I wonder what Isaac Babel was thinking as his captors let him down some last corridor of Lubyanka Prison. That he had always known this would come? Or hoped that his dark forebodings were only imagined? Either way, he had peopled his own consciousness with reality’s hard edge. And whether it is better to be prepared or unprepared for the KGB’s bullet, who can say?
Which brings me to Valerie and Luis, 19-year-olds, one my sister’s former student. They have visited me for the last five days. Well, more exactly, they have visited me and the area and their extended family. An instructional experience for us all.
Why are you doing this, Valerie asked me one day as we brunched in San Francisco’s belle epoque Garden Court. The tones were hushed, the clink of silver cutlery, the occasional chirp of a plate, a cough from some distant corner of the daylighted conservatory. And Valerie had a question. She also had a plate heaped high with bacon, sausage and everything imaginably bad for the human diet. And whatever the future of her cardiac health…she had a question. Why was I doing this?
Fortunately, I had been asking myself the same thing. And I had been facing my own mixed motives and ambivalent feelings. Trying to help them…understanding that this really wasn’t possible…but that human beings, including childless ones, have some need to encourage the next generation…to pass on something. That sort of thing. While the other, more enjoyable part of the answer, was coming to me right now. That Valerie and Luis, who had barely traveled anywhere, and certainly never been in a place like this…got it entirely. They weren’t looking at this place, well, not just looking. They were absorbing. They felt it. The two of them seemed slightly overawed…much like me. Elevated, in the long run.
Perhaps I have my own values and sense of reality validated by these two young visitors. Jane and I took them to see the ocean on their first full day here. Which proved to be, ironically, Northern California’s only true moment of winter. A storm was lashing the coast. The unaccustomed rain was making me nervous enough to ask Jane to slow down on the short drive over the winding hills. Along the San Mateo coast, the winds were strong enough to make it very hard to open the door of the men’s toilet at the county carpark. Fortunately, the strong 19-year-old Luis was there to help. Valerie, sitting in the backseat of the car, eyed the foaming waves, driving rain and spraying surf. She huddled and sank lower. Luis found some steps down the cliff. Should they go? Sure, I said.
It was all unspoken, how this was a good thing to experience. Nothing to apologize for, the fact that this beach was not currently offering a Cancún suntan…and never would. This was roiling and eroding Mother Nature. This was where the geophysical rubber meets the road. Yet I worried as Valerie and Luis disappeared over the edge of the cliff. Impossible to know the state of the path, not to mention the state of their awareness. Waves have taken many an onlooker by surprise. But they returned moments later, climbed back in the car, invigorated. As was I.
Why do all this? Why pay to fly them up here, house them in a motel and embark on trips like this one? To get in touch. With, among other things, my own resentment. Disabled at an early age, much of life has been closed off to me. They have intact bodies, these two. They will be able to do a lot of things, for a lot of years, that I could only observe. Thus the emotional warring factions within me. It’s good that I have the wisdom to…no, have painfully acquired the wisdom to…accept my own ambivalence. To resent and enjoy and envy and help, in a chorus of conflicting voices.
Why, Valerie asked? And once I talked, they did the same. About how difficult it was for Luis’ Hispanic family to accept Valerie, his African-American wife. How their future as a couple posed challenges, particularly with the advent of mixed-race kids. Problems to which I had no answers. I felt privileged to be in the loop, as it were, despite the generations, the gulf of experience…and, let us speak plainly in America, divisions of class. All of which added up to a major dose of humanity, for me.
Was this all about the passing on of life wisdom – or the affirmation that I have something worthwhile to pass on? And who is being healed?
Crossing San Francisco Bay on the ferry to Larkspur, damned if all three of us did not sit outside in the February wind. One massive bridge appearing in all its facets. Another in the distance beckoning with its gate. Islands coming and going. And Valerie wondering why she wasn’t seasick. Neither had been on a boat before. And all of us in unspoken agreement regarding the cold. Brutal to Arizonans, of course. Rather tough on quadriplegics with reduced blood flow. But there we were. Hardy. And tested.
Did I pass on anything? Oh, I did help both a bit with career matters. They seemed most appreciative. Perhaps the best thing I did was to bite my tongue.
One day they abandoned my hand-crafted itinerary and decamped for an East Bay suburb. Luis had a cousin in Richmond. And with barely a word they were aboard the BART subway system and gone. Forget the tickets for the science museum. Never mind their motel room in Menlo Park. Still, when they turned up the next day, I muttered a few words of displeasure…then listened. Luis’ Richmond cousin, someone he barely knew, had welcomed them with open arms. Mixed race absolutely no issue. The two of them taken in like long-lost family. They have no such connection in Arizona. They simply stumbled into the experience. Which, I explained, reminded me of my own arrival in London more than four decades ago, where distant relations took me in too.
It was all about learning, Valerie and Luis and their five days here. Particularly our brisk walk down Market Street. San Francisco’s homeless flock to this thoroughfare. On Market Street I tend to put my head down, push my wheelchair joystick forward and run the impoverished gauntlet. Not Valerie. She made her way only as quickly as the dire circumstance allowed. She gave money to one man who wanted Burger King. To another who needed a bus ticket. To someone who couldn’t make rent. Will she learn, Valerie? Or will I learn from her?