When I was a kid, my family had a tradition of gathering at my grandparents’ house in Memphis for the Fourth of July every year. For a while, we were coming in from all over: My mom’s older sister and her kids were in Florida, we were in New Jersey, my mom’s younger sister was in Memphis, and my uncle was outside of Houston.
One year, my mom ditched us there.
My father had a business trip in the Bay Area, and after my mom dropped my sister and me off in Memphis, she flew out there for a long weekend with him. By the time she returned to take us home, my 18-month-old sister was calling my older aunt Mommy, and confusion reigned throughout the house.
Six months later, my father was killed.
Six months from now, I’ll be as old as my mom was when he died.
Almost two weeks ago, an explosion ripped through the Seattle neighborhood where I spent eight years volunteering multiple days a week. A gas main ruptured, destroying the coffee shop I went to many mornings, amongst other places, and sending debris flying through the plate glass windows of the place I volunteered.
My first few years there, when I worked in the little store they had, business was slow, and my mind had time to wander. Frequently, I’d stare at the cars outside, stuck at the light at the end of the short block, and wonder what would happen if something went awry. If someone randomly fired a gun, would I have time to react? Would I even know what had gone wrong?
It’s strange to think of the two childhood friends who died last year, and realize that, for all my neuroticism, the worst came true for them, not me. But it’s even stranger to know that the devastation that actually happened never occurred to me as a possibility.
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the Neighborhood of Make-Believe in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, a land full of puppets that viewers were transported to by following a trolley from the show’s main set. As such, I developed an infatuation with trolleys, an idiosyncratic notion for a child of the 1980s. When my parents went on that trip to San Francisco, they bought me a wooden model of a cable car, which I cherished deeply. A couple years later, when my turn came as my first grade class’s Star of the Week, the collage poster of photographs from my life was shaped like a red trolley, modeled on the toy.
Ultimately, fifteen years passed between my parents’ trip to the Bay and my first visit there, days before I turned twenty. By the time I made it down, I had lost interest in the cable cars, but went on one anyway, as a box to check off the tourist to-do list. I had largely forgotten about the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, my college-era mind in so many other places at the time.
That weekend, I went to see Barry Bonds and the Giants play, so I could witness an all-time great in person. But the only home run that night was hit by a Milwaukee Brewers relief pitcher, the least dangerous threat who, for a night, briefly overshadowed the most dangerous one.
We never know what will descend from the sky. And we never know who will put it there to fall.