Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Bear, A Ball, A Birthday, A Boy

This essay first appeared on Freedom Institute's Families In Recovery blog in December 2013.

We are fortunate to have a home in the Beaverkill Valley, a beautiful, remote part of the Catskills.  As we arrived from Manhattan late one summer Saturday and passed our nearest neighbors, my wife, Margot, noticed a dog in front of their house. They’ve never had a dog. There were no cars in the driveway.  Certain no one was home and that she was seeing things, I stopped the car and backed down the road to disprove the phantom canine. Margot was right; a large, black, furry creature was busy on the lawn.  Margot was wrong; the large, black, furry creature was ursine, not canine.  A juvenile black bear methodically foraging for grubs, bugs, or children’s leftovers. 
I drove in the driveway, both in an effort to get a closer look and perhaps to snap a picture with my cell phone.  The bear studied the car and ambled off camera shy into the nearby woods, while my effort at cell phone photography was a fruitless all thumbs exercise.  I did get a close enough look to be pretty sure I’d seen this fellow by the side of the road about half a mile from our house earlier in the month.
We drove home, quickly checking our blueberry bushes to make sure the ripening fruit wasn’t part of the bear’s diet, unpacked the car and continued on to another confrontation with local wildlife, the ant colony that had emerged in our kitchen the weekend before.  Armed with some heavy-duty bait procured from an exterminator in Manhattan, we were ready to reclaim our turf.  To our relief and delight, the colonists were gone; perhaps discouraged by the commercial ant traps we’d set out immediately upon their arrival.  At the time, the little fellows showed no interest in those traps, preferring a mysterious round trip from the corner of a windowsill to a spot behind our sink, and back beneath a crack in the windowsill.  Whether discouraged or enticed by the traps, there was no evidence, but the pests were clearly gone, the parade ground abandoned.
With things in control inside the house I headed outside to check on progress in the vegetable garden.  The life of a weekend gardener can be full of surprises.  This time I never reached the garden.  Down in the meadow below our house was the bear, rooting around.  I retreated inside, alerted Margot, grabbed the cell phone and a “bear whistle” that makes a high piercing sound.  Thus prepared, we headed to the small balcony outside our bedroom that looks down on the meadow.  The bear, unaware, posed for several photographs this time, too busy in its search for food to pay any attention to us.  Satisfied with my results as a wildlife photographer, thanks in part to a subject that was graciously moving steadily toward house and camera, I decided to test the effectiveness of the bear whistle.  A C+ at best.  A series of shrieks and the bear begrudgingly shuffled off into nearby weeds before stopping to turn to inspect the location of the insistent whistle blower.  A prolonged standoff between whistler and inspector ensued before the whistler began to speculate about the effectiveness of the whistle in a confrontation at closer quarters. It was unclear what was on the bear’s mind, unless it was finding a quieter dining spot, as it finally thrashed away through the weeds.    
Down from the balcony, I headed out to the garden again.  Just as I finished harvesting the first broccoli of the season, I heard our neighbors returning home from a late afternoon swim.  I thought they’d like to know they’d had a visitor, so I crossed the upper meadow to their house, a strange combination of pruning shears, fresh broccoli, and bear whistle in hand.  I emerged through a thicket of ferns to tell my tale and administer caution about leaving bear attractants like garbage, including garbage with soiled diapers outside the house.  Caution, bear stories, and thanks shared we went our separate ways.
A little while later I returned to the neighbors, this time to share cell phone portraiture of our neighborhood interloper.  In the interim the bear had returned to their yard again.  He was particularly intrigued by a soccer ball sitting on the lawn.  We speculated on why a soccer ball captivates a bear. Scent: leather, grass, human sweat?  Color?  Dreams of being a circus performer?  The prospect of edible contents?  Whatever drew him to it, one can only imagine his surprise at the sudden pffft as his claws deflated the object of his curiosity.
The ball belonged to a ten-year-old girl who had gotten it while attending a soccer camp recently.  It was in fact, her birthday.  The bear, the ball and the birthday set off a reaction in me.  Sitting in our basement was a bag of at least a dozen soccer balls.  It seemed only right to go get one, pump it up, and give the birthday girl a replacement.  Our basement, in fact, is filled with all sorts of sports equipment that belonged to our son, our son who had died of an accidental heroin overdose barely eight months ago.  More than sports equipment:  books, CD’s, furniture, drums, furniture from a failed attempt at living on his own in an apartment, a seldom deployed vacuum cleaner, games, martial arts paraphernalia, the list goes on.  Not to mention everything from early childhood on that has been stored awaiting its next station in life.  A tricycle, bicycles in several sizes, a rubber raft, toys from sandbox days.  And that is just the basement.  There is his room, which is still painful to enter.  There are clothes and belongings in our New York apartment.
We are faced with a kind of triage.  What just goes to the dump, in truth probably should have gone to the dump even were he still alive?  What do we sell? Where?  What do we give away?  Where?  What do we keep for sentimental reasons?  Where?  Virtually every object has a story or is a reminder of a period in his all too brief life.  What is healthy to keep?  What is healthy to dispose of in one fashion or another?  These are the questions we ask ourselves.  The answers are often painful, sometimes irrational, and not always easy to agree upon.
A bag full of soccer balls.  Easy, grab one and make a young girl happy.  Not so fast.  Not the ball that came home from a family trip to the World Cup in France in ’98.  It’s never been kicked around.  Kept as a memento.  Somehow to give it away now is to give away a larger piece of William than I’m prepared for.  Likewise an all black ball he brought home from a trip to Switzerland.  A celebration of a European Championship. Balls from with various soccer camps William had gone to.   What will we do with them?  I don’t know. My sensitivity to the differences in those soccer balls is nearly as refined as the bear’s sense of smell.  I sat on the basement stairs, taking far too long to make the decision about which ball I could part with.  Which part of William I could give away with less grief and possibly some happiness.
I’m not much different from the bear.  Using all my senses to see what an object  might yield.  In the bear’s case most likely gustatory delights.  In my case, some magical restoration via sight, smell, touch, however brief, of William himself.  Unlike the bear, however, I’m careful with how I treat these objects.  Any and every careless mishandling, every pffft, puts me at greater remove from the boy I already mourn so sorely.      

I have no idea how long this process will go on, with everything from soccer balls, to overcoats, to socks, to old computers.  I have no idea what is healthy.  I know that there is a painted paper mache and aluminum foil turtle named Herbert created in a middle school art class that will always stay.  I know there is a hockey puck from a Rangers game that stays.  I know that a baseball bat engraved “Iron Will” stays.  Maybe a time comes to say good-bye to objects, to let go.  Shouldn’t I get to hang on to objects that are pieces of my son’s story for as long as I like?  A time will come when Herbert, a bat, and a hockey puck will be meaningless to someone.  For me, that time is not now.  For, now a soccer ball is, as they say, enough to get the ball rolling on sorting out what to give up and what to keep close.                     

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