I once told a story to a girl. We were riding on a school bus, knees touching - we were training to be teachers on the south side of Chicago before shipping off to different regions of the country for two years.
I couldn’t tell you why exactly I wanted to tell her about Patrick, but I did.
I was in Barcelona, I told her, after I studied in Valladolid, a city northwest of Madrid.
She shifted her weight to her elbow on the back of our school bus seat so she could face me fully.
While I was there, we went to the Barcelona Aquarium right on the Mediterranean Ocean - she placed a strand of hair behind her ear.
I then told her about descending into the blue-black insides of the aquarium and how my friends and I were mesmerized by the moving strokes of the fish. It felt as if we were in a living organism, watching it work. Standing quietly in front of a pane, I felt an unbalanced gust along my calf and saw a small figure rush past. I soon learned from the exhausted callings of his mother that this knee-high blur was Patrick. He was possibly two and a half feet tall and was wearing a khaki jumpsuit with a belt high and tight around his waste. He had blonde hair combed over like a man 80 years his senior might. His lack of height allowed him to clear the bar separating the crowd from the glass of the aquarium and I watched him, with all the coordination he could muster, approach the strange moving wall, slap his hands palm open against the glass and shout at the top of his lungs, ¡Mira!
I have a picture of that moment – Patrick with his arms raised and wanting for all of the sea, his small black silhouette praising the underwater heavens and celebrating the triumphant new discovery. He knew the most important thing he could do that afternoon was submit his astonishment to the deeps and provide his human hands to the blue vision before him.
After showing her this picture, I closed my laptop and looked her hard in the eyes, And I think this is how we must live.
She squinted at me and held her square jaw shut. She nodded and looked away. We sat silently for a moment, she then looked back at me as the bus came to a stop and repeated, Mira.
Our last night in Chicago, we danced at Kingston Mines until 4:00 in the morning. After, a group of us squeezed into a cab as rain drove down against the street. She was pressed tightly against me and I to the right window. Everyone else fell asleep. We emerged from downtown on Lakeshore Drive and could see the skyline in its entirety on our right with Lake Michigan to our left. I faced the blinking city lights and she placed her forearm on my shoulder and bent forward to get a better view – after a few moments my breath fogged up the glass and I wiped it away with my hand.
Mira, she said softly, her mouth only a few inches from my ear. I turned to face her, her eyes as dark as the black water of lake Michigan behind her and briefly reflecting the lights of the city to my back. Each presence of light was like a flitting underwater creature, each movement the sway of the bottom of the night we were in.
I’d like to think the way she looked at me for that brief moment was how Patrick gazed into the blueness; and whether the look was intended for me or for the lights in the black ocean behind me, I was happy to have found myself caught in the eyesight of a woman who wanted for wholeness so deeply.
Mira. I repeated to her, not losing her gaze.
We both faced forward again, our shoulders touching, and were reverent to the silence. Respectful of whatever happened within each of us – fully aware, I’d like to think, that just a sliver of the wonderment we felt was for the other.
Despite how beautiful the evening was, as we skid silently home, I was haunted to leave the last of the skyline behind. I wondered, what is the use of this moment if it will end? The black from the evening entered my brain – I lost hope briefly. I saw the dark buildings rising out of the sky, the sherbet lamp glow on the streets, the random ordering of lights in each glass spire and I did not want the moment to end.
And end it would in just a few short hours – I’d be headed back to Texas before leaving for South Dakota.
Do we come to the end, after losing so many precious moments to time, distance and reality? Does it just go black, blacker than the ocean? I came to a real bone deep fear of my mortality the last leg of that journey. For the life of me I did not want to leave Chicago behind. I did not want to leave her behind. Leaving such beautiful living behind terrifies me. Having gorgeous moments wisp into my past shrinks my hope.
I’ve spent the last few years wondering, what wholeness are we seeking? Is it worth it? I don’t know what questions to ask anymore. I tire of having brief spurts of joy and then losing them to reality and never feeling those specific feelings again.
I lost something when I left that night. And, two years later, I lost something when I left South Dakota.
And Patrick lost something too. He lost that vision before him. He lost those fish. He’s losing his youth every day. I wonder if he still looks at life as hard as he once did. I wonder if it’s possible to slap our hands against the present and shout ¡Mira! on a daily basis or if we must lose the blueness, if we must lose the wonder.
Annie Dillard says it this way:
The courage of children and beasts is a function of innocence. . . . When we lose our innocence—when we start feeling the weight of the atmosphere and learn that there's death in the pot—we take leave of our senses. Only children can hear the song of the male house mouse. Only children keep their eyes open.
So, I suppose we’re tasked with maintaining such an awareness – and it gets harder every year. I suppose the best we can do is lash ourselves to our senses and continue to look up, to look out – to look in.