Living in the cone of uncertainty ...
Hope persists among hurricane victims, Red Sox fans and those facing their own mortality
Like most Americans, I felt great empathy for the people whose lives were upended by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Each time a news anchor turned to a meteorologist at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, I couldn't help wondering if the expert's "cone of uncertainty" described more than storm path projections.
I wonder for two reasons: First, I'm a lifelong fan of the Boston Red Sox; second, one year ago, upon returning from work in the Middle East, I was diagnosed with cancer. I have been living in "the cone of uncertainty" ever since.
My introduction to uncertainty began as an undergraduate, when I suffered an existentialist professor who claimed, "Ambiguity is perfectly precise; only the immature mind craves detail." Easy for him to say; he wasn't a Red Sox fan. My immaturity had long manifested itself in a craving for the details of a box score. That began when I was a Little Leaguer growing up in western Massachusetts; I made my first trip to Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox, during the summer of '67.
I grew up in a farm town that featured no stoplights at the intersections most frequented by its 3,000 citizens. There seemed to be more people than that in Section 33 at Fenway, where I sat with our group of howling Little Leaguers that afternoon. We perched atop the left-field grandstands, just a few feet from the Green Monster, a 37-foot wall that prevents line drives from leaving the premises.
Beneath me, my boyhood idol, Carl Yastrzemski, played catch with the centerfielder. I couldn't take my eyes off the scarlet "8" emblazoned across his back. When "Yaz" came to bat in the bottom of the first inning he launched a high parabola toward the left-field corner. The ball bounced off the top of the wall and plopped softly into a large net behind it. A thunderous ovation erupted, literally shaking the old ballpark, while I sat open-mouthed, staring at a baseball resting blissfully in a safety net that had suspended its journey less than 20 feet from where I sat.
Like so many boys and girls who have passed through Fenway Park's turnstiles on a Sunday morning since 1912, I felt much bigger by the time I bounced from the Church of Baseball into the late afternoon sunlight. My spirits were buoyed by victory, but more importantly, I had a sense of belonging, a sense of community and a shared sense of purpose. In due time, I would realize the price for such moments of euphoria would be years of suffering.
I shared my passion for the Red Sox with my two sons, even while spending a decade as an expatriate teacher at international schools in Egypt, Ecuador and Malaysia. Last fall, while I shuttled between cancer treatment centers and gathered medical opinions from Honolulu to Chicago and Houston, I watched as many games as possible, often changing channels on television sets in hospital waiting rooms. At home, my sons -- ages 14 and 20 -- watched nontelevised games on the Internet, their hopes rising and falling with every computerized pitch. Meanwhile, the prognosis for my left leg, damaged by a malignant tumor, made me wonder how much suffering one could endure.
It was October 2004, and I steeled myself for baseball playoffs, presidential elections and biopsy results. What if the Red Sox lost to the Yankees, Kerry lost to Bush and my leg lost to cancer? As the Fates would have it, only the Red Sox won. Should I now boast to fellow members of Red Sox Nation, faithful fans who believe their superstitions hold the key to their team's performance, that I sacrificed a leg for the BoSox to win the 2004 World Series? No, that might jinx their chances to repeat. Besides, the cancer has spread, creeping in its insidious fashion from a diseased limb to my lungs.
I can no longer say, "Wait'll next year!" At 45, I suddenly wonder if there will be a next year for me.
Perhaps this explains why I empathize with hurricane evacuees who escaped flood waters in New Orleans by climbing into an attic, only to have the waters force the chopping of a hole through the roof to flag down a helicopter, before gaining transport to Houston, only to be evacuated three weeks later at the approach of another hurricane.
We all live in a "cone of uncertainty" -- and there's no guarantee that pulling together will help us emerge victorious. You don't beat hurricanes or cancer; you just survive them. And even if you should survive today, that doesn't mean you won't land in greater jeopardy tomorrow. What's essential, though, is gathering the courage to confront one's fears, learning to embrace the "cone of uncertainty" as a way of life. No, make that the place of life.
In recent years, the Red Sox have earned a reputation as cowboys and idiots; this year, they are neither. They are survivors. For members of Red Sox Nation, survival inspires uncertainty rather than arrogance, and we perform our daily rituals hoping they will produce a minor miracle, a recurrence of something benign and uplifting, something that touches our souls and reminds us how good it is to be alive. We pull together, hoping for just one more chance to share our joy with family, friends and strangers who know what it means to emerge from the "cone of uncertainty" and bask in a certain sunlight for one glorious moment.
R.W. Burniske, an associate professor of education at the University of Hawaii, played shortstop for the Hatfield, Mass., Little League team from 1967-1972.