by Danielle Service
We boarded the USS Massachusetts at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts, near the windy edge of the Atlantic Ocean on a late March morning. A hint of sun and one hundred and fifty-six seventh graders with a smattering of adults hit the deck. Twelve or thirteen year olds with ebullient and nervous and hyper bodies bounced on grid metal with overnight bags. I their teacher scanned, frantic to search for where could they get into trouble and the answer here, on this World War II destroyer that had traveled over the Atlantic through that war, was everywhere. It was a battleship, for Christ’s sake.
When a teacher sees that everything in or out of sight has the potential to hurt the children the tendency is to relax. If you can’t control the situation, you realize you don’t have to. I stopped screaming for them to stay within bounds and let them explore, surrendering to the situation, letting go of the reigns.
It was loud and chaotic and I could not figure out where I was at any given time, crawling up and down the stairs and calling after kids, our voices echoing on the metal hull as we passed Nazi flags and makeshift mess halls decorated for tourists with the names of fallen soldiers. Later that night, the energy of the ship got to me. We’d finished with the storyteller and some enterprising schmuck had opened the snack bar at 8 p.m. to give the children coffee and candy before we could put a stop to it. By the time the movie went on in the downstairs hall, all was chaos, overexcited adrenal glands, wanton chip wrappers, and Nazi ghosts. We teachers gave up at around 9:30 and while the movie played we sat in the back choking back hysterical laughter at the absurdity of the situation until we had to tell a kid to pick up his stuff and he got attitude.
Our voices echoed off the metal and my teacher friend turned and said “This is Hell. This is literally the definition of Hell.” I fell on the floor laughing and almost wet my pants so I went to the bathroom and the Nazi flag in the hallway stopped my giggles.
We all spent the night on swinging platforms stacked by chains and I pretended I was a soldier at war. I got up sleepless, crept about the ship, prayed for peace, did some light yoga on the deck, honored the fallen.
The next morning, we toured Battleship Cove. In the Torpedo Room of the USS Lionfish, a Navy submarine, I thought about humanity’s dual instincts: to create, to destroy. Creation makes sense; it’s natural and steeped in love, the most powerful force in the universe. Destruction doesn’t make sense due to its violence, and I’ve struggled to understand how the two coexist. But in the Torpedo Room it came to me: we are born and then we die. Life and death are the only two absolutes, so of course creation and destruction are equal forces. I sagged with relief, felt better than I had in a long time, and went to tell everyone who would listen.
That epiphany fueled my faith in the universe for weeks. One Saturday night I told my friend Laura about it at a Mexican restaurant. “It reminds me of something Mr. Rogers once said,” she quipped. “He said that deep and simple was far more essential than shallow and complex.”
“YES,” I hollered, waving a chip with cheese. “It’s like Occam’s Razor! The simplest explanation is the best one!” Our laughter echoed off the mosaic tiles. We’ve been friends for thirty years. It was April vacation and a beautiful night. Summer was six short weeks away. Anything could happen.
The next day I drove my teacher friend – the one who’d said “this is literally the definition of hell” – to Massachusetts General Hospital to see our thirty-seven-year-old friend and colleague who had suddenly, inexplicably, been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. At the Mexican restaurant I had had no idea of the seriousness of ovarian cancer. Even on the drive to and from Mass General I had had no idea of the seriousness of ovarian cancer. It had been a month since Battleship Cove and I’d been riding the crest of my faith in the universe’s wisdom that whole time. Much like letting hundreds of teenagers loose on a battleship, I’d lost the idea that I could control anything – and I was fine with it.
It wasn’t until I saw our friend’s scar from low abdomen to chest and went home to google, that the potential truth of the situation hit me, a torpedo to my stomach. The cancer had, in a few short months, made its way from her ovaries to her ribs. Our friend and colleague has a four-year-old and a one-year-old and a husband who is a cop and was an officer in the Marines.
The problem with having faith in the universe is that if you believe with all your heart in the absolute truth of love and creation you also have to accept when destruction rears its ugly head. We’re born and then we die – duh. But chemo is an atom bomb. The Allies defeated the Axis powers, their plan to take over the world. Surrender often trumps a fight, and honoring the duality of opposites is a skill: creation, destruction. I pray, still, for one over the other.