When Life Hangs in the Balance

Author: Peter Graham ’84

My sky-blue Highlander jumps when I goose the gas, and we race up State Road 240 past the middle school and Baptist church and monstrous Walmart distribution center that keeps gobbling up farmland every few years. It’s September 30 — a hot day in the heartland, corn stalks shriveling in the fields. Windows down, I can smell the harvest that’s still weeks away — but can’t smell the tragedy that’ll be hatching in just 10 minutes.

My son, Lincoln, clock-clock-clocks his soccer cleats together in the back seat. At 6 years old, Lincoln is blue-eyed and curious and has curly blonde hair the color of corn silk. His mom and I love to lace our fingers through his hair when he sidles up next to us at the kitchen counter or lays his head in our laps at the end of a long day.

We love him too much, perhaps. What if something ever happened to him? Sometimes, late at night, I whisper, “Please, God, protect him,” even though I doubt God exists. It rankles me to be irrational. I’m a college professor for cripe’s sake. But late at night in bed, when I’m worrying in the dark about Lincoln or his sister, I touch the wood of my end table and invoke the G-word.

We zip into the access road at Big Walnut Sports Park and find a parking space. 5:59. Grab my whistle, bag of soccer balls, sunglasses. With Lincoln at my side, I hurry onto the grass, eyes trained on the practice fields, dancing with players. Where to park my team?

We cut past Figgy Hardwick and his father-in-law, sitting on their retractable soccer chairs. Good people. They greet me with big, hearty Midwestern smiles. Lincoln slips off to join Figgy’s son, Eli, and other boys horsing around on the edge of the grass. I think to call them all over — they’re too near the parking lot — but I keep slanting toward the far field.

I chat for a minute with the departing coach, chat another minute with a father to iron out Saturday’s treat schedule. Then I hear it. A raspy cry from behind me that rises to a scream. I turn. A man’s waving his arms wildly and running toward me. What?

Sonny’s dad. Sonny — the kid from Cloverdale who’d rather watch clouds flirt across the sky than chase a soccer ball. His dad’s gaining on me fast. Former smoker probably, for he has a hole in his throat the size of a quarter and covers it with his hand when he speaks. Now he’s screaming across the field, both hands cupping his throat like he’s strangling himself to be heard.

“Hit by a car!”

“Who? Lincoln?” I shout, panic gripping my own throat.

“No, Eli!” he says.

And I think, “Thank God.”

Curious words for an agnostic. Maybe instinct. Maybe the last remnants of my boyhood Catholicism bubbling up in the face of tragedy. If God existed, would he allow boys to be struck down in parking lots? The nonbeliever’s ace in the hole: Senseless loss. Inexplicable evil. And yet, without God, how can people deal with such catastrophe?

I hurry to the parking lot, not quite praying yet. Just thinking, “Jesus, I hope Eli’s OK.”

But he’s not. He’s crumpled on the asphalt like a pile of bleeding laundry. His dad, Figgy, and two women kneel over him. Blood’s drooling out of the boy’s mouth and nose and head. I bite the inside of my cheek and look away.

I’ve always resisted calling myself an atheist. It smacks of something so final — and hopeless. Even though I can accept atheism intellectually, I can’t quite accept it emotionally. Instead of going the full monty, I prefer the in-between position of agnostic — making no claims about the existence of God or not. My cartoonist friend Kuper isn’t so wishy-washy. He makes no bones about his atheism. He calls organized religion “hocus-pocus.” He’s lean and 50ish and one of the kindest men I know, donating his time and resources to countless worthy causes. He’s a talented, smiling, positive-energy machine, yet he still worries. About his daughter, Emily, most of all. Gorgeous girl of 11 years. His only child. He frets about what some day might happen to her.

“The only thing my atheism can’t accommodate is personal tragedy.”

Same thing might be said by a theist. As long as things are going swell, belief — or nonbelief — isn’t really tested. Only when tragedy strikes do beliefs crystallize. Believers often claim that atheists can’t weather emotional storms — “There are no atheists in foxholes!” — but tragedy can make atheists out of believers, too. Countless sufferers have turned away from God when tragedy blasted away loved ones. How can God deal out such colossal pain?

Where’s the damn ambulance? My ears strain for the slightest hint of a siren. Eli’s unconscious body twitches. I notice his curly brown hair, his large soft legs. He’s a big, handsome boy, built to be the goal scorer that he is. In the first two games of the season, he scored five goals that propelled us to two wins. Now this. Anger rises up in me like the engine of the SUV still ticking over Eli’s body.

“Where’s the driver?”

Someone points to a wraith of a woman, standing at a distance, looking to disappear. Pretty lady. Thirty-ish. Long brown hair curling down over her shoulders. She’s flanked by two other ladies whom she squeezes between for protection. I march over, taking in her stylish zebra blouse and short black pants that show off her ankles. Below these she’s tip-toeing in a pair of extremely high stilettos. Maybe 3-inch heels. Quite possibly 4.

“What happened?”

“I don’t know.” She’s trembling, in shock, her voice a whisper.

“Did you run him over or just hit him?”

“I don’t know.”

“What can you tell me?”

Not much. She never saw him. He just darted out. And then . . . She cups a palm to her mouth.

I turn away, thinking, Why are you driving in those goddamn heels? But suddenly there’s Figgy Hardwick to contend with. He’s up on his feet, cell phone to his ear, pacing between cars with a perfect storm of anguish racking his face.

“Pick up, Laurie!” he screams, but his wife doesn’t pick up, and after he leaves the bad news on her phone, he looks at me and cries, “Goddamnit! I’ve always hated f—-ing soccer!”

I embrace him. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so goddamn sorry,” I say, and Figgy starts to weep.

The ambulance arrives. Finally the sounds of people doing something. Paramedics shouting orders: to take a pulse, to locate the tongue, to be delicate with the boy’s head and neck and spine. Then Eli’s strapped to a stretcher, hoisted in the ambulance, and driven to the far end of the parking lot to await the helicopter that will fly him to Riley Hospital in Indianapolis.

That’s when Laurie arrives. Laurie, who doesn’t yet know how dire Eli’s situation is, walks briskly and tries to put on a positive face, shouting hellos to me and the city’s emergency personnel. Laurie is the town counsel and knows all those guys. She expresses her worry with heartiness. Now we wait to see how she’ll express her grief.

She doesn’t shriek or scream. Drama isn’t the way of the heartland. Not a peep comes from inside the ambulance. So outside, in the hush of the parking lot, I scream silently at myself. As Eli’s coach, I bear the blame. For not getting to practice sooner, for not rustling the boys to a safer place in the park, for not having hammered into my players’ heads to never, ever chase balls into the parking lot.

Mostly I blame myself for rejoicing that it wasn’t Lincoln who’d been hit. For thanking God, if there really was a God, that my boy — and I — had been spared all that excruciating pain. It isn’t rational, my guilt — guilt often isn’t — but now that I’ve stopped casting dark glances at the woman in stilettos, I have to fix my anger on something else. And there I was.

Where does guilt come from? Why this peculiar human tendency to accept blame for misfortune and suffering — even for events beyond our power?

Freud attributed guilt to civilization and our insect-like tendency to advance the group at the expense of the individual. What kept primitive man from behaving badly, said Freud, was fear of punishment — from the father, from the alpha male, from some terrifying external source. People internalized this fear over time so that today, when there is no danger of getting caught for some bout of ill will or aggression, we punish ourselves quietly with guilt.

Social biologists have a different take. They say guilt is an innate feeling. They say that by curbing the ego and reducing the harm we might do to others, guilt increases our survival prospects within the tribe. Scientists say guilt also increases the tribe’s prospects for survival, for groups with a high percentage of altruists often outlast groups with a lower percentage.

Of course the most popular explanation for guilt is the religious one — that guilt is a product of sin. That it originates from people having violated universal principles of right and wrong. We suffer guilt, in other words, because we deserve it. My friend Kuper calls this bunk. He says people feel guilty even when they haven’t done anything wrong. They often suffer for nothing, and Kuper can’t stand this. He blames religions for inventing guilt to manipulate their flocks. An old-fashioned con job, he says. Guilt as social control.

Well, maybe. There’s evidence, however, that people outside religious communities also blame themselves for events beyond their power. In Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, Elaine Pagels writes, “The human tendency to accept blame for misfortunes is as observable among today’s agnostics as among the Hopi or the ancient Jews and Christians, independent of — even prior to — religious belief.”

OK. But why? Why do we often _choose _to feel guilty for events not of our own making? Because, Pagels says, guilt allows us to find reasons for our pain and suffering. Given the choice between feeling helpless or feeling guilty, most of us opt for the latter, even at the price of guilt, for we need to imagine ourselves in control.

Sometimes, Pagels reminds us, guilt can have positive outcomes: “Asserting one’s own guilt for suffering may also encourage one to make specific, perhaps long overdue, changes. Guilt invites the sufferer to review past choices, to amend behavior, redress negligence, and perhaps by such means improve his or her life.”

Pagels is no stranger to suffering. In 1987, her 6-year-old son died of a respiratory illness, and a year later, while on mountaineering trip in Colorado, her husband plunged 2,000 feet to his death. These back-to-back tragedies devastated Pagels. Who was responsible for them? Were they her fault? Somebody else’s? Her husband, who had been a kind-hearted man, would’ve said nobody was to blame, but Pagels, a Christian, couldn’t accept this, couldn’t believe that humans suffered and died randomly.

Her religion, of course, provided a reason. Humans had been cursed since Adam and Eve and that fruit thing they did in the Garden of Eden. Pain and suffering was our inheritance. Original sin — a preposterous idea that became one of the most accepted ideas of all time, still popular 1,600 years after Augustine first wrote it down. Pagels explains the appeal of original sin to the sufferer. “You personally are not to blame for what has come upon you; the blame goes back to our father, Adam, and our mother, Eve.” In effect, original sin satisfies two deeply human needs: it provides a reason for suffering, including guilt, and also provides a way for people to be free from individual blame.

The helicopter roars into the parking lot, blowing out bursts of hot air and hope. Two more EMTs scurry from under the blades and disappear into the ambulance where Eli lies in a coma and his parents hold vigil. Time slogs on, every minute a grim reminder that Eli could die here, right in the middle of this hot sea of asphalt. I begin to pray. What do I have to lose? John Cheever once wrote in his journals, “I think that faced with the mystery and passion of life we are forced into a position of humility that is best expressed in the attitudes of prayer.” Seems right to me.

“Please, God,” I say. “If you’re actually out there and if you’re as all-good and all-powerful as they say you are, now’s the time to show your stuff.”

Nothing happens. Finally, 40 minutes and a light year later, Figgy and Laurie and the EMTs pile out of the ambulance with Eli buckled to a stretcher. He’s stabilized but still bloodied and unconscious. Figgy and I exchange cell phone numbers. He’s in a hurry. No room in the helicopter for either him or Laurie, so they have to drive fast to Riley’s in Indy.

“What can I do?” I ask.

“Could you let out our dogs and feed them?” he says. “They haven’t been out since morning.”

“Absolutely,” I say. I’ll feed their poor, hungry dogs tonight and forever if they need me to. Figgy and Laurie lost the lottery, and I have to pay them for my winning.

The EMTs wobble the stretcher across the grass to the chopper, Figgy and Laurie flanking either side. They kiss Eli by the glass bubble of the cockpit, uncertain they’ll ever see him alive again. Then the stretcher and their boy get swallowed into the helicopter and the engines roar to a lift off and Laurie’s brown hair flies about Medusa-like beneath the grinding blades.

Six months before Eli’s accident, I joined a reading group at my college to discuss the works of Notre Dame professor Alvin Plantinga. More than anybody, said a colleague of mine, Plantinga had led a renaissance in Christian philosophy — which had long been considered a joke in the academy. Not anymore. Plantinga took on atheists and Darwinists and other skeptics and gave as good as he got. Sounded like a guy whose work I should check out.

But when I started reading Plantinga, I found his arguments left me cold. Still, I enjoyed one of the readings — a short bit of memoir. It told the story of a young man absorbed in religion but deeply disturbed by the existence of evil. Not an original tale, yet one that connected me to the writer. Plantinga resolved the problem of evil by pointing to free will. He said God did a great good by creating the world with free people in it, but humans often abused their freedom by doing bad things. Plantinga concluded that the atheist’s argument of evil being incompatible with the existence of a perfect God was unsuccessful. Even some atheists agreed.

Thanks to Plantinga, said a philosopher friend, an atheist won’t say that evil proves the nonexistence of God, but that evil shows it is “highly probable” that there is no God.

Two days after the accident, Eli remains unconscious and I arrive at the hospital bearing gifts. Homemade cards from Lincoln and his sister, homemade quiche from my wife, a huge Batman Bat Cave I’d bought for Eli if he ever wakes up. The hospital room is dark and quiet and curtained off from the hallway. Computers beep. Lines crawl across monitors.

Slipping in the room, I glimpse a lump on a bed with tubes shooting out from it — it’s Eli. Figgy and Laurie, nestled beside him on chairs, get up when they see me. They talk fast, thanking me, rushing to explain the various numbers on the computer screens. Huge saucers of anxiety gouge under their eyes, yet they still try to smile. Suddenly, though, tears burst from Laurie’s eyes.

“I’m sorry!” she cries. “We try to be brave, but when friends arrive and they see Eli here with all his cuts and bruises and tubes sticking out of him, we can’t help it.”

“It’s OK,” I say, hugging her. “Don’t worry,” but after another glance at Eli and his inert and bandaged flesh, I worry plenty: Coma.

Laurie says, “Doctors say it’s normal, Eli’s sleeping. But they really want him to wake up soon. So do we.”

I nod and wander over to the bed. Whisper a hello in the boy’s ear.

Laurie says, “They discovered tread marks on Eli’s legs.”

So he’d been run over as well as hit. A pang of anger shoots through me. That damn woman in the stilettos. I still blame her — even as I was still blaming myself — but Laurie and Figgy don’t want to go down that road. In fact, they’ve started a hospital blog to update friends and family on Eli’s condition. When I get home that afternoon, I read their first post, which includes the lines: “To the lady who hit Eli, it’s not your fault. It was an accident.”

I started to reread Plantinga. Though he’d pigeonholed arguments by atheists on the nonexistence of God, Plantinga provided scant evidence for God’s existence. He cited the example of a beautiful night on a mountaintop when you looked up at the stars and simply “felt” the existence of God. Sensus divinitatis, he called it, an innate faculty that granted humans, from time to time, knowledge of God’s existence. Not great proof by any means, but maybe I needed to take more hikes in the hill country?

Maybe it wouldn’t matter. Plantinga says sin interferes with our sensus divinitatis, blinds us to the reality of God. Maybe he’d say that sin had tarred my soul. Befuddled my powers of reason. Maybe he’d say — citing my agnosticism — that I still had hope.

I’d hoped that the reading group on Plantinga might serve up some cosmological answers. At age 48, I’d felt an urgency to crystallize my beliefs once and for all. Maybe I’d even make the jump to theism? I could believe in God the Great Detonator who triggered the Big Bang. And I could believe in God the Performance Artist who cooked up life on earth in a weird and quirky and artful way. But God the All Good was a greater chasm for me to cross. Same with God the Good Cop and God the Bad Cop, dispensing nice folks to heaven in the afterlife and evil guys to hell. Those Gods didn’t pass muster with my intellect.

Finally, at our last meeting, I shouted out in frustration, “If God didn’t create the world, then how did it all begin?”

Silence. I felt like a pimple-studded freshman speaking up at a frat party. Several of my colleagues lowered their eyes, embarrassed for me.

“I mean, if there were all these explosive gases swirling about in the primordial chaos, who created the gases?”

A kindly atheist said, “Nobody did. The universe just is. Always has been. No beginning. No end. Just is.”

I could accept this intellectually. Infinity and the absence of a first-mover. Fine. And yet emotionally I had a problem. I couldn’t accept life as random. Humans are meaning-making animals, and I craved a reason. Voltaire famously said: If God did not exist, man would have to invent him. A snarky comment, probably spoken in irony, yet it underlines a profound human truth: emotion trumps intellect. Fear and guilt and other nitric emotions almost always get the better of reason. Advertisers know this — and tyrants. So do great religions. Not simply, as Kuper might argue, to dupe their followers, but also to minister to them, to comfort and assuage. We humans are a fragile, needy lot.

For the next three days bad news pours out of the hospital. Eli hasn’t awakened. He develops pneumonia. A CAT scan found he’s lost 1 percent of his brain tissue — which doesn’t sound like much but could spell the difference between a chatterbox and a mute, a star athlete and a paraplegic. Even if all goes well and Eli wakes up, doctors warn, he might never be the same. Figgy and Laurie refuse to be pessimistic. All they have is hope — hope and the army of friends who rally to them at the hospital and post hundreds of upbeat messages on their blog. At the end of each day, Figgy and Laurie thank everybody for their posts and sign off with the words:

“Keep the love coming!”

And it comes.

Carloads of people show up at the hospital, some of whom Figgy and Laurie hardly know. They bring casseroles and pies, gifts and Hallmark cards, soccer balls and entire Walmart aisles of toys that pile up in the hospital room like Christmas, waiting for Eli to wake up and play.

Money pours in, too. Thousands of dollars collected from McDonald’s and the Elks and the Putnam County soccer league and Deer Meadow grade school and maybe every one of the town’s 28 Christian congregations.

“Lots of our visitors,” Laurie confides in me, “are pretty churchy folk, but Figgy and I never were very churchy.”

Neither am I. In fact, I’ve gone out of the way to avoid churchy folk in the heartland. Fundamentalist Christians dominate the spiritual discourse here. The Bible Belt cinches up into southern Indiana in a small narrow loop and preachers erect billboards on the highway that scream, “ONLY ONE WAY TO HEAVEN!”

I hate the fear tactics. Even on Eli’s blog, I can’t bring myself to send prayers like the scores and scores of other visitors. Instead I post religiously neutral messages like, “We’re sending our most positive vibes!” Once, though, I even send prayers, which doesn’t make me feel bad at all. Kuper wouldn’t blame me. “Placebos work,” he would’ve said.

On Eli’s fifth day in the hospital, Laurie sees the eyelashes of her son stir. She’s been speaking to him constantly since the accident, trying to coax Eli out of his coma with her voice so he could open his eyes and look at her.

“I know he can hear me,” Laurie says. “I know he can recognize my voice.” But we all have doubts. We all suspect — with infinite understanding — that Laurie is engaging in heavy duty wish-fulfillment.

But Eli’s eyes flutter and open, and Laurie cries out, “Figgy!”

Eli turns his head toward Laurie and attempts to reach over and hug her, but the tubes get in the way. Still his eyes water over and the look on his face cries out to her. “Mom.”

Laurie writes in the blog: “Keep the Love Coming!”

A few days later, Eli is moved out of intensive care. To celebrate, my wife bakes a peach pie and we pack Lincoln and his sister in the Highlander and head 50 miles to the hospital to deliver pie and love. Although color has returned to Eli’s cheeks and his breathing is deep and regular, he still doesn’t look great. All through the visit, he sleeps.

“Resting,” Laurie assures us. “He’s been really tired.”

The doctors still urge caution. They warn that Eli might never walk again. They say he might never talk again either. Nor read. They say the lobes of his brain have incurred severe damage, and they flash Figgy and Laurie pictures of other tragic boys who never recovered from brain trauma.

But then the tubes are removed from his throat and Eli begins to speak. And then Eli starts to read. A week after that, Eli walks across the floor like Lazarus. Soon he’s sneaking down the hall to play video games with friends who come to visit him. Still, the doctors voice caution. They predict another half-year stay in the hospital — months of speech and occupational and physical therapy. But then, in late October, a month to the day that he got hit in the parking lot, Eli comes home. He trick-or-treats on our street. A week later, Laurie drives him to Deer Meadow for his first day back at school.

“Nothing’s so democratic as a traffic jam,” I used to quip when I was living in New York City. All those Wall Street cats cruising through Manhattan in black stretch limousines as long as city blocks — even the money men got trapped at rush hour on the West Side Highway. My friends and I laughed at their discomfort. Humans are moral animals, and we like a good equalizer.

Guilt’s another equalizer. It hits across all social classes and can’t be bought off. After the great news of Eli’s recovery, I started to have bad dreams, as if being reminded that no good miracle goes unpunished.

In one dream, I was driving Eli and Lincoln to the park. We got stopped at the bottom of a steep hill — a traffic jam — and I got out of the car and wandered up the road, leaving Eli and Lincoln inside. I remembered them at the top of the hill and ran down in slow motion. When I got to the car, the boys had disappeared. I sprinted back up the hill. Still no sign of them. Panic sizzled through my body. A colleague driving by offered me a lift, but instead of speeding down the mountain, she turned her car around and inched down in reverse. Another traffic jam stopped us again. I shot out of the car and began to weep, which provoked a man on the road to smile at me. He knew I was to blame for the lost boys. He knew it was all my fault. The dream ended with me sprinting down the hill, shouting out Eli’s and Lincoln’s names.

Where did all this leave me on my journey for answers? Not like Paul, knocked off his horse and blinded by the light. Nothing so dramatic. I wasn’t any less skeptical, but I found myself more open to belief. William James wrote about his “will to believe,” which he meant, perhaps, that believers often got more out of faith than skeptics got out of doubt. That despite our intellects — and despite any scientific evidence for a personal God — we believe because our emotions compel us to. Belief makes millions of people a little more confident, a little less scared, a bit more invested in the promise of now and the hope of a less anguished future.

My bad dreams ended in early December, and a week before Christmas, we got a holiday card from Laurie and Figgy Hardwick. The card featured a photo of Eli sporting a brown bomber jacket and a delightful smile. Snow fell softly in the background, settling on the boughs of cedars and pines. Snow also dusted Eli’s hair and lashes. His alert brown eyes looked straight at the viewer, radiating strength and joy.

“Merry Christmas” it said at the top of the card, and beneath the photo it said “Thank you.”

I couldn’t stop looking at the picture of Eli and his lovely smile, his beautiful eyes. It took me a few moments before I saw the quote by Maya Angelou at the bottom of the card: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Peter Graham is an associate professor at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, where he teaches creative writing and film studies. He also writes the Reluctant Blogger column for the Notre Dame Magazine website.