Our family’s favorite tragedy has always been the sinking of the Titanic — maybe because it never touched our lives yet summed up the immensity of human ambition and error, hope and calamity. There’s something haunting about the fantastical image of rich men at the helm of society clutching the rails or smoking cigars and clinking glasses while draining the ship’s bourbon and going down with the ship, honorably, as the band played on. While not a realistic image, it’s a stirring one that levels the injustices of a stratified society where third-class “second-class” citizens, mostly immigrants, stowed in the hull like cargo were, the fable goes, trapped by locked gates and an every-man-for-himself attitude. Doesn’t quite jibe with the “women and children first” directive of every ship’s captain.
Yet the romanticizing of tragedy, the “what would you do?” unknowns of facing a similar life-or-death situation, imagining that feeling of powerlessness while still summoning the will to live and a balance of compassion for your fellow humans who happen to be in the same boat as you … namely, Mothership Earth … heady, heady stuff.
We all know how the story ends, for any one of us: We die. And we won’t be here 100 years from now to read what history might say about us or our era. And yet, while here, we wake every day with some unseen directive, striving to make our mark on the callous measure of time, balancing some level of compassion for our fellow passengers.
The Titanic sank on April 15, 1912. Tax Day, the day we are reminded there is no free ride, when we all pay our share in return for what we expect to be a civilized society with a reasonable safety net. The Titanic’s doom wasn’t the first disaster to occur in the third week in April, but certainly one of the most notable. And although April 15 didn’t become the nation’s iconic tax-filing deadline until 1955, bad stuff, terroristic stuff, has increasingly been happening during the week bracketed by Tax Day through April 20, which is that ubiquitous “4/20” date that somehow celebrates the stoning of America, a holiday for hedonist potheads.
After a week like this past week, in which the Boston Marathon bombing and cascading events held us all hostage to the news from April 15 through April 19 — also the day Al Neuharth, the founder of USA TODAY, my employer, died — a journalist such as myself, OK, myself, is forced to take stock.
Consider the havoc and gloom:
- April 15, 1865: President Lincoln dies after being shot by John Wilkes Booth the night before
- April 16, 2007: Virginia Tech massacre
- April 17, 2013: West, Texas, fertilizer plant fire and explosion, leveling town
- April 18, 1983: U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut
- April 19, 1995: Oklahoma City bombing of federal building
- April 19, 1993: Deadly finale to Waco, Texas, siege (Branch Davidian fire)
- April 20, 1999: Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo.
- April 20, 2010: Start of the BP oil spill caused by explosion that terrorized the Gulf region
Just a random collection of dates and news events, perhaps. One could compile a list of good and bad milestones, no doubt, for any week of the year, And yet these were all stories with “legs,” as we say in the biz … stories that stretch across time and grow exponentially in significance. Like the Boston Marathon attack, which I’ll propose tackily and tactlessly, forgive me, is a story with legs about heroic athletic achievement by runners and everyday heroes, as much as traumatic amputations, shattered lives and a severed sense of security. So many of us have “running a marathon” on our bucket lists, yet no one imagines any fatal risk involved. Like the Titanic, this tragedy is also a tale of immigrants. Unlike the hundreds who perished in the frigid Atlantic in 1912, these were two wayward immigrants, neither one a life preserver but hell-bent destroyers who exacted revenge on their adopted country, one cowering cowardly in a dry-docked boat in Watertown, ironic twist. A “fluid” situation, the newscasters said all week, that in the end wasn’t. But not since 9/11 have we, as a nation, felt more vulnerable. And mortal.
Here I add one more tragedy to the bulleted April list, because personal tragedy, we know, is universal: My daughter was raped April 18, 2009. My beautiful, powerful daughter. The attack thrust her and our family into a period of gloom and loss of security from which we are still fighting to recover, which makes this past week all the more horrible to review.
As they say, it’s not what happens in our lives but how we react to what happens that matters. Our response. Our emergency response. Our resilience. Except, of course, from death, which is the only thing from which resistance is futile.
So, while we can, let’s postpone the inevitable. Let us live. Let us imagine better tomorrows. Here, in the third week of April, amid the rekindling of spring, the promised resurrection of slumbering crocuses and cicadas, we are reminded that, among all of the germs out there, the germ of hope and endurance can truly reign supreme. It’s what motivates most immigrants to this country, where many of us live only by accident of birth, and what makes each of us free to be our own ambassadors of peace. From hell on Earth to hell-on-wheels.
“Keep a fire for the human race
Let your prayers go drifting into space
You never know what will be coming down.
Perhaps a better world is drawing near
Just as easily it could all disappear
Along with whatever meaning you might have found.
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around
Go on and make a joyful sound!
Into a dancer you have grown
From a seed somebody else has thrown
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own
And somewhere between the time you arrive
And the time you go
May lie a reason you were alive
But you’ll never know.”
— The immortal words of Jackson Browne, from “For a Dancer,” which is quite possibly my favorite song of all time. He wrote it for a friend who died in a fire, a friend who had been sitting in a sauna in a house that burned down and was unaware what was happening — out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak.
Just a little blog post to accompany your lighting-up 4/20 celebrations. And now, I’m gonna catch up on some rejuvenating sleep.