I took a punch in the gut recently. First one in quite a few years and it hurt, hurt bad. What happened was the phone rang, I answered it, my wife told me the bad news and I made the decision not to throw up. I wanted to throw something at least, anything, and take a swing back, oh you bet I did, but I was on my bicycle down by the river and the geese had nothing to do with it. What a thing, I thought, a few words and the world turns upside down, inside out, and there's nothing you can do but hang on for the ride. And such a physical response, a visceral reaction.
What's ironic is that not long ago I had occasion to open a bottle of champagne. The reason is irrelevant, at least to this telling, but suffice it to say I'd received some great news and was in a celebratory mood. On that day, only champagne would do. For someone like myself, situations that warrant such excess are few and far between, so it's best to take advantage of them when I can, not knowing when the opportunity will arrive again. Getting sucker punched so soon afterward took the shine out of life, to say the least.
Cycling away on the morning of the bad news, I couldn't help but wonder if there was some sort of cosmic balancing act going on, a tit-for-tat kind of thing and zero-sum game. If only we could see the math ahead of time, I thought, there would be a way to prepare. I've been down before, of course, and up, and back down and back up. Nothing unusual, just another way of saying I've spent time on this Earth. It's interesting to observe, however, how the roller coaster of emotions can take you from happiness to life-sick in a matter of moments. I've said before I don't require life to be fair. But injustice is something that can really get under the skin.
In both cases I barely knew how to react. Dumbstruck with having a dream come true only to be thunderstruck a couple of weeks later with the collapse of another had me at a complete loss. I felt my insides flying apart. In such situations you can't stop the mind racing thing, the not sleeping thing, the elation, the gut twist. In the latter, righteous anger (emphasis on righteous, emphasis on anger) is a wonderful distraction, but it eats at the soul. Still, truth be told, I had to indulge. It's part of the process ("healing" if you want to call it that), but really just something to do while stalled in the present waiting for the past to hurry up and get where it belongs. To her credit, my wife handled the news with exceptional aplomb and professionalism. I'm still trying to figure out how.
What I found is that I wanted to hold back the news - in both cases. Let the world find out on its own. Because a secret is both a wonderful thing and a burden. It's a precious stone you can keep in your pocket and an ember. Bottling up the good, I thought I knew a little about how champagne feels. Bottling up the bad was like incubating an ulcer.
Then there's the question, "How are you?" Who on Earth answers this honestly? It's not polite if you do. I literally guffawed a couple of times when complete strangers of the waiter variety asked me that question. I mean, the immensity of the answer was so staggering I had to laugh. The sad part is it was a bitter, mirthless laugh by the time I was done with it and it ruined the meal. My wife, who was the direct recipient of the bad news, couldn't eat that first day anyway, and since neither of us drink enough to make it worthwhile, we had few options on the menu. Thank God we had each other, family, friends, pets.
Getting kicked when you're up is especially demoralizing. I recall falling off a ladder once. I don't remember a thing about the trip down, but I sure knew when I arrived at the ground. Then there's the adage, "When life gives you lemons..." which I'm doing my best to keep to, but it's easier said than done and, at least in this situation, it feels like someone has squeezed lemon juice in my champagne. And that's the upside of things.
Charles Finn is the editor of High Desert Journal. His book of wildlife essays, Wild Delicate Seconds, will be released next spring by OSU Press.