In the aftermath of our mini-ice age I gathered my bow saw and went to work on the larger limbs littering our yard. The afternoon was warming toward the high forties under a sky veiled with thin clouds. My shirt was quickly soaked with sweat so I stripped off my jacket and tossed it on the picnic table. The saw blade easily ripped through green boughs but rasped sharper on the deadfalls. Blanched bits of sawdust freckled my trousers and floated in the air like motes of dust.
Being outdoors and productive felt exhilarating. I threw myself into the work, sawing the larger limbs into eight-foot lengths and dragging them to the roadside like some landlocked beaver. Those in the shadow of the house had to be ripped from the ice. I tried methodically clearing backwards from the street, a plan which worked until I reached the side of the house. There, it appeared as if an entire forest of narrow single-trunk trees had collapsed across the fence or speared into the grass. Several were meshed into the fence itself, requiring a bolt cutter to remove.
My immobile profession was telling within a short span of time. Muscles I’d forgotten scolded me for my woeful lack of exercise. They tightened and tensed and ached. Like a clock winding down, I incrementally slowed, each heavy branch a heavier burden than that before, the distance from origin to destination yawning greater with each. Looking west along that fenceline was a depressing sight, with broken and splintered trees lying athwart the barbed wire or piled haphazardly along its length like bodies stacked in a Civil War photo.
And that was only the larger pieces, the trunks and branches big enough to see from the road. Beneath them was an irregular carpet of smaller twigs and sticks, hundreds of thousands of them that needed to be raked into piles and carted off in a wheelbarrow. It was a daunting task that stopped me in my tracks. I hung the saw on a broken branch and surveyed the yard. Everywhere I looked were sticks. Long sticks and short sticks, thick sticks and narrow sticks, sticks with reddish buds and sticks with fractures. Sticks and more sticks.
The beginning of this project was abrupt enough—freezing drizzle endlessly raining down in the dark hours of a winter night. The end would be endless. I removed my gloves, retrieved the saw, and called it a day.
There are always fewer beginnings than ends. Real beginnings, true beginnings, are fresh, pristine, raw universes unfettering our imaginations. Endings are theories more than actualities. Endings echo and reverberate, pulse and resound, regenerate. Endings remain, even if sullied by memory or bleached by time. Endings are instilled in our tissues, infused into our cells, woven into our memories. Beginnings occur exactly once and no more.
I can’t pinpoint when Robert Glenn Bennett first weighed on my heart. Mid-November or thereabouts, plus a few weeks or even months where the man was less a man and more an abstract thought. A missing man, with all the baggage and suspicion that brings. A gone man. But at some point he became a real man, a beginning, and everything that followed was connected to his being.
Certainly crossing Mill Creek south of Washington twice a week kept his presence alive. Somnolent, drowsy, a minor prairie stream of occasional moodiness and rampant wildness, which many of us feared bore him away—blameless, it turned out, but destined to be forever linked to his story and by that link forever bequeathed. Mill Creek forever and ever, without end, amen.
Finding Bennett in the shadow of that hill should have been an ending. It was, I suppose, and it wasn’t. Bennett turned into a face and a person and a man I both admired and recognized. And pitied. And when I pursued his story a strange thing happened: Bennett turned into Bob.
Writing is a slow process for me. It begins with an idea and expands from there like a seed germinating and sprouting into multi-branched stems. As it grows, as more information is gathered, the stem thickens into a trunk. A weeding process then occurs where pertinent facts or quotations are retained and extraneous material is pruned away. When the story is finished, what’s left are the branches. The sticks are discarded. But oh, sometimes there are so many sticks, a carpet of sticks, and each stick reinforces a memory.
With the Bob Bennett story, after hours of interviews, reams of notes and e-mails, research into depression and suicide, and one scary walk to the brink of madness, I had a rough draft. Weeks of pruning followed with input from others close to Bob. In many ways it was the most difficult story I’ve ever written and not merely because of the enormous amount of information to be whittled down. I was cutting too close to home. One slip of the saw and blood would flow.
This last weekend I had an ending to the story. There was only a final copyediting and revision to do, and then I could move on to other things. The relief I felt was exhausting. Which was why taking the saw to the downed trees proved such exhilaration—it was a catharsis of sorts, and anyway strenuous activity following mental wrangling clears the head and, perhaps, the heart.
I fear I did not succeed in telling Bob’s story. No matter what I do he is still with me, even as our yard is blanketed with the remains of trees that once provided shade and beauty. These are the sticks of our endless endings. We will always have sticks.