When I was eleven, a guy named Turk Broda died. It was in the news.
He wasn’t the first dead guy I knew about. I understood in a vague way that people got old and died. I knew something about it, because when I was little I spent time in a nursing home.
Before we moved to Canada, I delivered newspapers in Kansas. A canvas bag printed ‘HALSTEAD GAZETTE’ draped over the handlebars of my Stingray, papers rolled tight and rubber-banded. Fling-and-spin, thump against a screen door, and I was pretty damn glorious for a little kid. (I couldn’t do it now, even if I’d secretly like to try.) Once in a while, I had to put the kickstand down and get one out of somebody’s honeysuckle bush, blushing because some imaginary little girl might be watching from a window—but hey, Joe Namath parked the occasional bullet pass in the front row seats, too.
The only place I got off my bike was the nursing home (they didn’t call them ‘villas’ in those distant days). I had about a dozen customers inside, and I had to walk the halls looking at room numbers. Nobody explained to me about dementia or the effects of strokes. They just sent me in, by myself. The oldstimers who followed me around, shouted at me, and asked garbled questions, didn’t want to kill me. They were probably perfectly nice people, but as a group they terrified me to a degree I can’t describe.
(These days, my closest, most beloved friends are all over eighty, and I can see the clubhouse turn myself—but the memory still scares me a little.)
A little old bald guy took to playing hide-and-seek with me in the halls, and that made too much. I couldn’t make myself do it any more. The nursing home complained to the newspaper, which in turn reported to my parents that every day I dumped a pile of papers on the reception desk and ran for my life. Mercifully, that was the end of that. They took the place off my route.
Anyway, I digress. I knew about people getting old and dying, but Turk Broda shocked me deeply. He had been a goaltender for the Toronto Maple Leafs. I loved hockey. I loved goalies, and felt determined to be one. They were modern knights, in their padded armor and anonymous facemasks. Turk had won five championships.
He was a hero, and (until then) heroes didn’t get old and die. It didn’t make sense. I brooded about his death, because that’s how I did things.
So I wrote a story, for a school assignment. I hated school, but I loved stories. This one still makes me blush, but I’ll tell it anyway. Blushing is important—because that’s when things are real and true.
I wrote about the deciding game of a hockey championship. The Toronto Maple Leafs were hopelessly outmatched, badly outplayed, and a loss looked likely. When their goalie got injured and carried off on a stretcher, any hopes for a miracle were gone. Surprise! A replacement goaltender skated out to take his place. The crowd buzzed, because he wore a number nobody recognized, and of course he remained incognito behind his facemask. The game resumed, and naturally the mystery man was terrific—because he was a hero, and that’s what heroes do. When the final horn sounded, the Leafs were champions. Behind the celebration at center ice, the unknown goalie quietly skated off and disappeared.
Afterward, when the players got back to the dressing room, they found a neat pile of equipment, with a mask on top. A note had been pinned to the pile, which read, “Best wishes—Turk.” When he was needed most, a ghost came back—because that’s also what heroes do.
So that’s how I dealt with Turk. I got a really good mark; not usual for me. That night, my mom checked my homework, as always. She was petite and pretty, and—severe. Tough. I think when she saw the grade, she probably wondered if the teacher had gone soft, so she sat at the kitchen table to read it, with me in attendance. She started out a little grim. When she finished, I realized she was crying.
Crying. My mom. Over a story I wrote. What the hell.
The sheer wonder—the power—of that moment eclipsed just about everything in my experience. I still feel it, and try not to think about it too often, so it doesn’t get diluted. I still chase that moment, every day.
When you’re eleven everything is still possible, even if it won’t be for much longer. You race your bike for the checkered flag in the Indy 500. You play street hockey in front of your house for the Stanley Cup. You fall asleep sure that someday you’ll rescue the pretty girl who sits in the front row of class (and doesn’t know you exist) from a burning building surrounded by monsters. Naturally, she loves you forever.
By the time you’re twelve, you start deciding the things that matter are bullshit. The world mostly encourages that decision.
So when people ask me why, that’s why. I’m not really interested in writers or writing, which is hard to explain. It’s readers. I don’t care about awards or groups or workshops. I don’t want to talk shop and I don’t want to sign things. I just want that magic spell—the person on the other end of the story, the reader I’ll never meet. I so badly want that moment back, when I was eleven, and my mom put my penciled story down on the table and wiped her eyes.
I think if your eleven year-old self approves of your life, you can die pretty much complete. So there.