One Saturday, a few Aprils ago, Christopher and I went to Nassau Bay, Texas, a stone’s throw from NASA, so he could work his first volunteer event as a Ham Radio Operator. The 5 K run was called “The 10th Annual Race for Yuri” in honor of the famous cosmonaut. I have to tell you, when Christopher took a course at his junior high to become a licensed ham radio operator, the one word that entered my head was “Why?” Doesn’t the world have cell phones now? But then there were the terrible bombs at the Boston Marathon, and when no one could text or call because everything was jammed up, the Ham Operators got things done, and there was nothing in the skies obstructing their missions. Christopher’s teacher, Nick Lance, was a retired NASA engineer, and fantastic with the students. I admit that I was so wrong about that course. Sometimes, it is good to be wrong.
So anyway, we get up at the crack of dawn and it is stunningly gorgeous and miraculously cool for April in Houston. April is the cruelest month, but we don’t believe it, and Christopher explains to me that “Ham” operator was really sort of a derogatory term, used by more proficient radio-types designating the amateur status of a certain class of radio technicians. I tell Christopher the Impressionists sort of had the same issue, and it worked out pretty well for them.
We get there and there are several middle school boys and none of them have done this before. But they are so excited, so willing, and they take it seriously. Statistically, there may be a slim chance of anything going wrong in Nassau Bay, Texas, but then again no one ever thought West, Texas would explode, or that Boston Marathoners would have to worry more about getting blown up than running out of breath. You can never be sure. Not anymore.
So here we are, and we are amateurs, but in the best sense of the word. Christopher wants me to run the race as “amateurs are allowed,” but they need a parent at his station, and conveniently enough, I am present. We listen to instructions and Christopher needs to phone in when the first runner flies by, when the last runner turns the corner, and if anything goes wrong in between. There are a few comic moments, as when Christopher calls in “Well, a car just passed by. But luckily, no one was hurt.” I can’t stop laughing, and Christopher shoots me a look, and he doesn’t need to tell me that it could have been worse. Much worse.
I am so happy watching the runners, because I am pretty sure that the front runner could be an Olympian, and there is a thirteen year old kid who is in third, leaving grown men in his dust, and mostly there are people just trying to finish, and there is a lot to be said for that. There are people doing their 50th 5K, and people doing their first, but it is exciting no matter what. Everyone gets these yellow-limey neon shirts, and except for one scraped knee, the race finishes without incident. The climax for Christopher was in the middle of the race when he had to start telling everyone to change lanes for the rest of the race, and people were actually saying “thank you” for being told what to do. Christopher thinks this is so amazing, so wonderful, I think he is reeling, and I sure hope he doesn’t slide right into insufferable. I tell him that every time I tell him what to do, he should say “thank you” just like those wonderful people, and we start cracking up. We are both picturing him saying, “No, but thank you.” We get each other, even if sometimes I get on his preteen nerves. However, I am okay with that. Totally okay with that.
Right after, we have to go to his League City Intermediate Orchestra fundraiser, and let me tell you, no one can run a car wash like the Bobcats. These kids are not professionals at this either; however, they do a much better job on my car than those professionals at the Car Spa who charge me ten times what these kids charge me. They make sure every mirror shines, they care, and deep down, I know that the fine folks at the Car Spa will be just fine if they never see me again. That is the thing about becoming “professional”: it hardens your window-wiping heart.
The next day, Sunday, we are so tired that we are late for church, but all I can think of is that last year on this day the child of one of my high school friends, Tim, was killed in a four wheeler hunting vehicle accident. His son was named George, and he was blonde and thirteen and effervescent and played baseball like you would not believe. When I went to the rosary last year, they gave out these cards with George’s picture on it, and on the back is a picture of Saint George, and although I am a very unorganized person in many categories of life, I put that picture in my wallet where I know I can find it, and I look at it almost every day. I had never been to a rosary before, and I was nervous about the protocol, but when I looked at the grieving faces of Tim and Elisabeth, and their three other children, I realized that it didn’t matter. The grief in the room was so profound that there was no getting one’s mind around it. When it comes to that level of loss, we are all rookies, no professionals to be found, and I honestly thought I might never stop crying over the loss of that child who looked so much like my own.
All day I thought of George, and his parents, and I don’t know why these things happen. I hear frequently that there is a lesson in everything, but for the life of me, I don’t know what it is. I just wish George were still alive. The husband of one of my best friends had run the Boston Marathon, but had finished an hour before the bombs went off, and was safely on his way home. I cannot explain this, but I don’t want to, I am just grateful that he and his family were safe and did not have to endure the profound grief that so many people are suffering right now. In undergrad, I went to school in Waco, Texas, a town in which I was sure that nothing really happened, and I am sure that the people in West, Texas, so very near to Waco, would do anything for tragedy not to have touched their lives, for nothing to have happened. It seems as though the most innocent things are fraught with danger, and we need a safety net to cushion the blow whenever it comes. We sit in church, and I can’t follow the prayer, but I am praying, but I admit it is for George’s family: I cannot get them out of my head.
We leave the service and across town in Sugar Land, Texas, one of my best friends, Jackie, has a son who will sing the national anthem for 7,000 people at the opening of the Skeeters Minor League baseball game. They are highlighting Autism Awareness, and I am so proud of him that he is representing such an important cause, and so proud of Jackie for being so involved in an issue that has been such a big part of their lives. Yes, there are struggles, but today is a victory, and I tell Christopher when it turns one o’clock that Avery should start singing at any minute. Jackie messages me that it goes so well, he did great, and I just want to tell everyone I know that Avery sang in front of 7,000 people, and that he is so talented, and this is something he will be able to be proud of forever.
Jackie, Tim, and I went to the same high school, we all had boys, and no one could have predicted things that have happened: autism, the death of a child, Christopher’s father dying when he was a baby. We try to know what will happen, but we never do. We plan, but really, we spend more time hoping for the best. I keep hugging Christopher all afternoon, but he doesn’t resist, he knows I have to hug him, maybe all day. He looks so innocent to me. Like George. Like Avery.
For a long time, I spent a lot of effort getting degrees so that I would be qualified and professional and maybe get to tell people where to go in the middle of some figurative race. But deep down we are all amateurs, hoping not to step on a minefield that will wreck our lives and bring us to our knees. One time, after something terrible happened, someone asked me why I still had faith, and I remember thinking, what else is there?
But in addition to that, maybe it would be good to figure out how to love something, or someone, amateur it up, but intensely and with meaning, especially in case of emergency. Make sure that your radio is working, and can connect with others, whether winning or losing, whether in Boston or Nassau Bay, whether washing or singing. Fling that web of connection far and wide, make it heard, make it count, for the quick and the dead.
I tell Christopher that I was wrong about ham radios–I didn’t know what I was talking about, and that we should all have ham radio operators checking our status every day, just to be sure. He smiles at me, says, “Mom, you can do that, but you have to have a license.” I say that I am his mother, I don’t need a license, and we play Martina McBride singing “Anyway,” because that is how we will proceed, no matter what.