Thursday, May 8, 2008

documenting change: fourteen.

health. wealth. wisdom.

When I was in tenth grade, my dad and I – alone for two weeks while my mom was off in Ohio for the birth of my nephew – we thought we’d won the lottery. The big one.

I’d woken up to get ready for school, and I found a cryptic note taped to my bedroom door. “Sleeping after selling horses,” it said.

My dad worked the late shift at various grain elevators along the Mississippi River, so he’d come home around 4 or 5 a.m. and go to sleep just before I was waking.

On this particular morning, having gone to bed believing that at long last he was a wealthy man – he couldn’t quite rest easy. The second he heard me get up, he shuffled out of his bedroom nearly shaking.

“Did you see my note?”

“What did you mean?”

“It’s an Indian proverb. I wrote the English translation.” My dad was whispering, and his eyes looked crazy and alert and as if they were bouncing joyfully.

“What does it mean?”

“Herpreet. What I’m going to tell you, you can’t tell anyone.”

“Okay.” I gave a solemn promise.

“Come here.” He led me out of our hallway and into the kitchen. He pulled out a lottery ticket – his hands shaking. And then, still whispering, he slowly pronounced the words, “We won the lottery.”

I think I froze in place. I’m not the kind of person who screams like a hyena when I’m shocked and happy. I get quiet and contemplative and numb. Later I might break out into laughter. Nervous giggling laughter. “We won the lottery? Are you sure?”

“See it.” Newspaper open in front of him, he extended to me the ticket held in his shaking hand. He began reading the numbers aloud, as if confirming for himself. “Don’t tell anyone,” he reminded me.

“I won’t,” I promised, my own body suddenly shaking in disbelief.

I spent that day at school in the strangest waking-dream-state. I felt as if I’d been dosed with enough Novocain to numb a full-grown horse.

“Okay.” He said. We embraced tightly. We laughed. We stared at each other – our excited brown eyes probably mirroring one another’s in expression. “I’m going to go try to sleep now.”

“Wait. What did that note mean?”

“Oh.” He said the proverb in Punjabi. Then, “sleeping after selling horses. Means someone is resting good after working hard.”

When I got home from school that day, my dad was awake, probably getting ready to leave for work. Embarrassed and disappointed, he had to tell me, “I made a mistake. We didn’t win the lottery.” Psssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss. Like a pin stuck a balloon. I deflated. I’d been fantasizing all day about how now I was going to be able to afford to go study English at U of Wisconsin in Madison or UMASS/Amherst.

That weekend, we got on the phone and told my mom and sister in Ohio the whole fiasco. I think at first, he may have asked that we keep the whole thing to ourselves. Eventually, my other two sisters heard the story too. For years and years we have laughed about how, for a day, we’d won the lottery. Bellyaching laughs.

Once you think you’ve actually hit the jackpot, you can never forget what it feels like to be instantaneously rich – even if only for a day.

So on Monday, when I got online to look at the posted triathlon results, I was not at all disappointed to see that in fact, I had not placed 3rd in my age group. Back in January when I’d registered, I’d signed up in the “fat tire” division of the race – for those who would ride on mountain bikes or hybrids. While I was training, I got hold of a road bike and never thought to change my registration for the triathlon.

I should have been counted among women 30-34 in the road bike division. I placed 15th out of 25 in my age group and division, and 104 overall. I am really damn happy with these results. And all day Sunday, I got to believe I’d won the lottery. Sort of.

But it’s as if I really did win the lottery.

On Tuesday, I decided that it would be the right thing to notify the race coordinator and the woman who really placed 3rd. I sent them an email explaining my error in registration. I elaborated that, having panicked in Lake Charles at T-Gator, completing this second triathlon without mishaps had been important to me. I shared that (newly realized) I raced in memory of my mother who passed. So believing I’d placed for a day was a welcome feeling. Finally, I told her:

I wanted J. to know she placed 3rd, b/c she may have had her own reasons for why this would have completely made her day.

Later, I came clean to my classmates:

Hey guys,

K., I wanted to say thanks for hand delivering the rocketchix metal to Serrano's. It truly made my day to believe I'd actually placed! Especially after how disappointed I felt after T-Gator. Part of training for a triathlon was in memory of my mom who passed away a year and a half a go. She was a completely feisty and adventurous woman, so she regretted that she'd never learned to swim and ride a bike. During rocketchix, I focused during the swim and the bike by talking to her the entire time. In my head - not out loud. :) And it helped - I didn't even notice the wind during the ride.

I explained my registration issue and said that I’d let the coordinator and the actual winner know. I added:

But. I'm totally keeping the metal on the pink ribbon! ;) Well. Unless she asks for it...

So, I want to digress for a moment. Sometimes you encounter a person to whom you are immediately drawn. There was one girl in my class to whom I was drawn. She had also had a tough time at T-Gator in Lake Charles. She crashed as she was heading out on her bike ride, and when I say she crashed, I mean her entire calf is still healing. She also scratched up her arm and her face. But, bleeding heavily and aching - she completed the race. She is nineteen and a freshman at LSU.

I noticed right away that she is completely stunning and has a dry and quick wit. I also noticed that she seemed fairly unaware of her own beauty, and possibly unaware of the degree of her humor. I noticed that she is mature for her age – she, at nineteen, asked me questions about what I do that I don’t know if I would have been astute enough to consider at her age. Her humor also revealed her intelligence. Finally, compared to the other freshman girl in our class – a nice eighteen year old, but a young eighteen, it was blatantly evident exactly how mature and intelligent H. is.

Beyond this all, or because of it, or just because, I knew I liked the girl. I liked the way she spoke of her hometown. Once, on a bike ride, we passed cows on River Road, and H. began telling me about the place in Tennessee where she grew up. She said she lived in a place where she could look across the street and see baby cows all spring. She said she missed it.

In general, she spoke as if she is present and observant in the moment and her surroundings, but also reflective of the newness she is absorbing. She mentioned once how small a town she came from, how sheltered her life had been. Yet she made the statement matter-of-factly instead of in disappointment or disillusion.

I guess it’s fair to say that, though she is in a totally different time in her life from where I am, I admire her. It was clear to me that we would not actually strike up any kind of friendship outside of class. In class, whereas, some of the people who were closer in age to one another were striking up actual friendships, my interactions with H. and others were appropriately limited to polite small talk.

Return to last Tuesday. A few hours after I sent the email to my triathlon classmates, I received this unexpected response from H:

We were all very excited for you regardless of any mixups in registration. Hey, you still beat 2 (or 3 - I can't remember) of your high school classmates! :)

On a more serious note, I'm really glad you sent this; you cannot imagine how wonderful the timing. Tomorrow will be the one year mark since I lost my brother. He had just turned 20 when he passed away during a glacier climbing accident in New Zealand. Extremely athletic and active, he was in the process of training for triathlons but never got the opportunity to compete in one. This entire experience has been very helpful as every time I complete one, no matter how I do, I feel like I've done something to make him proud.

Long story short, I'm sorry to hear about the loss of your mom, but I think I understand when you talk about talking to her while you rode. I hope this experience has been a good one for you; if I don't see you at T-Gator, enjoy Austin and good luck writing!

And it hit me in so many places. Heart. Head. Stomach. I sat with this email for several hours. I wanted this young girl to know exactly how remarkable she is. Later, I responded.

How strange the ways in which we all connect to one another. My husband was in a hiking accident in Montana when he was eighteen. He fell off of a mountain and broke his back and wouldn't have made it except that, completely disoriented, he managed to find his way to a hiking path. A couple of dogs sensed something was wrong and ran off from their owners - leading them to C. A husband and wife found him, and the husband happened to be a neuro-surgeon. He was incredibly lucky.

I'm sorry about your brother. I had already quietly observed that you are so very mature and intelligent at your age (compared to what I was like), and also that you are a stunning beauty [If you weren't sure of this, you should be.] Freshman year is a feat in and of itself, so I'm amazed at how remarkable you are to be in the honors college, to have made time for triathlons, to be living away from home for the first time, and to be grieving. Be proud of handling it all with grace. Your brother is most certainly proud.

I'm sorry you have to deal with finals during this one year mark. At the one year anniversary of my mom's death, I was afraid I would be in shambles. But my sister took it upon herself, first thing in the morning, to email my dad and my other sisters. She said in her email that she wanted to celebrate who our mom had been on that day by sharing her favorite memories of her. She asked that we respond by sharing our own favorite memories. Instead of being a mess, I ended up smiling to myself all day as I thought of the stories we'd all emailed to one another.

I hope you find a way to celebrate the person your brother had been tomorrow. Good luck with finals.

I don’t know if there’s any more I need to say about this all. I’d realized through various comments she made during our class that H. was close to her mother. I myself had never shared until that email that my mom had passed away. I keep thinking of this girl having lost her 20-year-old brother at the end of her senior year of high school and then heading off to college three months later. I keep thinking of her parents at home, having two kids gone from them – one so devastatingly gone, and one embarking on adulthood for the first time. I keep thinking about what it must be like to spend your entire freshman year grieving and also doing what you’re supposed to do.

H. did not need to respond to my email. But she did, and quite honestly. I’d already been thinking to myself that I wished I had a way to share with that girl how smart and mature and beautiful she is, because a person should know this about herself. Especially when she is just nineteen. I thought: Here is your chance to respond with equal honestly.

It was good to know she felt helped by my first email. I felt helped by the note she sent to me. In this exchange, it showed itself to me – the most exciting and meaningful reason to embark on actions outside of your comfort zone. There exists the mere possibility of discovering the connective tissue between yourself and people who are, on the surface, entirely different human beings. To discover it is like winning the lottery; it is like becoming a more grown and richer person – but to discover that invisible connection means first being open to the possibility.

SONGS: Redemption Song, Bob Marley and I Found a Reason, Velvet Underground

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