I stood in my front yard the other day and watched it. Lights blinked here and there and a few birds fluttered around it, but it remained motionless. Inert. Unfeeling. I let my eyes wander over its western edge and then back to the east, then from its bottom to its top. Despite its unmoving facade, I knew that life teemed inside in so many ways. Some lives were broken, many were being repaired. The dance of existence whirled away within those solid brick walls.
From my front yard, I stared to the southwest at the horizon, at the hospital in which I was born.
Here I am, a 50-year-old man, and I live in the shadow of the hospital room I occupied my first days of life. I guess I haven't traveled very far, I thought. I wonder what that says about me, about the life I've lived in the last half-century. The hospital, CHI-St. Vincent, stood monolithic, like a personal sphinx holding the secret of where I began.
The powers-that-be have allowed me to write this column for two years now. I've enjoyed it more than those reading it, I'm sure. It's been an outlet for stories swirling in my mind and for those stories I've seen from afar. After my very first column in January 2018, I received an email from a reader I'll call Mr. Burle, a retired teacher. Man, he sounded agitated.
Mr. Burle wrote, in part, "I caution you to remember what I think is a fact. People live their lives based on a basic principle of needing to survive ..." And he went on about hoping there would be no "snowflakes" in future columns. I thanked Mr. Burle for writing and assured him there would be a few snowflakes here and there (the English language is full of great adjectives and other descriptors) but that I hope he'd read anyway. No response.
However, Mr. Burle wrote me after each column appeared in Saturday's paper. His first few responses were stoic, proper, and well-written. This gave me the sense that he was still agitated. I pictured an old guy, white-haired, bearded and nitpicky, shaking his head as he read the paper, blurting out curses to the articles he perused. But, within a few weeks, the agitation disappeared. More and more, we corresponded as fellow teachers. His words became more flowery than mine and his insight definitely deeper.
He lamented his retirement from teaching. "I miss it every day! I often dream about being in a classroom," he wrote one cold day in March. "My heart sings in praise of the English language ..." he wrote in spring. In his mind, he traveled back to college one fall and remembered "the pleasure of those lasting memories. My parents shared my uncertainty but encouraged me with actions and many words unspoken but understood. Those years in that academic setting have made me a person I am pleased to be. Hopefully my parents have noticed from their heavenly home."
Mr. Burle wrote about character, about thankfulness, Dylan Thomas, religion, and politics. We didn't share similar views about many things, but discussing disparate thoughts in a reasoned manner via bi-weekly emails was enlightening and fulfilling.
When the Democrat-Gazette ceased print editions in his area, Mr. Burle asked if I'd mind emailing him my columns. Are you kidding? I would have hand-delivered them. We continued our correspondence. I emailed columns every other Monday and he offered critique, insight, and the occasional compliment.
Last summer, he grew silent for a few weeks. After a while, Mr. Burle wrote to explain that he had undergone a hernia operation that set him back more than he thought. A few weeks later, he wrote that he had "a relapse" and that his health wasn't good. I kept sending columns and he kept responding in kind. He wrote about waiting in line in the San Francisco Sears parking lot for Rolling Stones concert tickets when he was 29. He wrote about his love for high school football and his attention to Steve Sullivan's sports reporting on Channel 7. He wrote about visiting a frozen Niagara Falls. Last September, he offered me some good-natured chastisement for forgetting to email him.
In October, Mr. Burle reminisced in the way of a poet, in the way of a teacher uniquely capable of scanning life's mountains and seeing summits instead of valleys. He wrote that he was sick, but that he felt recovery coming. His words flowed and his thoughts lifted like vapor off a stream. "October is an artist," he said.
"I'm going to steal that line," I told him.
I sent Mr. Burle columns in November and received no response. After sending one in December, I became agitated at the silence, unsettled and unsure. I searched his name on the Internet and, for the first time, I saw his face. He had the gray beard I imagined. He had the bespectacled face and the grandpa smile. It was his obituary picture. Mr. Burle, an 80-year-old man I never met in person, was gone.
Standing in my front yard, I watched St. Vincent hospital in its silence and calm. But I knew that inside that one building, hundreds of people moved about, scattering like BBs dropped from the palm of a 10-year-old's hand. And that's what life is: the diagonal directions, the imperfect experiences, the random personalities all encased in one vessel. I never met Mr. Burle, but the byproduct of our exchanges was the exploration of previously unknown territory and the touring of previously unimagined concepts.
And standing in my yard still gaping at that hospital, I knew. The proof of life is not the distance we travel. The proof of life is the ground we cover in the process.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Editorial on 01/11/2020