(About a 10-minute read)
Two days ago it snowed, but the snow didn’t stick and the next day and today have been acceptably warmer. The earliest trees are in bloom now. White blossoms on one, red and magenta on the others. Some flowers have leapt up, seemingly overnight. Delicate, tiny blue ones, and of course, the yellow dandelions. As you know, this is the season of rebirth, of renewal.
Earlier today, a young woman, just touching her 30s, wrote to me saying she was on the very edge of her first real romance. She had denied herself for years to fulfill her parents vision for her, denied herself through university and law school. Now safely established in a legal practice, she wanted something for herself at last.
“I have met a man”, she wrote, “I feel stirrings for him. I like watching his lips, how he moves. Spring is a good time for romance, I am told, with a good chance to feel reborn. Can I find renewal in loving someone? Is that really possible? Please do not judge my question too harshly! It is sincere. I know no more about this than a 13 year old. ”
Sometimes we have memories of events that were so connected to a particular season, they tend to return each year in that season. I have a small handful of those, I don’t know how many in all, but not many I suppose. Yet one of those, the one that visited me today, can in some years be especially meaningful to me.
The young woman who wrote me earlier also raised a question about masculinity. But she raised it only in passing. There were much more heart-wrenching things she had to say. “I am petite, no more than five feet, and it has happened to me. A man found me alone in a cabin I had rented with friends for a vacation. Everyone else had gone to the store. It has happened to me only once, and I do not pity myself, but I have become scared, frightened of men. I carry now, concealed, but I am still frightened. I want a strong man to protect me. No sensitive poets.”
Sometimes, even in the midst of a storm, an incidental thing can be important. I tried as best I could to address her most important issues first. But it nagged at me how the hope or desire for a strong, but insensitive man could potentially mislead her into a miserable, callous relationship.
I didn’t want to try to actually persuade her to find a “better” man. Who am I to decide what that is for her? But I wanted this woman, this woman who moved me to empathy in so few words — I wanted her to more clearly know her options. And it was about then a young man’s death came back to me.
Especially, one brief moment came back that even today, even thirty-five or so years later, remains something of a mystery to me.
When I at last got to writing to her about masculinity, I wrote this:
When I look back at some of the toughest men I’ve ever personally known in my life — the fire fighters I once worked with some decades ago — I see how most of the men who struck me as exceptionally competent (they were all at least competent — you don’t hold down such a job if you’re not at least that) were so very often the men who had a noticeable feminine side.
The Fire Department had a policy that favored hiring ex-military, and almost everyone had served in one branch or another; several as Viet Nam combat Marines or combat soldiers. But I recall for certain that none of them — not even one of them — was “macho” in the perhaps superficial sense of the term. The sense of posturing, aggressively putting on a brave facade, or a false front. They were genuinely tough. And yet of these tough men, those who were the most “competent of the competent” so often seemed to me to possess a noticeable feminine side.
Of course, I don’t mean “feminine” in anything like the “girly”, “effeminate” or “hyper-feminine” senses, but rather in having marked “feminine” traits, such as superior empathy for others, caring-ness, and even remarkable gentleness at key times and in key ways. I don’t know how exactly that might fit in with their being more than usually competent to fight fires, but I think the correlation might be significant and perhaps suggest that having both feminine and masculine traits gives you greater flexibility in dealing with challenges.
I’ll give you one example. Something that has stuck with me for years, and in some ways is still a bit of a mystery to me. We were extracting a recently killed young man of about 20 or so from a vehicle accident. My job was to hold his body up at a certain angle so we could get the tools in to cut his corpse loose. Because of that odd angle, and the crumpled nature of the van he’d been driving, I had to hold his still warm body more or less as close as you would hold a lover in order to get the necessary leverage. There’s no more accurate way to describe it.
The work was unusually difficult and slow, and blood was still draining from some wound in his body in a stream as thick as my small finger. A third or half of me became soaked with it. I held that position for about forty five minutes, the whole while all but forced to stare into his open eyes, which were less than a foot from my own. I could look up, and I did from time to time, but only uncomfortably. Towards the end, there was no way I wasn’t feeling some grief for the guy, mourning him.
Then, if I am not entirely mistaken about this, one of my crew, a man I thought one of the more competent fire fighters, looked at me with an expression on his face that I can only describe as as one of the most compassionate looks I have ever received from anyone. I was almost startled by the purity of it! There was nothing like pity in it, he didn’t even seem noticeably concerned, none of that stuff; just pure, probably spontaneous compassion. It is still to this day as vivid as yesterday in my mind. But how on earth did he know or sense how I was feeling — for he certainly seemed to. You don’t know this about me, but I have a nearly perfect poker face, and I was certainly wearing it that day. There wasn’t even a hint of a tear in my eyes. Yet, unless I am utterly mistaken, he knew how I felt.
He was also very much a man you could wholly entrust your life to.
That’s what I wrote to the young woman today, along with a brief summation of my point that it could be realistic to expect of some men, at least, that they be both tough and sensitive. I did not include in my email the rest of the story because the rest was irrelevant to the point I wanted her to weigh.
Sometimes a tragic thing happens that does not turn us away from life, but turns us towards it, that in some perhaps paradoxical way, makes us want to live more fully — while we can. Here is the rest of the story now.
I would not suggest that the young man’s death had any intrinsic point to it, least of all that it happened because the universe or cosmos was somehow bent on teaching the few people who witnessed the aftermath some key lesson about life. It was simply unfortunate, about as unfortunate as these things can come. From our reconstruction of the accident, we guessed he’d been driving along a country road in the middle of nowhere at perhaps 60 or so miles an hour. He was following behind, at a respectful distance, a large semitrailer truck.
At a crucial point, we thought it probable that he took his eyes off the road to adjust the dial on his radio. Perhaps it was only for a few seconds, perhaps longer. In the end, it was long enough, it was too long. Ahead of him, the truck had stopped at an intersection. We don’t know whether he looked up at the last moment and saw the truck, or never looked up again. The scant evidence couldn’t resolve that issue. But his van plowed into the truck at speed. He died in an instant.
It was, as I said, simply unfortunate. Nearly anyone could have briefly taken his or her eyes off the road in much the same circumstances. A straight road. Going near the speed limit. Almost no traffic. A decent distance from the truck ahead, And, most likely, not noticing he was coming to an intersection. Who wouldn’t feel reasonably safe to glance down for a moment?
Some part of me now and then thinks the strange thought that if it had happened in another season, in the oppressive heat of a humid summer, in the fall when one can sometimes mildly expect death, or on a cold, lifeless winters day, then the season might have altered, if only to dull, the personal meaning I took from it. But this death happened in the Spring, the season of rebirth, the season of renewal, in the late morning.
A thunderstorm had passed over the area an hour or two before. You could still see it off on the horizon. The lush, wet, emerald grass in the fields around the intersection sparkled here and there in the come and go breezes. There were horses in one of the fields, including two, perhaps more than two, foals. The intersection was cloaked in that peculiar “country silence” in which each sound seems so discrete, so distinct from every other sound. Birds sang.
All of this “perfect Spring morning” I took in whenever for a moment or two I looked up from his eyes. I recall how strange it seemed to me that his eyes so much looked like he was still alive. You simply could not tell from his eyes alone that he was dead.
It was exactly the sort of Spring morning that passionately stirs so many of us to get out, go places, do things, make discoveries. Even perhaps the kind of Spring morning that might remind some of us of how we so often felt overwhelmed by a desire to play when we were little and the world was fresh.
Not every year, but perhaps every two or three years, the memory of the morning comes back to me about this time of the season, not as an old memory, but nearly as vivid as if the event were recent. Yet, I have never found the words to adequately express to anyone in a way that does not sound shallow or superficial to me how everything about that morning can sometimes — but only sometimes — come together to make me for a period acutely aware of how “precious” life is. When it comes, it’s not a poignant feeling, not a sad or regretful feeling, but more like a desire to be reborn. From the young man’s eyes to the horses, from the country silence to my crew mates compassion, it all somehow fits and reinforces that desire.
And it came again this morning. I think now that perhaps it didn’t just come back this morning with force merely because the young woman’s remark about masculinity reminded me of the sensitivity of my crew mate. Maybe the connection between her and my memory was bit stronger than that.
Could it happen that the heinous crime inflicted on her so suddenly and without warning jogged my memory of the young man’s abrupt death, made me realize once again how precarious, uncertain, and yet valuable life is? Could it have been that, but also in combination with her quite serious and understandable desire to be “reborn” after all the denial and after all the trauma in her life?
I think most likely it was several connections all at once. But whatever the causes, it once again seems so urgent now to live as fully as possible, simplistic and shallow as those words might sound.