I went to my nephew’s high school graduation open house this afternoon. In the entry of the house, there was a display of photographs that took him from childhood to this moment—happy, goofy pictures. I especially liked the one of the two of us, taken at “Special People Day” at school when was maybe eight. For some reason, it made me remember going to what think must have been his kindergarten graduation, all the little ones on risers singing, “What a Wonderful World.” That song always gets me, anyway—the Louis Armstrong version, the tension between the lyrics of the song and the sadness running under the way he sings them, as if he’s singing about a world already lost to him. But to hear those high, fluty kindergarten voice singing it really got me: the simple lyrics sung purely, without any knowledge of what it costs to be alive.
Last week, just after commencement, my nephew and a group of friends were hanging out in somebody’s back yard when a violent thunderstorm came up suddenly. It began to hail. My nephew and one of the boys headed for the house; four others took shelter in a small storage shed. It was close; the door was open. Within seconds, a huge tree was hit by lightening and crashed down on it. Two escaped with scratches, one with a relatively minor knee injury. The fourth kid’s back was broken, and he will almost certainly never walk again.
How quickly life can change—and how quickly those changes can make much of what you thought you knew, what you thought you could count on seem…not to apply. You hope it takes kids a while to learn this terrible lesson, but when it happens, as it happened for these kids, you know how important it is that they come smack up against the reality of it, as painful as that might be, and make it a part of who they are now and who they will become.
I think of the kid in the hospital, how he will wake again and again to the knowledge that he can no longer walk. I wonder what it will make of him, what he will make of himself.
“Be good to your friend,” I said to my nephew. “He will need you all of his life.”
I should have added, “You need him, too. You need what he will have to teach you about what friendship is."
It is a wonderful world and, as Louis Armstrong knew, even more wonderful, somehow, seen through the scrim of sadness. Still, learning to accept and embrace sadness as part of what it means to be human may be the most difficult life lesson of all.