weed, mister? Got the good stuff.”
I turned to see the young man with hardened eyes.
“You looking for the hard and sweet, we got the black tar.”
I glanced at the Unisphere above us and heard my father’s voice. “It’s just the world.”
“You got no business, then you don’t belong up in here, mister.”
I whispered, “Pieta.”
“What’s that?” he said.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes.
And I remembered fighting just to breathe, the feel of a hand in the dark, the light in my mother’s face.
When I was a boy the future promised that someday I would discover we are all the same, blood and bones. The future promised that everything was made of unseen things called atoms. Only a power, sharp and unbearable, could split them open. Transform them and release a kind of light.
At seven, I could not understand why the air was full of things that made living and breathing hard. Now I know the air is full of much more than ragweed. There is love and there is grief. Grief is strong … but love is stronger, and the air has always been full of both.
There are viruses and voices of the past. There is loss and death and small kindnesses that wrap around our memories and grow larger in time. There is a kind of grace that rises only from struggle. The struggle to live. The struggle to breathe.
All these things split us open … like atoms, until against our will, we are dragged toward beauty. Transformed by what we are forced to endure.
I looked back at the young man, searched the shadows of his eyes, and remembered.
We are all just blood and bones. Atoms, waiting to become light.
“It means pity,” I said.
And as I turned to go, I listened for the voices in the air and sang softly to myself:
“We shall overcome …
We shall overcome …
We shall overcome … someday.”
Featured image: quietbits / Shutterstock
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