Time & distance
Time and circumstance have always fascinated me. The little ticks and turns that make us take a doorway we wouldn’t normally take simply because the parking lot was full, and that door leads us to run into an old friend we would never have encountered. A spilled cup of coffee early in the morning that only took two minutes to clean up, only to come upon a terrible accident on the way to work that happened only two minutes before. Those same circumstances also work the other way. The ice that wasn’t salted because of an early arrival, a fall, a broken tailbone. Walking outside moments after the comet passed by, everyone caught it…but you.
I’m not a true believer in the traditional butterfly theory, but maybe there is an order, a reason that sometimes the gears just mesh, and sometimes they grind to a halt. This is my story of time, circumstance, and distance.
I grew up in a tiny western Montana town that sits at the base of the Bitterroot mountain range. When I was growing up in that town it was quiet, calm and very friendly. It was the kind of place where everyone knew everyone, literally. Small towns like that develop their own society and structure. The dating pool is very small, so it wasn’t at all uncommon to date somebody who later on in life married someone else you knew from that same little town. I was no different. Shortly after high school I was married and had 3 wonderful children over the next few years. We moved around western Montana for a few years, then moved south to Boise Idaho for 5 years, then back to Montana. I took a job logging when we got back and worked in the woods for several years. One hot July day I went to work falling timber, but as I drew near the job I could hear the motor of my pickup ticking loudly. I parked and looked under the truck and could see that the place that changed my oil for me hadn’t tightened the oil plug all the way and it had leaked. I tightened it and borrowed some oil from a friend for the trip home. I remember thinking, Thank goodness I didn’t blow my motor up…I got lucky. I worked for a couple of hours before coming to a huge hulk of a tree broken off about 35 feet up. That snag had twisted grain, almost like a giant had wrung it out and slammed it into the ground in that spot. It was hollow, and fragile, but it had to come down. I began the face cut and it came apart like dropping pixie sticks, 40 foot strips of tree falling everywhere, and thick, heavy chunks of red duff the size of 55 gallon drums dropped straight down and exploded in dusty whoomps all around me. After the action stopped I remember thinking, Wow, that was lucky, I should have been killed… Shortly before noon I fell a tree and reached for my log tape which was attached to my belt, it was gone. I shut my saw off and searched everywhere through the downed timber, finally under the bows of a big pitch covered piss-fir I found it. I was so happy, again, I remember the thought process, How lucky have I been today, this is amazing… I ate lunch that day with another timber faller. After we’d eaten we sat in the deep shade of a big fir and smoked a cigarette. It was hot, and it felt great to sit on that cool green carpet of moss and relax for a few minutes. It was very quiet and about the only thing that could be heard besides our voices was the whine of mosquitoes and gnats. Across the draw a large open meadow faced us bathed in full sunlight. As we sat there a big shiny black bear came loping out of the timber, his hair reflecting sunlight in undulating waves as he ran. He was almost comical, his big rump clumsy and out of control in comparison to the front half of his body. He got about half way across the clearing and he stopped and stood up on his hind feet, his front paws were tucked neatly in front of him, and hung slack. He lifted his head to the sky and smelled the air as he turned this way and that, as if the scent trail he was searching for could be found by moving his nose 4 inches. After a few seconds he dropped back onto all fours and took off out of sight into the timber on the other side of the clearing. I couldn’t believe all my good fortune, now I’d seen a bear. How lucky am I?
The first tree I cut after lunch changed the course of my life forever. I was cautious, I did everything by the book, to this day I still don’t have a clear understanding of exactly what happened. Something fell from that tree, or another tree, I don’t know, but it fell hard. It struck me directly in the left eye as I looked up one last time for safety. It hit so hard that it drove my legs into an awkward kind of ‘splits’ motion. I rolled backwards in instant agony. I jumped to my feet clutching my left eye, bloody and pouring tears. I wiped away what I could and looked across that same clearing where I’d seen the bear 10 minutes before, a field of black. The pain was ungodly. I somehow stumbled back a half mile to where the machines were building road behind me and when they saw me I knew it was bad by their reaction.
On the way to the hospital I kept thinking, one inch to the left or right and I would’ve gone home with a nasty scratch on my face and a story about the close call I’d had. I thought about what the universe, or God, or fate…or whatever, was trying to tell me, the oil in my truck, the big snag that came apart, the lost log tape, the beautiful black bear. I was too tone deaf to listen. I remember flashbulb memories of the next month or so. I was in intense pain, so much pain that I vomited from it over and over and over. Finally after a couple of months the swelling and pressure went down enough for the Doctor to assess what the problems were. The appointment was long and tedious, and uncomfortable, and I was still dealing with level 8 pain. Afterward the Doctor called me into his office and explained the complexities of the injury to me in detail. He was patient and he had visual aids and x-rays of my eye where he highlighted various problems. I’m not normally slow on the uptake, I don’t consider myself to be a genius, but I’m not a dolt either, but in this case I must’ve appeared mentally challenged. The Doctor told me how my retina had been shredded, the interior wall of my eye imploded, the skin on the surface of my eye torn off, and the optic nerve annihilated. I sat there for a moment and then asked him, “So how long do you think it will be until I regain my sight?” He turned to me and gave me a really slow blink, his eyes must’ve stayed shut for an entire second. “Mr. Stevens, you will never see out of that eye again, your loss of vision is permanent.” How did I not know? It was so obvious. I felt stupid, but also like I’d been punched in the solar plexus. Anything could have changed the events of that day. A flat tire, the leaking oil, the lost tape, cutting a different tree first, there were a billion possibilities, all of them minute, an inch here, a step there, and that injury would never have happened…but that’s not what occurred.
The accident left me with no career. I couldn’t do any kind of job that would put my sighted eye in jeopardy. Workmen's compensation counseled me on possible career choices and after a few months I settled on becoming a hydrologist, purely because I had worked with water when I lived in Boise and had some basic understanding. I wasn’t thrilled with the choice, but it was at least something. I was still in pain, still very vulnerable and feeling my way into life, I felt like a little pink and sightless baby bird, still not ready for flight, but tired of the constraints my new disability was putting on me. I hadn’t adjusted to driving with only one eye yet, so I had to rely on others and it was a lesson in humility. One crisp fall morning I got a ride into Hamilton Montana to get a haircut. My regular barber shop was closed, so I found a different shop that was open. I sat in the lobby and thumbed through a magazine while I waited my turn in the chair. I talked with the barber, and the other patrons, laughed with them, and felt a little camaraderie for the first time in months. Finally my turn came and the barber asked me what had happened to my eye because I was still wearing a patch. I told him about the accident, and about the hydrology program I was about to enroll in. He asked me, “But is that what you want to do?” I shrugged a little and paused…”Well, not really. It was just the best of the options available to me.” He was quiet for a second, then said, “You ever thought of becoming a barber?” I laughed, “Not even a little bit.” He turned me in the chair and leaned against the back bar. “You have great people skills, a really wide variety of interests, and it seems like you make people comfortable. You should consider it, I think you’d be great.” Somewhere a bell dinged, I instantly knew that barbering was what I wanted to do. He was right, all the boxes ticked off so easily. I contacted Workmen's Compensation and got the ball rolling. If I’d walked into my regular barber that day I’d probably be a hydrologist somewhere today…but that’s not all that changed that day, not by a long shot. Those shops weren’t more than two blocks apart, not more than a 3 minute drive, time…distance, circumstance.
I finished Barber school in 9 months and went to work in a little shop in Hamilton. I was excited to start my career, but it was tough, dreadfully tough at first. Within about 6 months I’d built enough clientele to scrape by, and could feel my business about to take that next step, and then my marriage came to an abrupt end. I was devastated, there are no other words to describe that period of my life. I was laid flat, desolate. I did what many young people do in similar situations, namely, made about 10,000 awful decisions in a very short period of time, most of them fueled by copious amounts of whisky. I didn’t want to live in the same city where everything went down, so I moved to Missoula and got a job cutting hair in a big salon. For the next year I worked, and I existed, one foot in front of the other, plowing through the days. I thought I would never move on from that dreadful spot. I was partying way too much, and even though I’d had a few short lived girlfriends, I knew none of them meant anything tangible. I felt like I had no anchor point, I drifted from one short term residence to another, one group of friends to the next, never really able to get on my feet, I had never thought past raising my family to a life that didn’t include that unit, so with my plan gone, I was lost.
The large salon I worked at was a great place, but it didn’t really suit my personality, so I got a different job downtown. I wanted to start immediately but the salon was being renovated and I had to wait two weeks. One day I was sitting in the breakroom of the salon eating my lunch and this young girl walked in and sat down. She had a mulberry toned suit on, with a light lavender blouse. We introduced ourselves and sat chatting for a few minutes. She looked at my face for a half second too long at one point and I seized on the opportunity. “Are you staring at my fisheye? Are you making fun of my disability?” For a fraction of a second I could see confusion, shock…and then laughter in her eyes. “What are you talking about? I didn’t even notice you had different eyes until you said something.” We had a good laugh, and as weird as it sounds, I felt an immediate connection to her, I liked her instantly. For the next two weeks before I Ieft, every time she went to the breakroom, so did I. We didn’t really flirt, but we talked and we laughed a lot. I was dating this insane woman at the time who felt it necessary to buy me ridiculous gifts every single day and physically bring them into the salon. She did not like me talking to my coworker who I got along with so well, but I didn’t care.
After I moved to the new salon the girl I had come to like so much called me and made an appointment for a haircut. We laughed and talked the entire time. When she was ready to go she said, “Hey, there’s a birthday party at the Board Room tonight if you aren’t doing anything…” I showed up that night and she and I had some drinks, and we danced a lot, and we laughed even more. That was the beginning, and even though I wasn’t ready yet, and there were fits and starts and a breakup in there, she was the one. Very early on, not more than four or five dates in, I was up at my dad’s house.
“Are you seeing anyone?”
“Yeah, I’m seeing a girl I used to work with.”
“Oh yeah? How long?”
“We've been out a few times already.”
“Any chance it could lead to something?”
I smiled and I remember shaking my head a little. “You know what? It’s really weird because I’ve only been out with her a couple times, but the comfort I feel with her is so strange, like I’ve known her forever. As weird as it sounds…I think it actually could lead to something.”
Dad, who was turning compost with a pitchfork, stopped for a second. He wiped a little sweat from his forehead. “Sometimes you just know right away, it’s hard to put that feeling into words, isn’t it?” And I did know. There are an infinite number of ways I knew then, and I still know today.
When I met her I felt like I was on fire and pieces of me were missing. Every time I was with her that fire went out and every piece I was missing she somehow had. I felt whole when I was with her, we belonged together. One night I laid in bed and I thought of everything that had to happen for us to meet up, the accident, going to the barber on the exact right day, my divorce and subsequent move to Missoula, the new salon being renovated so I couldn’t start. All of those intricate details had to work in unison, time, distance, circumstance. Sometimes I wonder why we weren’t together sooner, but I wasn’t ready, and she wasn’t ready, and all the ticks and tocks that make the universe hum weren’t ready. So it was perfect, these two people living only 7 miles apart for a huge chunk of their lives, having never met in all those years, finally came together through all the circumstances and distance and time and it was exactly how it was meant to be.
Michelle, because I’m older than you, and also a man, Someday I’ll likely leave this world before you. If that should happen suddenly, and I don’t have the opportunity to say goodbye, I want you to know that you were all I ever needed.