Seth and Willie

His son’s pity party prompts Daniel Asa Rose to take him for a bike ride. Along the way, they pause for a lesson on suffering—and gratitude.

Daniel Asa Rose
1 January 2009

His son’s pity party over new braces prompts Daniel Asa Rose to take him for a bike ride. Along the way, they pause for a lesson on suffering—and gratitude.

“Why are you in such a sucky mood?” I asked.

My fourteen-year-old came up to my face, the machinery of his teeth glinting. “Because my whole mouth is on fire, okay?” he replied.

I remembered to breathe. “Just because you got your bottom braces put on, that’s no reason to take it out on your little brother,” I said. “Demonstrate a little courage.”

The sullenness worsened.

That’s when I proposed the bike ride.

“I don’t want to take a bike ride! I’m hungry but I can’t even eat. I can’t put anything in my mouth!” he replied. “Everything’s too germy anyway. Why would I even want to take a bike ride?”

“Maybe it’ll make you feel better. We can ride to the ball field and watch your brother play.”

So that’s what we did. After his little brother was picked up by a classmate’s father to go to the game, we rode. The sun was still high at 7 p.m. I pointed out the long shadows, the purple crowns of clover so plump in the evening air, the stalks of grass straight and firm. I was trying to coax some sunshine into his being, or at least help console him through the distemper of being fourteen with a mouth full of biting metal. He grunted and moaned. Nothing soothed him. He slumped over the handlebars like something wilting.

We passed a sign that said “Free Rabits.” It was leaning against a telephone pole all by itself, the “rabits” long gone. It might have looked forlorn except for the stately rods of green swaying against the base, their tops gleaming in the slanting light. So strong and stalwart. The perfume of cut grass was everywhere, liquory enough to make you drunk. I could hear mowers working throughout the countryside.

“Don’t be discouraged if I go faster than you,” I said. “I do this year round so I’m in pretty good shape.”

He pedaled even slower. Was he hanging back on purpose or were the teenaged years really so full of fatigue? I tried a new tack.

“Sometimes when I’m feeling out of sorts, I just pedal awhile and, like magic, pretty soon I feel better.”

Neither did this solve the world’s problems. “Do you mind if I wait for you at the next turn?” I said, losing a measure of patience. “If you lose your way just keep going straight.”

“I’ll mess up!” he cried.

I went ahead anyway, not to be a prisoner to his mood. In a meadow a lamb bleated. Lucky lamb, I thought, with all this grass everywhere, swallowing the town. After a while I stopped to relieve myself. “This is the end” blasted out from inside a nearby garage. Not half bad for a garage band, I thought; then realized it was actually the real recording by The Doors. I saw my son pedaling, in a kind of lethargic nervousness, down the road by himself. God knows what he was thinking. When he got to me I said, “We’re about to pass the saddest gravestone in the world.”

“I don’t want to stop,” he said.

“It’s right on our way.”

He huffed some more, distressed.

When we got to the graveyard, we parked our bikes outside the little stone wall. I found the double gravestone right away, though I hadn’t been there in fifteen years, since my first set of boys was the age this pair was. My wife had left me in despair, hers or mine was not clear, and I had the boys every weekend. The rest of the time I kind of wandered around, alert for things like this.

I kneeled in the dirt and put my hand on the yellow lichen growing so adroitly on the small low stone. When he joined me, I read aloud:

SETH A.             WILLIE W.
Died Jan. 4, 1878
In the 11th year of his age In the 9th year of his age
Children of Gilbert A. and Rachel B. Horton
In the morning these two brothers,
Left their home on ice to play,
But were drowned beneath the waters,
Early on that painful day.

When I looked up, I saw with a shock that Spencer had tears in his eyes.

“Me, too,” I said.

“Yup,” he said.

I rubbed the stone awhile. Though the stone dated from 1878, it felt like rubbing the hair of my sons just this morning. I was glad I had two sets of them, for safety.

I stood and patted the taller monument, my height.

“These are the parents, Gilbert and Rachel,” I read. “They lived till 1905 and 1916, all those years after their sons died.”

Spencer sniffed. I didn’t point out how the stone did not use the words “dreadful” or “unspeakably horrible”; “painful” was sufficient. Nor did I tell him the saddest part—that there were other children buried nearby, all around us, siblings of Seth and Willie. The parents had outlived them all.

We remounted our bikes. “Life is complicated,” I told him. “Everyone you see, even the mean ones, they all have their struggles and their troubles.”

“Yup,” he said.

When we got to the ball field, I borrowed a piece of paper from the scorekeeper and sat on the rough wooden bleachers with the other parents to write this down. The pen skipped over the splinters.

“You signing autographs?” one of the fathers asked.

“Just writing something that just happened,” I said.

“Right here?” he pursued. “You rock.”

No I don’t. I just wanted to write this down. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Spencer had put a blade of grass in his mouth and was chewing on it.