By Jeremiah O’Hagan
The older I get, the more surely I understand that stories are all we have. That often the littlest stories are the ones that catch our heads and hearts.
When my son was born, I imagined it would be the big moments I’d cherish — the rolling over, crawling, walking, talking. And I do recall those things, but not as clearly as I remember tiny moments. I’ve realized, see, that he doesn’t need me to learn how to roll over or walk. He can grow up all on his own; he will grow up in spite of me.
He is three now, a chattering screeching racing leaping rubber-booted toddler, and the moments that bring silent tears in my eyes are the moments he can only have with me.
We are driving in my car and he says, Dad, where do you live? And I say, Conway.
He says, OK. And where does mom live? And I say, Anacortes.
OK. And where does the Hulk live?
I tell him I really have no idea, come to think of it, no idea at all.
Oh, he says. He reaches to the seat next to him, where I have a milk crate full of my students’ journals, and he pulls out one. What’s this?
That’s my student’s notebook, I say. That one belongs to Sierra Simmons.
Oh, OK, he says. And there is a pause before he says, Well I am just going to read this book to see where the Hulk lives.
Another time, two weeks after I hurt my back, he suddenly says from the backseat of my car, Dad, how is your back? It’s such an adult question, so full of memory and unexpected empathy, that it melts me.
At the newspaper, we just published the annual Year in Review issue. While I was working on it, I realized nothing newsworthy changed my life over the past 12 months. But all sorts of stories did. I want to steal a few of them from the paper and put them here for you.
Carol Schmidt, who has worked at the paper since way before I was born, once told me how, in the old days, news blew in the front door and out the back, stopping along the way at various desks and finally the press.
One day this year — and this is a moment I remember grinningly — old Noel Freedman banged through the front door yelling about a human-interest story and demanding an editor.
Turned out the human-interest story was in fact Noel, who had been dropped off at age eight with his five siblings at the Montana state capital rotunda while his mom went to work.
“If anyone asks,” she told them, “the state is babysitting you.”
By the end of the day, they were all in a state-run orphanage.
There’s a memory seared in my head of Noel in the office, hard of hearing, repeating himself, making me repeat myself, his voice dancing, his eyes piercingly blue, his eyebrows wizened and white, saying to me, “She took us out, one at a time, over the years as she could afford to.”
Another pair of blue eyes belonged to Robert L. Jones, US Air Force retired, shot down over Germany on Dec. 4, 1944. He spent the last months of WWII in a POW camp and when he made it back on US soil he stayed in the Air Force for three more decades.
“I flew several hundred combat missions before I ran out of wars,” he told me.
When a 92-year-old man sits across a table from you with his gentle smiling face and round bald head and crisp blue eyes and quiet voice and tells you he served your country for so long he ran out of wars, that’s something you don’t forget.
Speaking of service, let’s remember a young lady named Emily Hoyt, elected a delegate for the Democratic party, first for Camano Island, then Island County, then Washington state.
She was hoping and urging for Bernie Sanders, who she described as “the adorable old grandpa with the raspy voice of indignation.”
“I knew I was going to vote, because I have a right to do so and I think I should exercise that right, but once I saw how extreme the field (of presidential candidates) was, I knew I had to get involved,” she said. “This is my world. I have to live in it, and I want to be able to say I did more than just vote.”
This from an 18-year-old high school student. Amen.
Another quick story about people doing the thing we all want to believe we’ll do but often don’t, like staying in love:
I interviewed Ric Shallow and his wife several months after Ric’s car accident, which is quite a story. But let’s not talk about the fact that he didn’t die when by all accounts he was a goner; let’s not talk about the fact that he has learned to walk and talk and sing again; let’s not talk about the obvious miracle. Let me tell instead about the quiet sly gleeful flirty glances that passed between him and his wife, like they were high school lovers and not beleaguered adults with children of their own and bills and jobs and bruised hearts and damaged faith.
We want to believe love wins, and in those glances it did. Those glances stay with me still.
Another smile I carry is Sue Thees’s. The entire time I interviewed her, she grinned openly and joyfully while recollecting her five — five — bouts with cancer, which cost her her appendix, spleen, thyroid and both breasts, and left her body looking like a roadmap of scars.
Since 2004 she has raced two Olympic-distance triathlons, eight sprint-distance triathlons, three Leukemia & Lymphoma Society triathlons, eight half-marathons and one Seattle-to-Portland bike ride, plus countless short races and training runs, plus water skiing and snow skiing and substitute teaching and generally being tougher and more resilient and optimistic than just about anyone I’ve met, no disrespect to Robert L. Jones, age 92, US Air Force retired.
The greatest storycatcher and storyteller I know is Brian Doyle, who had most of his own tumor removed from his brain the day before Thanksgiving. This is also a story from this year that quietly sidled up and changed my life in ways I do not yet know because I have not yet seen the end of that story. Nor do I have the proper retrospect to sort and organize and make meaning.
But I would like to end this little bit of writing by stealing a few of Brian’s ideas, which have become my ideas too in the time I have read and known him. They are the best kinds of ideas, there for sharing and living.
Stories are all we have in the end.
Stories are our religions and cultures and histories, our tears and forgiveness, our prayers and songs and laughter.
Stories can be our wit and wisdom and muscle and nerve.
They can be our light against the dark.
They can be our grace under duress.
They can be us holding hands.