Sunday, April 23, 2006

Goodbye Memorial

Errand number two was buying some new rollerblades. My wheels have been shot for months, rotated so many times I was practically skating on rims. They are still in the box, the wheels pristine. I hate to scuff new shoes. Once I step off the carpet onto ashalt or concrete I cringe, as if I can feel their pain. It’s like keying a new car or throwing a live lobster into the pot. Anyway, later today, I will head down to the park and get the deed over with.

I’ve been skating in this park since the early 90’s, when my friend Maleah suggested we give rollerblading a try. We bought skates and practised on the roof level of a parking garage near downtown where, under the gaze of who knows how many unseen eyes, we went in many circles. After an hour or so of this, we felt ready to take on the public. We met up on the following Saturday, eager to skate the 1.25 mi. paved loop inside Memorial Park like real skaters. It was blasted hot, as Houston is most any day of the year, as we started out, equipped with water, walkmans, and resolve to keep our butts off the pavement.

On weekends, the park’s many picnic table and grill sites, set back under the towering trees, are occupied by working families, mostly Hispanic, and the track is lightly utilized. It’s fiesta time and the pine scented air fills with smells of lighter fluid and charcoal, fajitas, burgers and hot dogs that announce, “Work is done. Our family and friends are here. Let's celebrate!” On weekdays, the picnic sites stand abandoned and forlorn but the track is choked with swarms of lycra clad bikers riding tandem, whizzing around the loop within a five o’clock shadow of the skaters who stick periously close to the edge of the asphalt. On weekdays it’s all about competition— increasing speed, burning calories, pumping muscles—corporate America’s rendition of having fun.

On this, our first Saturday, with only a fellow skater or two out on the track, we came around a bend on the back side of the loop to see a Hispanic man, wearing skates, lying flat out on the ashalt, a boy beside him on a bike, and a skater frantically waving us over. Whether the man was dead or unconscious, we did not know, but the skater who’d happened by didn’t want the boy, apparently the man’s son, to be alone while he went off for help. We immediately went over to the boy who looked to be about seven, obviously terrified and unable to speak to us in English, and tried to soothe him in our very limited Spanish. “Donde esta su familia?” we tried, to no response. The boy would not speak, or move from his post, straddling his bike just a foot from the body of his father as if by keeping guard he could protect him from further catastrophe. Or that the nearness of his father’s flesh could, for some lingering moments, stave off their being separated by the chasm that had opened up at his feet.

The skater returned and the EMT team arrived within minutes. The boy, still mute, was forced aside so the EMTs could work on his father. We tried to keep the child distracted from the process at hand until a female cop arrived and lead the boy away. She did not hug or comfort him. The family had still not been located within the park and the man, who had never moved, was taken off by ambulence. The skater later found us in the park and informed us the man had gone into diabetic shock but was wearing no tag that indicated he was diabetic so he’d been treated as a heart attack victim. He did not think the man had survived.

We’d watched the boy go with broken hearts. Sorry for everything he lost that day when he went for a bike ride with his dad, like a seven year old is wont to do when he’s celebrating in the park, safe and happy in the love of his family.

That was not the last time I was to circle the loop in rungs of grief. In over a decade of skating there, I’ve added rungs for all that life will fling at you: despair, confusion, anger as well as joy, peace and contemplation. I prefer to skate alone, except for my music, and it’s my space, whether the track is clear or not, to think, to dream, to ponder. To sing—the walkman now upgraded to ipod—out loud, knowing any passing ears will be subjected to my Linda McCartneyesque solo for no more than seconds. It’s where I come to process this life in all its dirt and glory and pain.

I’ve skated past the spot where the man fell that day hundreds of times. I sometimes wonder about the boy, now somewhere a young man, and if comes back here. What he remembers about that day. At least he knows the last earthly act his father did was to get out on the track for some sweaty fun with his boy.

We all come to grief eventually. Life spares none of us. This park has been a haven for me in all my highs and lows. And many days I’ve been thankful that sometimes a day in the park can simply be a day in the park.


Karen Miedrich-Luo said...

I remember getting out there with you within a few weeks of you and Maleah learning how. I bought new rollerblades and revelled in your stories of flying around the track. But I didn't practice first like you did and spent more time with my butt on the pavement and avoiding the speed gangsta's in lycra. So I packed the skates back into their box and stashed them in a closet. Then I headed across the street and learned to powerwalk on the gravelly dirt path, pouring out my heart to a fellowwalker, who, to this day, has nothing more in common with me than the fact that we walked and talked together for three years. It was the best therapy I ever had.

Deeanne said...

I would love to know how to rollerblade. I have tried. I even took actual lessons in a rink. But I just can't seem to keep my balance. Nor can I stop (the proper way, at least).

In desperation I built myself a walker-on-wheels with PVC pipe. That way, I could use it to help me balance and stop. My son said if I said "hi" to him while I used it he would say, "Who *is* that woman?"

Even my friends pretended they didn't know me. Alas, I never did learn to rollerblade with any proficiency at all. Everytime I see someone whizzing around on their blades I sigh and wonder why some people can do athletic things and some can't.

I do know what you mean about coveting that time of exercise where you think, dream, ponder, pray, sing, laugh and cry. At the moment I do the treadmill at our local YMCA. There are so many times I want to raise my hands in the air in praise during a particularly powerful part of a song that is piped directly into my eardrums via my walkman. I resent not being able to. So, I settle for doing it in the Spirit. It's not quite the same, though.

allison said...

I think Karen and Dee sound like they'd be great skating partners...