Saturday, October 1, 1994

Goodnight and Goodbye

Saturday dawned like most other southern summer mornings. Outside on the porch swing, he was cool and comfortable, but he could feel the day already beginning to warm. By afternoon, he knew, the day would be hot and humid. As he sipped his coffee, he looked around for signs of neighbors stirring, but all was quiet. Soon, though, they would be opening their doors, moving slowly across their lawns as they searched for their morning papers. One of these days the paper boy was going to land each and every paper on their front porches just to confuse the whole neighborhood, but today was not to be that day.

He finished his coffee, took one last moment to enjoy the peace and calm of the morning, then went back inside his house. His answering machine blinked frantically, but he continued to ignore it. It had been flashing on and off since the day before, but he had neither the desire nor the strength to deal with anyone quite yet. Instead, he turned the stereo on - the morning quiet giving way to Vivaldi - and began to putter around the house. He worked for several hours, moving from room to room cleaning more and more intensely the longer he scrubbed and washed and scoured.

Suddenly realizing the time, he reluctantly finished up, then moved slowly to the bathroom. Once there, he turned the shower on and undressed, his dirty clothes settling into a pile on the floor. Stepping inside, he felt the warmth of the water upon his back. Turning, he looked up into the stream, allowing it to pour like rain down upon his face. Without warning, he began to cry. Feeling weak, he slumped to the bottom of the tub, the water still falling all around him. He lay there, alone, for a long time, until the warmth of the shower gave way to an icy cold. He reached up and turned the shower off, then pulled a towel from the nearby cabinet and wrapped himself into it.

After he dried himself off, he moved into his bedroom. Reaching into his closet, way in the back behind his Penn State sweatshirt and London Fog overcoat, he found what he was looking for. He pulled the black suit out and laid it down upon the bed, refusing to allow his mind to wander back to the last time he had worn it. If he thought about it, about how many times he had worn it in the last year, he knew he would be unable to even put it on.

Less than an hour later, he was sitting in his car, hands clenched tight upon the steering wheel. He had less than ten minutes before he would be missed, yet he could not summon the courage to open the door and get out. He felt afraid, weak at the thought of entering the building. A sudden knock on the window caused him to jump, his body pulling hard against the seat belt as he spun quickly towards the noise.

“Are you okay?” someone asked. He nodded, heart still beating fast, and turned the engine off. He removed his seat belt and opened the door into the hot afternoon. He walked quickly from the car, as if a moment’s hesitation on his part would paralyze him forever. The people he passed looked at him and attempted a greeting, but he saw only the door. There, finally, he opened it wide and forced himself to go in. Looking to the left, he saw several people waiting for him, their expressions of obvious relief at his appearance causing him a feeling of guilt for being the last to arrive.

Then, he felt himself go, as if he was no longer there. He watched the rest of the service almost as a spectator, not really a participant at all. He saw himself line up with the other pallbearers, walking into the church behind the family. He listened, but from afar, as the minister thanked them for coming and proceeded to summarize his friend in words far too few to be accurate. He saw the family and friends as they received communion, and heard their voices, his included, as they sang Amazing Grace and recited The Lord’s Prayer. He watched as he led the pallbearers out of the church, lining up on either side of the casket, then carrying it to the hearse.

He drove to the cemetery, though he really had no awareness of doing so. He watched then as he and his fellow pallbearers positioned themselves again alongside the casket bringing it finally to rest under the large awning. They stood along the backside of the casket, facing the family and friends now seated or standing on the other side. He heard the minister’s voice again, speaking of God and love, forgiveness and hope eternal. He watched as the American flag was removed from the casket, folded, and placed into the hands of the grieving parents. Finally, he watched himself, fighting back tears and hands shaking, as he removed his boutonniere and placed it upon the top of the casket. He watched, too, as the grandmother walked slowly to the casket, laid her hand upon the top, and rubbed the wood gently while saying a silent goodbye to her angel, her grandson, the man in whom she saw the future.

He saw himself leave then, backing away from the scene too painful to endure any longer. He felt the tears then, hot on his face, as he began to sob. He knew then that it was all real, and that he was a spectator no longer. He was here, and this was happening, and the enormity of it all threatened to overwhelm him. He forced himself to move, to flee, and he was quickly in his car and leaving the horrible scene behind him. Once home, he retreated to the privacy of the bedroom, curling up as small as he could and praying for sleep to allow him a brief respite from the pain.

Sunday also dawned like most other southern summer mornings. Outside on the porch swing, he was again cool and comfortable, but again he could feel the day already beginning to warm. In the air, though, was more than the threat of heat and humidity. He felt a presence, a physical touch almost, of the friend gone too soon. He realized then that the day may indeed be hot, but at least it would be, as would tomorrow and tomorrow after that. For those left behind, life does go on, and the gentle reminders of those loved and lost are everywhere around us, if we will only take the time to see them.

I miss you, George. I know you are gone, but something of you still cheers the air. Goodnight and goodbye, old friend, for now your place is with the angels.

(Originally published in Southern Forum, October 1994)

Monday, August 1, 1994

If I Had Only Known

There is a country song called, “If I Had Only Known,” in which a young woman laments actions not taken and words not spoken. Now, after her lover has slipped away forever, she is left with nothing but missed opportunities, could have beens instead of cherished memories, regrets instead of remembrances. Listening to this song the other night, I found myself haunted by one line - “oh, the love I would have shown, if I had only known.” What struck me was the fact that I do know. We all know. People come to and go from this world seemingly at random, our days numbered and checked off on some invisible calendar, with the balance unknown to any of us.

Knowing this, though, why do put off so much good until tomorrow, a tomorrow that may never come? Why do we allow ourselves to say things like “I should call Jerry this week and see how he is doing”? Why do we put off until sometime next week that thank you card we meant to mail last week? Most importantly, why don’t we say the things we feel to the people we care most about?

Anyone who knows me understands that I think my grandparents walk on water. They are to me the only proof I have that there might exist a higher power, for I have no other explanation of how I was blessed with them. And yet, I don’t know when I last said this directly to them. Oh sure, I have told everyone else, but have I told them? No, not recently. And they are the ones who should hear it first and hear it often.

Brenda, for more than half of my life you have been my confidant, my friend, my love. From a long-haired goofy little kid to the man I am today, you have been by my side through it all. Our friendship has survived college, marriage, divorce, the Marine Corps, the Go-Go’s breakup, the Reagan years, and too many years of too many miles. I love you.

Lisa and Craig, the first people who ever heard a very scared seventeen-year-old admit he was gay. So scared, in fact, that the words wouldn’t come out, resulting in an almost comedic game of twenty questions. It’s funny now, but at the time just saying the word was more than I could do. Your outstretched hands pulled me to safety more times than you know.

Christopher, who took an out of control young man and walked with him through what seemed an eternity of pain. Nights together in a land where we didn’t even speak the language, yet having you with me made me feel like I belonged. I never had a best friend before you, and I will never have another one like you.

Mike, a man of few expressions and fewer words, who still spent endless nights debating with me everything from Hendrix remakes (unnecessary) to the existence of God (probably necessary). When you told me you loved me, I knew it was true. Calling you my friend made me smile, and hearing you call me your friend made me cry.

Jerry and Tim, the buddies I always wanted, but didn’t know how to treat. In my confusion, I ended up taking you for granted, and I’ll spend the rest of my life wishing our days together had been more appreciated. I promise I will not make that same mistake with our future days.

Greg, never more than a thought away, yet in six years never closer than a thousand miles. I miss you, old friend. I thought you were what I wanted to be, but in truth you were what I needed to be near. Now we know.

Amanda, a better friend to me than I was to myself. If our relationship was summed up in a day, the Queen Mary bore witness to it. Never has so much been said without a single word. I hear your laugh when I laugh, and I see your smile when I look at new friends.

D, too long gone from a world not deserving of you. Did you know how much I respected you? The irony of watching Longtime Companion with you is still too much to think about without tears. God, I miss you so much it hurts. The All-American smile, now mine to see only in a memory.

Thank you, faithful Southern Forum readers, for indulging me this space, as I say in writing what has been too long unspoken. Perhaps these words will inspire a note of your own to someone else, a note of apology or forgiveness, a card of love or words of solace. Whatever is inside of you, open your heart and your mind and allow someone that warm feeling that comes with a compliment or a thank-you. Do not wait until all you can say is “if I had only known.”

(Originally presented in Southern Forum, August 1994)