The Vanishing

My first novel is called The Vanishing.  It’s a heart-breaking story about an older woman who is pushed to the brink of murder-suicide by her husband’s debilitating disease.  The story is told in first person and explores the mental breakdown and recovery of the main character as she struggles with feelings of isolation and desperation when the man she has loved for so many years slowly disappears before her eyes, a victim of frontotemporal dementia.  While the plot is glum, this is not a story of a grisly murder-suicide, it is a love story told from a different angle and a story about choices and the random imperfections that permeate our lives.  Every literary fiction writer hopes to hold a mirror up to the world and show it as it is no matter how grim the reality, but he also hopes to show the humanity of it all and demonstrate the amazing perseverance that exists in all of us.  That is my hope with Vanishing.  Below is the first chapter of the book.  I’m currently working through revisions based on the feedback I’ve received.

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My father was fond of saying that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I’ve always hated that trite proverb, but he was a true believer in it. He had to be. He suffered more than most in his life, but that attitude defined him and gave him a surreal sense of strength that both sheltered and propelled me in my own life. But I’m not my father. I have only a fraction of the strength that he had, a strength that seems to be diminishing day by day. Eventually, something does kill you. Eventually.

I never imagined it would come to this. I really didn’t. I’ve been to hell and back, and I thought I had survived, but I really hadn’t. I’ve simply been suspended in a purgatory of sorts ambling my way back from despair only to be pushed back down into the hole of hopelessness once again. It’s unbearable really. I think about my father, long gone from this world, and the twin tragedies he endured. I don’t know how he did it. I don’t think I can go on like this. Not this way. Not without my husband, my real husband, not the one that’s asleep down the hall from me now.

I stand on my tip-toes stretching to reach the tan metal box on the top shelf of the closet. My fingertips barely touch the cold metal as I finger walk the box down to the palms of my hands. I can feel the weight of the box shift abruptly to the thickness of my palms. It feels unexpectedly heavy, maybe more so because of the significance of its contents. My weight shifts back to my heels. My tired, old legs feel overstretched and exhausted after only a few seconds of exertion. That’s the norm for me these days. I feel so old.

I walk gingerly over to a chair and plop my aching body down upon it placing the the box carefully on the desk nearby as I do so. I sit up on the edge of the chair and look forlornly at the box. It’s been a long time since I’ve opened it. I’m fearful of what lies in it. I feel like I’m in a car speeding toward a collision and I can’t find the brakes. Instead, I just watch the impending crash come my way in slow motion. It’s a very disorienting feeling. I wish I could stop it, but I can’t.

I sit back in the chair completely and look away from the box. My senses are attuned to everything around me. A dim strand of sunlight dances across the wall in front of me brightening the dull light of the early morning. The blinds behind me are shut tightly squeezing out the prying eyes of the rising sun save for this lone strand. I stare at it for a bit longer. It’s the only bright spot in an otherwise semi-dark room. The pale blue color of the walls is barely discernible, but the beautiful, white crown molding glistens slightly in the morning light. This bedroom once held my hopes for the future, but it has long since been delegated to functional purposes, mainly as Marty’s office, but he has no use for it anymore. Not in his condition. I frown at this thought.

My legs dangle from the side of the chair protruding from my nightgown. They are pale and splotchy and have the puffy look of someone who is too sedentary for her own good. These legs were once smooth and beautiful, but like everything else they have given in to the ravenous appetite of time. I wince at the thought of considering myself old even though I don’t think that sixty-one is that old. I often look in the mirror and wonder where the younger version of me went. I can’t believe it’s me in that mirror. My smooth skin has given way to wrinkles and skin that sags around my eyes and chin. My long, brown hair barely hangs down to the nape of my neck, not by choice but by acquiescence, and it’s no longer brown but gray. There’s no fullness to it – at least not naturally. It just drapes around my head flat and hapless as if it too has given up on life. I’ve secretly wondered during my solemn fits of despair if my hair is an unconscious expression of how I feel, beaten and lifeless.

I look askew at the box as it seemingly mocks my determination, my doubts. I try to distract myself from these thoughts. I can hear the gurgling coffee maker down the hall finishing up its last ruminations. The aroma of the coffee wafts into this room and greets me, pulls me away from this moment. I love that smell. It’s very comforting and relaxing, feelings that are juxtaposed with the anxiety and despair I feel now. Such contrasts are not so uncommon these days.

The box can wait, at least for a moment. I need some coffee. I need to relax one last time before I take that step off the cliff. I deserve that much. I owe it to myself and Marty to think this through a little more. I’m normally decisive, determined, and strong-willed. I always have been, but today, the attrition of despair has chastened me and ripped away that fickle veneer. I’m just my unvarnished and raw self now, a fraud exposed.

I look down the hall at our bedroom door. It’s only partially open, but I listen for any signs that Marty is stirring. It’s still way too early for him to be awake. He doesn’t get up early anymore – he hasn’t in several years. I don’t hear anything, and I’m relieved. I have time. I can think about this.

I plod down the hallway toward the kitchen sliding my slippered feet along the smooth, shiny surface of the hardwood floor. Trickles of sunlight brighten the wall along my right side as it opens into the main living area. I love this house. This old, beautiful house was new when we moved into it almost thirty years ago, and while it’s not as pristine as it once was, it exudes more comfort than anything else in my life. The warm, muted colors on the walls shine in the morning light and flow so nicely from the hallway into the living room and the kitchen. The crown molding throughout the house gives it an elegant appeal, a sturdiness of craftsmanship that suggests it was built to weather any storm. There have been many storms. I’ve always had an eye for decorating, and I’ve put my heart and soul into this house. I’ve made it our home. It’s clearly an expression of the elusive perfection that I have sought in my life.

At the other end of the hall, our bedroom and the adjoining bathroom take up that entire side of the house. The hallway ends at the feet of the double doors to that great room, my favorite room in the house. Our cavernous bedroom with its light green walls has always relaxed me. An over-sized leather chair with an ottoman sits in one corner near the large window that takes up most of the wall on that side of the room. Like the house, the chair is old, but its large leather maw has often enveloped me in its comfort shielding me from the travails of my life. And the bed. The big, comfortable bed, the centerpiece of my bedroom, sits firmly in the middle of the room with its myriad pillows and brightly-colored, goose down duvet. The other furniture in the room, the chest of drawers and the nightstands, looks meek by comparison, but together they complete the essence of our home. I truly love this house. I love the memories my husband and I have here. The good ones anyway.

I can’t quite shake this melancholy mood. Even the smell of fresh, hot coffee, something I’ve always loved and that’s always energized me, fails to rid me of my dour state of mind even for a brief moment this morning. It’s not unusual for me to be sad nowadays. It permeates everything I do, but this morning the weight of the sadness seems unbearable. I’ve been down this road many times over the last few years. Losing Marty, or at least the Marty I knew, has been tough.

For some reason our wedding vows ring in my head. ‘Til death do us part. What does that mean exactly? I used to think it was so clear and certain, that we’d love and cherish each other until one of us, preferably both of us, stopped breathing, but now I know there are some worse things than the certainty of death. Death is forgiving. It’s exact and tangible. You feel it deep in your soul. You grieve. Life goes on for the survivors. For now, I’m a survivor only in the sense that I haven’t completely given up. But I want to give up. Now. This feeling of wanting the pain to stop just won’t go away.

The coffee doesn’t help and the beautiful sunrise that slowly brightens my entire kitchen and enshrines me in a golden glow does nothing to ease the burden that weighs on my soul. I pour myself a bowl of cereal and sit in front of the television to watch the Today show. I can see Matt Lauer and Ann Curry on the screen, but their words escape me. It’s like I’m under water watching the show and I’m unable to hear them or see them clearly. I chomp my cereal slowly as if my mouth is numb. The waves of the water I’m drowning in whip my body casually side to side. Much like a jelly fish, I can’t control it. I can only go where the waves take me. The waves have been relentless and I’ve endured about all I can take. The drowning sensation seems so real that I’m afraid to take a breath for fear that it will be my last. My breath hitches in between bites of cereal.

I think I hear a bump down the hall in our bedroom. This rouses me from my funk at least temporarily. My ears perk up listening for confirmation that Marty is awake. None comes. I’m not worried that he has silently risen from the bed and is wandering about the house. He’s incapable of such stealth movements. Besides, it’s just after 7 AM, way too early for Marty to wake. Of course, the real Marty would have been up for two hours by now and accomplished more than most people would have during their whole day. Instead, he just sleeps. He sleeps a lot lately, and when he’s not sleeping, he sits in his recliner staring unaware at the TV. I don’t even think he can comprehend the TV anymore. Maybe he just likes the visual ambiance, the flitting movement of colorful objects across a live picture frame. Maybe, somewhere in that deteriorating mind of his, it reminds him of a life he no longer has, one that has slipped away slowly and is now no longer recognizable. This thought does nothing to alleviate my sadness.

I try to ignore the drowning sensation as I drink more coffee and eat another bowl of cereal. I watch more of the Today show. A young couple discusses their wedding day and professes their undying love for each other as Ann smiles and pitches softball questions their way. I’m not sure how this is news, but I guess that’s not the point of the Today show anyway. I wish this couple the best of luck out loud to no one but these walls around me. Out loud is probably an exaggeration. It’s a mumble really.

“Watch out for that ’til death do us part bit. It’s not as definitive as you may think,” I say aloud. No one is there to challenge me or hear my comments. I feel faintly better for having spoken my mind to the ether.

My coffee cup sits empty on the coffee table. The appropriateness of that strikes me as funny, and I smile to no one in particular. I’ve earned this smile, but it quickly fades at the thought of Marty asleep down the hall. The nurse will be here in a little over an hour and my usual routine will commence. Taking care of Marty has become a regular, dreadful chore for me. The nurse makes it easier, but I still feel as if I’m stuck. We never had any kids, but I imagine this is what it feels like to care for an infant except this infant will never grow up and become an adult. And he can hurt me.

I take my cup and bowl to the sink, and just before I turn off the television, Ann cuts to wedding pictures from the young couple she talked to earlier. I stop with my finger poised above the power button and watch the progression of pictures across the screen. The young couple looks so happy. I can’t help but be jealous of the beauty of their youth. They have their whole lives ahead of them. At this moment the possibilities are endless. I wonder how happy they will be in forty years. ‘Til death do us part. I turn off the TV.

I remember my wedding day. I remember the promise of our future and the stunning beauty of our youth from that day. I remember our vows to each other. Yes, we meant them. I know we did, but we had no clue how things would turn out or how we’d respond to the events in our lives. There’s a picture from our wedding that still sits on our chest of drawers in our bedroom. In the picture Marty and I stand next to each other holding hands among the flowers in the garden of the courtyard where we were married. Our bodies are partially turned toward each other but we squarely face the camera with big, bright smiles on our faces. I don’t need to look at the picture to remember how handsome Marty looked in his tuxedo with his dark, wavy hair and chiseled good looks. He always looked good in a tuxedo. I remember how my flowing, white dress enveloped me projecting an image of purity and youth. We were clearly happy when the picture was snapped after the wedding. How could we not be? We simply didn’t know what the future would hold for us. You never do.

Another memory from years ago surges into my consciousness. Marty and I often talked about growing old together and what we’d do after we retired. At the time I was a few weeks pregnant, and we had gotten extra serious about planning our lives. We purchased life insurance and we began to talk about putting together a will. With a child on the way, we wanted to make sure the little one would be taken care of in the event either or both of us died or became incapacitated. It wasn’t the merriest of topics then, but we were determined to be properly prepared for whatever came our way. Marty made it clear that he had no desire to be kept alive artificially or to live in a nursing home. He made me promise that I’d pull the plug for him. It seemed so morbid and unthinkable at the time that I agreed just so we could push the topic out of our conversation, but he was adamant that I honor his wishes. Once our morbid desires were officially documented in our wills, we never discussed them again, mostly due to my reluctance to dwell on the unsavory nature of the topic, but that conversation stuck in the corner of my mind. I’ve been thinking about it a lot these last few days.

Marty loved life. He loved me, and I believe he still does deep down in his heart, but he hasn’t said “I love you” to me in several years. This is not how we envisioned spending our golden years. We often talked about moving into a condo in the city so that we could be closer to the city we loved. Now that can’t happen. There’s no way to tell if Marty even knows where he is now. While his body has not stopped functioning and he’s not on a machine to keep him alive, he’s been robbed of his life by a disease that has eaten away at him from the inside destroying the essence of who he was. In many ways, he’s worse off than if he were being kept alive artificially.

I feel like I’ve broken my promise to him. I’ve had these feelings for a while now, but they’ve become more prominent as his condition has worsened. If he could talk to me, would he say that I have betrayed his wishes and would he wonder aloud how I could do so after the promises I made? I will never know for sure, but I can’t stand the thought that I have disappointed Marty yet again.

The sadness returns in full force. I can physically feel the gloom squeezing my heart, and that drowning sensation strikes again except this time the blurry waves are tears welling up in my eyes. I watch as tears descend my cheeks and fall to the hardwood floor near my feet. As much as I have cried over the years, I’m still amazed at how many tears I can shed. The tears are truly endless, a soggy, slippery documentary of my suffering.

I use the sleeve of my nightgown to wipe away the tears as I regain some semblance of control. I need to think more clearly. The metal box in the office pulls me down the hall like the gravitational force of some heavenly body. I pass by the shelf at the edge of my living room and a picture catches my eye. I stop abruptly and stare more closely. It’s a picture of me and Marty with Bob and Carol, two dear friends of ours. Bob passed away a few years ago after a sudden heart attack. Carol is…was one of my best friends. My only best friend in reality.

In the picture the four of us sit in a booth at a restaurant in downtown San Francisco. We’re all smiling broadly unabashed in our closeness with our arms linking us together. Carol and I sit in the middle bookended by our husbands. I remember how tightly I pulled her next to me that night. I truly loved her like a sister. In many ways she filled the void my own sister had left. Another wave of sadness hits me. Carol and I drifted apart over the years after this picture was taken. Our friendship was tested and then severed by time and circumstances.

We’ve only stayed in touch sporadically as our lives have taken different paths. I can’t remember the last time I talked to her. I know I called her after Bob died, but I can’t remember if we’ve talked since then. We have exchanged emails occasionally since his death, but most of those conversations have been perfunctory and devoid of the tight bond we once shared. I miss her. I wish I had her here right now. Maybe she could help me make sense of this miserable mess. Maybe she could help me see past the cloud of gloom that engulfs me. I need someone.

I linger for a moment hovering above the picture lost in the fog of memories – good ones. I get the sudden urge to call her, but I’m not sure how I would begin the conversation. We’re just not as familiar as we used to be, and since we haven’t talked in a while, it would be awkward to call her suddenly one morning in a fit of despair. Carol has seen me at my worst, so my current state should not be surprising to her. She would understand. I know she would, but I can’t call her now.

I slide walk down the hall dragging my slippers across the floor toward the office and plop back down in the chair by the desk. I feel like my lifeline to world outside has been cut. I’m drifting alone out here. Just Marty and me. The wave of despair returns and I close my eyes to will those feelings away. When I finally open my eyes, the office seems brighter than it was. I look around the room hoping for a sign that will point the way out of this nightmare.

Marty hasn’t used his office in a few years. He used it daily for most of the time we have lived in this house, but once he was fired from his job, his assistant delivered his personal items to our house and he lugged his sad stack of boxes in here and left them in the corner next to the filing cabinet. They still sit here today unaffected by the passage of time or the erosion of his disease. He never made any attempt to sort through them, and I’ve not had the heart to do so myself. After a while, I started using the office mostly to get on the computer and manage the numerous medical bills that have since piled up. I gave up late last year and no longer bother to reconcile the medical bills we have. It’s just too much. I can’t bring myself to think of Marty’s illness in terms of dollars and demands. His life cannot be boiled down so precisely as the gibberish descriptions and large numbers on the bills. It just can’t.

I grab the box from the desk and put it in my lap for a moment before I flip the latch and open it. The tan metal immediately looks fragile in contrast to the black metal of the gun that rests against the belly of the box. I take a deep breath. I can feel the pit in my stomach ache. I don’t know if I can do this, but I must do something. I can’t go on like this. There’s only so much one person can take, and at some point, there’s only one way out of the depths of misery. I’ve reached that point. I really have.

I stare at the gun for a moment. It seems so solid and strong, unlike me. I can remember holding it in my hands so many times and feeling its power reverberate through my bones as I fired it at one target after another. My husband and I used to enjoy our guns. We had many at one point in our lives, but all that remains is this one, yet another cold remnant of our previous lives. I’m not sure why I kept it when I sold the others. Maybe I subconsciously knew this moment would come and I would be forced to put an end to the misery. I shudder to think that I had some morbid premonition about us. I could have never imagined we’d come down to this. Never.

I look away from the gun and sit back in the chair. It creaks as my weight shifts and my body tenses at the loud noise. I look at the door to the office expectantly. I don’t want Marty to know I’m in here. I don’t want to wake him. I need time to think this through. I relax a little and stare vacantly at the wall in front of me. The dim strand of sunlight has brightened considerably and now illuminates the pale blue wall. I realize the light is peeking through a part of the blind that is misaligned. The imperfection bothers me. Normally, I’d get up and try to fix it, but at this point, I just don’t care. I no longer live under the illusion of perfection. It’s just not possible.

The handgun sits there with a small box of ammunition pushed into one corner of the box. The dull black metal of the gun somehow glistens in the broken sunlight that streams through the blinds. Tears suddenly cloud my eyes once again as I feel overcome by sadness. Hopelessness. That’s what I feel. I feel so alone. I also feel like I’ve let Marty down. I didn’t pull the plug like I had promised. Instead, I’ve kept him alive as a shell of his former self. That’s not Marty in the room next door. That’s a demented old man who has taken up residence in Marty’s body torturing me with his presence and mocking my unusual lack of fortitude. I let that happen. I didn’t do what I had promised.

The sobbing subsides and I lean forward to look at the gun more closely. I reach in and grab it by the handle and pull it out slowly as if it is loaded. Marty never kept the gun loaded. He only fired it at the range and most of the time I was with him. He always felt that it was important that I knew how to use it. “You may have to protect yourself one day,” he used to say. It seems like so long ago. Practical, protective Marty. He always looked after me even though I didn’t feel I needed it. I’m sure he never intended for me to use this gun on him.

The weight of the gun in my hand feels just like I remember it. The first time Marty took me to the firing range, I was unsure how I would react. I had never fired a gun in my life at that point. In fact, I had never even touched one until that day he placed it in my hands to show me how to use it. At that moment, I hadn’t imagined I’d become enamored with guns and love the feel of one in my hand. I certainly never thought we’d take it up as a hobby, an activity that we did together in the little free time we had. The gun feels solid, dependable, unlike me. I remove the ammunition from the metal box and open the container. The bullets are not as shiny as they used to be because they’ve been sitting in the box for so long. I pop the clip from the butt of the gun and insert the bullets methodically just like Marty showed me. Now, the gun is loaded. It feels more powerful knowing that it could potentially do some harm or good depending on how I look at it. I lay the gun on the desk and sit back in the chair. Decisive power emanates from it. The gun provokes my confidence, yet I struggle to gain any clarity about what I must do.

‘Til death do us part.

The clock on the wall is not working. The time is stuck near Noon or midnight. I don’t know how long it’s been stuck in the middle of the day or night, but it’s somewhat symbolic of my life these last few years. I’ve been stuck in limbo not knowing if it is day or night with time standing still yet methodically ticking away. The sadness returns in a gush and I bury my face in my hands. The heaving sobs come in waves. I’m not sure how long this episode lasts, but I feel like I know what I must do. It is time. I have a promise to fulfill. He won’t feel a thing. It’s not really him anyway. That’s what I tell myself over and over. I know what I need to do. Him and then me. It’s the only way out of this nightmare. God help me see this through.

Hot in Yoga

On many Monday mornings at some bright and early hour, you’ll find me hurrying into my local gym with my bag slung across my shoulder and a little blue mat tucked under my arm.  The clap-clap of my flip-flops across the tile floor follows me everywhere I go until I kick them off onto the shelf outside the hot yoga studio.  Then, I step onto the warm hardwood, and the heat of the studio wallops me like I just walked into a human-sized oven with about eight or nine other people.  This is not how I will meet my end I tell myself as I unroll my mat and get prepared to twist myself into unnatural positions all in the name of fitness.

I swivel my head around the room observing my fellow masochists (how else to describe people who get up for a 6 AM class, on a Monday no less).  No one says a word.  I’m not sure what the problem is.  I’ve had my coffee, so I’m more than willing to chat, but apparently, there’s an unspoken rule that chatting before yoga class is forbidden.  I stretch in silence eagerly awaiting the start of class so that I can get this over with.  I haven’t decided if I enjoy this class as much as I hope that it will somehow magically stop, or at least slow, the aging process.  Surely, I can’t be this inflexible.  I’m only in my early 40s.  My back groans as I reach for my toes.

The instructor is a small, thin Asian woman who apparently does not have a hard bone in her body.  She bends like a rubber band moving from one pose to another as easily as most people breathe.  She starts out the class by lulling everyone into complacency.  We sit cross-legged and comfortable, an easy repose even for this guy.  We breathe in and out slowly and calm ourselves down.  At this point, I’m always impressed that I’m still hanging with the class, but as if I’ve given her some cue, she changes direction and starts bending us rapidly in the most unbecoming ways.  I stumble to keep up.

I guess all of this would be okay if it weren’t so damn hot (it is “hot” yoga after all).  We’ve barely started stretching and I’m sweating profusely.  Drips of sweat run down my back and my legs.  I may as well be showering because sweat drips off my forehead in rivulets.  The tiny towel I’ve brought to class is useless.  It quickly becomes damp, its absorbent powers spent after a few swipes.  Drops splat on my mat and I dab them away furiously.  Nothing can undo a pose like my feet or hands slipping in sweat.

I saunter through the myriad poses like an out-of-tune dancer in a bad high school production of The West Side Story.  If this class had a critic watching, he’d likely wretch all over my performance.  That’s okay because no one’s watching.  Or are they?  I peek over my shoulder at my fellow yoga participants.  Everyone appears to be concentrating on their own form.  The paranoia in me says they will talk about me after class.  “Did you see that totally clueless guy at the back of class?  How can one person sweat so much?  Yuck.”

The class assumes a rhythm that would be artistic in its movement if I weren’t present.  I’m having kindergarten flashbacks when I first realized that maybe, just maybe, I was born without the rhythm gene (I would later confirm my suspicions at junior high dances.).  My response to her persistent instructions is always a second or two delayed.  I wait for the lady next to me to move into the pose to make sure I understand it correctly.  Who bends like this?  Why?

I feel like George Costanza in an episode of Seinfeld.  I’m actually surprised Seinfeld never thought to put George in such a ridiculous setting.  It would be comedic gold.  Nevertheless, I soldier on through the class despite the fact that the studio begins to smell like the guy’s locker room – hot and sweaty with the taint of mildew or maybe it’s athlete’s foot.  Who knows?

Midway through the class, my legs and arms shake as I balance in each successive pose.  A slight wind could knock me over at this moment.  I’ve given up on containing the sweat.  My mind searches frantically for something to think about other than muscle strain and sweat.  My stomach suggests that I consider blueberry muffins, but who can think of food in these conditions?  I settle for some water instead.  The grim reaper of dehydration sulks in the corner.

Finally, the end of class nears.  The instructor slows the pace, and I am thankful.  I survived.  My muscles will revolt later and leave me in a state of paralysis, but I will deal with that in the privacy of my own home.  I spread the sweat across my aching muscles with the useless, damp towel, roll up my mat, and escape to the dramatically cooler confines of the gym.  Hopefully, I won’t embarrass myself again until next week.

This is not me, but it's how I imagine my yoga performance.  The reality is not a pretty picture.
This is not me, but it’s how I imagine my yoga performance looks. The reality is not a pretty picture.

A Soldier Goes to Heaven

I posted the first chapter to my current book, The Fire Within, back in May.  I’ve been working on the book sporadically while editing another one in the middle of the distractions of family vacations.  There’s still more vacation to come, but I’m back to working on Fire more consistently and hope to have the rough draft complete by the end of 2014.  Here’s the emotional second chapter of the book that begins to lay the foundation that drives the main character.  How did you feel after reading this?  Did it strike a chord with you emotionally?

“Bobby,” his mother whispered in her softest voice. She rubbed her hand up and down his back trying to wake him in the most pleasing way possible, but even at the age of seven, he could sense something wasn’t right in the way she spoke. Her voice sounded ragged like her vocal cords had been rubbed with sandpaper and blown dry with hot air. “Wake up honey.”

Bobby rolled over slowly and rubbed his eyes before he stretched his hands above his head and kicked his feet out under the covers. The stretch reverberated through his body and made him shake under the silky sheets, which felt cool on his skin in the early morning air. The window across from his bed invited a slight morning breeze into his room relieving it of yesterday’s heat or preparing it for the heat that was sure to come once the sun pulled itself up into the sky.

“What day is it?” Bobby asked in a sleepy voice. He inhaled the crisp morning air and rubbed his eyes again so that he could focus on his mother who sat on the edge of the bed next to him looking forlornly at her young son, her only son. Her caramel-colored hair was pulled back from her face into a ponytail, but strands of hair had escaped the band and fluttered in the air like errant shooting stars. One strand hung over her left eye, but she didn’t seem to notice. Her eyes were red and tired and darted from Bobby to some space above his head.

“Tuesday.” She paused as if she were trying to muster the courage to say something. Bobby blinked slowly but kept his eyes on her. He’d seen this look before, but he struggled to place it. Instead, he wondered if he’d done something wrong, but he could think of nothing. The past week had been rather uneventful even for summer vacation. He’d mostly avoided conflict with his sisters, but he remembered that he had hidden Joanne’s doll from her. He frantically tried to remember where he put it, but he kept silent as his mother looked at him.

“Bobby, I have something to tell you. I need you to sit up.” Her manner was fluttery, unsteady, which was unusual for her. Normally, she was stern and confident; she had to be in a house with six kids.

“What is it?” he asked as he flung his legs free from the top sheet and pushed them over the edge of the bed. He scooted closer to his mother, and they both sat there on the edge of his bed in the early morning light. Under any other circumstances, it would have been a heart-warming snapshot of mother and child.

She paused and looked at him. Salty tears clung to the edges of her eyes, but none fell. She grimaced, and Bobby noticed that even when her face was pained she was remarkably beautiful. The smooth skin on her face had just enough color to complement her hair. Her petite nose perched perfectly between her sparkling green eyes that dazzled even in the midst of the swollen redness that surrounded them. Her face was perfectly proportioned with high cheek bones that made her look elegant and refined. Even at such a young age, her son could clearly see why his father fell in love with her.

“Papa Sims had a heart attack…” She paused and tried to maintain her composure.

“Is he going to be okay?”

“I’m sorry…” Before she could say more, the floodgates opened and she started sobbing. She pulled her son into her arms and hugged him. He could hear the pain through her chest as she sucked in air between the sobs. He thought of pushing away so that he could look at her and get an answer, but he knew it already. He was too stunned to cry. He couldn’t believe it, so he just wrapped his arms around his mother and let her finish. The faint smell of her perfume and her shampoo tickled his nose and the warmth of her embrace made him too hot, but he didn’t complain.

After a moment, her crying subsided and she unlocked Bobby from her embrace. She pushed herself upright and wiped her eyes with a tissue she had in her hand. Bobby hadn’t seen it earlier and wondered where she got the tissue (he had always been prone to focus on the most absurdly tiny things in times of stress). She looked at him and managed a tiny smile through the glassy tears.

“Granny Sims found him on the kitchen floor this morning. It was too late. He had already passed.” More tears rushed down her firm cheeks, but she remained relatively calm. She wiped the tears in vain.

Bobby sat there too stunned to say much. No one he’d ever known had died before. Until that moment it felt foreign like something that happened to other people, not someone in his family. His grandfather had been a big strong man, a military man, who was tall and stiff and always said “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am”. He dressed crisply and formally and liked to say “Check” when he accomplished a task. He was disciplined and hard, but he had a soft spot for his only grandson, the third Robert Sims in his proud family.

“Are you sure he’s dead?” Bobby asked still refusing to believe that the man who bought him ice cream after church on Sundays and referred to him as “little buddy” was gone. He couldn’t imagine life without his grandfather. He couldn’t imagine his family without his grandfather. What would Granny Sims do without Papa to take care of her? Would his daddy take care of her now?

“Yes, honey, I’m afraid so. The Good Lord took him home this morning. Heaven has gained a soldier,” she replied. Each word spoken proved more difficult than the last and she started crying again. She pulled her son close to her but didn’t smother him as much as she had earlier. He pulled his left arm free and wrapped it around her back. He still didn’t cry. He simply listened to his mother’s sobs and blinked slowly as he looked at his bare feet dangling from the edge of the bed.

“We have to get moving this morning. We need to go see Granny. Your daddy is already over at her house. I told him we’d get over there as soon as possible.” She wiped her face again with the tissue and stood up leaving her son on the edge of the bed. She suddenly seemed determined and focused, more like the strong woman that Bobby loved so. “Please get dressed and come downstairs for breakfast. Please do this quickly,” she ordered in the manner that he found very familiar.

“Okay, mom,” Bobby said solemnly. He remained on the edge of the bed, a gangly twist of arms and legs protruding from his summer pajamas.

She took a few steps out of his room and turned toward him from the doorway. “Thank you,” she said before she shut the door on her sad smile. Bobby sat there for an instant with a sick feeling in his stomach. He didn’t grasp the enormity of what had happened. He still couldn’t believe it was true. It seemed unreal to him like a bad dream that he couldn’t shake. He popped to his feet and got dressed with a speed usually reserved for when he was late for the family breakfast. He looked at himself in the mirror and patted down his reddish-blond hair, which had grown relatively long since school had let out. His daddy had threatened to cut it, but he’d been so busy of late that he hadn’t. Bobby liked it long. He didn’t want to always wear his hair so short like his daddy. Or his Papa.

***

Bobby’s father followed directly behind the hearse in the family minivan as the procession limped from the funeral home to the old church on the outskirts of town. All was quiet inside the van except for the exasperated air conditioner, which groaned under the weight of the rising summer heat. Bobby leaned into the warm glass of the window next to the third row of seats and watched the world slide by slowly as the van crept along the main street leading out of town. Downtown store fronts gave way to small clapboard houses that eventually morphed into the relentless flat prairie that encircled the tiny town of Patton, Kansas. He sighed into the window, but even his warm breath was not enough to fog the glass in the heat.

Normally, the energy from a family of eight crammed into the small space of the van would create a racket so loud and persistent that Bobby could still hear the conversations going after he left the van, an audio relic that echoed in his mind, but this was not a normal day. They were headed to the family church for his grandfather’s funeral, and the somber event had even squelched the conversational fervor of his excitable sisters, all five of them, who often had to be repeatedly shushed by his parents to the point that his father would become visibly angry. Not today.

Bobby sat wedged into the last row of seats next to his sister Joanne who silently played with the hem of her dress. Joanne, who was the youngest of his sisters yet still two years older than Bobby, often led the lively conversations that inspired the shushing from his parents. Unlike his bookish oldest sister, Barbara, Joanne was outgoing and talkative. She was also the prettiest of his sisters, remarkably so, and was the one that was routinely compared to his mother. Like his mother, she had long, caramel-colored hair with warm, smooth skin that stretched across her high cheekbones. Even at such a young age, everyone who met her knew she was destined to grow into a beautiful woman like her mother.

It’s not that his other sisters were pedestrian. They weren’t. In any other family, they’d be considered beautiful in their own right. They looked more like their father than their mother, and in most cases, this would be the kiss of unkind genes, but their father’s sturdy appearance manifest itself in softer ways in his daughters. They all had blond hair like Joanne, but their faces were less defined, distinct. Their noses were bigger, but not too much so, and their eyes were a little too close-set. This gave them a plain look that made them easy to forget, especially when compared to the stunning Joanne, who may as well have been an exact duplicate of her mother.

Joanne nudged him with her leg. “Scoot over,” she whined, “your pants are making my leg hot.” Her shrill voice punctuated the blown-air silence.

Bobby looked at her but said nothing. He rolled his eyes and edged a little closer to the window making a small space between him and his finicky sister. Of all his sisters, Bobby found himself in conflict with Joanne more often than not. She had never forgiven him for usurping her title as the baby of the family although she could not possibly remember the time before Bobby was born.

Bobby pulled himself away from the window and stared forward into the vehicle past his sisters in the second row to his father who sat behind the wheel of the van, stone-faced and unusually patient with the slow crawl along the road to the church. His father wore his Army dress uniform, which was crisp and clean and authoritative. Admittedly, Bobby loved it when his father wore his dress uniform. He had an aura of strength and might that elicited a strong feeling of pride from both himself and his son when he wore it. The heavy, dark olive jacket draped over his wide shoulders and buttoned in at his chiseled waist. The perfectly-pressed pants with a sharp crease down the middle of each leg broke perfectly over his shiny, black shoes. His shoes were so shined so well that Bobby could see his reflection in them. His heels clicked when he walked moving like a graceful stallion with certainty and confidence that made Bobby feel safe. He loved his father, but he feared him more.

On this hot summer day, his father sat next to his mother in the driver’s seat of their family minivan wearing his military best. He wore a pair of Ray-Bans, like Don Johnson wore on Miami Vice, that clung to his sturdy nose. His jaw was set tight and every feature on his face was tense. If Bobby could have seen his eyes, he would have noticed a redness about them that he’d rarely seen in his father. He drove the van carefully staying back at least two car lengths from the hearse as they followed it to the church.

Although he couldn’t see her from where he sat, his mother sat stiffly in the front passenger seat, somber and weepy. She didn’t make a sound, but she periodically dabbed her eyes with the handkerchief she’d brought with her. She wore a stark, sleeveless black dress that contrasted too much with her honey-brown skin. Black wasn’t her color. Yellow was. Yellow dazzled against her smooth skin and brightened her blond hair. His mother was beautiful no matter what, but the black dress sucked the life out of her. Funerals did that to people.

Before the silence became too much for Bobby, the hearse in front of them slowed, if that was even possible, and turned at an angle to park perpendicular with the entrance to the church. Bobby’s father pulled into a space off to the left of the building under a lumbering oak tree that stood on the edge of the parking lot. The tree hunched over in the morning heat and offered its condolences, its branches spread wide suggesting a hug of sorts. It had seen so many funerals over the decades of its life.

The old church his family attended every Sunday sat alone atop a small hill on an over-crowded two-lane highway on the outskirts of town. In the winter, the white clapboard building almost disappeared in the snow save for its pointed black roof. The other seasons were more lively, and Bobby had seen them all numerous times.

He loved the fields of daffodils that sprouted in the spring around the old church. He and the other kids would run wild among the yellow flowers while their parents socialized after church. Several old oak trees lined the back of the church in addition to the small stand near the edge of the parking lot and offered a respite from the overbearing summer sun. The same kids would often climb up the trees in their Sunday best clothes and cling to the limbs in the shade much to the dismay of their parents. Bobby had been scolded more than once for soiling his good pants. The fall provided plenty of opportunity to kick through the heaps of leaves the big oaks shed. Only in the winter did parents and kids leave the church quickly and rush to their cars without socializing in the small lawn that surrounded the church.

Bobby enjoyed playing with the other kids more than he enjoyed church itself. He often sat slumped next to his father, mind reeling in boredom, as the pastor droned on and on in that familiar deep voice of his. The pastor, Mr. Craig, was a kind man with graying, receding hair who always squatted down and met Bobby eye to eye when he spoke to him. He often reeked of cheap cologne, Santa Fe or something, that made Bobby wrinkle his nose when he got so close, and his Sunday best clothes looked loose and cheap on his skinny frame. His jacket, made of rubbery polyester and at least one size too big for him, swallowed him whole. His pants draped over his short legs and hung to the floor so that the back edges slipped under the heels of his shoes. Bobby would always look at the hems of his pants while the pastor talked to his parents and search for the smudged edges at his heels. Bobby’s father would never tolerate such sloppiness.

Nevertheless, he liked the pastor because he talked to him rather than down to him, unlike his father. As tough and disciplined as his father was, he always met Mr. Craig with kind adoration and respect despite the obvious fact that Mr. Craig wasn’t as sharp as his father would normally demand of his own son. He didn’t keep his shoulders up straight when he walked. His frumpy attire wasn’t as crisp and clean as his father usually required. His cheap, plastic glasses, often smudged, hung crookedly on the bridge of his bulbous nose. All of these things would send his father into a fit of obsessive talk about always looking his best, which he perfectly exemplified when he wore his Army dress uniform.

The family marched into the church in a single-file fashion lumbering well back behind the coffin that was hauled up the steps and wheeled to the front of the pews. Not a word was spoken among them as they took their seats in the front row as family and friends filled the pews behind them.

Bobby’s father sat next to his Granny Sims who was hunched over and drawn into herself. To a young boy Bobby’s age, Granny Sims had always seemed old, but on this day, she looked particularly worn and aged beyond her sixty plus years. His father put his arm around her and hugged her close as she wiped her cheeks with a wad of tissues clutched within her gnarled knuckles, her dark, weathered skin contrasted sharply with the pearl-white tissue. The tears streamed down her wrinkled face and seeped into the deeper lines around her mouth. She talked to his father, but her words were low and inaudible to Bobby who sat at the far end of the pew next to Joanne.

“I hope Granny is okay,” Bobby confided to Joanne.

“Me, too,” Joanne replied without looking at Bobby. She remained fixated on the coffin that sat before them. Bobby followed her eyes to their grandfather’s body even though he didn’t want to look.

“He doesn’t look real,” Bobby whispered to Joanne.

“I can’t believe he’s dead. We saw him last weekend.”

“I know.”

The children gaped at the coffin. Death seemed surreal to them like a fairytale of a faraway land that seemed impossible to exist. They’d never experienced death so close before in their short lives.

Bobby averted his eyes to the large picture of his grandfather next to the coffin. The picture showed a much younger version of his Papa Sims, proud and strong in his Army uniform. The smooth skin of his youth gleamed in the picture and the faint smile gave an aura of confidence that Bobby knew so well. His Papa had always been so proud of his service to his country. Although he rarely spoke of the great war, as he called it, when he was around his World War II buddies, they’d often recall old stories that Bobby rarely understood or cared to hear. To him, these stories were just old people talking.

Bobby looked away and watched people fill in the last remaining spots in the pews around him. Many of the adults looked at him with somber expressions. Some of the women who looked his mom’s age, but not as beautiful, smiled at him with eyes pregnant with tears. Others were already crying and wiped away the tears with tissues and handkerchiefs as they mustered smiles for him and his sisters. He noticed a lot of Army uniforms, too. Many men with the familiar hats walked into the aisle and slipped into the pews removing their hats as a sign of respect for the place and circumstances. Occasionally, one or more of the adults would wander up to the front pew and say a few words to his parents or Granny Sims. They’d hug, cry, and walk away with the same sad expression they had when they arrived.

In the whirl of it all, the comings and goings, Bobby could only think of one thing, his grandfather. The old man lay at the front of the church in his eternal repose, still and lifeless. Bobby had never known his grandfather to sit still even for a brief moment. He was always doing something or moving forward in some fashion whether he was in his workshop building something or under the hood of his beloved Corvette fixing it. Even for a young boy, his Papa Sims was an exhausting dash of activity. Whenever Bobby had spent time with him, there was usually something to do, something to learn. He had, in fact, learned a lot from his grandfather, but it would be years before he realized the significance of those lessons or appreciated them in the way that only time can make one appreciate the gifts passed from one generation to the next.

The funeral began with solemn, ominous organ music and a parade of people from all walks of life followed the pastor at the pulpit all talking fondly of Bobby’s grandfather, the great brother, the war hero, the best friend. There were laughs among the tears especially when an old man Bobby had never met before told a great story about how he met the elder Sims at boot camp before the war had begun. The old man had a booming baritone like Bobby’s grandfather and a congenial tone that invited the audience to laugh with him. He ended his dedication with a few heartfelt words and limped away from the pulpit, hunched and slowed by age but brought to life by fond memories of great times past.

A slew of mutters waved through the crowd as the old man slowly took his seat in the second row of pews closest to the pulpit, but the moment Bobby’s father stood up to say the final farewell to his father, a hush came over the crowd that silenced the small church like a dire warning from the pastor. His father stood up, unfolded really, from the pew and stood tall and straight in his uniform. He marched to the pulpit as if he were on a military drill and stood stiffly behind the lectern with his hands resting on each edge as if he were hugging it. He stared out into the crowd blankly like he was searching for the words to say. All heads in the church were turned to him expectantly. Men nodded slightly. Women smiled their heartfelt condolences.

“You all have heard the stories of my father today. He was a great man, a war hero, beloved by family and friends for his dedication to his country and his love for his family. He came from a modest background, but he pulled himself up and made a name for himself by persevering through the ups and downs of life including the great war, which changed the course of the history we all know today. When I was a young boy, I remember being so proud and in awe of my dad. I remember him telling me stories of his days in the Army, and I remember wanting to be just like him, but I never felt I could measure up to him or his expectations.”

“One day we had a particularly heated discussion because I was considering quitting the Army. I had joined because I wanted to be like him, but over the course of a very challenging period, I had doubts about my decision. I wanted something different, but the truth was, it was hard, very hard, and I was looking for an easier way. When I revealed my intentions to dad, he became visibly upset, and he said, ‘Son, nothing worth having is easy. It takes hard work and dedication. You have to pull yourself through. It may not be fun, but you’ll be damn proud you did it one day.’”

“We argued for a bit more after that, but his words always stuck with me. I ultimately decided to stay in the Army and I’m glad I did. I went on to have a good career in the Army and served my country in Vietnam. It wasn’t easy just like my father had said, but it was worth it. That’s one of the most valuable lessons that my father taught me, one that I hope to pass on to my son. I can’t thank my father enough for all that he’s done for me. I don’t want to spend this day mourning the loss of him. I want to spend it reliving all the great memories of his life. He touched us all in some way, big and small, but he leaves a cherished legacy that I intend to honor for the rest of my own life.”

He paused and scanned the crowd. His usually stoic face crinkled a bit as he forced back the tears. His voice croaked as he tried to speak. He stopped and steadied himself by looking down at the lectern. Bobby had never seen his dad cry. Even over the past few days, he’d only seen a redness in his eyes that suggested he may have cried, so he watched in amazement as his father struggled to regain his composure.

Finally, like a runner finding the inner strength to push across the finish line, his father comported himself and said, “As we lay him to rest today, think about what he meant to you, how he affected your life. Let’s remember the legacy of this great man, my father, and he shall live on forever because of it.”

At that, he stood up stiffly again and walked back to the front center pew and sat next to his wife looking furtively ahead blinking back the tears as he stared at the coffin. The music started again and the blur of the funeral continued. Friends and family paid their last respects in a line that seemed to last forever. Bobby grew bored as old vets shook his hand repeatedly and old women with sweet-smelling perfume hugged him and cried. He watched the same happen to his sisters and his parents. There was something comforting in all of it, but for a seven-year-old, it was a bit much.

Eventually, the coffin was closed for the last time eliciting a visceral wail from Granny Sims who was immediately steadied by her oldest son. The pallbearers emerged from the crowd to guard the coffin as it was wheeled down the aisle to the door and carefully carried down the stairs to the hearse. The hearse made the short drive down the gravel road in the cemetery behind the church where the coffin was placed above its final resting place.

Bobby felt relieved to leave the church after such a long service. The sun, still high in the sky, bore down on him in his black suit with a ferocity that immediately made him sweat. He wanted to remove his jacket to relieve himself of the claustrophobic feeling that almost overwhelmed him. His dress shirt scratched his neck and plied at his skin with a tenaciousness of sandpaper on balsa wood. He shoved his hands into the space between his collar and his neck and tugged at his shirt trying to let in some air. He stopped for a brief moment until he felt a light touch on his back. He looked over his shoulder to see his mother smiling at him weakly through the tears that streamed down her face. She said nothing, but Bobby knew to keep walking as the family led the mourners to his grandfather’s grave.

The short walk took much longer than Bobby expected, but when he sat down in the graveside chairs reserved for his family, he could feel the rivulets of sweat that had trickled down his legs. His discomfort grew as he waited for the crowd to gather around the grave. The coffin, draped in an American flag, looked otherwise nondescript. Bobby wondered if they would open it again so that he could get one last look at his Papa Sims. He had to know that it was him, but his curiosity faded once the Pastor started talking again.

A couple of young Army cadets removed the flag from his grandfather’s coffin and folded it carefully before the crowd. Everyone watched in silence save for a few audible sobs. After the flag was reduced to a triangle, one of the young men cradled the folded flag in his hands and extended it to Granny Sims. The old woman hugged it to her chest and cried silently as she leaned into her son. Bobby caught a glimpse of his father’s tear-soaked face, red and anguished, an image that would never leave his memory.

After a few final words from the pastor, two men from the funeral home appeared from the edge of the crowd and began working the crank that slowly lowered the coffin into the hole below it. Bobby watched as it inched lower slowly disappearing behind the edge of the green carpet that had been placed over the pile of dirt next to the grave. When the lid finally dropped from sight, his grandmother let out a wail of agony and almost fell out of her chair. Bobby’s mother and father both grabbed the woman as she fell forward. His mother took the flag and passed it to Barbara as she held onto the distraught woman. Her cries chilled the eerily silent crowd that fanned out from the grave. Bobby took it all in with the wide-eyed horror of a child at his first funeral, a visceral feeling that seared itself in his memory.

Several friends and family members converged on Granny Sims as the service came to end. Most were concerned for her well-being and expressed their condolences. His grandmother, still distraught, managed to regain her composure and thank those who comforted her. She was a strong woman, but Bobby struggled to imagine her without Papa Sims. To him, they went together like the sun and the sky, and to see one without the other was unimaginable.

A big bear of a man sidled up to Bobby as he stood at the edge of the circle that had formed around his grandmother and his father. The man looked to be his grandfather’s age and wore an old military uniform that looked like the one his grandfather had.

“Your Papa was a great man, son,” he said looking down amiably to Bobby.

Bobby looked at the man and smiled but said nothing.

“He would have taken a bullet for me, and I don’t know many men who would do that. We fought together in Europe. I was there when we pushed the Germans back from that town in France. Your grandfather, he was a great leader, a great military man. He deserved that Medal of Honor. One day you’ll understand what it all means and the significance of it. I hope you’ll make him proud.”

The man patted Bobby’s shoulder and smiled at him faintly. “Take care of your family, son,” he said before he walked away. Bobby turned away momentarily to find his mother in the crowd, and when he turned back to see the old man, he was gone. His eyes followed the crowd strewn along the gravel road leading back to the church, but he couldn’t find the old man. It was like the man was a ghost who had come and gone with the wind. Bobby felt confused, even a little scared, but he convinced himself that he simply couldn’t find the man in the thick mass of people. He turned back to his mother and subconsciously grabbed her hand. The man’s words lingered in his mind. He would never forget them.

Serenity

Sunrise

The pale light of dawn pricks holes in the forest canopy exposing the earthen trail that winds to the beach.  I can hear the waves lapping sleepily onto the rocky shore, the only sound that breaks the peaceful silence.  My feet pat the soft ground like the padded feet of a toddler.  I can feel every step give just a little on the soft trail, a path followed by many on a sojourn to the shores of this jagged promontory.  A sharp, coniferous odor mixed with saltwater permeates the air.

I emerge from the shroud of the great Douglas firs onto an expanse of gray sand peppered with smooth rocks worn by the relentless beating of the sea.  Beached trees, long dead and petrified, are strewn like abandoned tinker toys on the edge of the sand.  I breathe in the damp morning air inhaling deeply as if I’m appreciating a fine wine.  The fog lolls just a stone’s throw off the shore adding some mystique to the beautiful morning that awaits the sun’s arrival.  A smattering of small, rocky islands poke up through the blanket of fog like napping dogs disturbed by an interloper.  I take a seat on one of the discarded trees at the sand’s edge and watch the morning slowly unfold, an almost ethereal menagerie of sights, smells, and sounds as close to the great beyond as life can get.

The forest wraps around me like a warm blanket and the waves hypnotize me with their melodic song.  Seagulls, endlessly searching for food, glide in and out of my view screaming at me as if I have disturbed their morning ritual.  I ignore them as the sun’s warm rays slowly rise above the statuesque mountains in the east.  Bit by bit, the oranges and pinks brighten as the pale light of dawn scampers away.  The first bright arc punches through the horizon warming my face as I wait for the sun to stand up, stretch its arms, and yawn into a new day.  A lazy summer day awaits his declaration of light.

A cool breeze runs a lap along the beach joyously celebrating a new beginning.  I’m fully relaxed against the beached tree observing the natural beauty that engulfs me.  It is this moment, one of uninterrupted peace, that I appreciate the most with Mother Nature and her unfettered elegance beaming at me, a smile so bright that I have to look askew lest the surreal beauty overwhelms me.

The sun is fully awake now standing proudly atop the mountains ready to grace us with a gorgeous day.  I bask in the rays for a moment, enjoy the last sounds of the calming waves and errant seagulls before I stand up, stretch, and return to the soft trail leading away from the beach.  This moment, the slow unfolding of this day, will forever be burned into my memory.