“Designed to resist damage when dropped or knocked”; “Constructed or designed to withstand blows or jarring”; “strong, not easy to damage or break; designed not to break easily.”
6:00 a.m. After a week of gray, rainy days, the sun invades my bedroom reminding me of the John Donne poem I’ve assigned my class for discussion. “Busy old fool, unruly sun, Why dost thou thus, Through windows, and through curtains call on us?[i]” Is it only English professors who think about Donne poems on bright, Spring mornings? Hopefully, so do 17 English majors, or I’d spend three hours lecturing on new criticism and close reading to bowed heads trying to hide the fact that they are texting, watching porn or playing Candy Crush. What about a pop quiz? Oh yeah. A pop quiz on Donne at 8:00 a.m. would elicit some colorful reviews on Rate My Professor. Ok. No quiz. Run instead. I can no longer be stifled by my winter hibernation. I lace up my running shoes and head for the small park not far from home, where mothers bring their children to jump and run, and where lovers spread blankets in the grass. I’m so enraptured with the beauty of the morning, that I smile at everyone I pass, including a somber young woman with a device strapped to her arm, the cord of her earbuds bouncing with each step. After her, I turn to give a big smile and wave to a group of middle-aged women speed walking. They separate to let me pass, all the while chattering and signaling to a distant figure. I’d forgotten my phone, but it felt good to disconnect. The jingling house keys tied to my left shoelace in a double knot, harmonizing with the singing birds perched in their nests, provide all the music I need. I speed along at a steady pace until my right foot turns and I trip over air.
I spot the nearest bench and limp over to it. A man, neither old or young, sits on the other end. He appears to be intently watching something. I identify the culprit, a rock, that had somehow infiltrated my shoe. I expel it with a groan, rub my sore foot, straighten my sock, and gently slip my tender foot into my shoe. When I bend down to tie it, I realize he isn’t watching something, he’s watching someone; a woman, sitting on a bench on the other side of the park. She’s wearing a grubby, wrinkled raincoat that looks gray, but in spots beige pokes through revealing it to be the expensive kind advertised in glossy magazines. Her smooth, unwrinkled, caramel face, possess the eyes of an old soul; filled with pain and regret, yet she is not much older than me. I stand up, but fall right back onto the bench. I furiously rub my tingling legs, the firm, muscular flesh rippling beneath my touch. Yet, when I attempt to stand, they become soggy noodles unable to support my weight. Suddenly, thunder rocks the sky, and dark, onerous clouds appear. For the third time, I try to stand, to run for cover, but it’s like I’m glued to the bench. The man on the other end doesn’t so much as twitch.
Buckets of rain pour from the heavens, and I watch in amazement as it rains on just the other side of the park. As a girl, I’d witnessed the phenomenon of watching it rain on one side of the street, while the sun shone brightly and kept our side dry. The few people in the park, mostly runners like me, scatter for shelter; but the woman doesn’t move. She pulls the dripping raincoat closer to her, and turns her face to the heavens. Her lips are moving, but she speaks too quickly for me to read them through the downpour. Shortly after she stops speaking, the rain stops.
I turn to the man on the bench. “Did you see that?”
He merely nods.
“I wonder what she said?”
“She prayed for the strength and courage to endure,” he answered.
I’m amazed he could read her lips through the wall of water. “I’m surprised you could see through that downpour?”
He smiled. “I know her.”
“Oh,” I replied. For her sake, I hope he isn’t some deranged ex stalking her. The little voice in my head is telling me this isn’t my business, but the intensity of his look, the way he seems to be scrutinizing her, concerns me.
“Is she…?” hung in the wind. The man is gone. I look across the park, and so is the woman. The strength miraculously returns to my legs and I can move. Totally spooked, I waste no time getting out of the park as fast as my legs can carry me.
That night, I dream the scene I’d witnessed at the park. I’m paralyzed by the slideshow of events; the woman’s anguished expression haunting me. When I’m finally able to break free, I sit up, cold and shivering in the darkness. I pull the covers over my head, and resolve not to jog in the park again.
After a week on the treadmill at the gym, I long for the outdoors. It seems sacrilegious to run inside while the sun shines warm and bright outside. Since my classes for the day are late morning, I lace my keys through my shoelace and set out for a run. I choose a route that takes me in the opposite direction of the park, down by the new daycare where my ex-husband’s cousin works. I wonder why the children aren’t out in the yard, until I come around the corner and run into a group of workers in reflective vests pummeling the blacktop. A bright orange detour sign steers cars and pedestrians alike into a single lane of traffic. I hop onto the sidewalk and cut through the side streets. I blindly wind my way through a maze until I spy a familiar sight. The detour is leading me back into the park, and right back to the man sitting on the same bench watching the woman. This time I have my phone, and I have no qualms about calling the cops on this creep. I stroll over to the bench, sit down, and make a big deal of letting him see my phone. I wait for him to speak, but he says nothing.
Despite the warmth of the day, the woman wears the same shabby raincoat. A group of mothers with children in tow pass her bench. All the children flee to the playground, except the smallest one, a girl about four or five. The mothers huddle on three blankets spread on the grass. Every few minutes they throw disapproving looks in the woman’s direction, ignoring the girl sitting contentedly digging up the grass with a red plastic shovel and putting it into a matching plastic bucket. With the bucket filled, she stops digging and stands up. Grabbing the plastic bucket, she runs toward the kids on the playground, but stops in front of the bench and hurls the contents of the bucket at the woman. Giggling, she runs back to the mothers. The dirt hits the woman in the face, sliding down her cheeks, and covering her shabby coat. Blinking furiously and shaking her head, the woman covers her eyes with her hands, slapping the dirt from her face. With dirt particles still clinging to her eyelashes, she stands up and shakes the dirt from her coat, glaring at the mothers. None of them move. She takes a few steps toward the mothers, but instead falls back down on the bench. She sits very still for a few minutes before I see tears falling down her cheeks, streaking and smearing the mud as she attempts to wipe them away. The cruelty of the attack overwhelms me and I leap off the bench, but the man restrains me.
“Let me go!” I scream. Go to her! Help her!” I point at the mothers. “I’ll take care of them.” I spring from the bench, but again he stops me.
“She can handle it,” he says calmly.
“Handle it,” I cry. “What kind of perverted monster are you? She’s crying. She’s hurting. She’s not handling it! My voice drifts on the wind, and I become aware of cocked heads and raised eyebrows. I don’t give a damn. They are all complicit; especially this man who claims to know her and does nothing. I hate them all.
“Shockproof is stronger than you think she is,” the man says.
“Is that her name? No, that can’t be her name.”
“No. That’s not her real name, but it’s what I call her.”
He motions to my phone. “Look it up.”
In seconds Google displays a myriad of results. As I scroll, I find numerous definitions. “Designed to resist damage when dropped or knocked”; “Constructed or designed to withstand blows or jarring”; “strong, not easy to damage or break; designed not to break easily.” I turn to the man, he speaks before I can.
“We’re all made that way. Although, when our faith and courage fail, we forget it.” He stands up. He turns and smiles at me. “Take care of yourself, Miranda.”
Once again, I sit frozen to the bench. How the hell does he know my name? Oddly, instead of feeling terrified, I feel comforted. How can a stranger knowing my name bring me comfort? I contemplate this riddle as I gaze across the park at another. The mothers have gathered their offspring and left, but Shockproof lingers on her bench. The remaining children catapult from swings in midair, soar up and down on the teeter-totters, whirl around on the merry-go-round, and throw sand at each other. We watch them enjoying themselves for a long time, until Shockproof rises and walks away.
I stay away from the park for weeks, but I think about Shockproof and the man every day. I have so many questions. One day, a week before the end of the semester, I work up the nerve to go back in search of answers, but the man isn’t there. When I see Shockproof sitting on her bench in her dingy coat watching the children play, I lose my nerve and head home.
On a humid day at the end of summer, I return to the park. The man isn’t on his bench and Shockproof isn’t on hers. Dejected, I sit down. On the grass where the incident with the mothers happened, is a petite woman with dark hair in a flowered dress resting casually on a portion of a blanket spread across the grass. An open picnic basket and the remnants of her lunch occupy the other portion. She smiles and waves to a little boy in jeans and sneakers hanging from the monkey bars. He drops from the monkey bars and darts toward the swings. He hops on and pumps his legs until he glides through the air; his laughter matching hers. She throws back her head, tossing her dark curls, and our eyes meet.
Shockproof? Could it really be her? I’m trying not to stare, but I can’t believe this woman is the same person in the dingy raincoat. Our eyes meet again, and I’m sure. Her transformation sets my mind aflutter with questions. What happened to effect this change? Is she a wife and mother? Was the man her husband? I know it’s wrong to assume, but I’d always taken it for granted that she was homeless or perhaps mentally ill. Not reaching out to her or attempting to help her, haunted me, which is probably why my conscience keeps drawing me to the park. I’d imagined such a different type of life for her. Looking at her like this was almost like looking in a mirror. We have more in common than I ever thought possible with one exception.
My attention focuses on the little boy dangling from the monkey bars. My eyes cloud with tears, and the voice of another little boy, calling, “Mama, watch me,” echoes in my ears just as he collapses. I see it all in slow motion; running to him and holding his wheezing body in my arms, screaming for someone to call 911 while I rip my bag apart searching for his inhaler. The sound of a woman wailing interrupts my memories; jarring me back to the present.
Shockproof is on her knees in the sand, her body covering the motionless little boy. She raises her eyes heavenward and screams, “I can’t take anymore! I can’t! I can’t! You said you wouldn’t give me more than I can handle, but I can’t handle this! Not this!” She presses her tear-stained face onto her son’s chest. Then she lifts his head and cradles him in her arms. Rocking back and forth, she raises her eyes heavenward again and screams, “Uncle! Uncle! Uncle!”
The grief of losing my own child overtakes me. Back when I was a kid, the neighborhood bully would hold us down with his knee in our back until we gave in and cried uncle. Even though I was the smallest and a girl, I never did. Not until today. The pain that gripped me for the past two years, won today. I start screaming “Uncle!” in unison with Shockproof.
I watch the ambulance come and take Shockproof and her little boy away. I know I should go to her, but I can’t move. I dial my ex-husband and beg him to come and get me. When he arrives, I allow him to hold my shivering body. He does his best to soothe me, but his words ring hollow, just as they did two years ago. He is an outsider to my grief. The wedge that drove us apart resurfaces; threatening our tenuous friendship.
I see the obituary in the paper and decide to attend the funeral for Shockproof’s son. I contemplate sending flowers to the funeral home, but in the end, I decide against it. My ex-husband offers to go to the funeral with me, and I see the relief register in his eyes when I say no. It’s funny. He found a way to put the death of our son behind him, but he’s had trouble dealing with the subsequent demise of our marriage. I could never separate the two.
When I arrive at the church, I can’t find the nerve to go in, so I stay outside and blend in with the other onlookers. I think about the man. Is he here too? I survey the crowd. Maybe he’s inside. Before long, Shockproof emerges from the church flanked by an elderly man and woman. Her parents I assume. A tall, good-looking man with smooth brown skin and broad shoulders, stands at the bottom of the steps. Being a product of divorce, I can tell from their icy exchange, that they used to love each other. Through the heavy black veil, I can see Shockproof’s cheeks glistening with her tears, and I remember the day the kid threw the mud at her. Just like I did then, I feel her pain; as though her heart beats inside my chest. I never thought I would feel this close to a total stranger. It takes every ounce of self-control I possess to keep me from reaching out as she passes.
When I arrive home, my ex-husband is there. The table is set, and he’s made dinner. I don’t feel like eating, but he’s been so supportive and kind, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Later that night, with his head resting on the pillow next to mine, I agree to a reconciliation. But first, he makes me promise to go to therapy. For the first time in two years, I’m ready to talk about that day in the park. I close my eyes and try to put Shockproof’s tortured face out of my mind.
Ignoring the warnings given by my therapist, I’ve gone to the park almost every day for the past year. At first, I was disappointed not to find Shockproof on her bench. After a while, I was glad she wasn’t there. It gave me time alone with my son, Brian. He loved the park. I can see him race down the slide, climb the monkey bars and soar on the swings. I hear his little voice urging, “Higher, mommy, higher,” as I push him. For two years, I fought the memories. Pushed them away. No memories. No pain. By suppressing my memories of Brian, my therapist said I short-circuited the grieving process. Now, I realize memories are the key to healing. I honor my son by remembering him. After a year of therapy, pictures of my son slowly creep from the depths of cardboard boxes back into the world of the living.
Part of my therapy is journaling. I’ve been charged with keeping a detailed account of my thoughts, anxieties and dreams over the past year. On an unseasonably warm day in January, I came to the park for what I thought was the last time; to bury the ghosts. But on this June day, I have an irresistible craving to hear the children’s laughter and watch them play. When I arrive at “our” spot, I know why. Shockproof is there. She smiles at me, and without hesitation I head over to her. She moves the baby carriage to allow me to sit down. Contentment has replaced the pain in her eyes. “You may not remember me,” I start.
She nods. “I remember you. You were here the day it happened and you came to the funeral,” she pauses. “Thank you.”
Tears well up in our eyes remembering that day. I offer her my hand, “I’m Miranda.”
She takes it and holds it for a few seconds before letting go. “Alisha.”
“Do you remember the man who sat on that bench,” I point across the park.
“He said he knew you. He called you Shockproof.”
The baby stirs and she gently rocks the carriage. “Maybe I am,” she mutters.
We sit quietly not knowing what to say for a long time. I want to ask her questions, but instead I show her pictures of Brian, and tell her my story. It seems only fair that she knows mine, since I know hers. When I finished, she shows me pictures of her son, Donelle.
“I’d just won joint custody of Donelle the week before the accident,” she says. “My ex-husband still blames me. But then he blames me for everything. He even blames me for his new wife leaving him. Says I’m the reason he can’t open up.”
“So, you came to the park to watch the kids play?”
“Yeah. I sat on this bench for hours seeing my son’s face in every child on the playground. I never thought I’d get him back. I couldn’t take care of Donelle, so I left him with his father. That was a big mistake. He petitioned the court for sole custody based on my mental health, denying me any visitation.”
“And the judge went along with that?” I asked incredulously.
“He most certainly did. My ex clerks for one of the judges, and they’re a pretty tight-knit group. He presented me as an unstable mess,” she sighed. “I guess at the time, I was.”
I patted her hand. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry.”
“No. It actually feels good to talk. In a weird way, I feel like I know you,” she paused and then started again. “Our divorce was really bad. My husband controlled everything the entire time we were married. I had no real money of my own. I worked a part-time job until I had Donelle. The plan was for me to go back to school to finish getting my degree, so my mom moved in with us. But when she got sick, I needed take care of her, so I only finished one semester. My dad had died four years before, so when she died I couldn’t cope. I went into a deep depression.”
“So, the people at the funeral weren’t your parents?”
“No, my aunt and uncle. They let me stay with them. I would have died without them,” she sighed. “My aunt and uncle are very religious. Every morning my uncle left a note on my nightstand with the same scripture. You know the one that says God won’t let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.[ii]”
I shook my head. “I’m not really religious. I don’t know that one. I haven’t been to church in years.”
“Yeah. I only started going because my psychiatrist thought it would be good for me, you know, mind, body and spirit.”
“Did it help?”
“I can’t say it helped me, I don’t think it hurt. But the judge liked it. It helped me get joint custody.” She fidgets with the baby’s bag and pulls out a bottle. “It’s about that time,” she says. On cue, the baby starts crying. She lifts him from the carriage and rests him in the crook of her arm before inserting the bottle.
“What’s his name?” I ask.
“Jason. It means healer.”
“That’s some job description.”
Alisha laughs. “He’s not a replacement. I’ll never forget Donelle. But loving him does fill up some of the emptiness. I believe there was always a place in my heart for him. It was just waiting for him to come along.”
She finishes feeding Jason and settles him back in the carriage. After rearranging the baby bag, she stands up. This time she reaches for my hand. “Religious or not, one thing I’ve learned is that sometimes our greatest blessings come in the face of bitter loss. I met my husband in grief counseling. After the divorce, I vowed never to marry again, and yet, right when I needed him, there he was. It’s nice to have someone to share my life with. He may not always get me, but he tries.”
I know what she means. It’s the reason I married the same man twice.
Shockproof, I mean Alisha, and I continue to meet in the park. We sit on our bench as the hot summer days become the golden days of autumn. Some of the other mothers join us. When it gets too cold for the park, our little group moves into a nearby coffee shop. Listening to our stories of disappointment and triumph, I remember what the man said. Perhaps, just maybe, it could be possible, that we are in fact made to be, shockproof.
[i] The Sun Rising, John Donne; Poetry Foundation.org
[ii] Reference to 1 Corinthians 10:13