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July 15, 2024

Getting His Wings

By Mitchell Waldman

He sees the colors of the rainbow, the bright sunlight, as he sits on the bed in his darkened room. Friends from when he was a kid, playing with them, uncles and aunts long gone. Tossing a Frisbee on a neighbor's lawn. He is fully awake and he is experiencing these things like he's really there, not just remembering. His dog, Digger, the one that got run over by the garbage truck. He can smell the wet musty smell of his little spaniel's fur. And other smells. Chicken soup cooking in the kitchen. And hot chocolate, the rich steam tickling his nose. It's a smorgasbord of sensations and emotions. And he doesn't even have to leave the room.

The tumor was inoperable. That's what they'd told Mrs. Moran. They didn't know if there was anything they could do about it but try to control it. Trying to remove it, given its location in the brain, would most likely result in trauma and possibly death. So, there was little they could do. There were drugs to try to slow down its growth. Chemotherapy. That was about it. Radiation would cause too much damage to the adjacent areas of tissue. "Tissue," that's what they called it. Her own son's brain, his mind. To them it was nothing but tissue.


Sam is talking to me across the net. "Forty love, Jack," he says, bouncing the ball twice, then looking up at me. "Are you ready?" Not looking like someone who will whip my ass in a game of tennis. Slight of build -- three inches shorter than me and thirty-five pounds lighter. Not that I'm a great tennis player. It's one of the leisure sports, one of the type that I never really excelled at. There's a little too much grace and coordination involved. Give me the populist, less skilled, but still dignified sports: basketball or football or even baseball -- these sports were more fitting to my basic attitudes and temperament. The common man's sports. With tennis I just run like hell and smack the little green ball, never getting it quite right. The ball shoots off at crazy angles, or off the wood edge of the racket, darting wherever it might without control. I'm lucky if I manage to sock it over the net. Time after time Sam winds up his serve in just the same motion, and whacks the ball past me. Aced again. Three sets to none it goes, without a single game won by me. But he doesn't gloat about it. Nor does he show me any mercy. He just methodically picks me apart, until any thoughts I have that tennis might be a sport I could succeed at are wiped out of my mind completely.

And afterwards, walking back to our houses, sweat dripping down our brows, it doesn't seem to faze him that he's whipped my ass, as I lick my wounds. "How about a pop? I'll buy you a grape pop at the Shell station," he says. I like the grape, he likes the lemon lime.

"Well," I say, "you being the winner, that's the least I can do, buy you one." But he won't have it. So we walk along the busy road to the gas station, and he drops his quarters into the machine's slot. We listen to the satisfying sound of the full cans bouncing to the tray below. We grab the cold, perspiring cans and pop their tops, savoring that first sip -- ahhh -- nothing like a grape pop on a sweltering July day after getting your ass whupped good at a sport you're no good at. Well, at least it was Sam. Not like being beaten by some of the other guys in the neighborhood who would remind you about it for the next month or three at least.


Sam is lying in a hospital bed. The silence in the room is overwhelming. He is colorless, his head covered with reddish stubble. I've seen the scar before, the long pink line that runs down the back of his head, but which, now, is mercifully hidden, pressed against the dull white pillow. A thin string of drool hangs from Sam's mouth and has worked its way down his chin and neck. A bottle of clear fluid hangs beside him, its contents running into Sam's arm through a long plastic tube. I don't move. The only sound in the room is the faint disturbed breath that comes from Sam's nostrils. I stare at the body of this person who looks like my friend, Sam.


It was my birthday when I'd opened the letter from Sam in my dorm room. I was turning nineteen, old enough to drink in one of the twin cities where my school was located. When I saw Sam's return address my spirits rose, thinking that he'd remembered my b-day, what a guy, what a surprise. But when I tore the envelope open there was no card, only a note written on lined paper with a shaky hand. They'd found something in Sam's head when he'd gone to see the doctor about an earache. A brain tumor, that's what it said. He was being discharged from the Air Force, leaving basic training in San Antonio, to come home to take care of the problem. How matter-of-factly he'd written it. It had been Sam's dream to be in the Air Force, to fly one of those jets, something I'd never understood. Why not go to college, do something useful with his life I always thought but never said since, after all, it was Sam's choice, his life. He'd had the dream of becoming a pilot, soaring above the Earth at fantastic speeds. But now the dream was over. Where was the justice?

First time I got drunk I was with Sam. We'd gone to a party from work together -- we worked at a drugstore in a nearby shopping mall nearby. Older kids were at the party. I was sixteen, just barely. Sam didn't want to drink. He didn't want to lose control, he said. Me, I did. Losing control seemed to be a great idea given my boring, uneventful life. I went to school, got a job, ate my peas off the plate, each and every one of them, did my homework, watched "Time Tunnel" with the family in the basement on the new color TV, helped with the yard work, played ball in the park with the other guys, read end-of-the-world novels in my room (Failsafe, On the Beach, those kinds of books), while the Vietnam war loomed over us. By the time I was sixteen it was still going on, and we wondered whether we would wind up getting drafted, sent overseas to some foreign jungle where our young bodies would be shattered by a flood of bullets from rifles of faceless strangers who had no personal disputes with us at all.

But like magic the war ended. And the fate that would snag Sam's life, send him free-falling despite his peacetime enlistment, would not be a war at all, but an internal aberration of unknown origins, although the people in the neighborhood were starting to have suspicions. Too many people had been getting cancer in our neighborhood. There was a park behind our houses which had only recently been turned into a park. When I was younger it had been a wooded area. Some people were starting to say it had something to do with toxic waste, local business, like the cement company down the road, doing illegal late night dumps on the land that somehow had seeped into the water underground. And why did a 20-year old get a brain tumor all of the sudden? My brother, Rob, would get cancer three years later at the age of 23. And my mother, the same year. Did any of this make sense? Did anyone care?

But who would remember him when. . . I can't say the words.

Three years have passed now since that day when I opened his letter and learned the news.

While the rest of the kids his age in our neighborhood were deciding whether to take Physics or American Literature in preparation for our entry into the chaos of the "real" world, Sam would sit in his room watching reruns of "F-Troop," "Gomer Pyle," and Gilligan's Island," "Bonanza", "My Favorite Martian," chewing on peanut butter sandwiches, his life in a state of suspended animation.

And, now, after four years of college, I return to my parents' home, the owner of a seemingly useless degree in Sociology, biting my nails, wondering which way to step next. Sam's house is just a block from ours. I take a summer job in a warehouse while trying to sort out my future. I pass by Sam's house every day on the way home from another exhausting day of packing book orders. Sometimes he'll be walking down the street, aided by a nurse (he has twenty-four hour attention due to the critical nature of his condition). I've seen Sam the past three years on my school breaks, but the frequency of those visits have decreased over the past year. It just seemed too hard.

But, now, he's right there, walking down the street, his body looking puffy and an unhealthy shade of white while I drive by, daring to look at him only out of the corners of my eyes.

I'm afraid to visit him. So I go to work in the morning, and drive home in the evening with guilt and the specter of Sam Moran coloring my every thought.

I'm a coward, I know it.

I see his mother at the library and bury my face in a book as I scurry in the opposite direction.

And it gets worse.

I start having dreams, dreams -- no, they're more like nightmares. I'm with Sam, walking in a mall, playing softball with him. He's perfectly normal. We're talking and laughing and then, for seemingly no reason, I walk away. I find myself waking up in the middle of the night, sweating heavily, my heart racing as I stare through the darkness at the glowing hands of the alarm clock.

The dreams come just occasionally at first but then, after days and weeks of driving past Sam and his nurse, pretending not to notice, the waking in the dark, breathing heavily, has become, almost, a nightly ritual.

Finally, I can't do it anymore.

I convince one of our mutual friends, Brian Richardson, to come along with me. I can't go it alone. One of his primary assets on this trip is that he's a salesman, a wind bag, a man who was never wanted for words of encouragement (or words, generally) in even the most hopeless of situations. He also seems to project a strange sense of indifference to even the strongest of emotional stimuli.

We're greeted at the door by Sam's mother. She smiles at both of us and asks us to sit down at the kitchen table. She seems older, much older than I remembered her. She looks tired and pale. There are large pouches under her eyes. And when she opens the door that flash of the polite smile we see is all that remains of her carefree smile I remembered her always wearing when I was a kid.

Mrs. Moran leaves the kitchen and calls up the stairs: "Visitors, Sam! Your friends have come to see you!" There's genuine excitement in her voice as she tells us that all of Sam's other friends have stopped coming by. Well, she doesn't blame them, she says. They had lives of their own. But once in a while to drop by, is that asking too much of a friend? The woman's eyes are burning at me now and I have to turn my head. "Sam!" she yells a second time, "you don't want to keep your friends waiting! It's been so long since you've seen them!" She turns to Brian and me, offering us a plate of cookies which I politely refuse and Brian quickly reaches for, grabbing one, two, three. He eats a lot for a little guy.

"So, how have you been, Mrs. Moran?" Brian says, his mouth still working on a chocolate chip cookie. I clench my fists in my lap. It's absurd, all the polite little rituals meant to gloss over the immensity of the situation. But what else do we have? What else? I remain silent, staring down at my fists.

In a moment Sam comes down on wobbly legs. I'm staring at his feet while Brian and Mrs. Moran continued with their social banter.

"Well, here he is! Here's my boy!" Sam is standing in the doorway, staring at the kitchen sink. Mrs. Moran goes over to him and rubs his arm. Her eyes have turned moist when she turns to us. "Well, Sam, aren't you going to say hello to your friends?" Sam doesn't say a word but his head rotates slowly from the sink and he looks in our general direction.

"How's it going, Sammo?" Brian asks, "You're looking good, guy!" Brian says, smiling, the perpetual salesman.

Sam does not look good. He sits down at the table with his mother's help. I manage a "Hi, Sam," while the knot in my stomach tightens. Brian asks Sam questions. "So, what have you been doing with yourself? Keeping yourself busy?" Brian is all smiles and self-assurance. Sam's body is like a bloated pillow upon which his head sits. His face is pale, his eyes glazed, looking forward. On occasion, Brian's words seemingly break through Sam's haze and he breathes in deeply. I remain as quiet and still as possible, relieved that Sam's attention when focused at all is focused on Brian and his wagging tongue. I'm working hard on blocking my sudden impulse to flee.

A large Mexican woman in a white dress appears in the door way. "Boys, this is Juanita, Sam's nurse for the day." The woman's smile is wide, her eyes large and sincere -- the picture of a compassionate woman. "How are you boys doing?"

Suddenly Brian's attention turns to Juanita. "How long have you been a nurse? Where do you live? Do you like your job?" He has apparently gotten all he can from Sam, who gazes lazily toward the window.

Mrs. Moran starts talking about Sam's guitar and how beautifully he used to play. "You should start playing again, Sam, don't you think?" Sam's oblivious, staring out the window. It's Brian who, with all his unbridled energy, suggests they get the guitar and encourage Sam to play. Mrs. Moran and Juanita immediately warm to this idea and the two women, with Brian, eagerly following behind to help, head up the stairs to find the lost instrument. I'm wondering why it would take three of them to find one guitar.

It leaves me sitting there alone with Sam.

His eyes are still fixed on the window. I clench and unclench my fists, occasionally looking up at Sam to make sure he hasn't moved. Then, suddenly, there's a movement. It's like a muscle twitch at first, something you would do unconsciously if a fly landed on your cheek. Then his head moves slowly until his clouded gaze lands on my face.

"Who are you?" he asks, searching my eyes for the answer.

I feel the panic rising. "I'm Jack."

His eyes squint in an attempt to narrow his vision and squeeze out the answer. "Jack?" he says, trying to see me through his haze. "Jack who?"

I want to run from that room and never come back again. But I sit there, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do.

It's shortly after that evening that I decide to go to Graduate School downstate. My parents are satisfied that I've finally taken charge of things, put some goals into my till then chaotic life.

It's two more weeks of driving home at nights, past Sam and his nurse. I no longer look at him out of the corners of my eyes, but keep my vision steady, set straight ahead.

On the day of my trip I drive slowly, my car packed full of the meager necessities of my everyday life, past the Morans' house. It's quiet, still early in the morning. I give the house one last look and then drive past.

He is floating up, up, wings spread like a bird. But now he is sitting behind the controls of the plane, steering in a tight grip, watching from behind his mask as the clouds appear and evaporate as the plane cuts through them. And below the green fields and tiny doll houses, the red pick up truck kicking up dust as it slowly moves down the country road. He closes his eyes, then opens them. Never has he experienced a feeling like this. He is flying, he is climbing, he is free.

A month later I get the news from my mother. He's gone. I pull open my desk drawer and search through the shoe box for his letter. I pull it out and reread his words. Still no "Happy Birthday." Still no clues as to what it was all about.

A few days later I'm standing at the cemetery watching them lower a box into the ground, the box with my childhood friend in it. Brian comes up to me and slaps me on the back, looking grim. "It's tough, Jack, it's really tough," he says. Meanwhile the rabbi reads from his book and then we watch as they lower him down into the ground. Then shovel dirt on top of the casket.

I think about the wars I've had never been to, the tennis games I've never won. And in the corner of my mind I see Sam behind the controls of an Air Force jet, letting loose a whoop as he pierces the clouds and surges up up into the evening sky.

Article © Mitchell Waldman. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-04-16
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