By TRACY HARRIS
You stare low on the horizon into the black sky and wait for the next tiny circle of light. A flash. You hold your breath. You listen to the high-pitched whir as each pinpoint shoots upward, and your eyes follow the undulating trajectory, one, two, sometimes three seconds and still you’re not really breathing. The light vanishes, and you wait, bracing yourself for one loud low boom, a series of pops and crackles, or a deep, hard blast that feels like a punch in the chest. And in that instant before each burst you hope for your favorite colors and shapes, for purple or green or one of those big white sparklers that puffs out like a giant dandelion cloud then hangs suspended, for just a heartbeat, before each shimmering speck flickers and falls toward earth.
It’s always a surprise. Some fireworks flash bright, then vanish. Some arc in graceful trails and take their time raining light through the sky. Others explode like a barrage of gunshots in an old western movie. Occasionally a dud will wobble and warble itself down to the horizon, its tiny light nose-diving with a high-pitched whine of defeated expectation. No matter. I am 63 years old, and fireworks still dazzle me.
Three years ago, we spent the July 4th weekend in Washington, DC. I was scheduled for surgery three weeks later, and in addition to needing the distraction, we didn’t know when I’d be able to travel again. On the one hand, I was optimistic, but on the other hand I had fears numerous enough to categorize into a hierarchy of worry. At the top tier were the fears of dying, becoming paralyzed from the neck down, blindness, and ending up with a feeding tube.
Mid-level fears included the possibility of follow-up surgery if the first attempt was unsuccessful; the possibility that the bone would not heal around all the metal they’d be installing from my skull down to my fifth thoracic vertebra (T-5 I’d learned to call it, down as far as my shoulder blades); and the gruesome possibility that they’d have to reach my spine by entering through my mouth rather than through the back of my neck.
Lower-level concerns included post-operative pain and the certainty that—even under the best-case scenario—I’d end up unable to move my skull and neck. This would mean no driving, no riding a bike, no nodding my head. An unavoidable result of having all that metal installed.
But the surgeon said I could travel as long as I didn’t fall down or get in a car accident, and I had succeeded. We had reached the airport gate and were awaiting our flight home to Minnesota, and I had not so much as stumbled.
I had to be careful, the doctor explained, because my upper spine was unstable. Rheumatoid arthritis and significant age-related deterioration had caused the vertebrae to crumble and impinge upon my spinal cord right at the top. The surgical team would go in and reinforce everything with metal; basically erect a double-sided scaffold in my neck and back and attach it to my skull with a metal plate. It was dangerous surgery but without it my deteriorating vertebrae would cut off my spinal cord completely, possibly within the year. My hands and feet had been numb since April. By May, when I moved my head it would—not always, but often—cause what felt like electric current to run through my torso.
“That’s nothing to worry about,” the surgeon assured me, when I described what I now know is called the Lhermitte phenomenon. “But don’t fall down.” My condition was tenuous, he said, but I had several months before my symptoms would be potentially “catastrophic.”
We did not plan to see the fireworks in Washington, DC. Will, my husband, was not a particular fan of fireworks, and he wasn’t thrilled about spending the weekend away to begin with.
Don’t you just want to rest? he kept asking.
But I’d been lying on the couch since May, too weak for aerobics class, self-medicating with hours of Netflix and nightly glasses of wine, feeling those electric currents run through me and wondering if the possibility that my spine would collapse before the surgery was a mid-level or high-level concern. I’d also spent a lot of time scheduling medical appointments and having my records transferred from one doctor to another. Each visit brought to light a new possibility. The first surgeon was chiefly concerned that I’d die during the operation. The second allayed our fears of death or quadriplegia but suggested I might go blind, a risk of undergoing such a long procedure while lying on your stomach.
“I’ve never had a patient go blind on me,” the third surgeon bragged, which made me wonder why he didn’t brag similarly about death or paralysis. The fourth, the doctor who ultimately performed the procedure, was the one who said they might have to flip me over and go in through the front because my cervical vertebrae were so compressed and deformed. He made me do a swallow test, apparently a predictor of whether I’d end up with a feeding tube. By then I’d had numerous x-rays and MRIs and CT scans, but even with all those images, even at the Mayo Clinic, the surgeon was unsure what he’d find.
“We’ll have to see when we get in there,” he said, which was not especially comforting. At least, I reassured myself, I’d swallowed that test cup of water like a champion.
I had already made lists of all our bank accounts and passwords and written my “To be opened in case of…” letter with meaningful small bequests to our adult son and daughter and reassuring instructions to all about soldiering on without me. We’d had to cancel the summer vacation we’d planned for August—getting refunds on our air and hotel and prepaid tours had been another project I could do from the couch—so there was a little slush fund to finance a bonus trip. A last hurrah of sorts, before the surgery and maybe forever.
Will didn’t really want to go. My pre-surgery preparations were already rattling him, and my insistence that we go on a last trip anywhere threatened his tenuous belief that everything would be fine. I knew that he wanted us to be confident and optimistic, but in the end it was my body suffering the grim realities. So in a compromise typical of our marriage, he’d agreed, with the condition that we’d avoid the July 4th mob scene in the nation’s capital by flying home on that date instead.
It had been easy enough, however, to book a return flight that would allow us to see our usual fireworks back home in St. Paul. I knew Will would hate Ubering home from the airport, then rushing out to our preferred fireworks venue—a nearby suburban park where he’d have to fight for a parking space, sit on a scratchy blanket, slap away mosquitoes and wait for 30 minutes of entertainment that wouldn’t start until 10:00 p.m. But I was in essence a condemned prisoner requesting her last meal, and the fireworks were dessert. He couldn’t really say no.
In truth this dispute was business as usual. Will hates fireworks; he complains about the crowds, the noise, the enormous amount of pollution occasioned by all those, in his view, pointless explosions of color. But to me, each multi-colored explosion shines like a miracle, like one of life’s best moments, the kind that takes you by surprise. And no, fireworks don’t last; nothing lasts, that’s not what matters. It’s possibility that makes you keep your eyes riveted on the sky, hoping each time for the biggest and brightest blast ever, knowing that each launch might bring a moment of pure magnificence.
I’d been dragging our family to fireworks for decades. At the turn of the millennium we’d stood out in the snow in northern Minnesota, a short walk from our lodge to a clearing in the forest. The kids, then 8 and 5 years old, had already fallen asleep but we woke them up, bundled them in boots and snowsuits, and dragged them out with us. The century was turning. There were stars and cold and the thick feel of snowy silence all around us. And at midnight you could see quiet, tiny fireworks from a town about 20 miles away.
A few years later, another July 4th weekend, we rushed with the kids through throngs of people in downtown Chicago to get to Navy Pier just in time for their flashy, big-city display. It was the first time I’d ever seen fireworks in actual shapes, like a smiley face and a star. More than once I’d made our family sit through nine innings of minor league baseball, which no one really wanted to see, just for the fireworks after the game. And last summer, Will and I sat on a lakeside deck in a Rocky Mountain tourist town, watching fireworks that seemed to be exploding just feet above our heads, the largest and noisiest I’ve ever experienced.
The fireworks we’d see that evening after returning from DC were just the usual suburban display, but they’d be the perfect ending to my pre-surgery escape.
Which as it turned out could not have been better. Despite my crumbling infrastructure I’d had plenty of energy for walking. Between the museums and the monuments and my favorite all-you-can-eat Balkan restaurant, for three days I’d felt like a normal person, or a normal person experiencing small, constant jolts of electricity. The morning of July 4 we ate an enormous brunch, slogged our way through the crowds to catch some of the holiday parade, and zipped through the National Portrait Gallery. After a quick Metro ride to the airport and an easy flight home the day would end with fireworks. Perfect.
* * *
You know that sinking feeling when your flight is going to be delayed. The information board shows an on-time departure, but it approaches 50, 40, 30 minutes before your takeoff time and there’s still no plane anywhere near your gate. You know the “On Time” designation is only wishful thinking.
So you stare at the departure board. You wait for the electronic readout to flash an updated flight time. You glance around the gate area searching for a better seat, closer to a charging station or with more legroom, but the best seats are inevitably taken. Your eyes track the planes taxiing out on the tarmac. You hear your flight number over the PA system, and you startle. Your body tenses, you strain to decipher the muffled words. You slump when the garbled voice thanks you and instructs you to wait for updates.
There were not many updates at our end of the terminal. Thunderstorms in Cincinnati had delayed the incoming flight whose plane would be the one to take us home. Our flight had been scheduled to depart at 5:00, and it was almost 6:00. We’d been at the airport more than three hours. If the plane arrived soon they’d still have time to turn it around and get us out of here by 7:00 or so, which would barely give us time to get home and head back out to the fireworks.
But it was not just the Ohio weather working against us. The military flyover the president had ordered for the 4th of July festivities on the National Mall was scheduled to start soon. When it did, airspace over Reagan (National) Airport would be shut down for several hours. By 6:30 our information board was promising a 7:10 departure, but flights were no longer boarding and there was no plane at the gate. I knew we’d missed the window to escape with any hope of getting home and then dashing back out in time for our local fireworks.
A Delta employee wheeled out a cart full of soft drinks and packaged snacks, never a good sign. I grabbed a bottle of water and three bags of Cheez-its.
The crowd had thinned. In the center of the gate area, the shops and food stands had closed, bringing a post-apocalyptic aura to what was already beginning to feel like a voyage of the damned. With nothing else to do, people had begun gathering by the windows. I got up to see what they were all looking at.
“Look, that’s a stealth bomber!” a stranded passenger exclaimed with surprising enthusiasm.
The flyover had begun. Even the gate attendants seemed excited to watch the military planes go by. I didn’t really care. It was all part of the president’s “Salute to America,” a blatantly partisan display I’d wanted no part of even before I knew it would inconvenience me personally.
Will was still immersed in his crossword puzzles when I went back to report that I’d seen a stealth bomber. He was even less excited than I was.
“We’re going to end up here overnight,” I predicted, mentally delineating a hierarchy of travel disruption scenarios. Would it be worse to sit at the airport until the early hours of the morning waiting for a flight out; or to be sent to a hotel without our checked bags only to be jarred awake at the crack of dawn and forced to endure a second day of waiting at the airport?
It was approaching 8:00 p.m. and no one seemed to know what had happened to the people from Cincinnati. One gate agent said they couldn’t even take off until the no-fly zone was lifted, another said they were circling DC, waiting for permission to land.
“Don’t worry, they’ll get us home,” Will replied. His confidence in the airlines seemed misplaced and ill-informed. Will’s equanimity in times of crisis is one of his most appealing and simultaneously annoying features. You don’t know how this will end, I thought.
I grabbed some granola bars and more Cheez-its from the snack cart and told Will to hang on to them for me while I looked for something to do. The flyover had ended but people were still clustered by the windows.
“You can see them!” an older man told me as I approached. It took me a minute to realize what he meant, but then I got it. The “Salute to America” was supposed to end with fireworks. It hadn’t occurred to me that we’d be able to see them from the airport. But there they were: lights were starting to burst in the darkening sky.
“Is that really the big display on the Mall?” someone asked.
We kept watching, waiting for more. It was 9:00.
“You can really see them from over here!” A gate agent called suddenly from around the corner on the far left. A group of us raced to where she was standing by the window.
And there it was. It was not as good as being there on the Mall, but our view was unobstructed, and the fireworks were big and bright and close enough to photograph. A 10-year-old girl stood right next to me, pressed up against the floor-to-ceiling windows and clutching her mother’s cell phone.
“I’m going to video all of it!” she exclaimed.
“You go ahead,” her mother sighed, thankful, no doubt, for anything that kept her daughter entertained.
“These are the real fireworks, right?” she asked her mother, without taking her eyes off her cell phone screen.
And they were the real fireworks, the ones that in my heart I’d wanted to see all along. Our flight delay was entering its fifth hour, but the oppressive weight of helplessness vanished as I looked out over the airport hangars and storage buildings out on the tarmac. Lights blazed in an array of colors: lots of red, white and blue, but also green and yellow and even pink. And they kept coming, with almost no gaps between the launches. I couldn’t believe it: after all the caution about not overdoing things on this trip, here I was, watching the fireworks, bright and dazzling even from the airport gate. From the Mall they would have been enormous.
We couldn’t hear the explosions from inside the terminal, but a passenger who’d been bound for Bozeman provided a soundtrack.
“I’m supposed to officiate at a wedding tomorrow,” he said, “and I’ve got a whole playlist on my phone.” He tapped a couple of times then held his phone high, and suddenly we had “God Bless America” (Kate Smith), “I’m Proud to be an American” (Lee Greenwood), “The Star-Spangled Banner,” John Philip Sousa marches, “Born in the USA” (Bruce Springsteen). Apparently the wedding had been built around a Fourth of July theme.
I kept my spot right up against the window. It was selfish, but I was so scared of what lay ahead that, although I wasn’t in actual pain and there was nothing visibly wrong with me, I felt I deserved that small indulgence. And I’m barely five feet tall. As long as I wasn’t blocking any children it seemed OK.
* * *
Among my pre-surgery preparations I had somewhat shamelessly asked religious friends to pray for me. These requests mortified Will, a scientist and non-believer, and in fact surprised me as well. I do not practice any religion. I do not understand what people mean by the power of prayer. Years ago as a tourist I’d visited the pilgrimage site at Lourdes; with its crowds and vendors and LED instructions for the faithful, it struck me less as a holy site and more as a theme park for miraculous healing. On a trip to Quebec I’d puzzled at a church with towers of crutches at its altar. It is my nature to be skeptical.
Still, that tower of crutches was evidence of something. They had been discarded by real people who had at least temporarily recovered their ability to walk. Were there spiritual forces at work in the world? I couldn’t say no. And though it felt like cheating to call upon those forces only in times of need, a few weeks before the trip to DC there I was: combing through my contacts list, sending emails, even making some requests in person. When the first friend responded that, of course she would add me to her prayers right away, then every week, and then for sure on the day of the surgery, I cried, surprised at how relieved I felt.
You never know how things will end. A protracted and demoralizing flight delay had turned into fireworks and music and this wonderful, random assortment of people to share it with. I felt tears in my eyes and a tingling that had nothing to do with my crumbling spine.
I turned back to smile at Will, who had grabbed his backpack and joined the throng. Next to me, the girl-videographer’s arms were beginning to droop.
“Come on, Chellise,” the mother nudged the child gently. “I think you’ve got it all.”
“No, Mom, it’s still going.”
But finally Chellise gave up videoing and wandered off with her mother. The fireworks ended shortly after. The Bozeman-bound man put away his phone, the crowd fanned out to individual gates, and the collective energy quickly dissipated. Will and I returned to our seats, exhausted. By the time the Cincinnati flight landed, I’d forgotten we were even waiting for them to arrive before we could depart. A gate agent finally posted a departure time that had a chance of being true: 11:10 p.m.
Our trip was finally at its end; the only event remaining before my surgery was the pre-op visit to Mayo. Will patted my hand. We watched the Cincinnati passengers as they staggered off the plane, bloodshot eyes squinting under the harsh fluorescent lights, searching the forward distance as if for some sort of welcome, seeking among our small retinue of delayed passengers and worn-out airline employees some signs of the life. Our plane was being readied for its next journey. Our wait was almost over.
Tracy Harris’s essays have appeared in Midwestern Gothic, Lunch Ticket, and Tahoma Literary Review, among others; another is forthcoming in Nowhere Magazine. When she is not writing Tracy studies French and teaches English classes for immigrants and refugees.