Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What the City of Steel Taught Me

The last time I spent any significant time in Pittsburgh I thought I was connected to it by biology. Now I know that's not true, but I still feel connected to it by temperament. It seems to be a bit like me. Getting old in sections, with an odd blend of intellect and blue collar crudity. It doesn't quite know what it wants to be. Is it the Steel City, or a center of academia, housing Carnegie-Mellon University, Duquesne, and Pitt? There are more high quality museums of all flavors in this city of less than 320,000 than in Austin, home of the University of Texas and a population of over 650,000. As my guides over the last few days explained, the city is so well endowed because of the two titans of industry, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. But, the city itself was built on the sweat equity of pieorgie eating, beer drinking, foul mouthed immigrants, whose descendants may not shovel coal, as my grandfather did, or work in steel mills, but have not lost that mind set. In short, the city is an enigma, and I love it. What holds all of the pieces together and makes it a community are the Steelers. Yeah, right, you say, you're just saying that because you're a fan. Just ask a 'Burgher. Better yet, go there and look around. There is not a store in that town that doesn't trade in Steeler paraphernalia; corner bodegas, museum shops, lingerie shops, even little stores featuring "country" goods. So, it was to this glorious melting pot of brain and brawn and football mania that Marissa and I flew out to, spending the six month anniversary of Kelsey's death in the bosom of the Steeler Nation in the company of Kelsey's close friend from treatment, a soft spoken, refined beauty who is the daughter of a working class dad and an academic mother. If I am drawn to the city because it reflects my crude working class with a touch of artsy personality, then she is a reflection of the intellectual, refined side with a splash of mill grit. She understood immediately that football is a salve for what ails us, and had offered to try and obtain tickets to a game of my choosing. But, as I flew out for the weekend, I worried that this would be one more failed attempt to try and set aside the reality of our missing family member, only with the stakes being much higher. What happened was totally different than I expected. I am still puzzling over it, trying to dissect it back home, exhausted, but with a treasure trove of memories and experiences.

Here's the thing: I enjoyed myself. The trip was almost magical. And really under trying circumstances. On the six month anniversary of my daughter's death, actress Brittany Murphy died under circumstances that were eerily similar to the initial cause of Kelsey's death. But, I didn't even know about that coincidental tragedy until late in the day, spending it as I did in the company of Steeler fans tailgating in gritty determination despite riding a five game losing streak. Our hostess has interesting connections, and her boyfriend, an affable man with political ambitions and a relationship to the Rooneys on his mother's side, had acquired passes to a VIP tailgating tent operated by the Steelers. I won't bore you with blow-by-blow details, but suffice it to say that by the end of the day I had sat at a table next to Mel Blount (look him up if you need to, but it's sufficient to know that a Steeler fan who reads this will be impressed), had my picture taken with Art Rooney III (now the Steeler fans are really drooling) and watched the Steelers win a hard fought game with 00:00 on the clock. And my little rookie that I like so much, Mike Wallace? He caught the winning pass, dragging his toes inbound a la Santonio Holmes in the Super Bowl. I could not have scripted it better. Whatever happens, whatever course my life, my pain and my healing (or lack thereof) takes, I will have that day.

And life tried hard to tarnish it by throwing the harsh reality of life at us full force. On Monday, our hostess got a call as we toured the Science Center delivering the news that her grandfather had passed away. She gamely insisted we continue on with our day, but she was clearly shaken. Now our little Steel Angel has her own path of grief to follow. Unfortunately, I likely don't have the same magic balm for her that she provided to us, and it served as a reminder that I had not escaped real life, just put it on hold for a brief moment. But, that brief moment taught me some things.

I learned that there is joy after a loss so profound. It may be a long time before I have it on a consistent basis, but now I know I can still feel it. For a while, I wasn't sure. There are other things to dissect and study about this weekend, but I am so glad to have learned this lesson at the least. Oh, and I learned that the best pancakes in the world are at a place called Pamela's. Hands down, no argument.

1 comment:

  1. But, Cheryl, it isn't about "going back to the harsh reality" or escaping. You don't have to choose one way of being or another. Both happen, just choose to let it. Reality is the mix...and don't over think it too much. Sometimes we are so busy thinking of the what or why of what we should be thinking, feeling, being, that we miss the experience. Like people who are so busy with the camera and getting the shot, they miss the memory and experience. Yes, the unexamined life is not worth living, but the same could be said for the over examined life. I am glad you gave yourself this Christmas present! It made me smile, seeing you smile in the picture.