The Colors of Death

     I’ve experienced enough death at this point to be able to color it in a coloring book. 

     I’ve always delighted in the way that very young children color things heedless of the conventions of color and I love the way their hands take flight with scribble and run amok within and without the lines.  Here are children skating on a pond with green and yellow faces, and there is an elephant, big and black with orange tusks—wearing a hat!  The world is a carnival, one can paint it with imagination instead of experience, and within the big Crayola box is a ticket to every ride.    

     I’ve had the normal share of real death growing up; once in a very great while a neighbor, an uncle, or grandparent dies and there are the funerals and after-gatherings.  These are colored somberly in dark browns and matte blacks, low voices, and quiet preparations.  Those close to the loss and experiencing deep grief sometimes acted a bit outside of the lines, but their errancy was accepted with deference, and, for sure, with extra visits for coffee and conversation for many days and sometimes weeks afterwards. 

     But, of course, there are also abnormal death experiences.  The autopsy I witnessed in a room with moon-thin light, odd smells, and grotesque vulnerability was the color of a silent scream, and yet we all kept within the lines as medical training expects.  The bodies we found and tracked in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina told tales of slash-red violence and midnight-black suffering and yet we kept quite within the lines, as military training expects. 

     Adults handle it.  We are expected to handle it, and with restraint, and we should and do usually color appropriately and within the lines.  Society and life feel safer, and maybe children grow up better able to handle it in their own futures by this example.     

     But there is one area where all bets are off. 

     The death of a child. 

     Anyone can tell you that the death of a child is particularly heart-breaking in all regards and extreme deference is given to those parents who experience it, and it is also traumatic to those who must ‘respond’ to it.  Among a corps of necessarily stoic first-responders, it is legion that the toughest part of their job deals with the abuse or death of a child and they are understandably greatly affected by it.

     My two young children are still alive and I am grateful. 

     But I have a sense of this kind of loss.    

     I lost both of my children to parental alienation, deliberately false allegations, and bias in the family law court systems.  As for grief stages:  I am usually numb, though whenever I see children of their approximate age, I experience a quickening.  I relive moments with my beautiful young children; they leap alive in my mind.  Quick movies play, and I experience a hug, a toy, a laugh, and the gentle holding of a little hand.  A moment later, it’s gone, and I am again alone.  And for the rest of the day, I want to sleep.  This has gone on every day for over three years.  Life.  Death.  Life.  Death.   I cannot see the lines that I am supposed to be within.    And there are no colors for this that I can describe.

Steps

                Just after I woke up this morning, I descended my stairs carefully.  I had soft thick socks on, the wooden stairs had a shiny finish, and my fear factor was at a ‘two’.  So, I deliberately planted each step firmly and I did that thing where both feet meet upon the same step before another step is ventured.  This is an old-people thing, of course.  As I later puttered about on the first floor, I dissected the significance of the ‘two’.  It should have been a zero.  Fear seemed like an intruder here—the uninvited kid at the party who is rumored to have a gun. 

                I had gotten used to zero.  For so long, falling was fun, and was seen through the prism of play versus injury.  In the playground, we’d push each other down just to initiate a chase.  As teenagers, we’d jump off our 10 foot high porch roof into the grass yard, having to clear a menacing metal fence underneath!  We’d build up to that stunt as a rite of passage in the neighborhood.  Later, I’d parachute out of airplanes in the military and, despite carrying heavy equipment and even jumping at night, we’d usually land without injury.  (Myself excluded—but that’s another story!) 

                 I’d had a fall down the aforementioned staircase recently, and ended up in a pile at the bottom of the stairs with my laptop and a few other things strewn about the impact area.  Memory came upon me while I was lying there catching my breath and teared up until she realized I was pretty-much OK.  Nothing broken.  But that scene must have looked like one of those commercials for a ‘life-alert’ device, where the actor who has ‘fallen and can’t get up’ looks to be about 80 years old.  

                There are many manifestations of aging along our lives’ journeys but to be worried about stairs feels like a big category jump; a jump into the last category of aging—that category where people talk wistfully about moving to Arizona or Florida and getting a one-story house with no stairs.  Another big category jump is when discussing surgeries competes with discussing sports teams as general conversation at a gathering.  We all remember that kid in 4th grade who had their tonsils out—so exotic and novel was the idea of surgery and hospitalization back then that we were mesmerized and even jealous of that kid.  All the special treatment they must have been given at home, and were certainly given back at the classroom!  But now I’m afraid to ask how someone is, for fear of opening up the door to the banalities of their various health ‘procedures’. 

                 Well, I guess I’m old.  I’m admitting that.  Whew, that was a big step I just took there.  A-Ha-Ha-Ha. 

                I picture it all as a long journey to the top of a hill and then down the backside to the final valley of death.  I’m over the top, am somewhere on the backside and, actuarial tables aside, I think my slight fear of stairs can give you an accurate grid coordinate.  The exact location of the top of the hill, the peak of one’s life, is different for everyone, highly subjective, and open to interpretation as to whether it’s a physical and/or mental thing.  Good arguments can be made for various ages and events up and down the ladder of human experience while life is shiny and strong.  We can, however, exclude a timid descent of well-lit ordinary stairs as anywhere near a peak life event.

                So, now that I’m here, what do I have to show for it?

                Well, a good lifelong friend and mentor said that perhaps the only thing that survives our deaths, after anybody who remembers us also dies, is our writing.  So, since I’ve been writing for many years, I picture the backside of that hill glittered with little pages here and there.  And this piece is now also behind me as I stumble downward through the end-of-life scree. 

                See?  It’s just over there, at the base of that rotting tree, fluttering gently in the fading light.

Well being.

The day before my wedding, I went to check the well at the farmhouse where I was staying and where the wedding was to be held the next day.  The farmhouse got all of its water via an electric pump from this well and it was a big and professionally engineered well.  I would check it once in a while in its neat little wooden covered hut, and I always tipped the large wooden disc cover up so I could stare down into the deep cool clear water.  It was late summer, dank and florid with earthy smells.  I could  even smell the wet granite stones that lined the well. 

                This time, as I lifted the cover up, I was surprised to see a dead rodent floating on the surface in the center.  I could see that no such creature could get up the smooth granite walls of the well once it had fallen in.  After it died, it had remained floating and apparently slowly decayed on a lake of glass. Various grey and blue hues had spread out widely in concentric circles to cover the entire surface of the water in a sheen of decomposition.  In the middle of the target was a small hapless bag of fur, tufted carelessly, laying quietly atop the water like a dropped jacket.  I couldn’t see whether the fur had yet released the marionette of mouse skeleton to spin eerily through the cool water to the stone cold bottom.

                I pulled what I could out of the water with a big screen dipper used for taking the occasional leaves off the surface. 

                Back at the farmhouse, I thought about it.  Hmmm.  Big wedding tomorrow with people coming from all over.  Guests were staying with us.  Water for cooking, food prep.  Water for showers/bathing and drinking.  Almost immediately I thought about calculating how much bleach I could add to the water to ostensibly ‘purify’ it.  I knew about this stuff from being an Army Officer and there were calculations one could work to make water potable for ‘field’ situations; bleach, in proper ratio, was the simple little miracle ingredient.  I typically had that type of Army manual around, found it, and decided to do it.  I was a trained and smart little Army Officer and really had no second thoughts other than an abstract interest in the implications of a bad outcome.  Ha.  But I was pretty sure about myself back then, and didn’t even devote much time to worrying.  The night before a large home farmhouse wedding and reception with all the fixin’s tends to be a little busy.   

                I measured the volume of the water in the well, calculated, added the bleach in carefully counted ounces, and stirred.  The next day we had the wedding, everything went great, and nobody ever got sick.  I would occasionally tell the dead-mouse-in-the-well story to one of those wedding guests years later and of course everyone was (safely!) aghast.

                Later, I would sometimes wonder about a couple of things here.  How could I have decided so cavalierly upon my ‘water treatment’ scheme versus simply buying lots of bottled gallon water from a supermarket for the day?  Cost wasn’t a concern compared to what we’d already spent on the wedding.  And, with a sad furtive shudder, I’d also wonder about the last hours of that mouse: the swimming, the exhaustion, and whether maybe, near the end, the mouse had had a stricken sentient realization.   

                So.  Time went on.  Years.  Jobs.  Houses.  Cars.  Kids.

                And then I got divorced.  The divorce, and subsequent proceedings, have been a struggle.  My beautiful children were pulled away from me through a family court legal system that cannot, or will not, recognize bad-faith and malice.  I haven’t seen Autumn and Lincoln in years.  And I’m swimming.  And it’s dark down here.  And I’m alone.  I cannot rest. And I’m very, very tired.

Amazon and the Wild West

Recently, Memory got an Amazon package in the mail, and, walking through the house with it, casually mentioned that she’d forgotten what she’d ordered. We both laughed sardonically, sensing the implications.  Oh. My. God. It’s come to this.  

                It made me wonder if America was on the verge of a collapse like ancient Rome.  But, I think the excesses of ancient Rome lacked the nuance of modern indulgence; Romans certainly had technicolor excesses but bread and circuses were simple brick and mortar events. Today’s quest for fulfillment plays out in a long Kafkaesque play where something is always almost going to happen. (Franz Kafka was a writer whose surreal fiction vividly expressed the anxiety, alienation, and powerlessness of the modern individual.)

                The best part of doing cocaine is going to get it. (We’re not talking about Memory anymore, I have, ahem, a friend, who has some experience with this.)  Amazon allows us to always be on our way to the coke dealer and that journey –knowing that something is ordered, and in the mail– is the fix. This personal fulfillment process –running concurrent with all the steps companies must take from the moment they receive an order until the items land in customers’ hands– gives an extended buzz of anticipation and it’s almost a shame that Amazon is making two-day delivery a standard because when the product arrives, something dies.  What remains is good, and maybe even useful, but not so important that you’d always remember its name at a party.     

                I tend an extensive vegetable garden and I can tell you that the harvest is a different animal than watching the vegetables thrive and grow. If I could inject only one of the two into my veins, it would be watching the plants burgeon and stretch out green and lush in the warm brown dirt, soaking up water while reaching hungrily for the sun –and it would not be plopping the basket of picked vegetables on my kitchen counter at the end of the summer.

                Maybe getting a package in the mail wasn’t always like this.  I traced Amazon’s lineage on one of those ancestry websites back to Sears Roebuck, and Montgomery Ward.  These catalogs revolutionized mail-order, and credit, and shopping as if in the big city.  This was now done from the distant farm kitchen table miles from nowhere in the great wild West.  Shopping equality came to minorities, and the poor, in a boon that hasn’t subsided.  And I’ll bet that when they ordered a plow, or new shoes, or a rifle, or a wooden toy, or a gingham dress, –I’ll bet that when that box arrived on the weathered front farm porch –they knew what was in the box.

Unhitched

How I feel about fake things has been changing. Initially I began to notice that artificial flowers and costume jewelry began to appeal to me genuinely sometimes, and an historic disdain for these fake things was dissipating. Such disdain in me hasn’t been anomalous- it is the usual mental subordination of something fake versus something real, especially when it comes to beauty or valuables. For example, picture a wedding ceremony bestrewn with all fake flowers or an engagement ring presented that is knowingly fake.

Flowers. I was in the office of the new Governor of the Emam Sahib District in Afghanistan in 2008 and we were having a substantive conversation about how the Americans were going to help him. He was a very intelligent man, college-educated in the United States, and he also had that unique warm hospitality trait so prevalent in Afghanistan that makes a guest feel comfortable and respected. Over his shoulder I noticed a vase of artificial white roses that popped surprisingly against the drear of this landscape and this mission. I must have commented on them at some point. We shared a big joke early during that first meeting when I suggested that we Americans build a tall HESCO barrier wall around his whole municipal district. (These are collapsible wire mesh containers with a heavy duty fabric liner, filled with dirt and topped with barbed wire, and are used as a blast wall against explosions or small-arms.) He looked at me thoughtfully and asked “Why?” I was surprised he had asked this and said, of course, “To make everyone who comes here feel safe!” He then, -elaborately pretending he had just now understood the purpose,- said carefully ” Then, why don’t you just build a pretty little stone wall about waist high?” I laughed immediately and genuinely at the unexpected and profound wisdom of this response and we knew we were going to be good friends. Indeed we were, and we eventually did many great things together to help his District and his people. At the end of my tour, this Governor presented me with this vase of white roses from his office, probably because he knew I liked them. Sadly, this was one of the few things that didn’t make it back with me, lost in transit somehow, somewhere. I’ve had artificial flowers in the places I’ve lived ever since and I can’t think of a good reason why they aren’t quite beautiful and worthy of as much appreciation as anything beautiful. More importantly, I can’t feel a good reason why they aren’t quite beautiful and I do feel that they are.

Next.

Jewelry. When my Mom died, the girls in the family inherited her jewelry and divided it up and I eventually became aware of a large amount of costume jewelry left over from dividing up the real stuff. My sisters let me have about all of the costume jewelry so that I could give it to my little girl, bit by bit as a game, and also as a real remembrance to her of my mother- her grandmother. Much of the jewelry was of a fun nature as my mother was quite festive and therefore had lots of Holiday-themed costume jewelry among other odd things. Now, this was a real trove of treasure to my little girl, as it was, bedecked with gold, silver, sparkly jewels, feathers, and all manner of bangle. Soon, I also thought the jewelry was as nice as any, and soon after that, I felt it. Just like the flowers. The only depreciation of this costume jewelry will have to come from an internal subordination of this jewelry to real jewelry, and the innocence of my little girl prevents it for her, and a new realization prevents it for me.

A couple of caveats: First, I know that these two initial realizations each came within dramatic context and one might reasonably guess that the circumstances created the realizations. But I don’t think so; I think the circumstances uncovered the realizations that were within me. My appreciation for fake things has bled out from these initial ink-spots of revelation onto the other pages of my day-to-day life and I find myself seeing things at first color without reservation as to how they came to be. Secondly, I’m talking about fake things that are nicely made, that are of some quality, and not something so cheaply made as to detract from what thing it purports to represent. For example, the spectrum of artificial flower quality is very wide; some are visibly fake from a distance and some are breathtakingly real from an inch away. And likewise, though some gumball-machine jewelry lacks a certain charm, I find that most costume jewelry is nicely made, though artificial.

Artificial: 1: humanly contrived (see contrive sense 1b) often on a natural model: man-made

Contrive: . . . 1:b: to form or create in an artistic or ingenious manner

So, in light of these definitions, find and replace all the words ‘real’ above and replace them with ‘natural’. We have to also now acknowledge the contradiction in “most costume jewelry is nicely made, though artificial.”

So, if something is artificial it was ‘humanly contrived or formed or created in an artistic or ingenious manner, often on a natural model.’ This was the original meaning at least, but something happened. Beauty and its consort Valuable hitched it’s wagon to Real.

Well, I unhitch that wagon.

Air

Air is thick to birds, so thick that they can push down upon it to rise up.

But to me, air is too thin to stop a fall.

Air is so thick that the seagulls swim in it swoopingly, divingly, and flirtatiously.

But I sometimes forget about air, until moments of difficult breathing, or a fall.

I’m sitting at Good Harbor Beach this early morning with Memory, my girlfriend, and we are watching the waves and the gulls and it is soothing. Things are OK between us now, though we’ve had a rare difficult week together. It is nice to be sitting here in our faithful little beach chairs with our coffee.

I am watching and thinking.

Love can be like air.

The Shir Khan Bandar Bridge

I took the Team to the Shir Khan Bandar Bridge on the Tajik border.   This is a very important bridge linking Afghanistan to the north with Tajikistan. We had two gun-trucks and some extra people from an adjacent Province with me and two interpreters (“Terps”) so I felt pretty good about the combat strength.  This was part of a two-day reconnaissance I had planned, and we expected no more than terrain familiarization and a few photos of this key bridge.  We got close and took a dismounted patrol to the bridge site.  Suddenly, the Border Police Colonel in charge of the site appeared.  What a coincidence. The word is that he paid $500,000 U.S. for the post.  An e-fuckin’-normous sum by any standard and for Afghanistan, where annual income averages $410, this is crazy money.  Why?  So he can profit from, and control, the opium-and-weapons-laden trucks crossing by the minute at this new multi-million dollar Coalition-Forces constructed bridge. 

So, here he is talking to me through my Terp. Of course, I’m acting like I’m out for a Sunday stroll and he is visibly flustered that the Americans are here. He was puffing up defensively but I acted sleepy and slow and suddenly we were drinking Chai in his office a short distance away. A blue bird flew in and out of the room, circling overhead like an ancient Roman portent of great moment, streaking to hate me with his little black eyes at each pass. 

His closest bodyguard stood in the doorway and looked at me curiously the whole time. The bodyguards that guard the Province Generals and key people like this Colonel always seem like wiry little fucks who can handle themselves in any situation. Especially when they squint at you.  So, after all the plastic preliminaries, I got around to talking about things like truck searches, screening criteria for the traffic, and the total amount of criminal activity they intercept.  It turns out that he’s been there a good long time and only “found some wine in a truck once.”  I laughed immediately and involuntarily.  Even my Terp almost laughed.  The Colonel and the bodyguard were not amused with us laughing and the bodyguard clutched his AK-47 rifle tightly and I could suddenly feel how animal-close he was to me. This little Tajik with the rifle, (weathered, Asian, mahogany), would have been at home on a horse with a double-curved bow ranging the central Asian steppes in a great cloud with Genghis Khan. After things calmed down, the Colonel wanted to talk only about how he wants to catch fish from the river and have his people specially prepare it for me. 

Ah, well,. . . there are some things one doesn’t mention in polite society.

Landing

     February 29th, 2008.

The plane landed on the runway and we were there finally. Afghanistan. Camp Marmal airport.  The other side of the world. 

     Sixteen of us, an Army ‘Embedded Training Team’ (ETT), slowly spilled out onto the smooth concrete at Camp Marmal airport amid the high whine of the jet engines ramping down. I was a member of an ETT–a new concept wherein small teams of officers and experienced sergeants embed with a Corps of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers to train and mentor the ANA.

     As we moved toward the rear of the military jet to help unload equipment, I spun around slowly, taking in the ring of distant mountains, the flat light, the austerity.

  We gathered and sniffed the air warily, like dogs.  We made small jokes about nothing and tried to hide our carnival excitement at being in a ‘combat zone’.  It was a time to hone indifference. 

     I watched a couple of Afghan men a short distance away working on the runway. These were the first real Afghans I had seen, outside of the trainers and interpreters who rotate to the United States to try to train Americans in Afghan language and culture.

     So, I watched these two.  They were both bearded and dressed in Afghan garb, which struck me at distance as girlish.  Each was wearing a housedress over the balloon-like flowing pants of a stilt-walker.  And the hats, dear lord, the little crazy colorful hats.  Sandals rounded out the costume.  All of this in a strange-smelling breeze which moved their clothing in undulations.   

     One guy was holding a very long iron spike and the other had a sledgehammer.  They were breaking up a portion of the runway for some maintenance or repair reason.  I could see no obvious reason why this intact section of the expansive runway needed breaking up, nor could I see any obvious stopping point for them.  I noticed also that they were in no hurry, though, (and maybe because), even a small measure of progress would take forever.  One held while the other struck:  a small chip of concrete would fly.  Kang!  Sometimes a weak or off-center hit would result in a Clink!  I realized how dangerous this was to the man holding the spike.  I wondered why someone, spending God-only-knows how much money over here daily, hadn’t provided a jackhammer, or more men.  Clink!  I wondered what the overall project was supposed to be, and I wondered what these two were thinking as they watched the Americans assemble near them so laden down with weaponry and equipment.  Kang!  It all seemed so elemental–muscle and metal against stone in the thin air.

     Then my mind returned to the big picture.  The complexity of the American mission, and especially that of the ETTs, was incredible, and I had so many questions.  I didn’t know it then, but I had just learned everything.