The gardenia outside of my office is beginning to bloom.
My grandmother loved gardenias and even wore gardenia perfume. Whenever I catch the scent of flower I’m reminded of her.
I think she planned it that way.
When I was seven, my granddad had a mild heart attack. As part of his rehabilitation, his doctor suggested that he walk a couple of miles, several times a week. He liked those walks, and occasionally he would ask me to tag along. I enjoyed those times with him. He was a great storyteller and always had something to say to keep me entertained.
The walks were long and meandered for a seven-year-old. Sometimes we walked for blocks in one direction. Other times, we seemed to change course at every corner. There were times when he got bored with the city blocks, and we would find ourselves walking on the railroad tracks near the house. I think he liked the track walks the best because his stories were imaginative and exciting.
On one of our railroad track walks, we decided to cross the Kanawha River on the train bridge. As we got to the bridge and the land began to fall away, I noticed that I could see the river through the cross ties. I hesitated, but he kept walking. He didn’t know I had fallen behind and I wanted to catch up desperately so that I was not alone on that section of the bridge.
I took a few more quick steps, hopping over several more ties until everywhere I looked I could see water. I froze.
Although the space between the cross ties was only a few inches wide I could see the trestle, then the river below. I was terrified of falling into the river.
It was an irrational fear. I knew that I was too big to fall through the spaces of the cross ties, but my fear kept me from moving forward just the same.
My granddad was about fifty feet ahead when he realized what was happening. He called my name, told me to look at him–not my feet or the water–then walk straight ahead. After what seemed like an eternity, I worked up enough courage to start the walk out to him. I didn’t have a choice. I was too far out on the bridge, and I could see the water between the cross ties behind me, too. No one was waiting behind.
He kept talking to me as I ambled toward him. When I finally stood beside him, I was relieved. Even though I could still see the river through the ties and trestle, he made me feel safe.
He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I know that was scary for you. There are going to be many times in life when you’re going to be so afraid of something you won’t know what to do. When this happens to you, I want you to remember what you did today. Look straight ahead, keep your head held high, and start moving forward. If you can do this, you’ll always be fine, just as you are now.”
Throughout my life, every time I’ve found myself afraid of falling or failing in life, I think of my granddad. Then I hold my head high, look straight ahead, and start moving forward.
And I’ve always been fine.
I’ve even come to grips with the fact that super human speed exceeds my physical ability. Though it has taken me a long time to understand and accept it, I also know this: I can be a “hero” to someone...
The summer between my fourth and fifth grade was unbearably hot, but it did not prevent my friends and me from playing together outside. We welcomed the freedom summer brought to our lives and were out from morning to night, often taking a break from our activities to sit under the tree we had just climbed, or to chase the ever-present lightning bugs at dusk in the in hopes of capturing enough in a jar to light the way home. We were prone to occasional role-playing, engaging in a game of “Army” or “Cowboys and Indians.” This particular summer brought on a new game, though. It was the summer of the superheroes.
Superfriends, a Saturday morning cartoon about a team of superheroes, had launched the fall before, and my friends and I were hooked on the idea of having some special power and secret identity behind which we could hide. While we had read the comic books, the cartoon brought the characters to life for us. It also didn’t hurt that the Superfriends had a couple of kids and a dog as sidekicks. It gave us hope, I suppose, that we could do something extraordinary in our lives.
We didn’t confine ourselves just to the superheroes that appeared in the cartoon. That summer we became any superhero we chose. Sometimes I was Thor, other times I was the Flash. Once in a while, I became Captain America or Aquaman. Everyone had his favorite superhero, but no one ever really wanted to be the Batman.
“He’s useless as a superhero,” my friends would say. “He doesn’t have any superpowers at all! Sure, he has gadgets, but he can still die from being shot or from falling off a building. Who wants to be a superhero that can die? Who wants to be a superhero that’s SO normal?! He’s not even a superhero, you know? He’s just a man!”
Occasionally a new kid would join us and be such a Batman fanatic that he would suffer the barbs and crazy talk to assume the role. Unfortunately, the Batman was always the first one “killed” by whichever arch nemesis we were fighting that day. He was first to die because he was human and the most vulnerable of us all, but mostly, we just needed to make that point. I always felt a little sorry for the Batman and that new kid whose faith in the character couldn’t be swayed by the thought of early death.
Although I secretly wanted to be the Batman, I didn’t have the conviction of character, or frankly, the desire to endure the taunts of choosing to be him that summer. The Batman died at least 100 times that summer. He kept coming back. Not once did I take on the role.
As an adult, I know that we each selected characters to be that summer to provide a needed distraction from our own shortcomings and fears. We were on the verge of our teenage years but still wanted to hold on to our childhood belief that we could be someone—anyone–powerful and important, but not who we really were that summer. I know now that I wanted to be Thor because he was strong and in control, neither of which I could quite manage as one of the smallest of my friends. The Flash appealed to me because he was very fast and I was not fast at all. Aquaman controlled the water, and then the water controlled me. Captain America was my favorite because Steve Rogers, his alter ego, was a sickly young man who became a perfect human specimen with the help of an experimental serum. I longed for an experimental serum of my own.
Of all the characters we played that summer, I think I learned the most from Batman; the superhero that no one aspired to be. You see, the Batman was just a regular guy trying to make a difference. There’s nothing easy about being a superhero. But, the man who was most vulnerable even with all of his wits and gadgets working for him, and the occasional kid who took on the role, taught me this. Superheroes can come from all walks of life, and we should never be afraid to do the right thing even when some early death, speaking metaphorically, is sure to result from our actions.
Today, I am no longer sickly or afraid of water. At 6′ 3″, I’m bigger than most of my friends, but I know now that I will never really be in control of things. I’ve even come to grips with the fact that superhuman speed exceeds my physical ability. Though it has taken me a long time to understand and accept it, I also know this: I can be a “hero” to someone just by being a regular guy who tries to make a difference. This is what I strive to do every day.
So, yeah, I can finally admit it. I’m the Batman.
I hope you are, too.
Inspired in part by Five for Fighting’s “Superman.”
Night comes quietly
surrounding me in darkness
but for a tiny flicker of light
just beyond my grasp.
Sent to guide me
she leads me to the place
I need to be unknowingly
long since lost to time.
Doors thought closed for eternity
now open effortlessly
when touched by the softness
of her light.
once locked behind those doors
blooms with gratefulness
for what it now feels.
Shadows creep in
to remind me of the light’s brevity
and of my life desires
that never shall be.
© 2010, David L. Harkins
In each of us lives darkness
black as coal and full of desire,
that lies dormant in the midnight
though it longs to feel a fire.
The fire brings great brightness
to the heart of the darkest dark;
as it dances with abandon
flirting madly as it sparks.
When the sparks flash in the darkness
the blackness feels the heat,
that’s created by a passion
when light and darkness meet.
Once the darkness is ignited
white light burns deep inside,
emboldened by combustion
once begun, won’t subside.
Though as the fire burns lower
and the light begins to dim,
embers glow with excitement
for what will come again.
The darkness is quite patient
as it quietly sits and waits,
for the fire to build inside again
and reconnect the fates.
You see, the darkness holds out the hope
for the passion of the light,
to dance again with abandon
to bring a fire, burning bright.
© 2010, David L. Harkins