Volume 2, Issue 86: White Wooden Cross

"What would I do if a white, wooden cross meant that I'd lost you?"

One late morning in February 2003, in my old apartment in the Inwood neighborhood of Manhattan, I crawled out of bed, because when you are 27 years old, single and have no children, you can crawl out of bed in the late morning because no one needs you. My old flip-top Sprint PCS phone had the little mail icon flashing, indicating that I had a voice mail message. I didn’t have any friends I knew who would call me before noon on a Saturday—I didn’t have any friends I knew who were awake before noon on a Saturday—so I assumed, correctly, that it was my mother.

Her voice was shaky. She was upset. "Will, I wanted to see if you were watching CNN,” she said.” Have you seen it? It’s terrible, Will, just terrible.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. It was instantly terrifying. This was February 2003, less than a year and a half after 9/11, and I, like everyone in New York and pretty much everywhere, was still in shock, and still looking around every corner for the next attack. Something terrible that she was seeing live on CNN … it could be anything. It could be what you most feared. Or it could be something you hadn’t thought to imagine.

I shuffled to the living room of my apartment (both my roommates were of course still asleep too) and sat down on the futon. I picked up the remote and stared at the television for a moment, looking back at my own reflection before hitting the POWER button. What awaited me on the other side of that screen? Was there another attack? Was Times Square, 10 miles south of me, in flames? Did somebody drop a nuke in the Middle East? I took a deep breath. The world as I know it was about to be different the second I pushed that button. I lit a cigarette and stared out the window for a second. There didn’t seem to be panic in the streets, or at least not yet. Maybe they don’t know. Maybe they haven’t pushed the button yet either.

I sighed, steeled myself and pressed POWER.

I was greeted with this:

It was the space shuttle Columbia, which on February 1, 2003 broke apart while re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board. Viewers watched live as the debris from the doomed shuttle flew back to earth, a ghastly collective elegy aired live by all the major networks. To many, it brought back memories of the Challenger explosion in 1986. It was awful.

But it was not what I had feared. Seven brave astronauts perishing is a tragedy. But it is not a cataclysm. I had expected a cataclysm. I called my mom back. “Yeah, I saw it,” I told her. “It’s very sad.” But then, in the cadence of every twentysomething shithead who just thinks their parents are the stupidest people in the world, I explained to her that at this current cultural moment, her vague message had me thinking the worst. She told me that a space shuttle explosion seemed pretty close to “the worst” to her, and I growled that she didn’t get it and went back to bed.

They grounded the space shuttle program for four years after that, and we haven’t launched a shuttle into space since 2011.

We’re always just one phone call from everything changing forever.

*******************

About nine years later, I was a bar in Tribeca, celebrating a win for our New York Magazine company softball team over the puny weaklings at The Daily Show. I was in the middle of a long soliloquy to the features editor about how the Knicks were about to turn their season around when my cellphone rang. It was my father. That was highly unusual. I didn’t remember the last time Dad had called me after 7 p.m. for any reason other than a Cardinals game, and the Cardinals weren’t playing.

I stepped outside, lit a cigarette and answered. “Hello.”

My father coughed for a second, and then gave a little resetting grunt. Another deep breath. He was fortifying himself for what he was about to say. My body tensed.

“Well, Will, it’s a sad day for the Leitch family.”

My mind raced. Did something happen to my grandmother? My sister? My mom? Him? Was he calling me to tell me he had some horrible disease? It had only been a few years since Mom had beat breast cancer. Was it back?

“What? What’s going on?”

I don’t remember the precise details of the conversation, only that Dad clammed up and kept talking around whatever had happened to make this such a sad day for the Leitch family. I was already on my second cigarette when he got down to it.

“Your mother’s had a motorcycle accident.” My mom was obsessed with motorcycles at the time, an obsession my sister and I mostly attributed to her being healthy and clear after all the chemo and needing something dangerous and fast to make her feel more alive. (She had always been wary of motorcycles before then, always reminding us that she had worked in the ER long enough to learn that patients needing organ transplants always looking forward to the spring because that’s when the motorcycles would come out and thus there’d be more deaths and organs to donate.) My parents would ride their motorcycles everywhere, to work, to Cardinals games, to car shows, everywhere they could. Mom became incredibly easy to Christmas-shop for: Just get her motorcycle stuff.

Apparently they’d stopped out at a gas station by their house and when Mom was getting off the bike to gas up … something happened. Dad was looking away, and when he turned back, Mom and her bike were in a ditch just up the road from the Amoco. Mom had blacked out and wasn’t entirely certain what had happened. Had there been a car? Did she think the bike was shut off but it wasn’t, and it took off on her? Was there a strange wet spot that sent the bike careening? She didn’t know the answers to those questions, and Dad didn’t either, but honestly Dad wasn’t giving me much of anything. I was still reeling from the “sad day for the Leitch family” comment, and he was providing circular, unhelpful answers to all my questions. I know now that he was still a little bit in shock from the incident—he’d waited to call me until she was out of surgery—but at the time, I was in an absolute panic.

It turned out that she broke her pelvis in the accident, but because she had her helmet on, and it appears there was not in fact another car, she had no other major injuries other than scrapes and cuts. My cousin Denny, who rode motorcycles professionally, had helped train her on the new bike, and he said all he could think about was how small she was: He’d never considered his aunt that small before. She had a small motorcycle. But no motorcycle can be all that small.

I finally got Dad to explain to me that Mom was OK, that she’d broken her pelvis, but otherwise, she was in good shape and that it could have been so much worse. I did ask him to lead with the “in good shape” part next time. I saw her about two weeks later, and she was limping around with a walker but mostly just felt embarrassed. She said she was sorry for making me and my sister so worried. She stopped riding motorcycles after that.

We’re always just one phone call from everything changing forever.

********************

I spend all week thinking about these newsletters, about what the topic’s going to be the next week, and it’s simpler when I have a basic, linear, point-a-to-point-b story to tell. So I have a big Word file of anecdotes, with things like “NEIGHBOR JERK AND MY FINGER” and “THAT LOUSY PROM.” I’ve had “DAD TELLS ME ABOUT MOM’S CRASH” in there for a while, and I’ve found that story increasingly relevant in recent years. We are always just one phone call from everything changing forever, something that becomes more apparent as your parents get older, as your friends’ parents get older, as you and your friends get older, when everyone and everything is just a little bit more fragile than you ever realized. Someday that phone call is gonna come, and the world is gonna be a different place after that phone call than it was before. I was going to use this anecdote to write about how we must appreciate every moment, that we have to keep our loved ones as close as we can, because it can all be gone, and it can be gone in an instant. It was going to be a good newsletter, I think.

And then, Friday afternoon, I got one of these calls.

I’d spent Friday morning serving as Dashman, the superhero character at my kids’ school for the annual Barrow Dash. Basically, every class, pre-K to fifth grade, runs laps for 15 minutes around the gym, raising money for the school and promoting physical fitness and health. My job was to wear a mask and a cape and encourage the kids during the runs, either by supporting them when they got tired or pretending like I was the fastest person alive and if they passed me (which I made sure they did), they must be SO FAST. I spent most of the day shockingly proclaiming, “nobody told me these kids were so fast!” as they cheered and mocked me and ran faster and it was an absolute blast. My iPhone tracker informed me I’d run a total of 25.5 miles on the day. I was feeling it. I am feeling it. But it was worth it.

I was about to settle into a screening of “21 Bridges” for the G&L podcast in a theater with mercifully reclining seats when my mother called. I’d just texted with her 20 minutes earlier. I wasn’t sure why she was calling.

Her voice was shaky and plainly scared. “Your dad fell off the ladder,” she said. “The ambulance is on its way.” I heard my father moan vaguely in the background. He has been putting up aluminum siding on his new garage, and he was on an extension ladder and fell off and onto the rocks below. She couldn’t figure out what else was going on from him. “He’s not making very much sense, and he doesn’t know where he is.” I told her I was on my way over.

Twenty agonizing minutes later, I pulled into their driveway. There was a fire truck outside and a police officer pulling out. Mom had already texted me that the ambulance had taken him to the hospital, so I was just picking her up so we could go together. I flagged down the police officer.

“Hey, I’m his son. I came straight from home when my mom called me. Can you tell me what I’m walking into here?”

He gave me a stricken look. “He fell off his ladder. They took him off to Piedmont. You should know: He has a very significant head injury.” He paused. “We’re praying for you. Good luck.”

When we got to the hospital, I dropped Mom off at the entrance and went to park. I am not uncomfortable around hospitals; my Mom worked at one for 30 years, and that will give you a good cold look at what hospitals actually are, and an appreciation and gratitude for the people who work there. They are always just trying to help. But I stood outside those automatic doors for five minutes, opening and closing, before I could walk through. “Room A9,” Mom’s text rang. A deep sigh. In we go.

Dad lay in the bed, and to my immediate relief, it was still him. He was bloody and pale and worn, but it was still Dad. He was telling jokes: He had told the paramedics that he hadn’t fallen off a ladder, that his wife had finally gotten fed up with him and started beating with him with a bat. He was actually a little annoyed with her that she’d called me. The last thing he wanted was this sort of fuss.

But it was justified fuss. He couldn’t remember anything that had happened—he looked at the clock on the wall and it said 3:15, and the next thing he remembered he was in the ambulance—but we pieced it together. He was 10-15 feet in the air putting up the siding when the ladder, unsecured and resting on loose rock, buckled beneath him, and he landed on the back of his head. Mom was inside the house and didn’t see anything, but Dad, once he came to after the fall, pulled himself inside the house and climbed the stairs. He told her he fell, and she rested him on the bed and called 911 and me. He then asked her where he was and how he got there. He was bleeding all over the bed. Dad remembered none of this. That he didn’t remember it bothered him more than the gash in the back of his head.

But honestly : This was the best-case scenario. He ended up having a concussion, 13 (13!) staples in his head and a very sore back, but we got him home last night and he slept in his own bed. He didn’t break any bones, he didn’t have any brain bleeding, his neck was fine. I was proud of him, actually. Most of the 70-year-olds I know, they fall in the shower and they’re never the same afterward. Dad fell 10-15 feet onto loose rocks below and all he got was a concussion and a head gash … basically the same thing he would have got if he’d fallen from that distance 45 years younger. I’d find it pretty badass if I wasn’t so scared.

He’s good today. He’s sore, and I’m heading out to see them after I send this newsletter out, but he’s looks healthy, if uncomfortable. He’s also going to be irritated that I wrote all this. But I’m still processing it as well. We were so lucky. He was so lucky. I couldn’t have possibly asked for a better outcome. But I’ll never forget the timespan between that initial phone call until I actually saw him and realized that he was going to be OK.

The thing, though, about always being just one phone call from everything changing forever is that phone call can change everything even it’s not as horrible as your worst fears. I get to go see my dad today, and once he’s healed up, we’re gonna go drink some beers and watch an Illini game, and he’s going to play with his grandchildren, and he’s going to be back to some semblance of normal. But that phone call changes things anyway. It will make me appreciate what I have, that I have him and the other people I love near me, that I’m able to walk around and do all the things that I do because you never know, someday that phone call could be about me. My Dad’s OK. My mom’s OK. My family’s OK. My friends are OK. I spent that time between Mom’s phone call and the time that I saw my dad obsessed with the worst-case scenario, horrified by what I hadn’t said, what I hadn’t told him, desperate to get another chance to tell him, to just spend more time with him. Now I have that time. Now I have to use it.

You see: Every phone call should change everything. Every phone call should change everything. What you have now will someday be gone. The world is constantly shifting on its axis. It’s always in danger of slipping away. That person next to you you’re taking for granted — don’t. Every call’s a gift. Every call’s an opportunity. Every call’s a new day. So let’s go do something with it. While we can. While it’s here.

Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. You may disagree. It is your wont.

  1. The Astros Scandal Is Fun, and We Should Be Having Fun With It, New York. This is about as close to a Hot Take as I get … but I really do think I’m right about this.

  2. Anthony Rendon Suitor Power Rankings, MLB.com. I wish the Cardinals were on this list, but they’re not.

  3. Tom Hanks Movies, Ranked and Updated, Vulture. We think Captain Phillips is very underappreciated.

  4. The Thirty: Bounceback Players for Each Team, MLB.com. I’m dreamcasting on Matt Carpenter.

  5. Debate Club: Best Marvel Villains That Aren’t Thanos, SYFY Wire. I think about Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther more often than I realize.

PODCASTS

Grierson & Leitch, we dug into “Ford v Ferrari,” which I loved (and is a terrific Thanksgiving with the extended family movie) and “Charlie’s Angels,” and Grierson soloed on “The Report” and “Waves.” Also, I had my annual Thanksgiving chat with Jeb Lund. We talked rather in-depth about all the Deadspin stuff on that show too.

Waitin' Since Last Saturday, we reviewed the Auburn game, and previewed the Texas A&M game.

Seeing Red, no show this week, but we’re taping on December 9.

GET THIS LUNATIC OUT OF HERE 2020 POWER RANKINGS

I’ve had several friends tell me to take a closer look at Amy Klobuchar recently, and I’ve been impressed. She’s tough but … seemingly normal? Also, the debate the other night was incredibly strange. The only thing that really matters right now is impeachment, and it’s bizarre to talk about something other than that, at least at this particular second. I dunno. It’s a very odd time. I suppose it always is.

1. Elizabeth Warren
2. Amy Klobuchar
3. Joe Biden
4. Bernie Sanders
5. Kamala Harris
6. Cory Booker
7. Pete Buttigieg
8. Michael Bennet
9. Steve Bullock
10. Julian Castro
11. Andrew Yang
12. Deval Patrick
13. Tom Steyer
14. William Weld
15. John Delaney
16. Marianne Williamson
17. Tulsi Gabbard
18. Joe Walsh

ONGOING LETTER-WRITING PROJECT!

You can also send holiday cards here if you want. I love those!

Will Leitch
P.O. Box 48
Athens GA 30603

CURRENTLY LISTENING TO

Chuck Berry, “Maybellene.” When I’m working, I play all my albums in a row in chronological order … and I just flipped over back to 1957. Up next: Miles Davis and Bob Dylan!

Look, two future legends meeting at last.

I think … I think I need a nap.

Have a great weekend, all.

Best,
Will