IN MEMORIAM: 1936 - 2012; 2001 – 1986.


He could now understand that there is more to a life than the living of it. He could see in his father lying there, in that gray and wasted face, and in listening to the ventilator work instead of a pair of ruined lungs that life also must have its passing. He could see that a good life needs a good death, that you need to be able to acknowledge your accomplishments and to accept your failures enough to no longer regret them. You need to be able to finally be the person you would become. To shed the disguises you wear before the world, before yourself. To see, finally, the light.

It was the middle of the night, very dark, very quiet. This faltering beat of his father’s heart was the faltering beat of his own; these final breaths had been his own a full twenty five years before. He didn't know what lay beyond, nor does anyone. He didn't care what lay beyond because when his own death had come he had been too involved in that final moment to pay anything beyond it any mind. He could see that final moment in his father’s eyes now. He had lived all his life in his own final breath just as his father living was doing now. This old man had been the savior of a life hardly worth his effort.


There had been a time when he had believed in God so fervently that he had thought his belief to be knowledge. Though he had never touched the face of God, he had believed that God had touched his, and he had believed that God had spoken directly to his heart. He had believed so fervently that he had given his life to God, and it had taken him two years to come to know that the god he worshiped and adored had worn his own face, had thought his own thoughts, and the finger of God pointing down God’s road had been his own finger pointing down the road he had thought to be his own. He had come to know that all he had done was throw his own face up into the sky in order to see his own face smiling down. He hadn't liked this thing that he’d come to know.

There had been a time in his life when both he and God had died. He’d been in the Navy because he had seen no point in continuing college because without his god smiling down he’d had no idea of the direction in which he should go. He’d been in the Middle East, Libya, Haiti, northern South America, and Central America, in all of the horrible places in the world and he’d seen horrible things. He’d seen young girls die of starvation and a young boy stabbed in the chest and a man eviscerated and left hanging in a tree for the love of God and country, vultures plucking out his dead eyes. He had seen fifty twelve year old boys shot in the head and stacked five deep in a pile as long as a windrow. He’d seen flies and he’s smelled death and in all of those moments and moments to come he had begun to die and he had finally died. He knew in the moment of his death that he would never again see the world but through dead eyes, that his actions would be the actions of a dead man, that the breath he breathed would be a fetid stink. That he would known eternally that life is short and death is eternal.

There had come a time in that death when he had wandered. He’d tried to find a place within a country no longer his own. His skin grew cold to the touch, the breath he breathed grew cold and his heart had quit beating. He had thought that if he were violent then in some time and at some place that violence would turn upon and devour him; it had seemed an easy way for this living death to be no more.

There had come a time in that death when his thoughts had been violent and his actions had been violent and where violence had taken the place of his rotting heart. There had come a time in that death when violence had been a color he had carried about in his rotting and blind eyes. There had come a time in that death when violence became the father who had born him. Cradled in its arms he did not feel pain, and under its tutelage he could only think pain, and the blood of the living would cover his knuckles both red and hot, and blood of both the living and dead would cover his face red and cold, and the blood of the dead would fill his eyes and his mind both cold and dark. He’d hurt people and been hurt by them; he’d gone into bars looking not for a drink but a fight. He’d been left bloody and senseless in a parking lot--he’d left others lying senseless at his feet like something left to rot.

He'd tried to live again, but hadn't been able to find a way to do it. He'd lived in a commune for two years. He'd moved to New Mexico, then to New York. He'd lived in the woods in the far north in a one hundred year old farmhouse with no insulation and bad windows. He had terrible dreams at night of dead boys stacked like cordwood. He would dream of hanging in a tree while vultures picked away at his eyes and his guts.

There were times in that death when he had almost died a second time. He’d been shot, stabbed, beaten nearly to death a couple of times. He’d been hit by an arrow. He’d collapsed on the floor in the old farmhouse, blind and deaf and not breathing, with parasites eating his brain like candy, contracted long before in a Middle East, carrying away from that horror an enemy in his mind. He’d been unconscious for three days, and in the hospital in Fargo he’d awakened to find the father he hardly knew anymore leaning against a window sill and watching him. He hadn't known what to say. He couldn't seem to get any words to come to mind.

One night he awoke to find himself out in the jungle again, and he’d been wrapped in wet and muddy winding sheets, and all around him were twelve year old boys who'd been shot in the head by drunken men driving away in old cars, while a dead man with no eyes and with his blackened guts wrapped around his ankles grinned down from the branch of a tree, hanging there like a monkey. He’d fought to free himself from the grave clothes and he'd fought the nurses to keep from dying. The next morning the psychiatrist said that it all had had to do with his military adventures—the psychiatrist had actually used the word "adventures." The psychiatrist said that he would be all right. He knew, being dead, that he would never be all right.

Before the door closed on the psychiatrist his father came in. His father sat on the edge of the bed, and he lay sick beside him, already dead in the long ago but sure he was dying again, and he feared that there just might be a god who would insist on both vengeance and justice. His father took his hand and held it to his own chest and there were no words to explain or justify anything and his father made no attempt to speak them.

"Dad," he began.

He poured out his entire heart. Before he had finished the twelve year old boys were again stacked around him, and a gutted man was again hanging out of the sky, and bloody men were again lying in a parking lot and he was again lying among them, and he was crying. He had not cried like that since he had been a little boy; he had not cried at all since he'd died. He was surprised at the dryness of it, and he wondered how for all of these years it had managed to beat. But it hadn't.

His father did not seem surprised at all.

"And the worst thing is," he told his father, his father sitting there on the bed, holding his hand to his heart, "that now I have lost all of your respect."

"That’s not an issue," his father told him. "That can’t even be done."

He cried again then, and now when he cried, the blood in his tears was no longer black, but red, and the breath he breathed was a little less cold in his chest. His father had given him enough of a spark for the darkness inside to not occupy every corner of his now beating heart. For the first time in many years he felt as if he were alive. He felt as if birth and death had reversed their natural order.

Ten years later he stood in a hospital room in Rochester, Minnesota, looking down at his father as his father had looked down at him, believing beyond all possibility that he could take this death away as his father had taken it away from him, but he could not. As he watched his father draw his final breath, his father reached for his hand and held it to his heart. There was no helping his father through this; there was only his father helping him through this, and his father’s final moment was that. As his father released that final breath, his son found the courage to finally admit his life, the good and the bad and the indifferent in it, the moments of weakness and the moments of strength and the moments that could have been one or the other but had turned out to be nothing at all. He sat on the side of the bed as his father’s hand grew cold in his own and he imagined himself dying a second death, that final breath with the sudden and terrible and awesome silence that comes with the cessation of the rush of blood through your ears, that sound you have heard every second of your life. The huge and echoing silence. He sat there embracing his fears. He sat there holding his father’s hand embracing the dark and the light. When he realized his father’s last breath was gone, it wasn't hard for him to imagine this old man stepping into light.

A birth here, with the death. This is now the time in his life when he can step back and see his life with no fear and no duplicity and no bravado. This is now the time in his life when he can turn to the light and hear a choir of twelve year old boys lifting their voices in song. This is now the time in his life when he can see a blind man smiling. His words will again have meaning. All of the years of his life have become a moment.

He turned now from the dead man lying before him. He might have smiled; he cannot remember. He might have cried, but he doesn't know. He turned now and the darkness was only well beyond a light. He turned now, spinning around, and in the morning with the new day coming a light shown into his eyes.
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