Sunday, November 4, 2012

These Fragments

My friend,

You will catch most of these references, from your reading, and others might too, but I will put them down here as a way of gathering them together, like kindling for a fire.    Though it may seem these came to me hard and fast, they actually appeared one at a time over three or four days, rising like specters: silent mileposts in a gradually developing syllogism. I’ll just get going, you'll know what it means.

This weekend, our first without you, was strange and usual, if that makes sense. The family gathered, as we have a thousand times before, with a fanfare of texts and phone calls and reunitings and lunches. Lots of lunches. 

There was a storm developing, a hurricane in the Caribbean, headed out to sea and then back toward the East Coast. Back here in the old world they like to get dramatic about these things, (there are “so many, I had not thought death had undone so many but it was just a three-day blow. You remember Papa Hemingway’s story right?

The big trees swayed far over in the wind as he watched. It was the first of the autumn storms.

and this one:

"All of a sudden everything was over," Nick said. "I don't know why it was. I couldn't help it. Just like when the three-day blows come now and rip all the leaves off the trees."

He was no Flannery O’Conner, no Faulkner. I wish those two were here now, right? 

I woke up early on Saturday and went out for coffee. You used to make coffee in the apartment, with the french press, but I went out then too. I like to be alone and read first thing. Sometimes things come to me. 

So I was watching the early morning crowd come in to the coffee shop. Swarthy middle-eastern men gathered at tables, some outside smoking. Young couples, a bit rumpled and bleary-eyed, and singles too, getting the paper and a coffee and scurrying back home to the puppy or the cats.  

I read the news, and the weather, and Facebook and the mail, then something made me go to Leaves of Grass on the tablet. And I re-read “Out of the Cradle Endless Rocking.”  

The thing that made my weep there in the coffee shop was that I could put this link up on the blog all I wanted, and you know I will, but you would be the most likely to read the poem; and then you would say, “Rob, that’s fine, but put one of your own up there, would you?”

When I read “Out of the Cradle” as a younger man, it seemed so sad. The little boy there on the beach, hearing the song of the he-bird, calling in vain for its mate. And hearing the song of the sea lapping at his feet, a song he can never unhear.

Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs, at random,
My own songs, awaked from that hour;
And with them the key, the word up from the waves, 
The word of the sweetest song, and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
The sea whisper’d me.

But now when I read it there is so much hope there!  Partly that is because of your sweet attitude near the end, and your love for us in our sorrow. So much hope in the thousand songs lifting from his heart, from the multitude rising, the phantoms. To tell you the truth It reminds me of:

“‘In my journey to Ixtlan I find only phantom travelers,’ he said softly.” 

~  C. Castaneda

And it reminds me of all of these other fragments rising up before me this weekend.

Like later on, we went to church. On Saturday. You may not have approved. Think of Huck watching his own funeral.

There were snippets of scripture all weekend.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

You are the salt of the earth.

and this one:

He heals the brokenhearted
    and binds up their wounds.
He determines the number of the stars
    and calls them each by name.

Then later, at the old ancestral home, now remade but indomitable.

Around the young new tree at sunset, beside the stump of the old tree nearby, under a gibbous moon the young girls started singing. (It was the other end of the same moon which had bathed us in its light in Nantucket, at a different gathering). Nothing at first, just a small tune. (You might have been reminded of Little Dorritt at the gates of the prison, waiting for her father, these small few voices.) Then they felt encouraged and sang a chorus of Amazing Grace. I told your sister later that’s when I knew you were there. Your sons and daughters scattered your ashes and we all went back inside to the light and the party.

At church the next day we heard old blind Bartimaeus say Lord, that I might receive my sight. Twice during the weekend I saw a street sign that said “BLIND PEDESTRIAN”.


Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

Later we visited your sister and brother-in-law. He said that he did not know if he is dying or just getting accustomed to being helpless as people of his age become. He told us that his new journey now has to do with getting used to the idea that he will never know what he thought he would know before he died, that he will always have to rely totally on faith. He described how his (and our) tendency is to reach back, reach for what we think we know for sure. And how his new task (his last one) is to leave off that reaching back, and know that he will never know, and go forward on faith alone.

Of course your sister was just all sweetness and light, with waves of sadness now and then.

I was talking to your daughter-in-law this last lunch on Sunday. We were talking about the developmental tasks for her seven year old. And we were thinking about sitting at that table with people of four generations. And each age has its own developmental tasks around loss. People my age, the young grandfathers, know of loss from death from previous losses, and I am thinking now about how I will behave when it is my turn. Great grandfathers sitting there know their time is now, like Gordon, and he is behaving in a way, perhaps, that he had decided upon when he was my age.  Younger people, the parents, have had some losses and are helping the little ones understand their feelings. And the young couples may have felt loss as children, but now see it and feel it as adults for the first time.

In our lives, most of us, we are entrusted to feel the loss of loved ones as children, as young adults, as parents or parent-aged, as grandparents, and as contemporaries.

After we returned home, your wife gave me a heads up about the reading at her funeral. (She seems to be ready.)  It was a long one that ended with:

 When you believed, you were marked by him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit,

When we got home from the trip, the rain had started and it blew and rained for three days, first from the northeast, then from the southwest. It was fun. We stayed home and read and ate and rested.  I went through my song book and stopped at this old one:

People get ready, there’s a train a coming
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board.

It was that kind of weekend. 

I finally understand what old Possum was talking about in The Waste Land. That is one of those things you have to re-read at different stages of your life, as you well know. It was about his breakdown, that is first. And about the breakdown of the age too (“the present decay of Eastern Europe” he called it). That came to me later. But it is also about building up too. About fortifying the ramparts before a battle. Packing sandbags while the storm is already breaking around you. These fragments are my sandbags against this flood of loss. Old Tom said it best:

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

And just so you know I heard you, here is one I wrote for my dad. You are my dad too.

with all my love,

Crossing the Susquehanna

Crossing the Susquehanna
looking to the east across the wide Chesapeake Bay
I think of you now
ashes settled beneath the waves
your quiet calm settled in my heart
below the storm and wind.

The white snow through gray-trunked trees
The snow blown up from the white fields
in great white clouds
drifted into clefts and hollows
below the storm and wind. 

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