It’s Your Turn

Death stops by for a chat

Photo by Marco De Waal on Unsplash

She stood in the doorway in that dismissive way a teenage girl stands when she’s feeling put upon. Clearly, she had better things to do and he was just an inconvenient obligation she had to address before she could get on with the important matters of the day. Still, she was nearly transparent. When she looked up and met his eyes, his blood ran cold. For here was Death herself. Not carrying a scythe. Not dressed in black. Nope, not this time. Today, she was just a pretty teenage girl. Albeit, one you literally see through. Not exactly what one would expect to see at the moment oblivion comes calling. No one would ever suspect she held the power of eternity in her hands. That is, until they looked in her eyes. There was no mistaking her identity when those bottomless black orbs caught your gaze.

“Relax”, she said, “someone very important to you asked me to stop by and remind you. You made a promise. And you’re dragging your feet. Time’s a wasting old man. Don’t make me come back here. You know she won’t be happy if you blow it again this time.”

He was just about to say something when she interrupted him. “No excuses” she said, “You have had ten years to grieve. She sent along just about every kind of human being you could possibly need to learn the difference between what the two of you had and what everyone else thinks is love. You know this, deep down. Accept it. And do what you promised to do.”

“But the kids…..”, he said. “Will be fine” she countered. “How many times have they themselves told you that? You’re just scared.” And he knew, to his very core, that Death was right. He’d set an intention in motion two and half years ago. He’d retire, somehow make the finances work and go have that adventure he had always dreamed about. The very one he described to his wife just months before she passed away. It wasn’t just a dream. It was a promise he’d made to be more than an empty husk of a man after all she had suffered.

It certainly seemed like every cause for concern was magically removed whenever he came up with another reason to hold back. The job was outsourced a month before he was planning to retire. It put him in an even better financial situation. Every obstacle just seemed to evaporate, almost as soon as he thought of it. For someone who couldn’t seem to stop worrying about what could go wrong, everything always worked out in his favor. And he knew, it was because of her. It was the gift she gave him in return for a promise that had been made and must be kept.

Something flickered at the corner of his eye. He turned to look. In the mirror on the wall, a flash of black wing and the shiny edge of a sharpened blade passed through his field of view. When he turned back she was gone. A waft of burnt cookies caressed his nose and the unspoken words kissed his soul, “Don’t let her down, you promised her you wouldn’t waste the time she gave you.”

Taillights and memories

What are we all here for anyway?

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Grandfather Mountain, NC

I’d never even heard his name before. I was sixteen years old and starting my first “real” job. I’d be doing odd jobs at a golf course. Mowing, raking leaves, “whipping” the greens every morning, oh, and dodging golf balls. Greg was at least fifteen years older than I. He rode a motorcycle. He smoked (not just tobacco, either) and did pretty much any other substance he could get his hands on. He was almost certainly the most intellectually eager human being I had ever met.

I grew up in a mountain town of about five hundred souls. Deep history. But not a whole lot of intellectual curiosity. There were plenty of smart people around. They regularly kicked my ass academically. But there just wasn’t much passion for the unknown. I’m kind of a big question guy. I don’t so much care what the answer is, I just want new questions. Preferably questions nobody has ever before answered to anyone’s complete satisfaction. Greg was my very first introduction to philosophy (my wife would become my ultimate partner in those endeavors).

But here, for what seemed like the first time in my life, I found someone who spent their time thinking the same kinds of thoughts I had always entertained. Thoughts that went beyond “how do I fix this carburetor?” or “will I have a date on Saturday night?”. Here was someone with adventure woven into his soul.

He’d left home right after high school. Spent the last two years of the Vietnam war on an army base in Germany. When he returned to the states he took diving lessons and worked for a couple of years in the Gulf of Mexico doing underwater welding. He traveled all over the country taking on jobs that made him just enough money to get by while he tried to figure out what life was all about. At one point, he found himself in Wyoming working as a roughneck on an oil rig. When that tour ended, he hopped on his Yamaha SR500 and made a beeline for home. Over twenty hours of riding, stopping for nothing but fuel. He was around forty years old and had spent most of the last twenty years on the road. He had a lot of stories to tell and I sat in rapt attention listening to him.

Greg was a student. Not a formal academic, but rather someone who had never stopped learning. He could spend hours discussing the ins and outs of Eastern religion or with a flip of the subject, the mechanics of rebuilding a motorcycle transmission. He defined “Renaissance Man” to me. He knew something about almost everything and was one of those “most interesting men in the world” types.

But life in what Western culture had become bored Greg silly. Like most people with half a brain, a bit of compassion, and a taste for adventure, capitalism represented subjugation and exploitation. It just wasn’t a game he wanted to play. He’d grown up with money and saw the single-minded pursuit of it as something of a moral failing. The fact that all of Western culture had become enslaved to its pursuit had left him more than a little distressed and depressed.

My friend died young. Not in a noble way either. He didn’t kill himself. The end was as forlorn as his view of the world had become. He was run over by a car in whiteout conditions on a cold winter’s night in his hometown. The driver of the car never saw him and his family declined to press charges. It was simply an accident that nobody could have foreseen.

I met my wife about a year after Greg was killed. And to be honest, he didn’t cross my mind much over the years. Like so many of our early relationships, we had just sort of drifted apart. Twenty four years later though, on one of the darkest nights my soul has ever known, this man came to me in a dream.

It was a late December night, about a month after Liz had died. I hadn’t really gotten a decent night’s sleep in about three years. There was something otherworldly about everything since my universe had come to an end on the Monday before Thanksgiving. This particular night I had already been visited by my father (who had passed away twenty-two years previously).

Here, in the pre-dawn hours, I found myself straddling a motorcycle on an empty road. I looked to my right and Greg sat there, on the very SR500 Yamaha he had ridden all those years before. He wore the same blanket lined denim jacket and Marlboro Man mustache he had always sported. He grinned at me, laughed out loud, gunned the engine and took off. I chased him, across the flats and up over the hill. The last thing I saw before I woke up was the taillight of that Yamaha going around the bend in front of me. I was strangely comforted by this visit from a nearly forgotten specter of my past. He hadn’t said a word and yet he told me all I needed to hear.

Thank you for reading.

The Citadel

A stranger in a strange land

Photo by Sandra Frey on Unsplash

 

I’ve always been prone to darkness. Friends would say I was moody or even in some cases, morose. I had very few friends growing up. And although I have five sisters, none of them had much time for an annoying brother. Almost all of my early memories are of me doing things alone. I had snowball fights with snowmen I’d built on the other side of the road. I read A LOT. I roamed the woods, hunting, fishing, exploring. I was drawn to solitary adventure. What’s on the other side of that hill? Where does that path lead? What’s new, what’s different, what’s unknown? I constructed elaborate fantasy worlds in my mind. I still do it. Someday, I may take to writing novels. I’ve got hundreds of fully formed stories still in my head.

This morning I read a story by Iva Ursano. And it sent me into a world I have been very reluctant to visit. Mostly because it’s a painful place to go. And therein lies the reason I must make this trip. There’s a disrespectfulness about much of the self-help, “live in the now” culture that is incessantly preached to all of us. But particularly to those with traumatic history. It glosses over the fact that there is deep pain that, at the very least, needs to be recognized and honored. Yes, there is only NOW, but everyone’s NOW is informed by all the moments that came before. We are the people we are, not because of now, but because of what happened before this moment in time.


I had about seventeen really great years with my wife. That’s what it turns out to be when I do the math. A couple of years in which we lived together before we got married. Then fifteen years before the beginning of the end. There were three tense years after that. Two people absorbing the news that everything they’ve built together is being taken away from them. Not because of the choices they made, not of their own choosing, but because, in the end, none of us really have any power over the future at all. We didn’t know how to deal with this knowledge. I’m not sure anyone ever really does. That final year had a little more tenderness than might otherwise be expected given the stress and strain of the previous three. Maybe we’d figured it out a little bit by then, but the last five months were consumed by impending death.

We had four children together. We bought a house in 1999. We attended school plays and took the kids to the town pool. We had giant piles of Christmas presents under the tree every year. And a basketball hoop outside by the mailbox. We played with the kids, changed diapers, and talked about our work lives. We made love almost every Friday night. I know we did these things. There are shadows in my mind that hint at the love we once shared. And photos in boxes and on the computer that prove there was joy at one time in my life. But I can’t remember any of the details anymore.

I spent three years impotently watching while the love of my life lost, cell by cell, the ability to move or control any part of her body. As the disease took her physical capacity away it built a towering stone castle in my psyche. Memories of what came before she died are locked away on the other side of those walls. And I don’t seem to be able to access them from the universe I live in now.

So, what do I have left? I mostly see her, sitting in an electric wheelchair, head slumped over. She died a mere silhouette of the beautiful, vibrant warrior goddess she personified for so many years. The last three years of her life did nothing but take; life, love, hopes, memories. I lost way more than the love of my life when she died. I lost our history, the family we created and the future we had dreamt about. I still have four wonderful children, even a grandchild, but the family we are now is a family with a gaping hole in the center.

I can’t even properly honor the good times we had. They’re ghosts flitting amongst the shadows in my mind. Behind me is a fortress where my past and my memories are locked away. I stride forward into a future that’s unknown, unknowable and I don’t even have access to my history to help guide me on my way. There was a battle fought in my past. I’m standing in an empty field with a bloody sword in my hand. I don’t know who I am, where I come from or which road leads home.


I’ve struggled for a long time to find a way to tell this story. I’ve talked with a lot of people with a history of trauma. Most of it was inflicted upon them by someone else. It seems to me that they all carry shields, and often swords, around with them. Understandably so. But nobody inflicted this pain upon me. And, unlike the phrase “everything that happens to you is a result of your own decisions” this isn’t a result of anything I chose. Neither is the trauma most people survive at the hands of another. It’s platitudes like that, that blame the victims. We don’t all control everything that ever happens to us. Life happens. It’s terminal. And if you think otherwise, go ahead and make the choice to live forever and never get sick. Let me know how that turns out for you.

Yes, I own my response to what happened. Insofar as I did what love, honor and the promise I made dictated that response. I’d do it again, without even a second thought. But I suspect the construction of that giant citadel behind me is to protect me. From memories that would make creating a new life much more difficult. I remember echos. Of a life that was easy. Nothing that has come since that world ended has been easy. If I remembered more, I suspect the road to a new, rich life would be impossible to find. No, the universe is protecting me by requiring me to take a different path through the wilderness that lies before me. One that can be filled with unforeseen triumphs from entirely unexpected directions. There is a path out there. Despite the darkness of many of my days, I know it’s there. I don’t have a map and I don’t have a compass. But I don’t have a past to hold me back either. All I get for this trip is my imagination and my fearlessness. And they are all I need. They’re all any of us really need. And THAT is the power of living in the NOW.

Thank you for reading.

 

The line

Between then and now

I scanned through the e-mail thread.
“How’s Dick taking it?” read the question from one of her old college friends.
“He’s pretty stoic, I’m not really sure what’s going on in his head.” was her response.

It felt like an invasion of her privacy. She’d only died a couple days earlier. I was still in a state of shock. Even if none of it was unexpected. We’d been preparing for that day for three years.

And yet, there’s something about death you really can’t prepare yourself to grasp. The end of a life. The end of a marriage. The end of everything you’d built in the last twenty two years. A barrier between who you were before and who you are now. Nothing about life would ever be the same again.

I searched and searched through the computer. I was desperate to find something, anything she had left. But there was nothing there, nothing of any substance but that email. I was hoping, at the very least, that she would have left something for the kids. I guess she didn’t know what to say to them either.

Time passes. Few people would call me stoic anymore. Not when it comes to showing my emotions. Tears flow down my face with embarrassing regularity. All it takes is a memory. And not just of her.

Everyone I’ve ever lost took a piece of me with them. Even some who are still alive. It took losing my wife for me to feel those losses. I’m not quite sure why that’s the case but it seems like one can only hold so much pain inside. And when it comes bursting out, the dam is forever breached.

Grief is an honorable emotion. Show it the respect it deserves. Give it the time it requires. And always remember. Because that’s how those we love continue to live.

These are today’s fucking feelings.

Thanks for reading.