Monday, November 12, 2012

Memo to Mr. Alighieri

"A Conversation Seldom Heard" by Brian Kershisnik

Some days I don’t believe very much in hell at all. It just seems so incongruous with all this. Friday the skies dumped inches and inches of snow on my unsuspecting head, my car, my life. Warmed by miracle clothes, I lay on my back on the softened ground, watching the white. The flakes fell without relenting. Emerson, lying next to me, asked, “Do they get in your eyes, dad?” “Yeah,” I answered. A scattershot of birds flew overhead, light brown on white-gray. Such a stillness in the world. One by one as the play wore on, my kids came to me to have their hands warmed. I held their small red hands between mine and willed warmth. Julie showed up at the park with Eleanor bundled in a backpack, bright eyes gleaming. By the time we trudged home, Oliver was tired. I hoisted him onto my shoulders. As we walked, he said, “I’m like a angel sitting on your head.” An angel sitting on my head.

Then he leaned to the tops of fences to eat the snow. When it got in his nose, he laughed. When I set him down, he lay down in the street to eat some more snow. He marched and sang to himself. At home we made hot chocolate and had soup for dinner. Ellie on my lap tilted her head back to look into my eyes, to see who was holding her. She smiled at me.

“O how great the goodness of our God, who prepareth a way for our escape from the grasp of this awful monster; yea, that monster, death and hell . . . . Death and hell must deliver up their dead, and hell must deliver up its captive spirits. . . . O how great the plan of our God!”

I know that whatever hell there may be exists only with my permission, maybe even only at my bidding. I am among those who have “become free forever, knowing good and evil; to act for themselves and not be acted upon.” How did Goethe put it? “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element.  It is my personal approach that creates the climate.  It is my daily mood that makes the weather.  I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous.  I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration; I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.  In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person humanized or de-humanized.” Or Lehi: “Wherefore, men are free . . . to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death.” My choice.  

When I was seventeen, I was in the mountains with my friends, back-country boarding. I aimed my snowboard at a cliff and woke up a few minutes later. My friends were looking in the bloody snow for my front teeth. We found them still inside my mouth, dangling from the roots hanging from my broken maxilla. I broke my jaw and my nose and my teeth and my maxilla. My teeth went through my lips—all the way through. My friend shot down the mountain and found a snowmobiler who came as far up to us as he could. He took me to a ranger’s station. The ranger called an ambulance. After reconstructive and plastic surgery, my parents took my puffy face home to rest. Lots of things sprang from this. I couldn’t eat for weeks, shooting Carnation Instant Breakfast down my throat with a water bottle. To fix my jaw, the orthodontist gave me a device that might have been invented by Dante himself to punish the purveyors of orthodontia. It was called a Herbst appliance. It was essentially these two metal shock-like things on the insides of my mouth to keep my jaw straight as it healed. It dug into my cheeks, and when it came unhinged if I laughed or yawned, it would either stick open (to the delight of my mocking friends) or come apart and stab the roof of my mouth.

Originally I was told it would be in my mouth for six months. After almost fifteen months, the orthodontist said to set an appointment to get it out. With great enthusiasm I sat in the chair to have it removed. As he pulled on the metal, the doctor asked me if I had taken my amoxicillin. “Thay wha?” No one had told me I needed to premedicate. He told me he could not take it out without the medication. He told me to set an appointment to come back. When I asked the secretary to reschedule, she told me it would be several weeks before they could get me back in for an appointment. I had not understood the concept of blind fury until that day. I was so angry my vision blurred. I tried to slam the door on the way out, but it was a hydraulic door and took its time closing. I drove home blindly, furiously. When I got home, my mom asked me what was the matter. I yelled and stormed to the basement to get a computer monitor. “Rob? What are you doing?” On my back porch, I swung the screen around my head and smashed it into oblivion. I needed to walk. I ended up at a convenience store near my house and bought a kiwi-strawberry Mistic. When I opened it to drink, I saw a little message inscribed on the bottom of the lid: “Happiness is a decision.” I laughed out loud imagining the angel sent to place that drink in that store on that day. I imagined God laughing. I kept that lid. Happiness is a decision.

I realize that my refusal to acknowledge hell might appear to spring from a sheltered sort of naiveté. I recognize that we have a whole lot of history attesting to the manifold hells created by mankind for mankind, but that’s just my point. It doesn’t have to be this way. We could choose differently. That’s all I wanted to say. 


  1. I always love reading your posts! This was no exception.

    1. Thanks, Jenn. Remember that stuffed Woodstock you all gave me when I broke my face? My kids now play with it. A thousand blessings.