- He came swiftly upon the wings of the wind.
He made darkness his covering around him.
- Psalm 18
My son Isaac, adopted at 12 weeks of age, turned 20 on September 15. That day, he measured exactly seven feet five and three quarter inches tall. When he was home last summer, I stood beside him posing for a photograph and my head came up to about his pancreas.
Isaac outgrew Loretta when he was eight and me when he was ten. But until he was 16 or so, he loved to walk between us holding hands, towering over us like a spike on a graph. He would giggle at our reflections in shop windows and at the looks on the faces of passers-by. Isaac weighs exactly what my wife and I do combined, 290 pounds. And as you can see, I’m accustomed to using precise numbers when I speak of my son.
Loretta and I got him from an orphanage in The People’s Republic of Romania at the zenith of Ceausescu’s power. All we knew was that he had been born near Sibiu, a small industrial city north of the Transylvania Alps, his mother had been a textile worker, and he had such raging impetigo around his nose and mouth when we first saw him that it looked as though someone had drawn on a bright red clown’s face.
We named him Isaac after my father, but the name would have had a nice resonance for us anyway. According to Genesis, the biblical Isaac was born when his parents were quite old and thought themselves well beyond child-bearing age. Same as us. He was also the fulfillment of a promise, which felt right in our case as well, a kind of entitlement due to a couple who loved as deeply as we did. Then what does God do after giving Sarah and Abraham their son? Right. No wonder Loretta and I were overprotective, despite our Isaac’s size.
He was virtually silent during the entire plane trip from Bucharest to New York. He slept for long periods, waking with a soft whimper wanting to be fed, then sitting in his carrier with his eyes wide open, hands moving vaguely in front of his face as though warding off something strange and unpleasant. His smiles seemed wholly inward, prompted less by anything he saw than by forces going on inside his body.
Probably you’ve heard of him. Isaac Berg, the great basketball star. Most people call him Ike and the press dubbed him The Ikeberg, a huge mass afloat in the middle of the lane. They say he may be the best collegiate center since either Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bill Walton or Shaquille O’Neal—depending on your era— and maybe the best big man ever. In his freshman year at the University of Oregon, Isaac averaged 26 points, 14 rebounds and six blocked shots a game, leading the Ducks to the NCAA Final Four where absolutely no one had expected them to be and where they had never been before. People in and around the game thought he would leave school then and make himself eligible for the pro draft, but he stayed on and had an even better sophomore year. In a press conference last spring, to stop all the speculation, he announced that he was staying in school for his final two years. He wanted to get his degree, help the team to its third straight final-four appearance, and play in the Olympics as a true amateur before basketball became a job for him.
I hope you got to see my Isaac during that press conference. Except for his size, everything about him said Gentle Scholar, said Books, said Soulful. For the first time, his nickname seemed to make sense, to reflect the truth that so much of Isaac was hidden below the surface regardless of how much there was above it. After every question, he looked down as though to collect his thoughts, smiling shyly, humble, unwilling to seem the smart-ass like so many other young athletes. It was the proudest moment for me, prouder than all his on-court honors, prouder than the night he scored 67 points and grabbed 28 rebounds against U.C.L.A.
The name Isaac Berg, I would be the first to admit, fits a little strangely on him now. We had him circumcised when he was an infant, brought him up within the Reform movement as a moderately observant Jew, and kept telling him that he, of all people, was truly one of the Chosen. Of course, now he looks about as Jewish as Vlad the Impaler, but who knew that when he was six months old? He was a dark infant, had huge hands and feet, a mop of curly black hair and deep-set eyes that followed me everywhere I moved, and while I didn’t think he was necessarily of Jewish parentage, I didn’t imagine he would look quite so gentile either. His features became enormous, everything growing at an accelerated pace, and, with his basso profundo voice thrown in, my son could be quite terrifying to encounter. Which is so ironic, since I believe it worries him to box opponents out for a rebound lest he accidentally crush someone.
At his Bar Mitzvah, Isaac stood six foot five and towered over the rabbi. Most 13-year-olds have to stand on a stool to see over the podium when they read their Bar Mitzvah portions to the congregation; Isaac, clean-shaven but heavily shadowed with stubble by 10:00 a.m., had to stoop so that Rabbi Herschorn didn’t hurt his neck looking up to bless him. As Isaac carried the Torah in a slow march through the congregation, some of the little old men reaching up to touch the scroll with the hems of their prayer shawls suddenly backed away as though seeing a Cossack on horseback. But he was oblivious, blissful at being a newly consecrated member of the tribe, his face literally glowing as he passed into light that poured through the stained glass window at the rear of the sanctuary. That night, at home after his party, Isaac could not stop talking about feeling hugged by God—those were his exact words. He had been embraced in that light, taken over, and felt himself to be loved and protected forever. It was a feeling I have never had myself, even at his age, and I remember hoping that whatever caused him to lose it would not be too great for him to bear.
Like so many extremely tall young people, Isaac had his social difficulties, especially as an adolescent. He didn’t join clubs, didn’t have any close male friends, didn’t date much. The first time, near the end of his sophomore year, he asked me to drive him and a young girl, a foreign exchange student from Paris named Laura Quost, to the downtown cinema where a French film was showing. I dropped them off, went by myself to another film in a theater across the river, then picked them up at the Metro on Broadway, where they had gone for snacks and sparkling water, four hours later. Isaac’s relief when he saw me walk through the restaurant’s doors was so palpable that I felt like crying for him.
He knew he was strange-looking and, I think, secretly agreed when lads called him Frankenstein, called him Moonman, Geek, or Bronto. But that all changed halfway through his junior year in high school, when Isaac’s talent as a basketball player asserted itself and he became a hero over the course of one frigid Portland winter.
I will never forgot the silence that fell over the gym the first time Isaac’s rage was expressed on the court. The silence only lasted for two seconds, a land of collective stoppage of breath, before turning into something like joy as the fans erupted in whistles and wild cheers. But it was those two seconds I will never forget. Isaac had been taunted by the opposing fans and, worse, by players on the other team, throughout the first half of the season’s opening game. He had refused even to consider joining the team during his first two years in school, refused to be seen with a basketball anywhere except on the driveway beside our house, and as the game progressed he had played mildly, passing the ball off whenever he got it, sticking up his arms but not moving aggressively to block any shots, reaching for rebounds but not boxing out or jumping. It seemed as though he was afraid to stumble and look awkward, though I knew it had more to do with his fear of causing harm. As the third quarter was drawing to a close, I saw his eyes narrow and his nostrils flare and I felt that something had snapped in Isaac. After all those years of being razzed, of trying to act small, denying his essential isolation, he had finally grasped some essential truth about his situation and reached an instantaneous decision. He moved into position at the top of the key and raised his arms, calling for the ball. The point guard, as shocked as I was to see Isaac asserting his will, bounced the pass to him. Isaac planted his feet, spun to his left and took one incredibly long step toward the basket. With the ball securely stuck in his right palm, he threw down a slam dunk in one great windmilling motion. The ball tore through the net and bounced back up off the floor so high that time seemed to stand still as everyone watched it reach its apogee before reacting to what they had seen. Isaac had dunked from the foul line, moving through the air with such power, authority and grace that he looked like a seasoned professional. Or a prehistoric bird riding a zephyr. Back on the ground, he stood there glaring into the middle distance while the gym filled with noise. Then his eyes changed again, found me where I sat at midcourt as he trotted back on defense, and the expression on my son’s face was a terrifying mix of triumph and grief.
Believe me, there was never a spoken plan. However, Loretta and I understood that Isaac intended to buy us a new home on Lake Oswego as soon as he signed his first professional contract. He thought we might also like matching leather recliners for the new living room, a big screen television on which to watch his games, a dark green Lexus, a summer trip to Israel after the basketball season. Where he came up with Israel, I don’t know; my fantasy has always been a month on the beach in Rio.
This idea of Isaac’s was something we knew from hints and suggestions he would drop into conversations. We’d be sitting in the living room after dinner, all three of us immersed in our books, and Isaac would suddenly wonder if it would be nice to listen to some Mozart right about now, maybe that Piano Concerto in C Major that we all went to hear last year in downtown Portland. Be nice to savor the crystal clear sound one of those new CD players is capable of. Then furniture and electronics catalogues started to arrive for us in the mail after his freshman season at Oregon. We were suddenly on the mailing lists for travel agencies and fancy automobile dealerships. Taking care of us in this way was probably the only thing that made Isaac hesitate to turn down the professional inducements and stay in school till he graduated. I’m glad he did.
These dreams on our behalf were pure American dreams; they certainly weren’t Romanian ones. So equating personal success with waterfront homes or luxury cars is not in our genes after all! Tay-Sachs disease is in our genes, a hundred times more than in anybody else’s, but not the need for a big screen television. Excuse me. I’ve been a bit emotional lately.
Although Isaac’s dreams for us were contagious as airborne viruses, and we couldn’t help talking from time to time about when we would be living on the lake, I would have been happy—and I’m confident Loretta would have been happy too—just to see Isaac at ease in this world we had brought him to, see him pleased with his achievements in it and smiling as he looked it in its eye. Of course, I’d also like to have a view of water. But so would my friend Henry Ah Sing, who owns a Szechuan restaurant in Old Town and is far more likely to get such a view than I am.
Because three months, one week and two days ago, on a typically dark, windy December night in eastern Washington, I watched Isaac follow his own missed sky-hook shot with a brilliant rebound and slam dunk over the seven foot Nigerian center who plays for Washington State, turn to head back downcourt, come to a complete stop while everyone ran by him, raise his arms a few inches toward his breastbone, and crumple to the court as though he’d been shot. He hit the wood floor so hard that I could hear the sound of it over the wildly beating drum that Cougar fans were using to whip themselves into a frenzy as they urged their team on. I swear I could feel it through my toes.
The team doctor rushed onto the court. He threw himself onto his knees and skidded to a stop beside Isaac, jerking open a bag as he reached toward my son’s chest. Almost instantly, they were surrounded by members of the team, all of them too tall to see past.
The image that stayed before my eyes was of Isaac’s utter stillness there. He lay sprawled across the top of the key, his face down and twisted slightly to the left in a position exactly like the one he always slept in as an infant. My first thought, odd and unbeckoned, was that I was glad Loretta’s arthritis was acting up so that she had decided against coming to Pullman with me.
I got up to run onto the court, but was restrained by some people sitting nearby. Their collective grip on my arms and shoulders—part embrace, part shackles—felt as though it were cutting off my air supply. I shook myself free and ran onto the court. The videotapes shown over and over again on the news, especially the one on ESPN, show my mouth opening and closing as though I were screaming, but nothing was coming out. To me, it looked like I was trying to breathe for Isaac.
Technically, he was already dead when he hit the floor. But I didn’t need to be told that. As I watched him fall, I swear I glimpsed a faint spray like the sweat that comes off a boxer’s face when you see a slow-motion film of him taking an uppercut to the jaw. I understood that this was the spirit rising out of Isaac, a soft blue incandescence, it seemed to me, the actual formation of an aura around his collapsing form. When I knelt beside him, Isaac’s gigantic body seemed vacated and when I touched the center of his limp palm—his most ticklish spot—there was nothing.
Miraculously, it turned out that Marius DePino, the West Coast’s premier heart surgeon, was in the crowd. This was certainly the first and most profound of our blessings that night.
Dr. DePino had come from Seattle to tour the campus with his youngest son, who wanted to become a veterinarian. When they’d heard that Oregon would be playing at Washington State, they stayed to see the great Isaac Berg in person. Dr. DePino quickly made his way down from the stands and trotted onto the court, working through the circle around Isaac’s form until he was beside my son. His hand brushed my shoulder gently, asking me to step aside.
Marius DePino brought my son back and kept him here, turning the visitors’ locker room into an emergency room (while getting me to scribble a waiver of liability on the back of a Cougars-Ducks souvenir program) and working on my son’s heart before my eyes. The inventor of the DePino Procedure for correcting mitral valve prolapse and of the DePino Technique for grafting veins in bypass surgeries, the author of two cardiology textbooks and a popular novel about the mystical bond between a heart transplant recipient and his donor’s daughter, the man was both brilliant and bold. I don’t remember anything after seeing DePino’s hands begin moving toward Isaac’s chest. The team doctor got to work on me while DePino worked on my son.
There was more surgery later, after he was stable, to correct Isaac’s hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the inner wall of his heart’s pumping chamber. Usually, this disease can only be discovered after its young victim has died a sudden death. This is why I’m supposed to regard Isaac as lucky. They put a small electronic defibrillator behind his stomach muscles to shock his heart back into rhythm whenever it goes haywire on him.
Isaac always wondered how to get closer to God. To me now, it feels like he is—the Lord’s hand present in tiny heartshocks emanating from Isaac’s belly. But what it feels like to me is not what it feels like to my son.
You see film clips on the news all the time. These very tall young men in the greatest physical condition imaginable, these invincible kids on the brink of vast fortunes, suddenly collapse on the court. One minute, they slam dunk and make the whole backboard shake or they swat a shot into the fourth row; the next minute, they’re dead. Hank Gathers of Loyola Marymount, dead. Reggie Lewis of the Boston Celtics, dead. Marcus Camby of Massachusetts, prostrate on the court, out of action for a few weeks, then coming back to play and no doubt terrify his parents. It even happens to women athletes, always the long and lanky ones, basketball or volleyball stars, the ones with slender fingers curling under toward their wrists, great specimens, dead. Marfan’s Syndrome, a hole in the heart, a faulty valve, a heart too large, a heart hiding its flaws until the sudden failure.
There were three hospital beds turned sideways and pushed together with their side-bars down to accommodate Isaac’s body. His first coherent post-operative words were spoken in a raspy whisper five days after his heart had stopped.
“Dad, I’m sorry.”
“And I’m overjoyed, Isaac. You’re still with us.” I let go of his hand and stroked the side of his face.”Now let me go outside and get your mother.”
“Wait.” He squeezed my arm. In the past, he could bruise me with such pressure but now his grip was weak, child-like.”It’s all over. They made that clear yesterday. No more basketball. No running. A very quiet life. What, I’m suddenly going to become a physicist? Everything we planned for is out the window.”
“I never planned for any of that stuff.”
He closed his eyes and seemed to drift off. I shifted my weight to get up and leave the room, but he squeezed my arm again.”The house, the car, the trips, all out the window. I can’t believe it.”
“It doesn’t matter, Isaac. Look,” I pointed to his right, “all that’s out the window this morning is sunlight.” I couldn’t believe that these were his primary thoughts after all he’d been through, after all he’d lost for himself.
His hand fell back to the bed. He swallowed dryly. “What good is a seven and a half foot tall non-basketball player? I’ve never done anything else. Never even thought about it.”
He blinked and looked at me closely, as though seeing me there for the first time.”I don’t think I am, Dad. This is serious, what happened to me.”
“Well I think you’re exaggerating. You’re only seven feet five and three quarters. Now let me go get your mother. She’ll want to hear your voice.”
When I brought Loretta back into the room, Isaac was asleep again. She looked at him, then back at me, her face filled with questions and worry. I bent over the bed and stroked Isaac’s brow.
“What?” he whispered, opening his eyes.
“Nothing. You were dreaming, I think.”
He moved his eyes back and forth. “He was here, it wasn’t a dream.”
I started to shake my head, contradicting him, but Isaac grew more agitated. It worried me and I thought about going out to fetch a nurse, but Loretta held me in place.
“I think I may be getting nearer to God,” Isaac whispered.
“He’s gotten near enough.”
“I don’t think so.” He reached vaguely in my direction and I handed him the cup of water.”Just the outskirts, where the light turned me around.”
“You can remember that?”
He nodded. “And a sound, something like a windstorm in the darkness, but filtered through a long stand of trees. I don’t know.” He sipped and handed back the cup.”This is something I can tell people about.”
“Sure. When you’re ready, maybe we can set up some kind of speaking tour.”
He blinked. “I think maybe this is what I’m supposed to do, you know? Maybe it’s why I’m so tall, to be closer to Him than most people.”
Loretta nodded. But I didn’t get what Isaac meant. He was so tall, we’d learned, because of a combination of genes and a pituitary disorder.
“Maybe,” I said. “But you need to rest. You need to heal for a while before you even think about what to do next.”
“This has to have happened for a reason,” he whispered, closing his eyes.
“You were born with a thick wall in your heart. The pump was bad, that’s the reason. You should get some sleep, there’s plenty of time to talk about what you’ll do.”
“Nothing happens by accident,” Isaac whispered. “Do you think Marius DePino was there by coincidence?”
“Yes,” I said. “We’re lucky his son didn’t want to be an electrical engineer or they might have been watching the Gonzaga game instead.”
Isaac closed his eyes. A faint hiss came from the machinery beside the bed.
Out in the hallway, Loretta took my arm and gently led me toward the waiting room at the end of the hall. We plopped down together on the brown plastic couch, sighing as one, relieved to have him talking but, I believed, a little shaken at what he was saying.
Loretta patted my arm, always a bad sign, and announced, “Well, you handled that about as badly as a man could, I would think.”
“I’m not even sure someone who’s a Jew by adoption can become a rabbi.”
“We’re reformed Jews,” Loretta said. “So almost anything is possible.”
I looked out the waiting room window into a parking lot where cars all neatly fitted into their diagonal slots gleamed in winter light. It seemed possible to rearrange their pattern, to shift them so they faced the other way, noses to the street instead of noses to the hospital wall, just by fluttering my eyes or twitching my pinkie.
“For some reason, I just don’t like it. The idea makes me squirm.”
“Who says you have to like it?” Loretta asked. Her tone wasn’t particularly challenging, just curious, a gentle questioning.”I never much liked the idea of his being an athlete, myself.”
“You’re kidding me.”
She shook her head. “So I didn’t come to very many of his games. Big deal. You could skip his services, or start going to the Conservative temple, whatever.” She paused; I could hear her swallow.”The point is, George, you don’t have to like what Isaac does.”
I nodded, but a person would have to be looking closely to tell. Of course she was right, I should just be glad he was still here to do anything.”Tell me something.” I paused, still looking down at the cars, picking one long Lincoln and changing the angle of my head so that the reflected sun pinged off the fender like a shot. I got lost in the game of it.
“All right. But first you have to ask it.”
I turned to face her. “Why do you think I’m uncomfortable with this?”
“Beats me.” She got up and came over to me, putting her arms around me from behind and hugging me to her.”No it doesn’t. You’re terrified, my love. You’re in shock. You want everything to go back to where it was two weeks ago.”
I nodded, leaning back into her. “Probably right.”
“And you’ve had enough God for a while, I think. You don’t want Isaac inviting Him back into our lives any time soon.”
“What if it’s something else?”
“Well, then it’s something else. Now why don’t we go for a walk and let him sleep.”
“In a minute.”
“Ok, George, what is it?”
“The new house, the recliner, the trip to Rio?”
“You hate the beach.”
When we brought Isaac home two weeks later, the house immediately seemed tawdry to me. It felt too small to contain him, though he’d lived there with us all his life, and our furnishings looked shabby in a way I’d never seen before.
I’ve worked hard for 31 years now, and this is all I have to show for it? Three decades selling people insurance, eventually opening my own office, making nice money, and I live in a house I’m secretly embarrassed to own? We haven’t had friends over to dinner in years—I always thought it was because we were too busy, too involved with following Isaac’s career or with our little projects, our routines. Now I realized it was out of shame; who wants to bring people in here, with the faded wallpaper and dull paint and threadbare carpet? It was as if we had stopped tending to the place five years ago, almost exactly when Isaac’s potential as a basketball player revealed itself. Everyplace there was wood there were chipped surfaces, as though the house had been subject to airborne abrasion. Posters of flowers and vegetables were wavy and sagging behind their glass, windows whose seals had busted were all blurry with contained moisture, there was noise everywhere from appliances that labored to keep up. All of a sudden, I could see the place for what it was, for what it had become. An abandoned home.
While Loretta tended to Isaac upstairs, I found myself sitting in my old easy chair staring out the window. The view, what I could see of it, was east toward a commercial section of Portland. A flickering neon sign with two letters out told people driving on the below-grade freeway that home furnishings were for sale. CAREYS FURN URE.Across the freeway, a new medical center loomed. The day seemed unnaturally dark. I turned back and listened for the sounds of my wife and son, his deep murmuring voice, her high breathy melody of comfort and devotion.
The doctors had told us that Isaac had a very good chance for a satisfactory outcome, whatever that might mean. His heart was essentially good, which I could have told them without holding it in my hands, though slightly enlarged by years of extra pumping action. His circulation and respiration were all good, he was in great condition, under the circumstances.
It was just that he couldn’t play basketball again, or engage in strenuous activity, or do much of anything he’d always done and always dreamed of doing. Perhaps what bothered me more than all this was Isaac’s reaction. He seemed happy, relieved. He was still tormented by the feeling that he had let us down, broken his promises, but with help he was getting beyond that. He seemed, in fact, gradually to have grown joyous about the new direction his life would take.
What, did I want him to be depressed? To be immobilized by despair over his losses, to be so angry that he jeopardized his recovery? No, of course not; but giddy, as though he’d been let off the hook? It was all very confusing to me.
We had made inquiries about how Isaac could begin studying for the rabbinate because that’s what he asked us to do. I’m sorry to admit that if Loretta hadn’t taken over, it might not have gotten done. Neither of us—nor Isaac—had realized how many credits in philosophy and religion he’d already accumulated. Still, it would be a good five more years, provided his recovery continued apace, before he was likely to stand before a congregation of his own.
I turned back again toward the window and began to drowse. A glimmer of color erupted outside the window. At first I thought it was just the Carey Furniture sign blinking, but then it came back, a small bird darting quicker than any point guard I’d seen on the basketball court. It was the most outrageously bright yellow, with hints of black on the wings and tail, a brilliant red head, and it zoomed across my field of vision like a flash of sunlight bright enough to cut through the barrier of the cloudy window. I thought I could even hear its hoarse call, its pit-ik pit-ik over the traffic sounds and the voice of the refrigerator cycling on in the kitchen. What’s a western tanager doing a half mile from the Banfield Freeway, I thought. What’s it doing with a red head in winter?
Then, jerking up with a start, I realized that was where I really wished we were, the three of us, where the bird was. We should be in a small house in the woods, in springtime. One of those yurts maybe that come pre-designed so you can assemble them yourself in the middle of your acreage. Not by an urban lake in a big house paid for by my son, but a cozy little place without many walls, located halfway between the city and the shore, precisely the kind of home I’d always dreamed of having. I had five years left for selling insurance before I was ready to retire. By then, Isaac would be finished with his studies. Could he find a congregation for himself in rural Oregon?
I stood and went over to the window. Nothing. At least, nothing in the way of yellow birds. Still, it would be nice, I thought, and turned to head upstairs to see what Loretta and Isaac might think about my dream.