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Commentary: Searching for span's message

The darkest night is often the bridge to the brightest tomorrow. - Jonathan Lockwood Huie Chris Gibbons is a Philadelphia writer

The darkest night is often the bridge to the brightest tomorrow.

- Jonathan Lockwood Huie

Chris Gibbons

is a Philadelphia writer

I was barely awake on that recent midsummer morning as I started to read the text from Ed, one of my closest childhood friends. It had been sent hours before, while I slept. My heart raced faster as I read each word.

"Oh my God!" I uttered.

My wife sat up in bed, alarmed by the pained expression on my face. "What? What is it?" she asked.

I didn't respond. I was still trying to comprehend what I was reading.

"Tell me!" she yelled.

"It's . . . it's Ed's little daughter, Julia. She was rushed to the hospital. She's really sick. Something in her brain."

I immediately called Ed, completely forgetting that it was 5 a.m. in Los Angeles. For the first time in the 48 years that I've known him, I sensed fear in his voice.

In the days and weeks after that call, I couldn't stop thinking about the terrible anxiety and heartache that Ed and his family were enduring, and how life, at times, can seem so difficult and unfair. I was occasionally overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness. My friend and his family were struggling and there was nothing I could do.

During this time "The Bridge" seemed to be reaching out to me. Although I've driven over the bridge at Henry and Valley Avenues in Roxborough hundreds of times in the last 40 years, I hadn't given much thought to the teenage years that I'd spent there with Ed and the other guys from our "crew." Now it seemed that each time I drove over it, something seemed to seep within my subconsciousness, a faint message tantalizingly close to clarity, yet elusive as the wind.

Maybe it was just nostalgia, or perhaps little Julia's struggle triggered a desire to return to a simpler time when there was no fear. A time when the pressures wrought by life's complexities didn't seem to exist. A time when Ed and I had yet to cross over the threshold from adolescence into adulthood. I really can't say. But something linked to the bridge seemed to be calling out to me with an indistinct message that lay just beyond the periphery of my understanding. I decided to go back to the bridge to see if I could find what that message may be.

As I walked toward the bridge on that hot summer day I wasn't really sure of what I was looking for or what I'd find. But the memories of my days there suddenly flooded back. I remembered that people in the surrounding neighborhood thought that it was strange that my buddies and I "hung out" under a bridge. They called us "trolls." We weren't offended and actually reveled in the unique identity the name created for us.

The bridge had a compacted dirt ledge, 50 by 15 feet, directly underneath its northern side, with nine feet from floor to ceiling. It became our sanctuary that not only shielded us from the wind, rain, and snow, but also temporarily safeguarded our carefree teen spirit from the ever-encroaching world of adulthood and responsibility.

I bounded down the old path that led underneath the bridge and my nostalgic visit to the past quickly became a sobering meeting with the present. It seemed darker and colder than I remembered. Spray-painted, bubble-letter graffiti, commonly found on old Philadelphia warehouse buildings, now adorned the walls. It also appeared that someone was living there, as a chair was positioned in front of a still-smoldering fire pit. There was an old coat, fast-food trash, jugs of water, and a large plastic container strewn around the dirt ledge.

All remnants of our days there were gone, and my positive memories of the place where lifelong friendships had been forged were now tarnished by what it had become. It felt strange, yet oddly familiar, and as I looked at the empty chair, I couldn't help but view it as an ominous warning of a life that may have been.

I walked up the path from underneath the bridge that day, convinced that there was no hidden message to be found there. But as I looked out onto Henry Avenue, I immediately noticed something very odd - there were no cars on the usually bustling roadway. In that silent, surreal moment, I looked across the empty bridge toward the other side and realized for the first time just how sharply it curved around the bend.

You couldn't see what was on the other side of the bend, or where the road led - just like life. That's when I finally understood the elusive message: Rather than being a sanctuary, the space under the bridge where we hid was akin to a damp cellar. It was only when we emerged from underneath it, and traveled on the road above, did all of us finally reach the unique destinations that awaited.

Many of us were fortunate enough to bring new lives into this world, which brought great joy and meaning to our journeys. But Julia's plight embodied the fear and heartache that can sometimes accompany us on the road of life. The key is to confront and overcome these obstacles - not try to escape from them.

Thankfully, with each passing day, the news from Julia's doctors gradually improved. It turns out that she has a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in her brain. But her condition is highly treatable and she's expected to make a full recovery.

The last time I spoke to Ed, the fear in his voice was gone, and I was proud of the way he and his wife, Adrianna, bravely confronted what has to be every parent's nightmare.

I drove over the bridge recently, and noticed thin wisps of smoke drifting up from below. It curled up and over the bridge, momentarily morphing into the ghostly apparitions of young boys and drifting far up into the sunlit sky until gradually fading away. I watched it disappear as I crossed the bridge, and rounded the bend, toward whatever destination awaited.