What's the Closest You've Come to Death?
essay and poem
Ryan asked me, "What's the closest you've come to death?"
I told him that it was during high school basketball practice in 1984 when a support pole that helped hold the basket to the ceiling broke free, dropped down just a few inches in front of my face, and landed between my feet.
I'd been shooting at that basket with Ricky and he turned away and retched. I looked down at the deep divot in the gym floor. That pole, which weighed at least twenty pounds, would've split my skull in half. I felt dizzy so I walked over to a gym wall and leaned against it for a moment.
Then my teammates and I studied the jagged hole in the gym floor and marveled at my luck—bad for almost dying and good for not dying. And then we returned to playing hoops. We were athletes who wanted to win. And winning takes hard work. And hard work requires blistered feet and blistered souls.
But Coach Smith conducted an easy practice. He laughed and smiled as we all ran at half-speed.
Afterward, he said, "Everybody went pale. I went pale. Even you got pale, Sherman."
I hadn't thought about my near-death in years. So Ryan's question had me remembering that, in years past, I would sometimes drift into a irreal state and worry that the support pole had crushed my brain but that I'd somehow survived and had been in a long term coma ever since.
I'm a storyteller so I'd wonder, inside my imaginary coma, if I'd invented an entire life, invented my sons and wife, invented my friends and my career.
And now, as I ponder that irreal state of the past, I'm proud of myself for imagining a realistic life. I didn't invent a utopia. I'm terrified of utopians. As they've tried to remake the world in their image, utopians have slaughtered millions of people. And, yes, they’ve thrown poets into the reeducation camps and gulags.
So, unlike the utopians, I'd invented a life, a world, that was filled with just as much pain as joy—a world of contradiction and imperfection. Yeah, you gotta challenge the utopians with every story you tell. And, yeah, I'm a poet devoted to telling the story that comforts and hurts.
I dream of the coma where I've been trapped for decades. I dream that my brothers and sister, survivors, are in the room. I dream that these poems arrive—I'm a transcriber— when my siblings lean over my curled body in my hospital bed and whisper "We're here, Junior, we're here, we're here and we won't leave until you find your way back to this trembling world.