The Desert Road of Night
NOTE: Originally published December 28, 2010 at my now defunct blog, Karma of Dove.
This is one of my earliest memories.
I'm three years old and I'm in the arms of a fireman, being carried out of a burning building, in the darkness of early morning.
In my mind, I can still see firefighters behind me helping my mom and dad out of the building which was engulfed in flames and shooting debris.
In my mind, I can still feel how firefighters cradled me in their arms and handed me off to some pocket of darkness where I joined my little brother, who was in nothing but diapers.
This was 1972 and I remember it like yesterday but yet I struggle to remember what I had for breakfast this morning, December 28, 2010.
I’m getting older.
I know I’m not old but I’m not young either. I can no longer stay out all night, dancing, only to go direct to work without the need for sleep or rest.
Nor can I sleep in till crazy hours, into the late afternoon where now if I sleep past 7 a.m. I feel I’ve started the day in the worst way by wasting time.
Carpe Diem! Seize the day is my first thought when I wake up.
This was not an easy frame of mind to get to, where I live and burn in the second I’m in and I’m ready to let it go, without regret, without remorse.
I’ve come to despise the vicious nostalgia that I've met in reuniting with old friends, where everything for them seemed so damn good “back in the day,” and I was the most sensitive person they knew.
The long journey to my present frame of mind began in terror and fire.
November 2001, I was struggling in the aftermath of 9/11.
I will not discuss in what way because it’s not important at the moment to say but know this - I was in serious trouble. On November 12, 2001, I was working from my home office in Far Rockaway, NY when I received a call from my ex-wife. She was frantic, asking if our 11-year-old son was okay.
“Why wouldn’t he be?” I said.
It was then she said a plane had crashed in The Rockaways and she needed to make sure it wasn’t in my neighborhood. I hung up, turned on the television, and learned American Airlines Flight 587 out of JFK, bound for the Dominican Republic, had crashed five miles from my home. As I ran outside, my little boy kept saying, "What's going on?”
He remained in the doorway, with his big sister, as I jumped in my car and peeled out of my parking spot and raced to the crash site.
At 80 miles per hour, I drove down the city streets that ran parallel to the beach and the Atlantic Ocean.
I could see black smoke billow in the skies ahead of me while the wail of sirens from emergency vehicles filled the air, becoming louder as I got closer. Finally, I got to where the NYPD had cordoned off a wide area. I parked my car and began running to the scene.
In my mind, I wanted to help, thinking that my very limited medic skills learned in the US Navy could be of use. I was expecting to see mass casualties, bodies scattered on the streets.
I wanted to help but there was no one to save - the crash killed everyone on board, as well as five people from a community that was trying to recover from the loss of 65 of its residents on 9/11.
As I sit here, in present day Lynbrook, NY, December 28, 2010, I can still smell the fuel smoke and feel the heat of the fires of that day, that had set an area of that neighborhood ablaze and remember seeing a piece of the plane burn near a gasoline station.
A few days after the plane crash, I wrote the following entry in my journal:
November 17, 2001
Far Rockaway, NY
I was in a room and it was dark, save for the soft orange light that came from the corners. I sat at the edge of a bed. It felt as if I had been sitting there for hours.
The door opened up and in comes a man.
He asked me if I’m ready to admit my guilt and make my peace with God.
I thought, Guilt for what?
Before I could answer, he said, “Well, you have two more hours before you meet your maker.” He then left the room.
I continued to sit at the edge of the bed. Across from me was a wooden box, with a black switch on it. I fiddled with it as if I had all the time in the world. In an instant, an hour passed and I realized, I was on death row and I had only one more hour to live.
There wasn’t going to be a tomorrow for me.
I didn’t have that luxury of wasting my time any more.
My thoughts turned to the immediate future; meeting my maker. At this point in my dream, my thoughts turned to God. The luxury of time had given me the ability to deny His existence. I didn’t believe in God because I didn’t see with my waking mind any proof to show otherwise.
But, my heart, at that point in the dream, was saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute! In an hours time, you’ll be standing before Him. How will you justify all that you’ve done with your life? Are you ready to defend it? Your actions?’
My answer was, ‘Hell no!’
In the dream, I began to shake. I couldn’t bear the thought I was going to be executed. I fell back upon myself, looking at the walls, seeing if there was any way for me to escape.
I heard screams from the room below mine. I heard what I figured to be prison guards beating on a screaming man as they tried to drag him out of the room.
In the screams, the man was pleading his innocence, to be given another chance, he wouldn’t do anything as criminal with his second chance at life.
I could hear his voice drift off as they dragged him away.
They were going to come for me in an hour’s time and I was certain that I would go out kicking and screaming, pleading for a second chance.
I fought to wake up and I woke up.
All throughout today, I kept asking myself why... this dream? Do I have guilt inside me so deep that I can’t acknowledge it while I’m awake?
The answer is yes.
I’m guilty of taking life for granted.
I’m guilty of not living life to the fullest.
I’m just existing, squandering something that had been taken away from so many people on September 11th.
The day the world changed. I’m still numb.
For six months, earlier this year, I worked at a client site in Santa Fe, NM and was given the ability to commute back to New York City on the weekends. So often, when I was returning home, the plane I would be on would make its approach over Manhattan, into La Guardia Airport.
Regardless of how many times I had seen the skyline, I would always have my face pressed against the window. Seeing Manhattan from the sky at night is one of the most beautiful things one could ever see.
It was an image anchored by the World Trade Center.
On every approach, I would see all the lights shine from the skyline and say to myself, I should be down there, enjoying all the city has to offer.
I would say to myself, I’m young, what am I doing squandering my time, working all these long hours, traveling even more. It’s Friday night and I should be down there, dancing and feeling my soul.
But I would always answer those thoughts with the truth; that it takes money to be able to live, and the way that I’m able to make money is to sacrifice the time I devote to my family, and to myself. And that meant airport layovers and heading back to Santa Fe every Sunday night.
On those trips back, I would really feel the pain of what I was doing to my life.
That meant enduring bone crushing loneliness, punctuated by my drive from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, through the New Mexico desert night, where I would listen to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon, and sing along to the song, Time.
I should live my life with the same determination the man in my dream had when the prison guards came to get him.
I’m not pre-occupied with death. I’m pre-occupied with living and making sure I’m doing so to the best of my ability.
By 2003, I was beginning my 2nd year of my leave of absence...
where my full-time job went from giving consult to clients in need of technology services to consulting my doctors on how to keep up my health for the long-term, and I was having a really difficult time adjusting to the notion that this was my life.
Whatever sense of self-worth I did have, I had tied it to what I did for a living and since I no longer had a job title, that sense evaporated. During this period, my physicians tried to stabilize my condition which often meant being always drugged up tired, sleeping the day away.
Then one evening, while in bed, watching TV, this commercial came on:
In this commercial, I saw myself, as I was when I was a little boy, at the age I was when I was pulled out of that burning building by firemen, much like the firemen who died on 9/11, and in the commercial, I saw all the kids I played with as a little boy, all waving at me.
A few evenings later, still in the same place in bed (I don't think I had moved), a follow-up commercial came on the TV, for the same product, with the same theme:
The commercial looked like my dreams of that time, where I would dream of friends from my old neighborhood and my high school, as I remembered them, beautiful, with gleam in their eyes for all the hope they felt at that point for the future. These old friends meant the world to me and my deepest desire suddenly was to see or hear from them again.
For years after that, I would dream of them; in the dream, I’m back in a rental car, making my way from the airport in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to my apartment in Santa Fe, on that dark desert road of night with the moon in the distance, with my passing ghosts images of my friends, and passing signs that read:
leaving high school
leaving military service
I continued to see ghosts of all those who were significant in my life during those periods hover on the side of this desert road of night.
Then, there was no one left. No more ghosts of friends hovering along the road. I was alone in the car with a sign passing me by, which read:
Middle Age - Next Exit
Death - Final Exit Ahead
This was a terrifying dream! Really terrifying because I realized that in the dream I was not the driver, but the passenger in a car driven by fate, with no choice of destination, and just as I had been set on this journey in my waking life by my parents, it will be my children that will see me through to my destination and send me off home.
Through this dream, I have come to realize just how terrified I am of getting older and feeble, where my stamina deteriorates and one day my body stops responding to the demands of my will.
For a long time, I didn’t want to accept this thought and, in trying to deny the reality, I began to regress, to where I was taking refuge in memories, in old thoughts and old desires - old fantasies. As long as I clung to that, in my mind, I would forever be that kid from Yonkers, in the 1980s, goofing off and hanging out with friends or forever be that young man, in the early 1990s, dancing and DJing in nightclubs, from Chicago to Rome to New York City or forever be that technologist in the late 1990s and early 2000s, always on a plane, traveling from San Francisco to Berlin to London and all points between.
I couldn't accept that I became a man crippled by anxiety and depression and terror; that I isolated myself and that most of my prominent relationships were dying or already dead.
I wanted change.
The desire to look up old friends grew stronger and was a dominant wish in my head for a long period.
Then I learned and experienced the truth of the old adage:
‘Be careful what you wish for because you just may have your wish granted.’
In 2008, I joined the social networking site Facebook. In joining, I managed to reconnect with most of the significant relationships I had formed in the first 21 years of my life. Long lost friends and family. They were all back in my life.
I discovered many of the old friends who I wanted nothing more than to find approached me like I was still that teenage kid from the neighborhood.
Then I remembered what the reality was for me back then. Because I was always the type of person that always placed deep thought into life and my surroundings, I was often teased, put down, or marginalized by many people I once regarded as friends, because I was strange. Up until my enlistment into the US Navy, I hated being me and often wished I was someone else. What a shitty feeling.
The following note sums up what that felt like, growing up in Yonkers, NY of the 1970s and 1980s:
The inner city is a zoo, filled
with animals observing
a caged human being
sitting in a corner
performing a trick
The human can think
‘That nigga do that too much,
‘Sup Boricua, come drink that forty with us!’
These old friends were really good people but the connection to them and my childhood continued to exist only in my mind. We had nothing else in common except a nostalgia that made everything seem so good in the past and the pleasure derived from that sense came at the expense of the present. So as long as they continued to approach me like the nerdy teenager from Yonkers I was and not the retired technologist and disabled vet that I am in now, then the connection had to die.
I love myself way too much to allow anyone to treat me any less than I feel I should be treated. And because I have been through so much, I require respect - I will not allow anyone to disrespect me as if I were still that kid, okay to make jokes at my expense.
So one by one, most of my old friends faded away, leaving me with memories that for whatever reason I continued to hold and romanticized in my mind - it had been my oasis for years. I now realize in taking refuge in what I had thought was an oasis, I had clutched sand all along, remnants of a mirage of my own mental construct.
I had not written in my blog for a few months. I've battled a recurrence of the illness that had caused me to go on leave from my job in the first place and it has kicked my ass. I made a vow long ago to never write when I am in pain, physical or mental, because I do not want that pain to come pure out in my writing without the benefit of context
I’m now able to put it into some context.
The other night, as I was in bed, watching TV while battling a fever, a scene from one of my favorite movies of the 1990s came on - Jacob’s Ladder.
In the scene the character of Louis, played by Danny Aiello, is a chiropractor, making an adjustment on the back of the main character, Jacob, played by the actor Tim Robbins, who in the movie, is a Vietnam War Vet struggling with memories of Vietnam and his dead son, played by a very young Macaulay Culkin.
During the adjustments, Louis tells Jacob the following:
Eckhart saw Hell too; he said: 'the only thing that burns in Hell is the part of you that won't let go of life, your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away. But they're not punishing you,' he said. 'They're freeing your soul. So, if you're frightened of dying and... you're holding on, you'll see devils tearing your life away. But if you've made your peace, then the devils are really angels, freeing you from the earth.'
At that moment, everything became clear...
It's been hell holding on to a life that no longer exists. The person I was is dead. The relationships formed in the past are dead IF they don't include, at its core, a mutual respect for the people we’ve become now. What's done is done and that's that. I need to become a man that has more going for him than his past; my combat service, my technology work, 9/11, my disability. I am much more than that just as the people who come into my life now are more than their past. It no longer exists. Nothing but the present. Nothing but my pure love for life
I love life! I love to live and feel the world through my spirit and my senses, and being as sick as I've been lately, I realize that I’m terrified of what the coming year and the future overall holds for me.
It has to continue, the letting go. I’m learning to take life as it is now, with the cards I’ve been dealt by fate and continue to live each day with the full force of my love for life.
I'm so lucky to still be here; to savor the feel of crisp cold air filling my lungs as I set out to take my nephew to work at 5 a.m on a winter morning. As I am on the road, I feel the spirit of my soul through the melody emanating from the saxophone of John Coltrane's Psalm from his epic masterpiece, A Love Supreme, blasting from my car's stereo system.
In letting go, I can now see angels, as defined by Eckhart, and they’re a daily part of my life - close family and really great people who I once knew or acquainted with when I was young but value the person I am now. These friends are accomplished in life, surviving our own version of The Bataan Death March, through the ghetto and into adulthood, where if we didn't keep it moving, we would have been lost or died.
They know who they are.
So I continue down that desert road of night, driven by fate.
I’ll try not to look in the rear view mirror.
I'm only human though and I know I have to work at not doing so.
I have my head out of the car window, face to the wind.
I’m ready for the second leg of this journey...
I’m on my way home...
December 28, 2010
Since then, I've moved away from all the ghosts that roamed the streets in my memories of New York City and have driven cross country several times.
I've driven over countless desolate roads, winding through ghost towns and vast empty space.
On those long drives all I did was think.
The stark loneliness of the road touched the loneliness I felt in my dreams of the desert road of night. On those long drives I tried coming to terms with all the illnesses and heart breaks that came about between then, December 28, 2010, and now, September 6, 2016. How I almost lost my life.
Since then, that desert road of night ended in Texas and my arriving at a place of joy and peace.
No more ghosts hovering on the side of roads in my dreams; no more dreams.
No more fear.