That was my personal mantra while I drove down the highway.
Several yards in front of me, a man had his hand out the window as he flipped off the Volvo in the other lane.
Couldn’t blame him. The Volvo was driving 10 mph under the speed limit and kept arbitrarily slowing down for God knows what, some ghostly obstruction only he/she could see.
Not to say the Volvo was an irregular occurrence on this highway. I swear, every weekday, some guy calls up his friend and goes, “Hey Fred, you know what would be a great time? Wanna call in sick from work, get in our cars, drive down the Merritt side-by-side at 45 mph for, I don’t know, hundred, hundred-fifty miles straight? Now wouldn’t that be fun?”
(Narrator: it is not fun.)
Usually, I’d have been right behind the asshole burning rubber past the guy blocking the left lane. But I didn’t. Instead, I was thinking, I really don’t want to die. And I was scared this little bit of road rage drama could get in the way of that.
The real reason: I’d just read Andre Dubus’s “Broken Vessels” earlier that day, a short essay on the author’s experience with his own disability.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, Andre is one of the greatest short story writers we’ve had in America. In 1989, he saw a motorist in distress on the side of the freeway. While he was helping them get out of their car, an oncoming vehicle struck him, leading to the amputation of his right leg and the loss of use of his left leg.
I’ve known this about him and his incident for years, have acknowledged it, understood the pain. Or at least I thought I did. I didn’t. Reading “Broken Vessels,” I realized the vast gap that exists between understanding a fact and feeling the truth of it.
The essay tells of Andre’s life after his final divorce when he was reduced to seeing his two young daughters only a few times a month. There is a paragraph early on that details the work he had to do to prepare dinner for their visit. I won’t quote it here, as it’s long and specific and direct with a Hemingway-esque heft that makes it all the brutal for its summation: “There comes a time in the life of an amputee when he realizes that everything takes three times as long.”
Let that sink in while you’re going over 60 in a metal death trap (not to be confused with the death metal band, Venom).
All it takes is one idiot, I kept saying to myself, death-gripping the wheel. I was trying my best to stay away from the action in front of me: the guy had just cut off the Volvo in order to, I imagine, teach him a lesson. Though what lesson, God knows: soon he sped off, and the road was quiet again.
But still, the Dubus piece was in my head.
The title, “Broken Vessels,” is a biblical reference. It comes from a conversation Dubus has with his personal therapist: “The potter is making a pot and it cracks. So he smashes it, and makes a new vessel. You can’t make a new vessel out of a broken one. Let’s find the real you.”
Maybe I’m not well-versed enough in my Jeremiah, but I’m not sure what to make of this line. I want it to be hopeful, but it doesn’t hit me that way. It reminds me that many of us are born with “perfect” vessels. We try to be vigilant to keep them so, but it’s a constant war of attrition. And by the nature of time, it’s a war we’re bound to lose.
It could happen suddenly. It could happen over time. I just hope it’s not today.
Of course, there isn’t much we can do about that. Safety is an illusion, but it’s one I’m happy we keep — our daily existence is better for it. Sometimes you see past it, you get to the edge and look down into the precarious state that we call life. It’s worth doing, but it’s nice to step back from that ledge and retreat back to the cave if you’re lucky enough.
In the end, none of us are.
But there’s this line Dubus writes that I hope I won’t forget anytime soon:
“…our bodies exist to perform the condition of our spirits: our choice, our desires, our loves. My physical mobility and my little girls have been taken from me; but I remain. So my crippling is a daily and living sculpture of certain truths: we receive and we lose, and we must try to achieve gratitude; and with that gratitude to embrace with whole hearts whatever of life remains after the losses.”
May we all keep a little of that gratitude with us.