So there I was on a bitterly cold Tuesday morning in February. It was just like the beginning of any other work day. Except, by the time I’m done with my commute, I will be nearly blinded by incomprehensible rage. To be truthful, the whole thing really started about two weeks before when my wife was the unwilling participant in a four-car collision on an icy street near our home. Good news: no none was hurt. Bad news: her venerable Camry ended up with a highly-compressed trunk and a bumper held on by bungee cords.
Ever the gallant husband, I let my wife drive my car while the insurance company figured it out and relegated myself back to our kids’ car, the Windstar. If you aren’t familiar with that make of automobile, don’t feel bad. To give you an idea of how old it is, consider that Ford Motor Company stopped making them twelve years ago. It’s the mini-van we bought when my oldest turned one. He’s a freshman in college now. The actual blue-book trade in value is $74, and that’s with an in-dash cassette player. Evidently, when it was built in the mid-nineties, the technology to put sliding passenger doors on both sides of the vehicle hadn’t been created yet. Instead, to access the rear seat, the driver side seat folds down on itself and slides forward. I have moved that thing back-and-forth thousands of time putting infants in-and-out of car seats. Never had a problem with it. Until today. The day I nearly lost it.
Today, after being pushed forward so I can toss my briefcase and lunchbox into the back, the seat refuses to straighten back up. It just sits there, folded in half like a clam-shell. Even if I could wedge myself into it, the only way I could drive now would be with my elbows tucked over my head and using a periscope to see. No amount of physical persuasion has any effect. I use all the “magic words” my older brother taught me to use when starting reluctant cars during Northern Michigan winters. Nothing. Soon, I’m sitting on the bench seat behind the driver’s, cursing freely, while yanking madly back and forth on the headrest with no result when I can feel the first inklings of true anger start inside me. I feel the minutes ticking away, and I need to get to school because along with everything else, I have to photocopy a seven-page-long packet before first period. Now normally, I would describe myself as a fairly calm guy. Sure, I’ll go off on the occasional rant, but it’s usually for comedic effect. Not this time. This time, frustration is clearly taking control. I sense myself becoming infuriated with the utter stupidity of the situation. Unreasonably so. Having no other options, I decide to take the now less than road worthy Camry. Slamming the van driver-side door shut with the full intention of breaking the window, I yell at my son to get in the other car. I stomp around to its driver’s side when I realize I don’t have my keys for it. They’re still in the house, which ticks me off even more.
I get the keys, and come back out into the garage; but, for whatever reason, they refuse to slide onto my key ring. While I’m fumbling with them, they fall out of my hand and slip out of sight under the seat. I simultaneously clench every muscle in my upper body, tuck in my chin, slam shut my eyes and breathe in sharply through my nose. This is non-verbal communication to my son to hold down the idle chit-chat. I manage to retrieve the key, start the engine and off we went to school. By “off we went,” I mean, “there we sat” because now all the roads leading to the high school are choked with students heading off to class. My eyes constantly switch between the traffic ahead of me and the clock on the dash. Did I mention I had to make copies of a seven-page-long packet for my first period of the day?
I can feel the blood squeezing through my constricted temple arteries with each beat of my rage-fueled heart. In the rational part of my brain (which is rapidly shrinking) I know how stupid and useless is the blind fury I’m feeling. The stupid seat didn’t break on purpose. There are a lot of other people in the world who have suffered untold times the amount of misery I’m experiencing. I check-off the list in my head: Syrian refugees, Tibetan Buddhists, victims of the Holocaust. Of course, instead of calming me down, this line of thought makes me mad at the Nazis, too.
We finally arrive at school minutes before the bell rings to start the day. With my son in tow, I rush upstairs to the teacher workroom so I can copy the packet I need for class. I can’t help but notice that someone thoughtlessly left the copier jammed in the middle of a run and didn’t bother trying to fix it. I rip open the various access doors, tear out thirteen ruffled up pieces of paper, slam the doors shut, and start my print job. Before the papers are even loaded, my son reminds me that he’s going to need a pass to class because the bell is about to ring. Grinding another layer of enamel off my teeth, we rush over to my room so that I can write him out a admit slip. Hustling back to the workroom, I’m greeted not by my completed copies, but by a bleeping, blinking control panel which has more error lights than seen since the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster. So, on top of everything else, I get to be “that” guy who leaves the copier crippled because I need to find another xerox machine to duplicate this stuff before the <Bing!> bell rings.
I hate my life.
Now, the machine is jammed, I don’t have the copies I need, I have a roster-full of freshman waiting for me to show up, and I’m late for class. I gurgle something primeval, clench my hands at my sides, and march into my room where I am greeted by a fresh-faced child who gives me a three-page long essay, which is only notable because half-way down each sheet the writing fades to transparency and thus cannot be read. Noticing my wild-eyed expression, she says, “My printer was running out of ink. Is this okay?” It is only through some divine intervention that the career dissipation circuit-breaker cuts off my vocal cords before I can respond. Gathering myself together the best I can, I manage to stumble through the class with my lips pressed so hard against my teeth that I can actually hear the muscles in my face contracting. The rest of the day seeps by, and I’m mentally exhausted from having only a hair-trigger holding in my temper. I need some way to dump all this built-up bile in my system or else I’m going to explode. And that’s when I see Charlie for the first time.
Charlie is the newborn son of a teacher colleague of mine. She had him in his stroller, and, when I looked down at him, I was immediately struck by what an incredible miracle a baby represents. He was perfect. His eyes darted about the room, taking it all in. I couldn’t help thinking how new this all must be to him. He had never been in a school building before. There was so much he was going to learn someday about this world, but, at this point, he had yet to even feel the warmth of a summer day. He had never seen fireworks on a Fourth of July, or a decorated Christmas Tree, or even leaves on a tree. Funny thing was, the more I thought about this, the less angry I felt. A sense of calmness started to rise within me. Here was a life at the beginning before all the nonsense of living starts to get in the way. For him, every dawn was fresh and new. I was reminded of how I used to describe my youngest son as a toddler, how he seemed to wake up each day amazed that life simply continued for him, that there was still more joy to discover.
I looked at his tiny little hands. After barely two months outside the womb, they had yet to hold a baseball, or a Frisbee, or a steering wheel. It would be years before he would ever hold a pencil, more before he could express his thoughts fluently. What would he write someday? Mother’s Day Cards? Checks to pay the mortgage? Nobel Prize acceptance speeches? At this moment in his life, everything is possible. He could become a doctor and use those hands to repair a partially-blocked carotid artery or train to be an architect and design great buildings. Charlie would someday use those very fingers to nervously grasp the hand of his first crush, hesitantly wave goodbye as he left home to go to college, gently wipe away the tears of his own child. As I continued to reflect, I noticed the anger inside of me, which I had fought with all day, was replaced with… replaced with… peace. That’s the only way I can describe the emotion. And that’s when I should have left and gone home.
Soon, Charlie’s mom unpacked him from his stroller and offered to let me hold him. Even as a veteran father of two, I was still nervous about supporting his head correctly. Wrapping my arms around him, I peered at his face. He was napping with an expression of serenity reserved for those without a care. I reflected again about his newness, how his tiny body was free of scars and blemishes. I looked at his hands for a second time, noticing how they had balled up into little fists. And that made me think of all the other stuff he had not yet experienced. It would only be a few years before he took his first standardized test, and the state would dutifully inform his parents how he ranked against his peers. I thought of all the ugliness out there he was blissfully ignorant of. How long would it be before he used these hands to fling the TV remote in disgust after watching a news story about an abandoned child, or a sexual predator, or another useless war? I looked at him and thought how he had never yet needed to raise his hands to protect himself from a playground bully. Or punch a wall in frustration. Or pull a trigger. At that moment, his whole universe was filled with only those who loved him, but I knew it wouldn’t stay that way for long.
And I felt myself getting angry again.