Friday, February 20, 2009
The Patron Saint of Shooting Stars
I had occasion to think of Christopher, my uncle, when I read Attorney General Eric Holder’s comments about Black History Month. “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot,” he said, “in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”
In my Catholic school third grade class, we had one African-American student named Pam, and she had the bad luck to be assigned a group project with me. I do not remember what the perceived insult was, but I lashed out at her by calling her a nigger. I was immediately pulled out of class by the teacher and sent to the principal’s office.
Having grown up in a household where my mother used that term quite regularly, I felt certain that I would come out okay in this fight. The principal let me stew while she called my mother to the campus. I was sent home.
Later that week, I was at my grandmother’s house, standing in her kitchen telling the story. My uncle Christopher was visiting and quietly listened to my rant. When I recounted the moment of insult, and used the dreaded word, Christopher nearly leapt from his seat. In a moment, he had a handful of my shirt in his hand and had me backed against the counter. “Don’t you ever use that word in my presence,” he shouted at me. “If I catch you ever saying that again, I will wash your mouth out with soap.” He released his grip on me and I ran. I slammed out the back door, flew across the lawn through my grandfather’s gardens to the back of the property. There, I scaled an apricot tree and found a niche way up high and out of sight in the foliage.
Christopher was my father’s brother, born in the fifties, a product of the sixties, a hippy with an earring and a passion for Volkswagens. He had been thrown out of my grandparents’ house for smoking pot. He was a rebel who played in a rock and roll band.
My very conservative parents treated Christopher with suspicion. He was the black sheep of the family. I knew that I could tell my mother how he manhandled me in the kitchen and she would put him in his place. I was planning my revenge when I heard the back door slam. Christopher came across the lawn through the gardens to stand directly beneath me. He did not look up.
“You need to understand something,” he said. “People have died for that word. They have been beaten, hanged, abused, mistreated. It is an evil word. Someday you will understand.” He walked away.
It did not take long for me to discover the truth in what he said, but by then he was living in Seattle, and we did not see much of each other. When I did see him, we did not have much to say.
One summer when I was a teenager, we went on a camping trip up the west coast, and met up with Christopher in a small village in the southern part of Washington state. He was now a successful commercial fisherman with his own boat, and he found the time to dock for a few days so we could visit. He took us out on the open ocean. I rode the whole way at the front of the boat, clinging to the main mast cable while standing on the prow. It was like flying. The air was clear, seagulls hovered over us, and the water was so blue it was almost black. The hot July day on land became crisp and cold on the water, and Christopher gave me several of his shirts to layer over my pathetic tee to keep myself warm. He fried up fresh tuna and bacon for sandwiches, and it was quite possibly the best meal I have ever had in my life.
But what I remember most was that Christopher was happy. He had found the secret of joy in his life. I can still see his face. I can still inhale the breath of that summer.
One cold January, Christopher took to the seas to fish in what had been a stormy and unproductive season. While far from port, a massive system blew in, and Christopher waited on his boat, the Adventure, to make sure that all his fishing buddies on other boats got in before the storm hit. He waited too long and was caught in the turbulent weather. The Adventure went missing.
Storm after storm pummeled the coast of Washington, and by the time the Coast Guard mounted a search, pieces of the Adventure had already washed up on the beach. Searchers found a large oil slick and some debris. When they dove down, they discovered a boat buried to the top of its wheelhouse in sediment at the bottom of the sea. The divers confirmed that it was the Adventure. Christopher and his two crew members were never found.
There are many teachers we have in our lives, and often the most profound are discovered far from the classroom. Christopher taught me to consider the world from the point of view of others and most importantly, to judge others by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. Like most of the great teachers in my life, I never got to tell him what he did for me.
His picture is on my desk, the mischievous grin on his face as he holds up a gigantic catch of the day. He is full of life on the deck of the Adventure. I like to remember him this way.
Sometimes, in the calm of night, I go out into my backyard and gaze up at the stars. All those spheres of fire arcing across the heavens. I stand there listening as Christopher told me he often did while out on the open ocean. “You listen,” he told me on that summer trip so long ago. “You try to count the shooting stars and listen to the sky.”
So I stand listening, not unlike the boy I once was, high up in that apricot tree painfully aware of my own ignorance. I listen for any sound, a voice, an echo, until I think I hear the whispering path of the earth hurtling through space. And I understand.