On Community

“Well, what if you just don’t want to be a part of a community?” asked my student, an 18-year-old in an intentional orange denim jacket, slouched in the corner of my crowded Freshman Comp class. It was remarkable that she spoke up at all, as I hadn’t heard a peep out of her all semester except in my office, where her general upset and anger flowed more freely. “Who wouldn’t want that?” snickered one of the front-row students. “That doesn’t make any sense.” And so began an animated conversation about communities of choice and communities of undesired circumstance.

As the list of possibilities for each of these grew, a wind began to build outside after two days of an odd calm. The sudden wind has always brought extraordinary change to my life. I finished recording my second album in the wind. My daughter refused to be born on a windy day and would only emerge after the gusting had passed (and even then, only with the help of a knife). Her brother, on the other hand, used the wind to announce his intended arrival. My decision to return to school blew in through an open window and my father…well, my father honored my request, whispered in his ruddy ear as it pressed into a hospice pillow, to wait till after the birthday weekend I shared with a sister to leave us. He summoned a tornado and left when it came for him.

This time I was carried off in memory above the university and away to an empty stretch of Nashville sidewalk, a broken slab outside of Vanderbilt Hospital. In those days, I told my newly-attentive students, my son had just finished several years of occupational therapy and I had gone to the pediatric rehab department to get a copy of the records for his school. It felt wonderful to know he had finished the mild therapy and could now move on, perhaps joining in sports or art classes with his peers. I was nearly skipping to the parking lot when a gust of wind tried to snatch the envelope from my hands, and as I grabbed it back, I turned and found myself face to face with Butch Baldassari, a friend from my Nashville community of musicians, a guy with a well-known warmth, a man known here for his authenticity. A good guy.

Hospital grounds are not necessarily the place where you’d want to run into a fellow musician or anyone from your circle of friends, but I was on a happy errand and so thought nothing of it for a moment. Butch was standing under a large awning near another hospital doorway, leaning against a pole, waiting.

“Hey there, Butch!” I said.

“Hi, Nina….” he responded, a strange wistfulness at the edge of his mouth. “Are you…?” he began and gestured up towards the hospital sign.

I looked up then, and saw that the awning was for the cancer center.

The air in that quick, terrible moment filled me with unconscious confusion. Instinctively I drew it into my body, then realized I did not want to breathe it in; did not want it to circulate. It was cancer air.

Yet it was just air, and I needed air to live; more urgently, as the realization had knocked me breathless, I needed it in order to respond, which I did after the tense pause. I shook my head, and said, “I came out of that other door…pediatric rehab. Just…getting records…for my son….He’s fine, “ I said, awkwardly. I didn’t know how or what to ask, but I blurted, “I’m..not….Are…?” and before I could say “you?”, Butch was already nodding. “A brain tumor,” he said.

I knew Butch didn’t wish for me to be a colleague on what turned out to be a terrible journey for him. Butch didn’t wish a brain tumor or any cancer on me, yet in the first second, when he saw me, when he greeted me and asked, “Are you..?” what he no doubt needed was community. He had been thrown involuntarily into a community of people coming and going through those doors over indefinite periods of time; a community of sufferers, of family members and grievers; of those who would eventually succumb, and those who would survive and move on to another, better (if still painful) community of survivors. And the loved ones and attendants of survivors. But Butch was in a community of unfortunate circumstance, and surely did not want me, specifically, to join that community; but just as surely, Butch and all who suffer terminal or chronic illnesses need community and support; as do displaced persons; widows; divorcees; abused and recovering teens and adults; and all manner of people thrust into communities of misfortune.

But I did not want to join him there. Though I had my own small communities of unfortunate circumstance of which I was a member, I couldn’t join Butch, and didn’t want to. And it was that knowledge – that my friend needed community in his newfound circumstances, people who could really understand, and for one split second had reached out to me in anticipated camaraderie; and that I wanted to run like hell from such an invitation – that filled the moment.

Butch and I hugged each other tightly, and I promised him support and any help I could offer, which did not turn out to be much. I held tight to my envelope and went off to enter a community of choice: the community of parents of soon-to-be schoolchildren. Of children healthy and rehabbed enough to be schoolchildren.

***   *****   ***

“But…whatever happened to your friend?” asked the unison voices of my freshmen.

“Oh, Butch didn’t survive. He passed on after many struggles. He left behind a wife and son. And I know it was hard, but Butch had been well-loved, and a lot of people pitched in both while he was sick and afterwards, to give support to the family.”

My students were quiet for what may have been several minutes, listening to the intensity of the wind. “Well,’ offered the girl in the orange denim jacket, finally, “that’s what I’d call a community of choice. That’s what I need.” She sat still, then hunched back down. I didn’t know what she was talking about, or what story lay behind her words. The day’s windstorm had brought something to our classroom and my student had taken it, somehow, as an opening. She hung back and remained behind as the rest of the class filed out a little more quietly than usual. Then, suddenly, she bolted.

I’ve just arrived to my after-class office hours, and she is here, waiting for me.

 

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