virga (vur-guh) noun: streaks of water drops or ice particles falling out of a cloud and evaporating before reaching the ground
A lot of people died in my life before I could even comprehend what death really was. That’s the burden of having parents born to exceptionally older parents. Funerals were nearly commonplace in my life, and even though it hurt to lose people that I had grown up with, I was oddly okay with it all. Everyone that was dying was old. They had lived these event filled lives and had these children and passed on all of these stories they had created. Their funerals were heavily attended, and everyone that was there had some story to tell me about any decade of their life I was curious about. These deaths were not terrible things; they were memorials to people that had an amazing impact on the lives of those blessed to be around them. That’s why when my aunt and uncle recently passed away within just a couple months of each other, I didn’t think too much about it. They were old and had lived. They generated from this cloud above us, fallen from the heavens, and had splashed onto the ground. We had noticed their descent.
I wasn’t surprised or startled by death until I was around nine years old. On a routine Friday night trip to pick up Burger King for our family, we were driving home in some ugly green car that was all of 500 or so dollars. The engine was extremely loud, and it embarrassed me to even be seen it it, but the brakes on my mom’s Crown Victoria had gone out. As we were coming up Chapman Highway, we saw one car try to shoot across the traffic as another car crashed into its side. Mom slammed on the brakes, immediately stopping the car. The cars had joined together and starting sliding toward us. The car beside us didn’t brake as soon, slamming into the wreck stopping the cars from moving any further. Before the whole event was finished, five cars were in a mound, some turned over. Mom pulled to the side of the road and put the car in park; she looked at me and told me to stay inside and not to look. I watched her run toward the highway, and I couldn’t keep my eyes from glancing over. I saw a man about my dad’s age hanging out the driver window, bleeding. He was screaming for help, and even at nine years old, I knew that he wasn’t going to live. Shortly after, Mom came back to the car and said she couldn’t leave me behind like that. We drove home, and I spent two hours on the couch by myself; I didn’t even eat Burger King that night. I later heard that two people died in that wreck, and I thought about the man who probably was in his late thirties at the time: virga. And at such a young age, I wondered how it was that we had ended up with a car, just days before, that had brakes. How was it that we stopped before the accident, and who exactly was the man in that vehicle that stopped that screaming mess of jagged metal from sliding into us?
A couple years later, I was sitting on my couch watching The Price is Right. It was the first summer that Casey and I had been allowed to stay home by ourselves. Throughout the summer, I would be picked up by the preacher’s wife so that I could hang out at their house with their daughters. In retrospect, there weren’t a lot of things that I liked about attending the church that I did. Most of the people there were judgmental and snide. I didn’t feel comfortable there, but I did love the preacher. Corey had been the pastor of the church when I decided to publicly confess my love to the Lord. He eventually convinced my dad to let my brother and I have a cat, and after even more work, convinced him to come to church too. Corey was loved in our house; he was so much bigger than I imagined life could be. The day I got the call that the jack his van was on had slipped, I nearly spilled my cereal right in the middle of an installment of “Plinko.” If God couldn’t protect a preacher, who exactly would he protect? Death had taken on quite the jaded perspective; it seemed to me that there was no explanation or science behind the length of human life. And at times, it seemed to me that maybe there wasn’t a God at all.
I hadn’t thought much about the wreck or Corey since I was little; as I child, I tended to mull over things longer than other kids my age, and without another answer, I chocked it all up to fate or God’s plan or something that was so much out of my control that it was frivolous to try and answer it. Death continued to be kind of commonplace growing up, as I watched more and more people pass away. Always of old age, but pass away nonetheless. I began to count people at funerals that I had never met before. The stories seemed to matter less because what is a life essentially lived the same as all the others? That’s not to say that all life isn’t important, but on the sound of a tin roof, it’s hard to distinguish one drop from the other. They all plink and pop the same way, making this harmonious noise that provide the comfort necessary to rock me gently to sleep at night.
The memory of the wreck had all but faded until about a year ago. On a standard trip to Coulter’s Bridge in Maryville, my friends and I had embarked on a swimming day. The air was muggy and thick, and at times, it almost seemed that the water was the only salvation from the thick blanket of air that sequestered us to our air conditioned rooms. Not long after we had arrived, a man asked us if we knew how to swim because they believed another man was drowning in the river. A friend and I dove in, searching the water for some kind of body. We didn’t know what we were looking for, and in all honesty, I didn’t want to be the one to find him. Eventually, another swimmer found his body, and it was me that drug him from the water onto the bank. No one else was strong enough, and just like that, I found myself in my own mom’s position; my brother and I were raised to try and do the best we could for other’s. I could carry the most weight, so I drug this rag doll of a man from the depths of the river to the rescue squad that would pronounce him dead at 27. His name was Hanin.
I’ve lived on the outskirts of Knoxville my entire life, and sometimes, on rainy nights, I go out on our back porch and listen to the rain on our tin roof. As my weeks left in Tennessee wind down, I find myself getting up in the middle of the night on stormy evenings so that I can sneak out and catch every last thunderstorm that East Tennessee has to offer. Most of the time, I smoke a couple cigarettes and watch the smoke float up and around the porch ceiling toward the rain falling down. I like to imagine that it can make it all the way up to the virga: meeting it in the middle before those water droplets dissipate into the atmosphere. And then I think about the man in the car that day, and I think of Hanin. I wonder what their lives would have been like if they had lived on until their droplets found the ground like most of our’s eventually will. I’ve never found virga to be fair because it’s as if saying that some droplets are more important or stronger than the rest. All rain should be allowed to fall, but alas, it doesn’t. Before I go back inside to climb in bed, I make sure to remind myself that I am indeed mortal. Young people for generations have faced the invincibility complex, oftentimes forgetting that we are subject to be deprived of life at any moment.
And a couple nights ago, as the valley has been getting hit nightly by rain, I think I came to some kind of revelation. I’ve focused so much on this virga: this overlooked existence that is often forgotten because it never is seen by the eye. I’m guilty of doing the same thing to the drops that hit the ground that others do to the drops that don’t. I reached my hand out from under the tin roof, and I caught a couple drops in my palm and thanked whomever is up there for giving them the opportunity to splash onto the Earth.
I would like to dedicate this post to poet, Claudia Emerson, who introduced me to this word that has been on my mind for months. Whether I end up being rain or simply virga, I hope my words inspire as many people as her’s have.