Our final assignment for my Creative Non-Fiction Writing course (for beginners):
Write about a “traumatic experience.”
At 64, I had a library of experiences to draw from, mostly good but with my fair share of bad ones.
So, how to decide which experiences were “traumatic”? How and through whose eyes do we judge?
My wife Melissa and I naturally had different takes on what makes for “traumatic.”
But when I explained the assignment and challenged her to guess what I’d chosen to write about, she put her gigantic brain to work, sifting through our 28 years; discarding the most obvious candidates; and landing triumphantly on “The Pit.”
Galveston, July 1993 – 95 degrees by 8 in the morning and that was just the beginning. It didn’t take long to learn why every car wore one of those clumsy windshield sunshields with which our rental car came equipped. We were camped out in Galveston for the summer – me, as a lawyer on the three billion dollar anti-trust trial presided over by the Honorable Sam Kent, a classic bully who ruled over his courtroom with an iron fist, intimidating all who came before him.
Our opponents were a dream team of legal giants led by two unlikely bedfellows: Joe Jamail, the notorious Texas plaintiffs’ lawyer whose private jet had been financed by his billion dollar contingent fee from the $10 billion he’d taken out of the pockets of Texaco; and David Boies, the master Wall Street lawyer (later of Bush vs Gore and gay marriage litigation fame).
On our side, another formidable team: four powerhouse law firms from Houston, Los Angeles and New York City, including ours. But I, our senior partner, was relegated to the “back office” due to my Texas teammates’ insistence that a New Yorker would never fly with the provincial Galveston jury (n.b. Boies was also a New Yorker; an unspoken difference between us: he wasn’t a Jew.)
Despite my resentment and the oppressive heat, life in Galveston that summer wasn’t bad. We were given an apartment in a former hotel on Galveston’s version of a beach that our client, American Airlines, had taken over to house our 40 person team. I was accompanied by Melissa, our son Harris, then about 18 months old, and Betty Demopolous, our 65 year-old Greek nanny and virtual family member who worked tirelessly to keep our son safe from his highly-educated and clueless parents. Wandering the beach with Harris each day, early and late, and religiously stopping at the “tar station” to scrub the black gook off his feet before coming home, Betty made sure that Harris was the cleanest infant in the great state of Texas.
But on the night of the Pit, Betty couldn’t save us from ourselves.
Having gotten hold of a juicy plum, Harris choked on the pit, and the most terrifying episode of our lives was instantly upon us.
A modern hands-on father, I took control. Parenting 101 taught that the fix was to hug Harris from behind in a basic Heimlich maneuver in order to force the pit up and out of his mouth.
Command #1 on the top 10 list of “Don’ts”: Do not try to shove a pit down a child’s throat.
But in my moment of desperation, with visions of Harris on the brink of choking to death, I did just that. I stuck my forefinger in Harris’ mouth and shoved the pit down his throat.
He was breathing. But not understanding what had happened and, more importantly, not knowing whether Harris would live or die, we immediately set off in search of the Galveston Hospital. In the 1993 pre-Google maps/GPS era, I can’t remember how we found it. What I do know is that immediately after examining Harris, the ER doctor told us he would be ok.
So we had dodged a bullet, and my egregious failing as a parent went unpunished. Indeed, some might even say that in my screwed-up way I had saved our son.
Years later, when Harris was 22 and his younger brother was nearing 18, a hematologist sat Melissa and me down and told us I had a blood cancer that could kill me in as little as three years in the absence of a bone marrow transplant which could also kill me if unsuccessful. We opted for the transplant. Less than two years later I was told I had a massive and life-threatening pulmonary embolism, commonly referred to as a “widow maker”, and that my only hope was to have a risky open-heart operation that same night.
But, at least in my mind, neither of these experiences was “traumatic.”
As Melissa and I walked out of my hematologist’s office after he’d given us the cancer diagnosis, I joked: “See, I told you we had nothing to worry about.” To this day, Melissa angrily refuses to acknowledge that my quip was in the least bit funny. In the case of the PE, I was less cavalier and very clearly afraid upon being told that I was skirting the edge of death.
But I don’t look back at either of those episodes now and re-experience terror. The Galveston Pit fiasco is a different matter.
It apparently wasn’t “traumatic” for Harris, who doesn’t remember the episode at all and has never shown signs of having been indelibly bruised by the experience. And I don’t think it was traumatic for Melissa, even though she was equally terrified at the time. She was not the one who had pushed the pit down Harris’ throat, and she doesn’t think back to that night except when I bring it up.
But I can’t count how many times I have re-played and re-lived that scene, seized each time by the horror that I came within a breath of killing the son who was so precious to me. How often I look at that handsome, smart, funny, and unusual young man now and think that had fate been otherwise, he would not be.
We won a huge victory in the Galveston trial. It has generated fond memories and funny stories, retold repeatedly over the years. Judge Kent was defrocked and imprisoned for his outrageous sexual abuse of a loyal assistant. My resentment at having been excluded from “public view” in the courtroom has faded over time, and genuine friendships have flourished.
But every time I see myself shoving that pit down Harris’ throat, as I do at least every few months, the shivers run through me.
And those shivers remind me that I was traumatized that night in Galveston.