Today I awoke to petulant memories from a sleep of troublesome dreams, and music from their cellar still haunts while I brew strong coffee. A more cerebral person than myself has led me through the alleyways of thought from post traumatic stress and cautioned me of the dark corners, but on occasion, I walk through them and stumble out safe. I sit by my kitchen window with my keyboard and sort them by size and depth, and I drink hazelnut and rub my dog’s ear while I ground myself and organize the intangibly tangible. He offers me himself while the memories line up and start a march.
I remember kitten paws and little furry bodies my wife and I hand nursed. Early in our marriage, we took in dozens of rescues from problem litters and for every one we saved, we lost three. Several of them were needy warriors and would crawl all around our hands while nursing, clutching with those little paws and hanging on to that bottle and life until they were big enough to feed themselves. We were mom and dad and those paws worked their way into our hearts, and we kept those three-Magic, Flea, and Juan-who were soon joined by another rescue kitty-Ferret-and two rescued dogs, Penny, and Murdock-who was blind.
We had the dogs in the house, so our enclosed two car garage became our cats’ home and security blanket. Our entire house was full of love and licks and kisses and paws that seemed to know every place they could curl up on in our souls. Over the space of twenty well-lived years, each of them, feline and canine alike, grew old and eventually, ill. Each clung as stubbornly to life as Juan had on that first bottle, and I fought every battle with them until the paws that were placed in my hands when they were born were again placed into mine at the end, when one by one, their mighty hearts fell silent.
The first to leave was Flea. We placed a rose bush atop his grave that would bloom every late autumn and produce a single multicolored orgasm of flower. Just for us, we thought. Murdock was buried at my parent’s house among the multitude of animal friends from my first two decades of life, and Penny was cremated, with his ashes saved to be placed with me in my coffin. All of the others are interred together by the edge of the woods in our backyard, and at dawn I imagine I hear little paws prowling through the trees. I listen to them with a heart both empty and full in the same beat. Our later rescues sit at my feet and also listen, and they glow in the morning light.
The memory march began on those beats, and continues its parade while whispering about the health issues that have crept into my mind while I sit listening to the forest and separating the dreams. I’ve wrestled with my own mortality and also fought enough for the lives of others to know that you win just the right amount of matches until you lose the war, but there is strength in the battle, a dam for the dreams. The joy and worth of life comes from the beautiful aspects of and within that struggle and its victories, and also within the stunning defeats.
In my experience, the only grace that exists in living is a silent one found only in the honoring of life. I think the only honor existing is a thankless one, found in the nurturing of life, defense of it, and when it is over, respect of that which was alive and an avocation for the living. And I think the only meaning found in life is in living it with that grace and honor, and by doing so, knowing a love that is true, rather than as a label placed on a stew of conflicting desires and emotions that only serve to confuse that meaning. Everything else is just distractions, studies in arrogance, tells, and self-deception. Nightmares.
The soft rain that has began to fall outside seems to echo its agreement to this, and I see that small stand of graves begin to glisten and shine in the mist-thanking me, damning me, and offering me kindness.
I would like to say I’ve made peace with the losses, but I haven’t. I’ve raged and I’ve fought and I’ve looked for ways around the inevitable-for myself and others, human and beast. I’ve kept a stable of white horses at ready for the midnight rides against the black steeds of death and their master, fighting long and arduous campaigns against a tireless foe, and too often only finding solace in the beauty that was that struggle and the worth that was that life I thought I was so earnestly defending. And I remember them all.
I remember my mother’s hands. They were beautiful and delicate and she used them well. She used to make biscuits and while she was kneading, she would say you had to love the dough, and her fingers would, just as they loved when she would knit, or paint, or touch. Those hands could make something from nothing, They were wonderful things, and when they began to fail her, I would sit and hold them and remember and try to will magic back into those loving fingers.
She taught me many things, but the most important ones were those she didn’t even realize she was teaching. The reasons why the horses in my stable are white, why rain is sad, but healing, and why listening is perhaps the most important thing you will ever do-even when what you are listening to may not matter, or even exist, save in your heart and your imagination. Making something from nothing…like all good parents do.
Towards the end, she would ask how long she had and I would tell her it wouldn’t be that night-it wouldn’t be tonight-and she believed me. I said those words every night until it was that night. She was supposed to die in a year, but it took three because we fought so well-years that were the worst, yet the best, of our times together-meeting the enemy that was also a friend in a war inglorious to friendships, and sons.
When she died, our little rose bush offered what was to be its finest and last bloom. It was of every color and in every shade, all blending into each other and back out into the petals, like a master painter’s dreams at twilight. I placed it in her hands before the coffin was sealed, along with a portion of myself that belonged only to her. Sometimes, I hear her voice and what could be her footsteps moving around in that space the portion came from, and I listen…and I can hear the memory of her hands. I can hear them now, as I watch the rain.
I think of the years spent in service after my mother’s death, and of September, 2001-volunteering in the aftermath of the attacks and walking across a destroyed section of city, breathing in the ashes of buildings and souls still burning. There were ghosts in the air, and girder crosses on the ground, and no matter how hard any of us tried-no one was rescued. There were only things recovered, dumped into trucks or draped in flags-all taken away. There were too many of us surreally attempting to bring it all back to life while raging on, hoping against hope for life moving in the shadows and fire, but finding only dead stone, and dead smoke, and silhouettes of dead hands.
At shift’s end, some gathered at the prayer cross, some into the hands and mouths of the macabre rescue groupies waiting at the barricades, while others just lay down and cried. I slept one night in wet chill on the court beneath the Statue of Liberty, among the tired and those longing to be free of it all, wondering if rescuers rescued because they couldn’t save themselves and all they love.
Lying there in the darkness of that night, the only thing I came to terms with is that my struggle with mortality always led me back to those circular movements of the heart and mind, so much so that all of my epiphanies became soliloquies of the obvious-my thoughts of womb to tomb and dust-as precious and maudlin as dirt and PTSD. The thought that dirt had layers of context made it anything but meaningless, and the thousands of living things that had come before me to end obscurely in a handful of living dust connected me to life more profoundly than just the acknowledgement of it and showed me that my need for permanent awareness had met itself buried in those contextual layers and scent of burning flesh.
Sitting here now, I still feel the smoke deep in my chest-as with so many others who breathed hell from those ravaged acres-the mottled dust of a powdered plaza has once again slowly reformed itself as a permanent concrete in our lungs. My father-in-law tells me no good deed goes unpunished, but I think it more the price of seeing shadows of dead brothers and silhouettes of dead hands, and pity parties convened on a statue’s courtyard and splayed across the streets of New York.
My chest and ashes and dust remind me that we mainly have what we need, not necessarily what we want-good terms for at least a partial acceptance of fate. Save for my conceit, I am no better than anything that has lived that comprises that dirt, and over the years, I have lost much of what I truly love into that dust and ash, while other things I love in this life have emerged from it-like that single, last Flea rose. The earth has a balance my own mind sees, but does not have, as philosophy and religion answers questions which, once discerned, my mind will ask again, in later, more happy-or sad-days and restless nights.
I’m troubled by the seemingly chaotic game of chance that is attached to life and death, yet strangely comforted by its unseen playbook. I’ve lived long enough to perceive that one exists, if only to confound one and keep us on our game. Just like dirt, the chaos is not meaningless. What is painful today can one day be comforting, once all contexts are clear. Hands that hurt can also soothe, and we all take leaps of faith as amateurs to trust in touch.
Working with the Red Cross and FEMA after Katrina, I wondered on the balance of Earth. Across three states and their coastlines and back two miles inland, everything was gone. We carried supplies in to the battered communities and while they ate and drank and grieved, we found their dead and brought them home. There were body bags stacked like cordwood, with some souls loaded into refrigerated trucks, and still more waiting that we pieced together before zipping them into their plastic-taking care to photograph any identifying marks while taping the photos to the bags to spare families the whole view. An old man shook my hand in silence, his eyes telling me what he couldn’t speak, while his wife was praising how wonderful we all were as she began to very carefully wash the blood of her son from my fingers.
The ruin of New Orleans lay at the end, with more charnel delight. My truck was again emptied of supplies and filled this time with survivors. After the last load to the refugee camp, I made my way home, not stopping until I pulled into my driveway. I had been awake four days and I slept almost one, waking to paws, licks, and a measure of beauty. After eating, I held my first grandson in my arms-the same arms that had fished someone else’s dead child out of the water days before. I had been so busy and on autopilot for so long it was the first time I had a moment to recollect any of it.
Instead of thinking, I just rocked in that chair and felt my grandson’s heart and looked into his eyes, and the only thought I had was that I was the first person he had seen when he had entered into the world and I wished him gentle travel always. I was humming and rocking, and I thought I heard the world balance itself again. I said a prayer for all of the lost and all of the lost still living, and I kept rocking until the boy was asleep and all I had inside that was alive was awake and found. It was much how I feel now, dogs at my feet, and moist graves gleaming outside my window, just at the edge of my vision.
I hear my mother's hands, and the souls of all that I have known, and the forests full off paws that are all my own, and I know love amongst these ruins of red chapels and shining graves. I wonder at all of the battles past and still to come, memories buried deep that have yet to surface after sleepless night. I feel the war has been a good foe, and also, a good-but entirely fucked-friend. I feel strangely at peace with my stable only half filled, my shining armor rusting lightly in this morning storm, and my thoughts still circling, teasing their moorings.
I suspect it will be a nice day.