On Michigan and Michael

Much of my time spent on Twitter — when I’m not making bad Nazi jokes and sharing long-form journalism — involves discussing football with Michigan fans. Some of them are reporters and bloggers, some of them are just obsessed, like me. I look forward to my conversations with these friends in so many ways. I need people in my life for whom having the “in the 2007 game against Penn State, we definitely should have gone for it on that third and two, right?” talk is not only tolerated, but encouraged. I’m insane.

On Monday, some of these friends and I had a long conversation about the most painful games in recent Michigan football history. The Horror. Losing to Toledo at home because we were beyond terrible. The 2007 game against Oregon. (By the way, Dennis Dixon, I still think you would have won the Heisman that year if it weren’t for that pesky ACL tear.) A litany of pain and anguish that I have done my best to forget.

Had I not been bound by both the character limits and rules of decorum expected of Twitter users who don’t suck, I might have described these games as “drive-by shootings” or “like being slowly strangled by large members of an organized crime family bent on destroying my small, family-owned business” because that’s what it felt like to watch Appalachian State rush the field after blocking that field goal, or to see the football team you, for some reason, love more than life itself flail its way to a losing season. It hurt physically and emotionally and spiritually. And if you don’t understand how losing a game can hurt your soul, then you’ve never loved college football.

***
On Sunday, a little boy named Michael, who lived in the house behind mine, disappeared. He was seven-years-old and autistic, last seen in the alley directly behind my back gate, wearing a diaper and a red t-shirt. I’ve probably seen him before. Maybe I saw him last Fourth of July when we set off fireworks in the alley and I dove behind my roommate’s car to avoid losing my eyelashes. Maybe I saw him in the mornings when I walk past the alley on my way to my Metro stop. I have probably seen him dozens of times and barely registered his existence until he was gone.

The neighborhood mobilized to look for him, even when the police seemed to be taking his disappearance in stride. Sex workers who walk the block in the mornings and kids who skateboard to Northeast Market to buy cheap ice cream sandwiches searched every nook and cranny of that alley. Community members looked for Michael, tweeted about Michael, searched out and discussed and argued about every scrap of information about Michael. It’s so hot, and he’s so little, and he just couldn’t have gotten that far — couldn’t have.

He was found at 6 p.m. yesterday. He was dead, lying in an unused Nissan Altima 40 feet away from where he was last seen. Searchers passed the car in which he was found dozens of times. Some people said that they were sure they’d looked in that car, a car I’ve seen parked behind the house next door to Michael’s almost every day.

People were angry, and still are. How did this happen? Was this an accident? How did that car not get searched more thoroughly? Why were there not more “missing child” posters in the neighborhood? Where were DC police? I watched from my kitchen table as homicide detectives and CSI units – the same people I’ve watched on network television shows for the past 15 years – sweep the alley, and I’ve never felt more useless.

I can’t stop thinking about Michael. I can’t stop thinking about the crime scene tape and the news reporters standing behind my back gate and how scared he must have been in that car and how I hope, I desperately hope that he wasn’t in pain when he died, alone, in the trunk of a car barely 10 yards away from his family. I can’t stop thinking about how he was probably dead while I was discussing whether or not I’d rather have a painful win or an exciting loss (painful win, obviously). I can’t stop thinking about how a little boy, born my sophomore year of college, is gone.

***
But eventually, I’ll forget about this. The neighborhood will forget this. The anger will dissipate into community meetings and Twitter arguments. It’ll be a road sign in our rearview mirror – “Remember when Michael disappeared?” – like how we remember 9/11 or the Oklahoma City Bombings or other tragedies that mark a time and place in our memories. Things will change, or nothing will change, because how can you stop a little boy from somehow climbing into a car on a 95-degree day and accidentally locking himself in? People will move into the neighborhood who won’t know about Michael. Life will go on.

In a way, I feel almost as if writing about this is like trying to graft myself onto Michael’s story when I am only tangentially connected to him, and I don’t know if that’s wrong. I saw a documentary once about a woman who claimed to lose her husband in 9/11 (but didn’t), and one of the interviewees said that 9/11 became a moment people wanted to be a part of so that they could feel like parts of a whole, even if that whole was horrific and tragic and terrible. Maybe that’s what I’m doing right now.

They towed the car Michael died in last night. The car had been there for so long that not seeing it in that yard was weirdly jarring. The crime scene tape is still up. Network news outlets were parked at the end of the alley this morning, videographers running across the street to set up their shots. I watched them, and then I walked to work. 

***

My sister visited me this weekend while the hunt for Michael raged. She’s family, obviously. But so is Trinidad, and so is Michigan. I’m bound to these communities by zip code and student loan payments and rent checks and addresses and sweatshirts. I’m bound to these communities by loyalty, and by love. The sense of shared pain my neighborhood is feeling and the hour-long conversations I’ve had with my fellow Michigan fans saying only “WHAT” and “HOW” are bonds that tie me to other people, and to myself. I love Michigan because it was my first real home. I love Trinidad because it’s my first real neighborhood. I love Michigan because it shaped me, and I love Trinidad because it’s challenged me. 

Football doesn’t matter, but community does. And communities are at their best in times of trial. The crime scene tape will come down soon, and we’ll forget about the police cars and the search parties. Children are already going back to running up and down the sidewalk while parents stand on porches and talk. Communities mourn together, and then they move on, whether from the Horror or from a true tragedy.

So we’ll be okay. Not today. Or tomorrow. But we’ll be okay.

I don’t know.

I don’t know why bad things happen.

On April 8, 2007, my sister called me and told me I should probably sit down. I sat on the floor of my dorm room at Michigan. South Quad. I can see West Quad from my window. My roommate was a native of Hong Kong. I’d gotten her shitfaced on vodka our first week living together; since then, she’d sworn off alcohol and began attending Korean evangelical church services. I played rugby and threw up in our trash can from too much jungle juice more than once. Her rice steamer sat on the second shelf of her desk. I stared at that shelf. She had a few photos of family. Her parents were nice. I met them once.

“Mom’s in the hospital.”

You think a lot of things about your parents. You think about calling them or not calling them, or coming home for holidays or asking them for money or telling them something that you saw that only they would understand because your parents read you the same books over and over and over again and when you see a plant on campus that reminds you of a tree that’s in a Redwall book, you call your mom and tell her. You think about things they did, or things they didn’t do, or how fucked up or not fucked up they made or didn’t make you. You think about them alive. You don’t think about them dead. The concept of your parents dying is a Rubicon you do not want to cross.

“They don’t know what’s wrong.”

My sister is staying unusually calm, because she wants me to be calm and believes that her being calm will transmit across the cell phone lines to my shitty Blackberry and make me not panic. I drop the phone. I panic.

I get from the floor of my room to my friend’s apartment. I call my dad. He puts my mom on the phone. She sounds confused and angry because she hates being confused. She’s going into surgery. Surgery for what is unclear. It’s something with her colon. Or something with her appendix. My dad is telling me all of this while I have the phone propped up next to my head, lying prostrate on the floor. My friend and her boyfriend are sitting next to each other on her bed, watching me. My mom is rolled into surgery. The last time she had surgery, she was giving birth to me.

Everything feels tenuous. If I move, my mom will die. If I breathe, my mom will die. I can keep my mom alive by not doing or moving or thinking or being anything. Nothing else matters. Nothing else could matter. The existence of things beyond me and my mom and my family offends me, if I could think about those things. Everything is frozen because it has to be, because there can’t be anything after my mom. There just can’t be.

My dad calls me later. She made it through surgery. It’s touch-and-go. At least, I think that’s what he said. I don’t know. I don’t think I care.

My mom is put into a medically induced coma in order for her to recover from surgery without going into shock from alcohol withdrawal. My dad prefaces telling me this by saying, “well, you know your mom likes to drink.” My mom has been a prodigious alcoholic for at least sixteen years. This phone conversation is the first mention my father has ever made to this fact. I’m standing near the Alumni Center, looking at Rackham. There is a statue in the garden next to Rackham. It’s a man with his head buried in his hands. It seems appropriate.

On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho shoots and kills 32 people and injures 17 more on the campus of Virginia Tech. Michigan is locked down. CNN shows shaky cell phone videos and my first thought is, “Huh. My phone can’t do video.”  I am watching the news from my dorm room. I am standing facing the television and my desk, with binders and books piled in some pattern that made sense at the time. I don’t remember a fucking thing from the previous eight days. I’m scared, because school shootings are scary, but I’m numb because a school shooting isn’t my mom waking up or dying, and those are the only two events that could possibly matter to me. I go to work every day. I go to class. I write papers. I stare at my phone and wait for someone to tell me that my mom is dead.

My dad saves the newspaper from every day my mom is in a coma so she can read them when she wakes up. I don’t know if he saved the ones about Virginia Tech.

Today is April 15, 2013. Two bombs hit the Boston Marathon. Or three. Or some number. There’s a suspect in custody. Or not. Twitter is awash in rumors and speculation and mourning, but mostly in “why the fuck did this happen?”

I don’t know.

The day my mom was hospitalized was the last time I attended church voluntarily. I went to church that day for Easter Mass. I stood in the balcony. It was crowded, because it was Easter, but the service was pleasant. I remember walking back to my dorm thinking that I’d gotten a lot done that day.  Eight hours later my mom was in a hospital, fighting for her life.

Our lives are created out of bad things not happening. We have stop signs to make bad things not happen. Entire religions are built out of making bad things not happen. You eat well and exercise to make bad things not happen. But drunk drivers blow through intersections, churches get fire-bombed, and the guy who wrote the Complete Book of Running died of a heart attack at 52.

No matter what we do, or say, or believe deep down, things will happen. Terrible things. And there’s not a fucking thing we can do about it. There is no reason. The idea of a reason for things happening implies that life is a series of checks and balances. You worship the right god; your kid makes it to adulthood. You go to the right college; you get a solid job and health insurance. That’s not how it works.

Life is intangible. Life is uncertain. There is no answer, no overall plan. Everything is tenuous, all the time. We build lives on the promise of certainty and look for things that can cement that certainty because otherwise we’d never do anything, but that certainty is barely more than myth.

What’s not intangible or uncertain is that we’re not alone. There are billions of people on this planet who exist in this same completely batshit mortal coil. I don’t know anything. I have absolutely no idea if there is or is not a god or whether or not my belief in one or multiple spiritual entities would make my life better or worse. But I know that being good to people, and people being good to one another, even when it’s hard or doesn’t make sense, makes it easier to exist in uncertainty. Searching for answers to questions for which there are no answers– why terrorism? Why do children die? Why did this happen? – makes no sense. Searching for opportunities to make someone else’s day easier does.

This morning on the Metro, I met a baby and his mother. We were standing next to one another as our train headed to Farragut North. The baby looked at me with curious eyes, because he is a baby and life must be completely overwhelming to babies. I made faces at the baby. The baby smiled at me, and so did his mother.

If making other people happy is what we’re here to do, that’s enough. If existence has no other purpose than to be a container for moments to not be terrible, that’s enough. Chances are, being a kind and decent human being isn’t going to determine my afterlife. But it’ll determine my life. And that’s enough.