This winter, my wife and I, along with our two sons and daughter-in-law went to see the re-make of the classic western, True Grit. I liked this version of the movie more than the original. I think the Coen brothers better captured the coarseness of an era when one’s self-respect found moral value in vengeance.
The protagonist, a young girl named Mattie Ross, wants justice for her father’s murder. She hires Rooster Cogburn, a gruff hard drinking marshal, to lead her into the badlands of the old west. Off they go on a journey laden with comedy and violence, their saddlebags full of cornbread and bullets.
The theatre in our hometown of Hood River is small. My wife and I always sit in the back row. There, our older eyes and stiffer necks can relax. The rest of our family sat up front. About halfway through the movie, my oldest son, Noah, headed to the lobby. The rubber tires of his wheelchair whispered on the carpet as he rolled past our seats.
His paralysis resulted from a vehicle accident in 2002. A careless mistake on the part of an uninsured driver led to a broken neck and an irrevocably changed life.
The road we’ve traveled these last eight years roughed us up pretty good. The wrong done to my family felt so egregious, I yearned for the visceral satisfaction of revenge. Like little Mattie in the movie, I too, wanted the perpetrator to face a day of reckoning.
Though the other driver erred, my son’s accident was, … well, it was an accident, unexpected and unintentional. Much of my pain stemmed from grief without closure. I wanted to indulge in the primal urge for retribution, an urge, mind you, that accounts for the popularity of movies like True Grit. My guns were loaded, revenge was mine, but I had nothing to shoot. Anger grew from the frustration, a cancer that soon metastasized into depression.
Meanwhile, Noah persevered. His success at dealing with the injury helped me heal. He painstakingly completed his degree at the University of Oregon, graduating summa cum laude with a BA in Spanish. Then he enrolled in law school at the University of California, Berkeley. He paid for his graduate education by winning a prestigious scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. He finished his final term last December, attaining high honors. Just this week, he accepted a position with the Environmental Protection Agency as an associate attorney in their San Francisco office.
Along the way, I managed to contract a blood cancer, multiple myeloma. Some people suggest the disease resulted from stress. Perhaps … it’s as good a theory as any. At one time, I would have happily agreed to bargain my health for the health of my son. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that our family can now pause to celebrate. The last eight years moved at an agonizingly slow pace but the box canyon of paralysis was not, after all, a dead end.
Celebrating was exactly what we were doing at the showing of True Grit. Following a short break, my son returned to his seat. We all watched as Mattie got her man amid a fair amount of entertaining collateral damage.
In the real world, Noah has regained much of the independence stolen from him. The true achievement, however, was his distillation of loss into purpose and anger into courage. Re-routing his life took a lot of grit. And that, is all the revenge I need.