As a resident of Brooklyn I have come to know noise intimately. It has become a necessary evil that occupies both my waking and sleeping hours. Whether it’s the earnest chaos created by my six-year old son’s adventures with Lego blocks, action figures and household items that become swords, blasters and spaceships, or the unabashed bass and syncopated obscenities emanating from the car stereos that meet at the traffic light in front of my bedroom window, the sounds of this city always offer the same unapologetic answer to my need for solitude; deal with it. I suppose this has always been life’s message to the living or at least Brooklyn’s message to the rest of the world. I guess quiet is for the sleeping, and in a city that never sleeps, quiet is just not part of the plan. My six-year old son seems to be fully aware of this arrangement. He is the walking alarm clock of my home, rising each day at about 10am with the same mission; steal my I-phone so that he can top his high score on Mine Craft, a game that he persuaded me to download on a day that I was truly convinced, that whatever temporary preoccupation I was engaged in was actually solitude. But of course, the joke was again on me as I rediscovered what I had been discovering since the day he was born; little boys have no use for silence. Noise on the other hand, is something they can use, especially in the form of words like “daddy can I’, repeated incessantly, proving that he is also quite aware of my need to temporarily escape the pummeling of adult responsibilities, which are always waiting for me just on the other side of summer.
There is an ironic solace in my son’s distractions. Sometimes I’m fortunate enough to recognize it while he is waking me on a Sunday with the usual greeting of “good morning daddy, what’s for breakfast?”, right at that point when I am really enjoying being asleep and my dreams are just beginning to make sense, or when he starts asking a million questions right at the point when the plot of the show I’m watching is just starting to get interesting. I can recall a time in my teenage years when I had far less appreciation for this kind of interruption because my older brother and cousin always made it a point to pounce on my solitude as if it was somehow disrupting the natural noisy order of things. At the time I viewed their antics as malicious jokes meant to amuse not only themselves but all of the noisemakers in the entire universe. They demonstrated their own twisted versions of mindfulness in their attempts to fight the quiet in our small bedroom where we reluctantly shared space and our teenage years. These obnoxious intrusions occurred especially when I was doing homework, which in my view was the worst of all sins, because after all, I was only attempting to achieve what all “good” black kids wished to achieve; a way to get to college and escape the hood. But it seemed that my sadistic roommates had a different plan.
Both had their own unique ways to disrupt my attempts at studying. My brother’s technique demonstrated nerve racking, middle school, finger two inches from the nose, “I’m not touching you” efficiency as he would simply stand directly over my shoulder silently for five to ten minutes reveling in my struggles with algebra. And when I finally found it unbearable, he would deny any foul play. The game was never over and he was never satisfied until I finally yelled curses at him. He would then just laugh and walk away. My cousin had a subtler approach. He would simply enter the room and turn on the TV and when I complained, he’d say: “it’s your fault! Nobody told you to do your homework this late!” despite my attempts to explain that the workload of my classes demanded that I at least study until midnight and that I had big dreams and doing my homework was the only way I knew how to achieve them, even though they were big abstract dreams that I could not articulate. I just knew that going far away from that little room would be where they began. But it seemed that this was of no concern to him, especially since this explanation has only ever occurred in my head and in my solitude.
My cousin died last year. Rene was his name.
Whenever I think of Rene, that familiar noise visits me in the form of grief, regret and anger all arguing for their rightful place to mourn his loss, agonize over not telling him I loved him and yell at him for being one of the multitude who stood in the way of my untapped potential. I realize how selfish this conflict is, but it doesn’t change the fact that it exists. It is a tug-of-war between the most vivid memories that I have of him as a teenager when all of us were struggling to find ourselves and him as a grown man that possessed the ability to make everyone around him smile. I only experienced the latter briefly, because I left to find my solitude. And while I was gone, he lay in a hospital bed on life support, surrounded by all of his loved ones, except me. My only account of his last days were given to me by mother. She described to me the look of wonder, profound sadness and love that came over his face when the doctors took him off life support while he looked around the room and saw all of his loved ones, except me, right before he slipped into his final sleep.
I often tell myself that I have always thrived in solitude and I have always expected the world to give me space. But my brothers showed me that that was not the case. And since that time, God has found great joy in casting me into the noisy arena of domestic life, teaching me, the wayward soul, that He has never been concerned with my expectations. For example, I am married to a woman that I expect to read my mind and know not to cross the boundaries of my solitude. But she, God and my six-year old son find this hilarious. She is a talented singer and whenever possible sings entire songs when they come on the radio, because it’s the only remedy for her singer’s OCD. When she and my son are in a room together they do more damage to my solitude than my brothers ever could. At times it feels just as malicious and those old hostile feelings from my past begin to bubble up. But how can I be hostile when both of them are obviously following the same childlike instinct to simply do what makes them happy? And how can I and my solitude compete with such honesty? I guess the pursuit of happiness can get a little noisy from time to time. Sometimes people just want to watch TV because it makes them happy. For my cousin, after losing his mom and living with us, TV may have been just the thing. Before he died, he had a big house with several TV’s. I should take comfort at least in knowing that all of the noise in his life brought him solitude in the end, which makes me wonder if I’ve had it backwards all this time. Maybe I should learn to embrace the noise like the inhabitants of my adopted city. Maybe all of the distractions that I endured in that little room have made me a better husband, father and teacher. Maybe all the conversations that I have had in my head all this time are more debilitating than any noise anyone in my life could have ever made. Maybe somewhere Rene is reading this, laughing to himself and thinking that I should watch more TV.