Monday, March 12, 2012

Risk and Responsibility

Back in the late ‘80s, I was living in Tustin, Ca., and my house was right underneath the approach corridor for planes landing at John Wayne Airport (formerly Orange County Airport). Sometimes the jetliners would come in so low that you could see passenger faces staring out the windows. I was standing out in the driveway one evening when a particularly big one came soaring over, and I yelled for my wife to come out and see. We oohed and aahed for awhile under the descending mist of jet fuel exhaust, then looked down just in time to notice that the front door of the house had been left open, and our six month old daughter was barrelling through the doorway in her walker. Right toward the two high cement steps that led from the driveway into the house (or vice versa, in her case). Like a bat out of hell I started toward her at a dead run, just as the wheels of her walker tipped over the first step. Over she went, and everything cranked down into slow motion as I desperately launched myself in her direction, sliding prone across the asphalt-and-gravel driveway in my shorts and t-shirt, and somehow managing to slide my extended hand between her infant skull and the pavement just as- I swear!-  her hair touched the ground.

Forward several years. I now had two daughters, the younger of which was around 3 or 4 years, I think. We were walking along the shore at Newport Beach, shoes off, kicking along in the shallows. Nice day, no tide to speak of. I remember the kids were toddling along behind me, just a few feet, picking up shells and whatnot. Then out of nowhere, a tall wave rose up RIGHT AT THE SHORE, hit the beach...and my daughter was gone. Just that quick. All I could do at that point was try and extrapolate from the position she’d last been standing, dive in and hope for the best. I couldn’t see a damned thing under the churning aftermath of the wave, but somehow my extended hand (there’s that extended hand iconically symbolic!) automatically closed around her heel, and I managed to yank her out of there like a wet fish.

Forward another several years. I was driving a speedboat in the dead of winter on Lake Powell. Snow falling on the water. Nobody else on the lake. We’d gone 50 miles out from the marina to see Rainbow Bridge, a beautiful and amazing natural rock formation, a giant arch carved by flowing water over millions of years. I was driving on the way back in, doing around 50 knots on a surface so smooth and glasslike that it felt like we weren’t moving at all. We were about 5 miles from the marina when I saw some grass sticking up out of the water, and it was about then that I noticed someone had trashed one of the guide buoys meant to keep boaters in the middle of the channel. I turned to my friend and said something like, “Hey, I think we’ve got a prob...”, and that’s when the boulder seemed to rise up right in front of us out of the snow and gloom. It was probably 20 feet across, and sticking up out of the water maybe 2 or 3 feet at the highest. If I’d noticed it a bit earlier, I probably would have tried to turn the boat, we would have come into it sideways, and all of us would be dead, probably not even missed until the next day or so out on the deserted lake. As it was, it all happened so suddenly that I had no time to react, and that’s what saved us. I simply held the wheel and drove straight into the rock, which launched us high into the air and delivered us on the other side, maybe 100 feet or so down-water. My daughter, who was wrapped up in several layers of clothes and was sleeping in the back of the boat, was tossed up into the air and hit her head on the canopy. Thankfully, since she’d been traveling the same speed as the boat and as there’d been no change of direction, she came right back down in her seat, a bit flustered but none the worse for wear. Even more miraculously was the fact that the boat had suffered no damage, not even to the prop! It seems the moss- slicked rock had had much the same effect as a ski ramp...weird, huh? To this day I tell people we ‘James Bonded’ over the boulder:)

These are a few of the more dramatic sort of incidences that probably all parents experience from time to time. Par for the course, as it were. Of course, none of these events were initiated on purpose; at least, not in the direct sense. Then again, I knew from experience that these things happen, and so in perhaps a less-than-direct sense I caused them all; or at least, was definitely an agent in their cause, providing the innocent lambs for sacrifice upon the world’s altar of existential Russian Roulette.  One might certainly argue that since no harm was done, and especially since my own actions prevented said harm, that my culpability is somehow erased; but, really, this is nothing more than a form of special pleading to justify delivering new lives into the arena of existential risk in the first place, an argument that’s extended - and quite ambiguously, I might add- dependent on the whys and whens and wherefores of a tangled skein of philosophical and cultural justifications so convoluted as to become laughable at times, if it weren’t all so damned sad.

Do I regret the risks I’ve taken with my children, directly purposeful or otherwise? In retrospect, I’d have to say ‘no’ for the most part. As so many of AN’s opponents point out, risk is part of what makes life worthwhile; at least, for the living. Of course, the reason I don’t particularly regret the risks with my kids is because they came through them unscathed. It would be a far different story if my children had died; or much, much worse in my view, tragically harmed in a way that would have significantly robbed them of the joys which are to be found in this life. And then there’s the fact that the risks continue to this day, and will continue until the day they die, and that some of the downsides to these risks might involve horrible, life-shattering suffering that might even cause them to curse the day they were born, as so many do and have always done. And everything bad that happens to them, including the eventual decline in their health, and their fortunes, as well as their deaths, is ultimately my fault. Why? Because I brought them to this place, knowing full well that nobody gets out alive.

As I sit here writing this, my dog, Little Voice, is slowly dying. Her respiration is shallow, and in the last few days she’s lost the ability to walk. On my next day off, I think, I’ll bum a ride from my ex and deliver her into the finality and utter peace of non-existence. I’ll go in with her, like I’ve always done, and tell her how much I love her as the needle is inserted and she closes her eyes. It’s as good a way to die as there is, I reckon, although it still makes me feel like a murderer every time I have to go through it. I hope I’ve given her a decent life, and that she’s been relatively happy. These last 13 years have gone by so quickly, in my mind I still see her as the puppy hiding under the Christmas tree. I’ll try to get some thoughts together on this subject as soon as I can. Until then, take care one and all.