Life, it would seem, begins with breath. We scream and kick and holler with the cream of life budding from our lungs. The doctors smile. Our parents laugh tirelessly despite their exhaustion. Everyone is happy. For when breath is pronounced, all other bodily functions can have the hopes of operating effectively. The lungs aspire oxygen, passing it through the maze of arteries, then transferring it to the respective tissues in need, followed by a desorption into the labyrinth of veins, and voila, the circle of life begins again at the lungs. They are the the wind chimes of humanity. Without them – well – we have about one minute and thirty-three seconds to waste, and to waste away for that matter.
While this concept of life may be true to some, I certainly have outgrown such a notion. To me, life begins only in death. Only when the clocks unwind can time truly tick for as soon as we breathe, we are but a clock counting down the final moments. Each cough is a choke-hold that was released too soon; each sickness a gamble of death’s die. Sometimes, the hand of death gets snake eyes and we live. Sometimes, we don’t. So ‘life’ goes, and so it doesn’t just the same.
I don’t believe it is fair to say that I have outgrown the idea of life though. I believe it is more proper to say that the idealism that life contains in and of itself abandoned me. Prosperity, longevity, and happiness are all associated with the promises of life. These are promises I don’t think I got to hold on to for too long. It wasn’t a willing choice. Rather, it was a freight train hitting my chest at two in the morning, followed by a few kicks in the gut to ensure I stayed down. Some may say it was a sucker punch. But life’s a bitch and it’ll nip ya’ when you least expect it. Even a three-year-old is vulnerable. Here’s how.
When the clocks turn back and darkness falls on my page, I see it all play across my brain: the green field of where I used to play, the schoolyard where all things were discovered, and the house where love was spread with recklessness and delight. Everything was possible. Nothing was discouraged. That is my childhood: the sounds of infancy brimming with heavy breathing, impossibilities becoming possible and Velcro shoes pounding against the forgiving earth.
Or I have always dreamt it to be as such. Sirens awoke me from this dream. Sobs ended this carefree life before it had ever really begun. One night became the pivotal moment where everything changed. The hands that nurtured me became forever stained a ruby red. Security became as phony as my childhood dreams. Even to this day, I hear fearful voices whispering, “Death. It is the beginning of life.”
Those are the words my father said to my mother. They are the beginning of my earliest memory which took place on a cold February 11th night. I didn’t participate in or witness the event itself. I can only recall what my father attempted to wheedle out from a mouthful of tears, while my twin brother and I were clinging onto wooden stairs, not understanding, not comprehending, but always remembering my father’s face; once white and reassuring, now stained red and broken.
Before the event, though, it was a day like any other. Winter wind continued to chill lonely hearts before Valentine’s Day. An immigrant mother from Poland fed her tiny twin toddlers while attempting to study Biomedical Sciences. A father was off somewhere delivering pizzas, toiling with the struggles of immigration and the failure to achieve grand promises of success. But after being tear-gassed, jailed, and shot at by USSR soldiers, immigration was a piece of cake. Or in his case, a piece of pizza.
He worked at “Val’s Pizza”, a business run entirely by him, my mother, and his partner, Richard. After a slew of jobs, ranging from a high school janitor to a taxi driver, my father had landed himself in the typical immigrant career: a pizza man. Serving pepperonis and Hawaiians, he provided cheap pizza at cheap prices with cheap slogans such as, “Seven days without pizza makes one weak” or “Take a slice or two, but don’t forget to chew”. Despite the cheesy pizza witticisms, my father learned soon learned that all good pizzas have to be tossed around. My father’s life was no exception. Neither was mine.
While my father was on delivery and his partner, Richard, was at the cashier of the pizza parlor, two teenagers entered the store. Hoods cloaked their faces and the stench of booze stung the air. With the prowess of sloths, the teenagers were pregnant with the child of drunken fury and slowly lumbered to the cashier’s desk. Not a word was said between the three. The only noise was the two teenager’s feet gliding like a figure skater attempting to ice-skate on cement. Yet the sweet silence between the three individuals was broken by the sounds of swift shuffling of a hand into the mysterious abyss of a pocket. One did not wait long for the mystery to be solved. No guesswork was required for in the juvenile’s hand swayed a gun.
With the weapon of death on their side, they crazily asked for money, or so I can infer from the police report. Remarkably, their drunken slurs did not dampen the clarity of their thoughts. Richard, on the other hand, probably fumbled around with the cash register.
I never knew Richard. He, like my father, was an immigrant. Born and raised in Poland, he immigrated in 1985 for a chance at freedom and a life of success. He had a family of two: a daughter, Clara, and a son, Matthew. His image is comprised of pictures and words that carve a figure into my imagination. I am told his eyes were as deep as oceans and his hair as soft as clouds. He could make people laugh, sing, and holler with just a smile.
But the teenagers must of not see his beauty or his unavoidable smile. How else could they be attempting to rob him if they did? Maybe I’m wrong though. Maybe their drunkenness did not blur the Heaven’s gates that Richard had for a smile, and they just of ignored it. They probably pretended that perfection like that couldn’t exist on this planet. I guess in that way I don’t blame them. They were only human. They did not know what they were doing. None of us ever do.
So as Richard frantically toiled with the cash register, the teenagers, brimming with testosterone, began to lose their patience. The gun still danced in an imaginary line with Richard’s nose. Most likely, Richard was unable to deal with the pressure. His fingers were probably too slow. His wrists were probably too stiff. His body was probably frozen with fear. And yet, somehow, the cash register finally opened with two dings.
And with those dings, a shot rang out so loud that death and life crashed together so powerfully that the bullet rocked the constellations out from the night sky, making it appear as if the very cosmos was crying. Blood oozed from Richard’s mouth and only the universe was there to witness it, weeping as if there was a blackhole in space itself, or just a bullet tearing through a man’s body.
It’s funny: more often than not, the pizza man is the first at a crime scene. My father came from his delivery soon after while the police remained unaware of even the slightest incidence. A pool of blood, a convulsing man with a hole where neck used to be, and a pizza ready for delivery greeted my father at the door. My dad immediately ran to Richard’s side and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in a mouth that was more like a red flowing fountain. In between breaths, he screamed for help. But the blood continued to spurt from Richard, despite my father’s best efforts.
My father says Richard stared into his eyes, pleading and begging for a miracle. He says that the eyes of a dead man explain everything about humanity. Yet after approximately two eternities and back, with the entire meaning of life mapped out in front of Richard, Richard died. At least my father was there to see it. Sometimes he tells me he wishes he wasn’t.
The police report says some two minutes after they had fired the gun, the robbers escaped with their plunder: nineteen dollars and fifteen cents. They were never caught. Two minutes was all it took and yet more than fifteen years later, the smell of tomato sauce, Jack Daniels and blood still lingers near my father.
I think it lingers around us all.
My father came home soon after filing a police report and explaining the situation to the law. His clothes were stained with blood, as were his hands. At that time, I thought he had just spilt tomato sauce on himself. Little did I know that that night had changed the world for the Niburski family, my childhood, and my view on life. We filed for bankruptcy soon afterwards, and my childhood and the memories that I have after that night – where life is nothing but an uphill struggle, where a proud man stands in line for food stamps, where a mother fails to finish her education in order to work two shifts, where a family joins governmental assistance programs to stay afloat – all fall back to ruby red hands, awoken dreams, and ghostly whispers, “Death. It is the beginning of life.”
But I never remember feeling alive. Still don’t.