Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Inconstant Memory

Dear Rachel,

I keep forgetting that you’re gone.

I’m not senile (not yet, anyway). It’s not as if I actually think that you’re alive, it’s just that every once in a while—and only for a fraction of a second—I forget that you’re dead.

I’ll look out the window and see that it’s snowing and I’ll catch myself thinking, “Oh, snow! I hope it’s still snowing when Rachel visits; she loves the snow!” Or I’ll run across some cool gadget and think, “I’ll call Rachel about this. She’d love it.”

Once in a while, I’ll even think, “God, I miss Rachel. I should give her a call.”

So I’m calling. Can you hear me?



Wednesday, January 25, 2006

But Not Real Death

Dear Rachel,

We are a culture enamored of death, I think. We read novels about serial killers, we follow the real-life horror stories in the newspapers, we go to movies in which murder and mayhem play a substantial part. For some reason, we’re wired to be entranced by violence.

Until it hits too close to home. When it's for real, when it strikes someone we love, when we see too much of real-life death (an ironic phrase, I suppose) up close, we quickly discover that we don’t have the stomach for it that we thought we did.

You never met Lesley’s cousin George, although he lives not far from where you lived. I was always impressed with—and perhaps saddened by—him. A retired officer (a Major or a Colonel, I think), after he came back from ‘Nam, he no longer hunted or fished. He said he’d seen enough of death to last him the rest of his life. I’m not sure he even eats meat any more. What horrors must he have seen to have had such an effect on him? I hope he sleeps soundly these nights.

Since you were killed, I’m finding myself feeling a bit like George. I’d always loved serial killer movies, whodunits, war movies, police procedurals, and the like. (Oddly, I could watch with no problem a movie in which some creep bursts into a school and machine-guns a kindergarten class. On the other hand, if a dog got hurt, I would be in tears.) Now I’m finding that I have to be very careful about what movies I watch and what books I read.

I’m still OK with crime books and movies, even if they deal with violent crime—as long as the solution, not the murder, is the focus. If the writer dwells too much or too long or too explicitly on the murder itself, I find that I have to put it down or turn it off.

I found this to be true even of books that I wouldn’t have thought would bother me. I just read the new biography of Truman Capote (wonderful book) and figured I’d reread “In Cold Blood.” Couldn’t do it. Had to put it away for another day. (Or possibly another year.)

I keep discovering new wrinkles to this, new ripples, ramifications that hadn’t occurred to me. I wonder if the man who shot you knows how many people he really killed that night, how many of us suffer still. I’d imagine that he’s suffering, too. But not enough for me.



Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Sun and The Moon, and Also The Stars

Dear Rachel,

Your mom asked for a few words for the upcoming LifeNet memorial booklet that's given to the survivors of organ donors such as yourself. I tried my best.

Sun-and-moon decorations still adorn your room,
Gaily they dangle from light fixtures and hang on the walls;
Your favorite motif in royal blue and red and gold,
Dappled, almost alive, as real sunbeams scatter
Through the window and spray the walls.
The design meant so much to you that
You had it tattooed on your back.
Back then, we laughed and rolled our eyes;
How apt, as it turns out, because you meant the sun and moon to us.



Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Getting Through The Holidays

Dear Rachel,

Sure glad the holidays are over. Everyone said they would be tough, and everyone was right.

Lesley and I just got back from Virginia, where we spent several days with your mom and Shaylyn. How Debbie manages to keep up with a rambunctious 3-year-old I’ll never know.

It was great seeing both of them, but staying in that house was very painful. Everywhere I look there are photos of you and items that remind me of you: gifts that Les or I had sent, the sun-and-moon motif wall-hangings you loved (so much so that you got a sun-and-moon tattoo on your back!), Wizard of Oz memorabilia, and on and on. And in a place of honor in the hallway, a huge frame that contains your degree from ODU, along with your tassels and the invitations to the graduation.

God, it was hard looking at that stuff. I don’t think I could live in that house.

Which makes me think about all of those folks who—having gone through something like this—decide to make major changes: they leave spouses, quit jobs, move to another state, and so on. I’m not tempted to do any of those, but I can understand the impulse. It’s a way of starting over, and perhaps a way to say, “I can’t handle this, it hurts too damned much. I’m going to reinvent myself, and the new me won’t hurt like the old one did.”

But the new me would hurt just as much, I think. Maybe I’d be in a new house or a new state or a new job, but I’d just be hurting in a different place. There’s no running away.



Monday, January 02, 2006

Making Everything Out of Nothing

Dear Rachel,

The other day I found myself laughing and joking with a friend. I still do this—tell jokes, smile, laugh—but I often wonder how I can laugh now, in the face of your absence. In fact, I may do a bit too much of it. Sometimes I think I’m a little manic, maybe trying too hard to convince friends and colleagues—and myself, perhaps—that I’m OK. “See? I’m alright, really. Things are fine. I can still be funny; I can still laugh and joke. I’m still the same man I was.” But of course I’m not. Not really.

In the middle of talking and joking with my friend, I was suddenly struck (once again) by the horror of your death, and by the enormity of our loss. It was a bright moment suddenly turned dark, as if a solar eclipse of the soul had arisen in the middle of a sunny day. It’s not that I had momentarily “forgotten” about your death; I never forget that, not for a moment. But I had insulated myself, temporarily, from the pain. I had shoved it into the background where, apparently, it lurked quietly, waiting to spring upon me.

One must do so, of course, if one is to function. Sometimes the pain has to be put aside, the bitter memories momentarily ignored. To discover that one were forever unable to push the pain into the background would be to set off on the road to madness.

So there’s still some smiling and joking and fun; but the laughter’s hollow now, and the pain is always waiting for me.

Paul Valéry, the French poet and critic, once noted, “God made everything out of nothing, but the nothingness shows through.” Perhaps it’s when one notices the nothingness that the pain returns.