Monday, December 31, 2018

Ransoming David

(From Marvin's Book: The Story of a Professor and a Promise, 2011)
October 2010

Zack and I are watching the invasion of Okinawa on World War II in HD series on the History Channel.

He stands next to me, rigidly entranced, and I say, “That’s World War II...”

He nods.

Then I say, “and those are Marines!”

He shakes his head and says, “Wait, wait... we learned about these in class last week. MOM!... Do you KNOW who THOSE MEN are???”

I raise my eyebrows, and he says, “MOM! Those are the PILGRIMS!”

I laugh with him, then get up and write it, posting the story so that other people can laugh with us.
An empty feeling in my stomach reminds me to keep writing Marvin’s book, the one I thought I’d have finished by now. But I had things to do, and people to help, so I keep going.

On October 28, 2010,  a crew of us assemble to load our cars and deliver the ransom to the VA so they would have our gifts to David Lowe in time for Veterans Day. We fill a truck, an SUV and a car trunk.

The rain that day is so bad that sane people might’ve stayed home.

When we arrive in Lake City over an hour later, the skies are perfectly clear.

It takes five trips with two carts to move all the loot upstairs.

Like every time before, VA residents come out of their rooms and quietly crane their heads at our parade of gifts and laughter.

Like every time before, David leads the parade, clearing the hallways, announcing, “This is my history professor!” and I say (again and again), “And I’m bringing gifts to ransom him out of this place and back to college! Let him go already!”

On one of my trips unloading bags, I notice a green rock on the floor of Jordan’s backseat.

It looks like one of the stones I give my students. “What is this? Did I give this to you?”

Jordan shakes his head. 

His truck looks like an MP lives in it. 

It’s clean, it has “gear” and nothing extra, and so this rock is really noticeable.

I pick it up. “This is for health, and for protection, but I don’t think it’s from me because I would have given you hematite, which is shiny black.”

He looks at me like I’m crazy, tries to give the rock back and I tell him no.

This rock, which has no will of its own, no power to move, showed up in his car. Clearly he should keep it.

We carry enough bags upstairs to fill David’s bed, his floor, his bathroom and part of a hallway.
It must have been enough, because the VA released him that same week.

I keep teaching and I keep feeling bad about not finishing Marvin’s book; I feel haunted, daily, to write a story with an elusive happy ending. 

I keep writing bloopers, I blog, I tweet.

And then one day, while I’m making dinner, I get a message. “This is Jordan’s Mom. Jordan crashed his motorcycle.”

I put the phone down and sink to the floor.

I’ve told my students at least 100 times that history doesn’t repeat itself, but here we are, again. Another student, another accident.

I knew Jordan had the wrong rock. 

I just knew it, and I had a bad feeling that any book I would finally write would definitely have a section about this brave soldier who survived Iraq only to come home and have his life cut short.

I remain fixed and true to my belief: history does not repeat itself. This wasn’t history repeating itself—it was a whole new event.

I asked Jordan’s Mom if he was alive, and she told me the first people who found him thought he wasn’t. He was en route to the hospital. I asked if I should go, but she said no.

Later she let me know he was awake and got belligerent with a nurse who tried to cut his uniform off of him—insulted, he tried to pull out his tubes and leave.

The next day Jordan calls and leaves me a slurred voice mail, letting me know that he would not be at that week’s exam.

I call him back to tell him it’s fine and thank him for not dying. He worries about missing the exam and I tell him he is excused, this is excused, it would be OK. He could take a makeup exam.

A week later Jordan returns to class and asks me how he can make up the exam.

I think he is teasing.

“We talked about this, remember, on the phone? You were freaked out?”

He remembers nothing. 

November 2010: Seven Holiday Guests
On Thanksgiving, the official start to the holiday season (which, in my mind, ends around the Fourth of July), I get the impression these crazy people who live in my house want me to cook for them.
I can’t cook until the house is bleached down clean, and I don’t feel like cleaning because, well, I’m the Mom and I say so.Anyway, I have something more important to do. I have to warn you about the seven guests that will be visiting you this long Thanksgiving weekend.
She might have hit your house three weeks ago, when someone went through recipes and “planned.” I hear she visits some people in the predawn hours, possessing them to drive towards bright lights that line box-shaped buildings.

She likes to drop in around noon drag you to that ONLY place that is open to find that ONE thing you didn’t get.

To be brutally honest, I was hoping Shopping wouldn’t stop by this year, and when she called me at 8pm the night before Thanksgiving my stomach hurt as I drove to Publix expecting it to be a loud, bright, crowded holiday nightmare. 

It was quiet and empty. In less than twenty minutes, I got everything I needed for under $100 and was out the door.

I enjoyed my time with Shopping and I hope she comes back to visit soon.
It’s inevitable she’s coming by, so you might as well prepare. She can sometimes be a bitch and try to keep you distracted all day, so watch out.

Before she arrives, set a timer for thirty minutes and get ready to work. Spray her favorite perfume around (Clorox®Cleanup®), clean off a few counters and toss some laundry in the wash. Or at least kick the clothes completely under the sofa.

Take clutter off the refrigerator, sweep the Legos® into the shoebox science project and put it all in the closet where you keep your board games (the ones with the missing pieces).

To make sure Cleaning doesn’t stay all day and drive you crazy, I suggest you turn on some music and introduce her to your family and friends if at all possible. With all that attention, Cleaning gets all shy and slips away. (Then the fun begins.)
He is going to show up. He *always* does—so be ready. Hopefully he will not bring his favorite date, Punishment, because when they arrive together their idea of a good time is ruining the holiday for the rest of the guests.

Maybe he will give you a surprise and unwelcome bear hug after you ate that last piece of pie standing up in the kitchen with your back to the chaos.

Maybe he will bring up the grief you hoped wouldn’t visit today, reminding you of loved ones you can’t see and of places you can’t be.

Perhaps he will just punch you in the arm and say, “You deserve something so much better.”
You have two options when Regret inevitably arrives.

1) Spray Clorox® Clean-up® right into his (invisible) face and shout “AWAY” while spinning around two or three times, or 2) Take a deep long breath of the air that is around you and come back into the present.
Regret loves to drag you through time (forwards and backwards) but if you make space for him to visit for just one or two breaths, he will go quickly on his way to visit someone who welcomes his presence.
Dancing and/or Football
I promise Dancing (and/or Football) will visit you this holiday weekend. Maybe dancing with a baby, a grandparent, or because that Wii game is FORCING you to, you will be visited by Dance (and/or watch Football).

I’ll just say what I say every year when they come over: Hopefully no one gets hurt.
The guest of honor, Celebration, rarely arrives on cue. She might come early, at the airport, in a tearful hug.

She could hug you when that awesome dress zips up. She might show up late, when “they” pack up and finally leave. On a rare lucky occasion, she will show up at the meal intended for her.

If you recognize her and call her by name when you see her, Celebration will make herself a constant companion. 
Generosity is a shape-shifting guest who likes to disguise himself in gestures of patience and hospitality. Make sure to leave extra room for him because Generosity’s constant companion is Gratitude.
The guest few people expect visits everyone, every year, and many of them dread it. Sometimes she visits everyone at once, covering the table with an awkward stillness. She may swing by when they all leave and you feel alone. (Please don’t take the wine if she offers.)

She might be sitting on your chest when you wake up, alone.

When she comes to visit this year, please don’t be a rude host and shoo Silence away, because she’s just trying to introduce you to her best friend, Peace.

December 2010: Red Ruby Writing Slippers
Late in finals week while I’m in my office posting grades I get a terse email from David Lowe saying he won’t be able to go back to TCC in January.

This comes out of the blue I don’t know what to respond— he isn’t asking for help, but I can’t let him just drift away.

He worked too long to get this far, he was too close to his goal. Too many of us were invested in his success to just let him disappear from our community. No way.

I leave my office and walk into the faculty break room, glowering.

The dean is there.

I unload on him.

“I’m angry. I’m frustrated. After almost two years of ransoming David out of that VA hospital, keeping him part of our community, now he’s finally home and ready to go to school, but now he can’t afford it.”

The Dean, a compassionate and generous man, stands still and shakes his head.

I continue. “Someone has to do SOMETHING!!! TCC *has* to have money for situations like this, for people who work so hard and face more and more obstacles like they’re climbing a mountain that just becomes steeper.”

The dean lets me continue, and I don’t remember my exact words but they were passionate and I’m sure I stomped my foot at least once.

When I finish, the dean absolves me from the overwhelming sense of dreaded responsibility I feel for helping shepherd David through whatever obstacles stand between him and crossing the stage at graduation.

He says, “You can’t help them all. What are you going to do when the next one comes along?”

And that was it. Something in me snapped.

Actually, no.

That’s when something in me finally came together.

I tell the dean something like, “Seriously? The next time the universe sees fit to send me a triple-amputee Vietnam veteran or anyone who needs an extra hand, if I’m called to help I will absolutely help. I’m going do something. I can’t just not do anything.”

After that, I stomped off back to my office, packed up and headed home to wait for some sort of answer to fall from the sky, like it always eventually does.

I sat on the floor of my dining room, camped out on a yoga mat in a quiet house and waited for an answer. I tried to keep my mind quiet but it kept marching along, like that CNN scroll.

How much can tuition for one class at community college cost? $300? I can find that.

I could definitely find that to pay for David to come back to school.

And I bet if I asked some other people to pitch in for gas and for books, we could make it work.
But paying for him like that seemed awkward and inefficient.

Then I thought, “Oh, wait, do we have Pop-Tarts®? Why can’t I finish anything?!”

Actually, we did have Pop-Tarts® (because I hid them from the kids, so there), and while I ate the chocolate crust off piece by piece, I got that tug.

It was the tug that told me to stand in the doorway and wait for Carol; it was the same tug that told me to go after Aaron.

While I was breaking the crust off the chocolate fudge rectangles and turning them into squares, I remembered that I already gave $25 a month—$300 a year—to the general fund of my college’s foundation.

Over the past five years I’ve paid $1,500 to the foundation. And while I was waiting to “write a book”—all along I could have been earmarking those funds to Marvin’s Scholarship.

It was only my own idea of having to “go big or stay home” that got in my own way of actually doing something sooner, something concrete that could have been helping real students all these years.
I felt like Dorothy when she found out the power of the shoes she had been wearing.

Empowered and deliberate, I wrote the vice president of institutional advancement to say I wanted to increase my monthly donation and make a multi-year commitment to start “The Hero Scholarship.”

Of course he said yes.

In Fall 2011, David Lowe returned to TCC campus to take the last classes he needed to complete his degree.

Marvin’s book has a happy ending—as happy of an ending I can give it now, from my viewpoint now and here.

Maybe in a few years I’ll revise this story and add an even happier ending.

History is like that, you know.