A Punch in the Face

Last summer, my friend Jim traveled to Portland, OR for O’Reilly’s Open Source Conference (OSCON). Portland has a great public transportation system. When Jim’s plane landed, he headed over to the light rail to take it to the conference center. Somewhere between the airport and the conference center, some stranger got on the train, walked up to Jim, punched him in the eye, and got off the train.

Everyone I’ve told that story to has looked incredulously at me and asked “what?”

A stranger walked up to him and punched him in the eye.

The next question they usually ask is “Why”.

“Why” is such a tough question. It is so unknowable. The other problem with “why” is that knowing the answer is not always helpful. Perhaps the stranger thought Jim was someone else with whom he had a grudge. Maybe the stranger knew Jim was part of the Jini team and he truly hates Jini. It could be that the stranger was mentally ill.

Whatever the reason, Jim still walked around with a black eye.

There are times that knowing why is helpful. Maybe not “why” but knowing the other person “didn’t mean it” or “didn’t know.”

The punches in the face I’m dreading are the ones six months from now when the three of us are out somewhere and someone who doesn’t know asks “where’s the little one?” It’s still a black eye – but they don’t know. It’s not their fault. They mean well.

A little boy ran up to Kim the other day and gave her a big smile and said “Hi Elena’s mom.” Kim gave him a smile back and talked to him a bit before he rushed to get into the school before the bell rang. And then she wept. Was she Elena’s mom anymore? I said yes. She was still Egelio’s granddaughter even though he died several years ago. But it’s tougher to be Elena’s mom without Elena than it is to be Egelio’s granddaughter without Egelio.

Had Elena Maxine been a boy, her name would have been Maxwell Egelio.

I received an unexpected punch in the face yesterday. I’ve always wanted to write fiction and have read tons of books on it. I’ve co-written nine or so non-fiction books on mathematics or computer programming but have always wanted to try my hand at a novel or a mystery. There are many things that keep me from trying. For one thing, if you’d read about Jim being punched in the face by a stranger in a novel you would have said “oh, that couldn’t happen”. I think fiction is much harder than reality.

I’ve started working a bit this week. And I’ve tried to read here and there. I went to the Shaker library and picked up a bunch of books including Ellen Gilchrist’s collection of essays called “The Writing Life”.

She writes, “I think I am happy because I have quit trying to find happiness through other people. No one else can give you happiness after you become an adult. Happiness is self-derived and self-created.” Wow. I agree with all that. Maybe her book will be full of gems that help me find my way as a writer.

But here’s her very next sentence. Not only does it seem to fly in the face of the previous three, but I felt that I had been set up with a couple of jabs for this huge punch in the eye. She writes, “I derive happiness from the fact that my children and grandchildren are alive and breathing and that I am here to watch their lives unfold.”


I’m reading a book on writing and out of nowhere have to confront the fact that one of my children is no longer alive and breathing and that the promise of her life will never unfold.

I know Gilchrist would never have said that to me if she’d known about Elena. But pages later after other notes on happiness that I could again agree with or at least understand, she writes, “I wouldn’t be happy now if I had no progeny. The reason I don’t fear death is that every chromosome of me is already in younger people.”


Kim and I always wanted to adopt a child and have a child. We did just that. I know Gilchrist is only speaking for herself, but there was never a difference in the love we felt for Maggie and Elena. They were both our daughters and they were clearly sisters. The fact that Maggie does not derive her chromasomes from Kim and me does not make her less our daughter. You can see so much of the two of us in her. We would not mourn her death any differently than we do Elena’s.

I may not be ready to read books on writing right now.

Published in: on March 9, 2006 at 8:23 am  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Personally, I think you are amazing for being able to write this journal. There’s something about the fact that you take the time to record something here daily that gives me hope that while devastating losses are crippling, you can work your way through them by doing something that you love to do…write.

    I would fear the unexpected punches, too because there is no way to determine when they might arise. I’m the type of person who doesn’t appreciate surprises and would be supremely happy if I had an agenda sent out to me telling me what I could expect from my life so that I could mentally prepare for whatever was to come. But I know that’s not possible and so I pretend I’m ready for anything and sometimes that works.

    I imagine the reminders must be crushing for all of you and I hope that you all take good care of yourselves.

  2. This thought occurred to me the other day, and seems relevant to your blog. As someone who knows kids that were adopted, and adults who were adopted as kids, it got me to thinking. Adoption addresses the “nature versus nurture” issue on who we are as people. There are definitely aspects of nature, i.e., what is carried on the chromosomes, that are reflected in a person, such as hair color or how you roll your tongue. And some aspects of behavior can also be attributed to genes. But I absolutely believe that who we are as people and how we choose to live our lives comes from nurture. It is shaped by our family and friends. This is what defines who our children are, and who are our parents.


  3. There are people in this world that will never quite “get it” when it comes to loving a child. My grandmother lost her son 40 years ago, she still considers herself Larry’s Mom.

    You and Kim apparently get it. You both understand that loving a child doesn’t require specifics such as bloodlines, gene pools, or even living. And for this, Maggie and Elena will be forever blessed.

  4. You know, one of the things I thought about a lot after my father died was how I could use what his death taught me to help other people.

    The entries in this blog remind me, prod me, really, to treasure my kids more, try a little harder, be there more, remember. Can you take what Elena meant, and what losing her has done to you, and spread it around? Can you keep showing us different facets of the most important lesson of our lives? Can you keep reminding us? No matter how good we are, or think we are, reading this blog makes me try to do better. Thank you.

  5. Regarding not ready to read books on writing, you might be right.

    You might be ready to write very painful fiction. Maybe not the kind of fiction you intended to write, but something that would be far more visceral. Not necessarily biographical, but maybe using the power of all that you’re feeling right now.

    You can direct that power. You can choose how you express it. This blog is an example. Lots of us are reading it and learning from you, experiencing THROUGH you. Good fiction can be used for that purpose. Novels can sometimes teach us more about humanity than sociology books (Maybe ALWAYS).

    FALL ON YOUR KNEES by Ann Marie McDonald is full of raw, visceral emotions for the reader, even when all the characters aren’t reacting. Forget that it says Oprah on the cover. Don’t read it right now. But it’s an example of a book that made me feel very deep and profound feelings and fears.

    I suspect your fiction would move humanity were you to let it flow unbound at present.


  6. this post made my day!

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