Sunset bison

Sunset bison

Monday, April 14, 2014

All that we hold dear

The north wind is both unnerving and invigorating, simultaneously creating and releasing tension. It howls and roars like an incoming train, batters the house, bends the trees, strips chaff from the field, rocks me on my heels. To the west the sky darkens to the color of an oil slick and the sound of thunder is like the tearing of an rotten sheet of canvas. Low clouds ponderously track ever southward, barely clearing the cedars on the ridge. The temperature begins to slide. 

This is not a typical March storm wafting up from the south, aromatic with Gulf moisture and the unmistakable scent of winter’s demise, but a last, temporary hurrah to remind us of the season’s mercurial moods.

I could go inside but something compels me to remain. My emotions are volatile, as roiled as the cold front sluicing down from Nebraska, as unstable and unsettled. That this unsteadiness comes at the completion of a project that spanned over two years seems unfair somehow, and yet typical of what I’ve come to expect from the maddeningly quirky thing we call life. Instead of celebrating the sense of weightlessness that falls in the aftermath of a difficult and prolonged trial—much of it my own doing, I’m afraid—I’m wandering the field like a wraith, unwilling to return to the narrow confines of the office and uncertain of how much more of the cold I can take.

Soon enough we’ll be complaining about the heat but for now the air is crisp and bracing, perhaps too much so, pimpling my exposed skin and triggering violent changes in the atmosphere. That continual growl of thunder in the west reminds me that our basement is a cluttered mass of empty cardboard boxes, the detritus of dozens of shipments of photo paper and ink cartridges for yet another upcoming project. Mentally I slide the task up the ladder of my to-do list, ruefully wishing I could fully devote myself to one thing at a time rather than bouncing hurly-burly between chores and necessities. A friend of mine wears a bracelet that says “Be here now,” certainly a message of the importance of taking time to be still.

And here, in this mighty wind, I am still, shiveringly so. Except for my mind, of course, which churns and rumbles its infernal questioning. It comes to me that the educational projects I promised to make time for during the winter doldrums never materialized, and now that spring is on the doorstep the obligations I’ve agreed to crowd ever closer, and evermore stressful, until they taint my days and haunt my nights. The sense of incompletion is like a great weight bearing down on my chest, straining my ribs and crushing my heart. Compounding it is the idea that time is running out, even as it did for a friend of mine last week, a man far younger than I who left behind a wife and children. 

Time was once our ally, or so we thought, as limitless and distant as the stars in the night sky, but it was all a lie, something we told ourselves to disguise our inadequacies or failures as nothing more than temporary omissions. Somewhere in the middle of our lives there comes a moment when we realize that the life we imagined was never more than an unfulfillable wish or a happily-ever-after that somehow never materialized, that we have always been and always will be nothing more than ordinary. The big dreams we envisioned dissipate like wisps of smoke, and the answers we were so certain of reshape themselves into insoluble questions. And in that melancholic emptiness left behind we find ourselves looking over our shoulders for something inadvertently left behind or misplaced, loved ones or places we always intended to return to and might have if time and distance hadn’t intervened, burdened by the first blushes of a peculiar loneliness known only to those who have outdistanced their companions. 

But this isn’t a race, and the finish line isn’t fixed. Winning is just another way of finding yourself alone, or standing in a yellowed field with the wind tearing at your clothes, questioning everything but the fragility of all that we hold dear.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Lift my soul to heaven

Go with me, my good angels, to my end;
And, as the long divorce of steel falls on me,
Make of your prayers one sweet sacrifice,
And lift my soul to heaven. 
– Shakespeare, Henry VIII

If there is any immortality to be had on this earth it is through the selfless sacrifice of a life lost in the service of others. Twenty-five years to the day that he joined the Albuquerque Police Department, Officer Richard Smith’s bullet-riddled body was laid to rest. His perdurable legacy is this: over two thousand people crowding the church, a police procession stretching for eight long miles under a cloudless New Mexican sky, and hundreds of common citizens lining the roadways for this, his last watch. 

The immediate family rode in five gleaming white limousines, but in a sense every man, woman and child there were part of the family. For the police there was the camaraderie of brothers in arms, the thin blue line which had been sundered in a muzzle flash and just as quickly reformed and solidified and strengthened by indomitable will and courage. For the family there was a deep hole that seemed bottomless and yet was already filling with remembrances and memories and the consoling realization that he was our own and he was the best and that his presence would forever be part of us, stronger than bone, deeper than blood, closer than the soul. For the strangers beside the road he was a symbol crafted of flesh and blood and his blood had been spilled to keep them safe, and their presence was an act of thanksgiving and respect. 

Around the time the motorcade cleared Tijeras Canyon and began its descent into the city, I stood bewildered in a field wet with rain. Dark storm clouds rolled off to the east, dragging rain and lightning in their wake like an unruly and tempestuous child. Overhead the sky was roiling, light and dark clouds seething and writhing and shredding apart to reveal tattered shades of blue. Not for the first time I wondered if I had done my cousin a disservice by remaining in Kansas, if the distance separating me from my family and the cordon of uniformed men and women somehow lessened my placement in their ranks. 

Nor did my surroundings diminish the sensation of disjointedness. Even as I imagined the city unfolding before the convoy, I watched four white-spotted fawns bound away in pursuit of their mothers. No sound of traffic nor any other thing than the low rumble of the grain elevator and the song of a cardinal and my own shallow breathing. Rather than vehicles and a violent cityscape and the incessant wail of sirens, I presided over nodding goldenrod and brome gone to seed and rainpools shining silver in the morning light. 

I had wandered all night through empty streets and alleys, past churches whose doors were barred and nailed shut, down broad greenbelts that faced backyards devoid of any life other than a solitary majestic elk, but what I sought was unknowable and unfound. By dawn I was exhausted, and woke and went to work as always and returned as thunder faded and light grew ascendant, and I kissed my wife as she left for work and then wandered into the field to ask the day for answers. And none were forthcoming.

The literal translation of bewilder is “to lose in pathless places, to confound for want of a plain road.” Such was my state of mind as I thought of my family accompanying Ricky to his end, and me here alone with no idea how to say goodbye without feeling inadequate. As if by my willful exclusion I had abandoned them. What rite, what ceremony, could bridge that distance and set aright this terrible emptiness? Knowing none, I stepped farther into the field. Grass soaked my pants to my knees. Sunlight tore through a rent in the clouds and sparkled on the dew, pinning me in place. 

Hundreds of miles away, as the hearse pulled away from the funeral home and began the long slow drive to the graveyard, an alert tone cleared all traffic from police radios. “All units will ten-three,” the dispatcher said, and every officer in the city paused in what they were doing except for the motorcade, and they listened and struggled with the words. 

“This is the final dispatch for Officer Richard Smith,” the dispatcher announced. “It is with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to you. In life you were a loving husband and a wonderful father. As a police officer and White Striper, you always carried yourself with such class and integrity you were often looked to for guidance. Always smiling and full of life, it’s easy to see why those who met and knew you appreciated and loved you. We will never forget that you gave the ultimate sacrifice.
“Officer Smith, respond now to your final dispatch.”

In all that vast city, on every police radio, in the hearts of all who heard, there was only silence.

And in the silence heard even here I said a short prayer for Ricky’s soul and for his wife and daughter and father and mother and all the rest who were there and not here. And even as I uttered the words I saw first one and then a dozen and then a thousand dragonflies wending their way southward, weaving and skirling through the skies and above the grasses and all about me in an intricate, untraceable pattern, and I raised my arms and cast the prayer off and they took it and made it their own. I imagined in my weariness that my prayer was borne aloft by thousands of glittering restless wings, magnified and translated into an unspoken language which knows death is only another form of migration, and that the end of the journey is home.