Chapter 44 – Running Silent and Deep
Friendships can form over many years of interaction. They can form in the sudden heat of battle. They can form over a handful of open, reflective conversations on or off the web---similar experiences, shared pain, among those who have earned your trust. They can involve humans, and they can involve four-legged friends who hold us just as dear, who protect us just as strongly.
All are valued.
I have one long-term friend who is very much like some of my friends, and beyond the conception of others. He's a couple years younger than me, never married, his whole life in service to our country including a trip or two to a war zone. Now he works in something that would be the stuff of a TV show if you could somehow narrow it down to an hour, throw in some cleavage, unrealistic outcomes of science, and the occasional bumbling probie.
But real life is not like that. It's not designer clothing while you assess the blood splatter, logical conclusions, or the good guys always winning. It's continuing to bear with weight and steadiness the evils and excesses of man, holding up strong under the business of the slain even when you might lose. Throw in a dress code and the occasional political yard gnome, and though we don't talk about it we occasionally see something on TV and just look at each other and laugh.
He sometimes disappears for weeks or longer when I don't know where he is, and I know not to ask though I've seen him on TV before. Then with a phone call out of the blue he pops in, occasionally on my front porch.
My husband understands our long history and that bond, and just smiles a wry smile while the guest bed is made up and my friend and I have animated conversations involving Bosnian goats, wrong way tanks, and various shiny aircraft. For it is a friendship that is like family, even though we don’t share blood or any sort of romantic history---just a lot of years, some mutual skirmishes, a number of fish sandwiches and pints, some bullets, and a passport or two.
Then there were the friends of childhood. Often such friendships didn’t survive high school as we grew and evolved into the people we would eventually be. One such person was the girl who lived across the street. She was my best friend in grade school; a tiny little thing with ice-blond hair. When we were kids her little sister died of a rare form of cancer, then her still-young mom of the same disease. Her dad soon followed, though we're not sure if it was disease or heartbreak. She and I lost touch after high school, the friendship being more one of young girls than grown-ups.
We went off to college, myself initially majoring in engineering, my friend doing pre-med. I heard later she ended up working for a medical research facility. She studied the disease that had laid its cold hand on her family, hoping for a cure, likely looking at it each day with both horror and astonishment. Unfortunately, the disease took her before she could take it. She was only in her thirties, the world to her still comprised of small wonders.
We hadn't had contact in years, and it was months after she passed that I heard. She had no living family left; nothing remained of her but the handcrafted wood that held her remains. So small, so bare. That's really all that life ends up as, I thought, and my heart swelled with tears---for the girl she'd been, for joyous laughter watching cartoons, for whispered conversations about who liked what boy, for afternoons at ballet class; for all the joy and adventure we had as we explored our world with a curiosity and courage that had not learned limits. I cried with the realization that we had both let that slip past us, unremembered over so many years.
All I could do was go to the church and light a candle for her, then blow on it to release the flame, releasing her laughter with it, and the memories of childhood.
If we are fortunate, those we live with are also our friends. My dad married his best friend, as did I. I look at other friends of mine long married and I see that, and it's precious to behold just being in the same room with the two of them; sitting across the table as we say grace you can feel the flame.
There's nothing better than sharing a last name with your best friend.
Growing up, my big brother Allen was the best friend a kid could have, his not abandoning me even in high school when it just wasn't cool to hang out with your baby sister. But lately we'd gotten much closer.
Because he was dying.
He had kept the truth from our 94-year-old father, hoping that he would outlive Dad, sparing him that agony. But I knew even if he didn't tell me, having too much knowledge of medicine not to understand what was going on. But I did everything I could to spend as much time with Allen during those last six months. In his last months on this earth we'd talk of everything: about our dad, about growing up (or our inherent refusal to). One thing I am glad was that I never heard from him during those conversations, "I wish I'd . . ."
I've heard so many people say: "I'll do that when I'm older, when I lose 20 pounds, when I'm retired." We go through life saying, "I would, but it probably wouldn't work out," or, " I'd like to but . . ." We too often base our actions on an artificial future, painting a life picture based on an expectancy that time is more than sweat, tears, heat, and mirage.
You can't count on anything. For out of the blue fate can come calling. My husband and I had recently lost our beloved black Lab Barkley after a brief but valiant battle against bone cancer and a weekend of pain we couldn't keep at bay for him. In a flash life robbed me even of the power to grieve for what is ending. I think back to when Allen and I were kids: going down a turbulent little river with little more than an inner tube and youth, risking rocks and rapids and earth just to see what was around the bend of that forest we'd already mapped out like Lewis and Clark. The water was black and silver, fading swirls of deep current rising to the surface like a slap, fleeting and gravely significant---as if something stirred beneath, unhappy to be disturbed from its slumber, making its presence known. A fish, perhaps; or simply fate.
I think of the true story of the woman whose parachute didn't open on her first jump and she fell more than a mile, and lived---to change her whole life to pursue her dreams. Did she sense something as she boarded that plane, looking into the sky at a danger that she could not articulate that she could not see? Or was she unaware until that moment when she pulled the cord and nothing happened, as her life rushed up to her with a deep groaning sound? What was it like in that moment, that perception of her final minutes, what taste, what color, what sound defined her soul as it prepared to leave?
I was in the paint section of a hardware store the other weekend, looking for a brick-colored paint to spruce up a backdrop in the crash pad’s kitchen. I noticed the yellows, the color I had painted my room as a teen. I noticed the greens, so many of them---some resembling the green of my parents’ house in the '60s and '70s, yet not being exactly the same color. The original was one that you'd not see in a landscape, only in a kitchen with avocado appliances while my Mom sang as she made cookies. I remember Allen and I racing through the house, one of us soldier, the other spy, friends forever; stopping only long enough for some of those cookies, still warm. Holding that funky green paint sample I can see it as if it were yesterday. Memories only hinted at, held there in small squares of color.
What is it about things from the past that evoke such responses? For some it’s a favorite photo; a piece of clothing worn to a special event; a particular meal. Things that carry with them the sheer impossible quality of perfection that has not been achieved since. Things that somehow trigger in us a response of wanting to go back to that time and place when you were safe and all was well. But even as you try and recapture the memory, it eludes you, caught in a point in your mind between immobility and motion, the taste of empty air, the color of wind.
One morning while out in a hangar checking out a pilot friend’s home-built project, I had one of those moments. It was an old turboprop lumbering down the taxiway with all the grace of a water buffalo. It wasn't the aircraft that caught my eye, it being one of those planes that carries neither speed nor sleek beauty but rather serves as the embodiment of inertia overcome by sufficient horsepower. No, it was the smell of jet fuel that took me back---to years of pushing the limits, not really caring if I came home, only that the work was done without my breaking beyond re-use something I was trusted with.
Until one day, while my heart was beating despite being broken unseen beneath starched white cotton, my aircraft made a decided effort to kill me. It was not the "Well, I'll make a weird sound and flash some red lights at you and see what you do," an aircraft's equivalent of the Wicked Witch of the North cackling: "Care for a little fire, Scarecrow?" No, it was a severe vibration that shook the yoke right out of my hand as we accelerated through 180 knots on the initial climb, when unbeknownst to me a piece of my elevator had departed the fix.
In that moment, as I heard the silent groaning of the earth below, I thought: "I do not wish to die," and I fought back---in that moment of slow and quiet amazement that can come at the edge of sound, finding in myself a renewed desire to live; recognizing the extent and depth of that desire to draw another breath and share that soft warm breath with another.
Today is a memory that months from now could be one of those memories---not of fear but of triumph. You may look back and see this day, the friends you were with, the smile on your face, the simple tasks you were doing together. Things, so basic in their form to at this time simply be another chore: cleaning, fixing, an ordinary day; while children played with a paper plane fueled by laughter and the hangar cat drowsed in the sunlight. It might be a day you didn't even capture on film---no small squares of color left to retain what you felt as you worked and laughed together, there in those small strokes of color, those small brushes of hope as you wait for your best friend to join you.
Twenty years from now you may look at yourself in the mirror, at the wrinkles formed from dust, time, and tears around your eyes, at the gray in your hair; and you will think back to this day, the trivial things that contain the sublime. On that day, so far beyond here, you may look around you, that person you were waiting for no longer present, and you’ll want it all back. Want it as bad as the yearning for a color that is not found in nature, in the taste of something for which you search and ache, acting on the delusion that you can recreate it, those things that haunt the borders of almost-knowing.
You touch the mirror, touch your face and wish you'd laughed more, cared less of what others thought, dove into those feelings that lapped at the safe little edges of your life, leaped into the astonishing uncertainty.
Allen spent years running silent and deep under the ocean, visiting places I can only guess at as he will not speak of it, a code about certain things I share with him. But I knew the name. Operation Ivy Bells. He understood testing the boundaries of might and the cold depths to which we travel in search of ourselves.
On his last nights, Allen and I talked, but not of those days under the ocean. We both were aware of grave matters of honor, but do not speak of them, not even with each other. I'd sit as he talked about Dad and how he hoped Dad would live to be a hundred; how he hoped he would be there to take care of him, even as I watched 120 pounds leave Allen’s frame as he went through that second round of chemo and radiation.
He talked until his eyes closed, only his labored breath letting me know he was still with me; the rise and fall of his chest as he were trying to push up from the waters of the sea, unfathomed flesh still so buoyant if only in spirit as the cold water lapped against him.
I too have had more than one day where I stood outside on a pale crescent of beaten earth and breathed deeply of that cold. On those days I felt every ache in my muscles; my skin hot under the sun; the savage, fecund smell of loss in the air, lying heavily in the loud silence. Somewhere in the distance would come a soft clap of thunder; overhead clouds strayed deliberately across the earth, disconnected from mechanical time. I'd rather be elsewhere; the smell simply that of kitchen and comfort: the sounds only that of laughter. But I knew how lucky I was to simply be, in that moment, and alive.
I'd go home on such nights and pour a drink, prepare a small meal. I'd eat it slowly, letting the sweet and salt stay upon my tongue. For me there would be no quick microwaved meal eaten with all the detachment of someone at a bar, tossing back a handful of stale nuts with his beer. No, I wished to taste and savor the day, the warm layers of it, this day that had been someone's last.
You can't control fate, but you can make choices. You can continue your day and do nothing, standing in brooding and irretrievable calculation as if casting in a game already lost. Or you can seize the moment, the days, wringing every last drop from them. Tell the ones you love that you love them. Hug your family; call an old friend you've not spoken to for months; forgive an enemy; salute your flag---and always, always give the dog an extra biscuit. Then step outside into the sharp and unbending import of spring, a dying winter flaring up like fading flame. One last taste, one last memory, never knowing how long it will remain.
As I sit and wait for the phone to ring to let me know my husband has landed, I have no idea what this day will bring as it closes. But one thing I do know: today is that memory. Alone or together, I'm going to go out and make everything I can of it. I look at the photos of my daughter and her family, drawings my granddaughters made. I look at a photo of Allen, the shirt he wore in the last picture I have of him now hanging in my closet, next to a crisp cotton shirt that still bears the scent of memory. I pause and smile, preparing my evening table with thanks to the Lord for the blessing of family and friends.
Chapter 45 – The Depths of a Heart
I was out at Dad’s again, making my trip to the garage as I always do. The car was gone, given to a family member who needed one when Dad wasn't able to drive any longer. In its former space were boxes and boxes of a life, all of Allen’s things carefully packed for his children to take, most of the clothes going to charity. A few pieces of his submarine memorabilia on my dresser now; the rest simple, silent shadows. Still, I can see past them to what was there so long before.
I stayed just long enough to take the trash to the barrel outside and to check the freezer to see if I needed to buy Dad some more ice cream. It was hard to see inside, my eyes misty; breathing in the bracing density of cold air laced with pine and motor oil, a smell I loved even after all those years. It was the smell of morning's breath, full of wood and silence.
Before I closed the garage door I stood for just a moment, looking deep into this familiar space, out onto the driveway shaded by Mom's old tree. For just a moment, the boxes were gone from my vision, replaced by a memory of hands and tools and laughter. I could almost see my big brother there; the shifting green shimmer of persistent leaves creating an illusion of shadow, of form within, working away until Mom called us in for supper.
It was in that driveway he finally collapsed, tending to Dad as we both have always done. We later asked ourselves if he'd tended more to himself and less to the family, had he shared the pain he was hiding, would he have had a few months longer? But that’s just who he was, always a submariner, always on quiet watch; the risk and the fear of death second to those things which men store within the depths of a human heart.
That he left me just weeks after we laid our black Lab Barkley to rest, also to cancer, hit me even harder.
The tragedy was not that my brother was gone so soon, but that he was no longer here to see what remained---the hearts he repaired, the things he built that can't be contained in one's hands. Allen went full speed up to the end, not wanting to extinguish his thirsting heart but only to slake it.
As I stood on the step from garage to laundry room and pushed the button for the garage door, I took in the sight, the smell of it. I couldn't imagine Allen not being here; something that just is, like the loud crack of a bat hitting a ball; the bounce of a bicycle off the gravel as kids came careening into home; the way an old baseball game seeped out of a transistor radio as a loved one worked away. Sounds that echoed even as the door closed and darkness descended.