Baltimore writer Elizabeth Hazen confesses (and reconsiders) an ancient crime.
Some mornings my son, nearly six and a half years old, wakes up raging over the injustices of the world: Why does he have to eat green vegetables? Why does everything he wants cost “too much money”? Why doesn’t his dad live with us? Why, as he once phrased it from his booster in the backseat of our car, is life so hard? Devastated that I had failed already to guard him from this truth, I had little comfort to offer. Finding my own life a series of difficult navigations and compromises that leave all parties feeling deprived, I have struggled throughout my adult life to reconcile the lessons I learned as a child – all dreams are achievable, hard work always pays off, people get what they deserve – with the reality of my experience. The science of these teachings, quite simply, doesn’t play out. So what, then, do I tell my son? That intentions don’t matter? That the universe is random and our place in it negligible? That it is virtually impossible to predict what will happen, and even harder to know what will make us happy?
As a child I may not have been truly “good,” but I wanted desperately to be seen as such. Perhaps that is why, when I saw flyers up around our neighborhood about a lost dog, I made it my mission to find him. I had noticed the signs, sun-faded and streaked with rain, around the neighborhood for a few days. I had already invented a family who desperately missed their pet, and I had mentally composed the scene of happy reunion that my efforts would bring about, the gratitude that would surround me like confetti at a parade.
The morning of the incident, and indeed most of the time, I was relentless. I did not understand my mother’s frequent sighs, her barely stifled exasperation. What was so hard for her after all? She didn’t have bedtimes and bullies and homework to contend with. But of course in retrospect the intensity of my impulses was a lot to manage, and I, like my son, took out my anger and disappointment on my mother.
That morning I had seen a dog sniffing the rhododendron in our backyard, and there was no doubt in my mind that it was the dog from the flyer. I implored my mother to drive me to the telephone pole where I had seen the notice so I could copy the phone number, call the owners, and save the day. Much against her will, but characteristically choosing not to engage in this particular battle, my mother got into our Aerostar in her bathrobe and told me to come on.
I don’t know when exactly things went wrong. The events were slow motion as in a movie flashback or in the recollection of a vivid dream. The trajectory of that morning illustrates the principle of uncertainty, the physics of the butterfly effect, the irrelevance of intention.
This is what happened: our presence on the suburban drive forced a school bus to slam on its brakes as my mother coasted through an intersection. The delay of a few seconds led the bus to barrel around our cul-de-sac at the exact moment when the dog darted from our backyard. What drove the dog into the street remains a mystery – a cunning cat? A slamming door? Regardless of the cause, the effect of the impact was fatal.
The crumpled dog in the cul-de-sac was not, after all, the missing pet. Upon closer examination, the flyer was months old, the lost dog a lab, not a retriever. The victim was my neighbors’ pet, Sam, a dog I had known for years. His barking had lulled me to sleep just the night before. How I had mistaken this is a mystery, too, but I can only think the desire in me to do something of consequence was so strong, it impaired my vision and my judgment.
I don’t know what the moral of the story is. Chaos theory teaches us that a slight change in the initial conditions of a system can have significant repercussions. Life reinforces the lesson: a flapping of wings leads to tornado, one decelerating car on the highway leads to miles of backed-up traffic, a slamming door on my cul-de-sac leads to a collision. There is nothing we can do to stop the trajectory of a chaotic system. But, still, I feel ashamed when I think of that day: my perverse confidence, my gross miscalculation, my tremendous failure in the end to be a “good” person.
My son, still steeped in an innocence that allows him relatively direct interaction with the world, is far more capable than I, with all of my botched theories and philosophies and mantras, of believing that intention is not entirely irrelevant. While I am an easy scapegoat for all things wrong in his universe, I am usually not, he knows, truly to blame; his anger may fall on me, but I never intend for him to be disappointed or unhappy. I am on his side. If I clip his nails too close to the quick, if I am late to pick him up, if I have to miss a field trip because I am at work, it is out of distraction or necessity rather than ill will. In the end, he always forgives me, believing me when I say, as I seem to more and more these days, “I am doing the best I can.”
I don’t know who broke the news about Sam to my neighbors. I was in my bedroom, sobbing over the events of that morning, wondering how things had gone so terribly wrong. My mother did not get angry with me; she let me put my head in her lap, and she stroked my hair. When I did see my neighbors again, they did not glare at me. When they spoke, there was no anger in their tones. What chaos theory cannot show us, cannot explain, is our capacity for forgiveness. “I didn’t mean to” and “It was an accident” and even, “I am doing the best I can,” can’t change the course of events and shouldn’t excuse carelessness, but meaning well must, in the end, count for something. At least that is what I tell my son and, after decades of failures and good intentions, it is what I tell myself.
Elizabeth Hazen’s poems have appeared in The Threepenny Review, Salamander, Bellevue Literary Review, and other journals. She teaches English at Maryvale Preparatory School.