The sailboats are in the Charleston Harbor. White sailcloth, trimmed tightly. Hulls of every color.
Fort Sumter stands in the distance, the artificial island where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.
There is a boy next to me. He is redheaded, chubby and wearing Chuck Taylors. He doesn’t have to tell me that his name is written on the inside tongue of the shoes. I already know.
The boy’s hair is curly. His freckles are too much. He has a lifelong overbite. He answers to the name Sean.
“Are you having a good time in Charleston?” I ask him.
“Yessir,” he says. So polite. “It’s one of my favorite cities.”
“Do you like Charleston?” he says.
“One of my favorite cities,” I say.
“So,” I say, “what sorts of things have you done here so far?”
He shrugs. “Mostly just eat. You?”
I know this boy. But I haven’t seen him in years. I always forget what a nice boy he is.
And this niceness attribute, as it happens, is where a lot of his problems stem from.
Because the old saying is true, nice guys really do finish last. It’s merely a matter of physics. In the game of life, the role of the nice guy is to hold the door for everyone else. To refill the other guy’s iced tea.
But it’s a double-edged blade because nice guys aren’t usually nice to themselves. Nice guys have a hard time loving old Number One.
Nice guys, for example, don’t like their photos taken. “Oh, Lord,” the nice guys say, “I’m so ugly.”
In academic settings, sometimes nice guys don’t make very good grades. And even though a teacher assures them there is nothing wrong with their brains, the nice guy responds, “Why can’t I understand this? Why I am so stupid?”
Thus, the nice guy is predisposed to disliking what he sees in the bathroom mirror.
“You come here often?” says the little boy.
“Not often,” I say. “I came here when I was a kid once. I stood by this harbor and cried. My father had just died.”
The kid wipes his face.
I turn to look at him.
“Did you eat ice cream, when you came here as a kid?” he asks.
“I ate so much ice cream I developed sudden-onset lactose intolerance.”
“Vanilla is my favorite flavor,” says the kid.
This has been a strange year for me. Within the span of a few months, I lost several people to cancer. I lost others to horrific accidents. I’ve never lost so many people at once.
Shortly thereafter, my own doctor found something on my body. They started running lots of tests. My wife took me to medical appointments and we started seriously talking about stuff like “living wills,” and “power of attorney.”
Each time medical staffers jabbed me with sharp surgical instruments, I thought about this kid who is in front of me.
How rare it is, this flicker of life within our breast. Life doesn’t happen everywhere in this universe. In fact, it happens almost nowhere. But it happened in me, somehow.
There was a celestial lottery, a waiting room full of octillions of souls. And for some reason, the Universe decided that I would receive the gift of life.
This miracle happens to a select few. Why me? How did I get so lucky? But here I am. Breathing.
And yet when I think of how I’ve been living out my adulthood, I realize that I have lost touch with the essence of my life. I’ve lost touch with this little boy. At some point, I let the old man in.
Over the years I’ve become less fun. Less adventurous. I say “no thanks” more often than I say “why not?” And my sense of wonder has atrophied.
But when my medical scans came back clear, I told myself that things would be different. No more Mister Nice Guy. I want to live. Really live. I want to cry hard. Laugh harder. And get lost among trees.
I get it now. Life does not wait. It is impartial, and it can be unkind. I could die tomorrow. Or next week. Or by the end of this paragraph. I’ve wasted so much time.
So I want to see things. Important things. I want to meet interesting people. I want to taste new flavors. I want to know the power of love in a rich, soul-purging kind of way.
I don’t want immortality. I don’t want success. I don’t want money. I don’t want bragging rights. I don’t even want to win more often than I lose.
I simply want to give my love liberally to all I meet; until my veins are bled dry and there is nothing left within me; until my body withers and fades. Love before me and behind me. Love within me. Love around me. Love on top my head. Love below my feet.
And most of all, I want that little boy to know how much I love him.