I was talking with my Grandpa a week or so ago and he started telling me about his friend that had recently loss his wife. I heard it and I felt the need to write, write about something I myself have never experienced. I guess that's what writing is all about, creating that which you've never seen face to face, empathizing with those you've never met. It's a mystery when it happens, but when it does the mystery unfolds. This I guess is an attempt at such. I only hope I did some justice to that which we all must face and that is the loss of those who we cherish most.
There is nothing romantic about dying. As much as the movies may sell it to be, it just ain’t so. That whole archetypal, Romeo and Juliet crap… well… it’s just crap. It’s not true. Not when it’s the love of your life laying there dying… my Grace dying. She tells me it’s ok and there is nothing either of us can do. That it’s best if we just muster up all the joy that we can in the time we have left. You know this is her trying to comfort you, but in all honesty it’s what you loath most about the situation, about yourself. That you’re helpless. That you can’t save her. That here she is dying and doing her best to save you and part of you hates yourself for that. But then again she had always been doing that for you. Being your savior, your divinity, your grace… Your Grace. And now she’s dying. She’s dying and you’re not.
We thought we had months left as months shortly became days. And as she lay there in that hospice bed, frail, but so damn beautiful to you… We just did our best to survive the grief of her coming departure from this life we had shared. We did our best to create a living space, a brief lasting moment where such grief could be cherished as much as it was scorned by this heart of mine. We did our best. You know that now. And as we did happy things in those last days, happy and tearfully sad, we sought everything special that could be summoned and salvaged from the coming moment of her fading on. We found laughter as much as we found woeful cries as the two intermingled from time to time.
Bitter was your joy. But you did your best not to steal from her the last chances she had to smile in this life. To make the time left not about you.
What broke your heart most of all though… was that this was your honeymoon. That honeymoon we never got around to have. That’s what she called these last days. You know she wasn’t joking too. She was the embodiment of all things sincere, she never said anything out of pure jest. That’s was why you loved her. Everything she was and did was utter sincerity. Not a word said or a movement made that wasn’t genuine. You still struggle with how much stronger she was then you, stronger than you could ever hope to be. All while I stood in the terror of letting her go, she found love. For her this time together. These last moments were the christening joy of a marriage long lasted. That for her this was the time for love and joy. You don’t know how she did it. How she sought not the presence of fear. How she carried on knowing we would soon have no more time with one another.
Don’t go. Please don’t go. This was what you beckoned to a God you never really paid much attention to over all the years. You weren’t mad though. You were to scared to be mad and she knew that. That’s why she held on as long as she did. Through the pain that this dying brought her, she held on. She wouldn’t let go until she knew you were going to be ok.
After you couldn’t bear it anymore. After you had seen too much suffering in her eyes, you slowly bent down next to her and kissed her on the cheek. You said, “It’s… I’m ok, it’s time for you to go home beautiful girl.” You heard her laugh one last time and say, “You better not be lying to me because I’m not leaving till I’m sure.” You know you were lying, but you couldn’t make her stay. Lying for the first time to her in 50 years, you said this false necessity and promised her it was so. “Will you wait for me?” You whimpered. The last thing you would, in this life, say to her. “For eternity.” She whispered. “For eternity. I promise I will.” She smiled at you. She just smiled in those last seconds, not once moving her gaze from yours. Smiling as the light flowed and then finally dimmed from her eyes.
You sat there wanting to scream, but you were so shattered… So shattered that your voice could not move. You couldn’t shout, as bad as you wanted to, because you were no longer there. For when she passed, you might as well have gone with her. Your soul left for that she was. Your soul, your essence. It all lay in her. For all that you were was gone now. Life’s death. Her death. Nothing now but perdition and it was yours. And terror… terror was its stay.
In the end… all things perish. They become frail and withered. Lost and eroded. Laughter fades as smiles too do dim in their joy. And as time passes and those who bear them become forgotten all the same as we, the remnant, are left to reckon with our own mortality that will soon and inevitably come to pass. We are the dying. Dying since we took our first gasp of life into being alive. We are dying and only our deaths will absolve of us this cross. What then does it mean to be a being of deceleration? Slowing down till we move no more. What meaning could this life have? What purpose? Thoughts such as these have danced in my mind’s eye for some time now. Questions present that I sometimes lack the courage… the fortitude to answer. They carry no more despair than joy, but only sobriety. No, the unending persistence of human frailty no longer fills my heart and mind with the anxieties as it once had. Only the sobering thought of its simple truth. Finitude. We lay amongst the finite, the short-lived, and only absolution can set us free. Set us free from the one thing we wish to cherish most in this life… life itself. Is there not more to that which we are than beings towards death, pockets of abyss in the making. Is there no hope that the light of day may once more shine again on us even after the light of this world should dim? To these I have no answer to give you and it’s probably best that I don’t. Death and the meaning it carries on one’s soul is a question each person must grapple with themselves. I have no answers I can forthright give you and any notions I have on the matter, I must hide to myself. But I do not covet these secret meanings I give myself. I so wish I could share them with you all the same… but this I cannot do. I cannot… I will not for the simple reason and that be that you may find your own. That you may beckon out into the void of our condition, our joyful human weeping and begot that which allows it to shine. That which makes it blossom where around it once was only ash. Your meanings, let them stay secret. Hidden from the rest of audible spheres. But illuminate! Illuminate! Brighten this life with your actions and not your speech so that others must but look your way to know your truth. That life is one of plentiful bounty. Unceasingly luminescent. A spring of unquenchable serenity. That there is beauty to be had and made by these broken hands of ours. That there is hope for those who wish it to be. So though I have no answers to garnish you with and make you feel at ease. No medicine of mine to which I can just prescribe and share. But I do only pray… Pray that you might strive alongside me in this… our human twilight so that the darkened shall not consume the light of our days.
People take different roads in life. Some lead them around the world to exotic, exciting places, other roads taken do less, sometimes a lot less. Some roads are one-way, an escape route, down which the traveler never returns. Then again, some roads are used to return home, for good reasons, maybe a short visit, burial of a family member or friend, a wedding, maybe your own. Young William Stiller returned home, not of his own volition. He was killed serving his country and was returning permanently to be buried in a public cemetery, a small one with gravestones dating back to the American Revolutionary War. There are other gravestones from all of America’s following wars. This cemetery is a burial place for patriots, and other folks too. Sergeant Stiller never planned to return home, but he has and times are sad.
FORT BENNING, GEORGIA
Someone has laid a magazine on my bunk, it has a picture on the front. Not sure who took that picture on the front page of Popular Magazine, but it’s me hitching a ride, my backside, age 17, running away from home. Probably the driver that offered me a ride took it, a writer for a magazine, a wonderer lost in the backwoods, with a camera, so he’d said. He’s given me a ride into town about ten miles up the road. That road you see in the picture is Sawmill Road, leading from the holler that I left for good. We’re Kentuckians, my family lives there. We farm, hunt for food, dig coal, run a sawmill and make moonshine. All the men run off and joined the military, most do anyway. So far, no male has ever returned to the holler and I have no such plans.
My sisters all married off young, the oldest was 18, the youngest was 16 and lied about her age to a Justice of the Peace just over the Tennessee state line. All four sisters ran away and married in Tennessee to local boys, coalminers not much older than them. As a family, that’s what we do, girls marry young and the men run off and join the military. For most, it’s the shortest road away from a hardscrabble life.
As I recall, the writer’s car was late model, a 1960 Dodge, blue colored with a strip of chrome leading to big fish tail lights in the rear. His clothing was decent, not in bib coveralls like me. His tie was loose, shirt unbuttoned, the colors drab brown. He had no hat to cover a mop of unruly, straight black hair in bad need of a comb. He’d looked straight ahead, careful to watch the road and said, “I’m Ed Cullum, I write human interest stories for Popular Magazine.” Smiling, he added, “You look human.” Broadening his smile exposed straight teeth, except for one on the right side that was chipped. I remember thinking it added character to his face. He’d asked, “Mind if I ask where you’re going and why?”
I’d said, “Reckon I’m human, alright. I’m joining the military, whichever one is in his office this morning, that’s the one I’ll pick.” He’d looked over, his tone serious and said, “That’s a big decision, maybe you want to think about it. It’s a dangerous profession. What’s your name?” He’d ask. I motioned for him to pull over, “Not more dangerous than coalmining. There’s the recruiters office. Stop here. And thanks for the ride.” He’d ask again, “Your name? I want to write a short piece about how and why people move on from their roots. I need a name to make it authentic.” “Stiller,” I said, “William, my friends call me Bill.” “And why are you leaving?” “My options are coal mining, moonshining, or military. Don’t take no genius to make the right choice.”
The loud speaker at Fort Benning blared the starting ceremony to life. “Stiller, William H., front and center!” Captain Martin gave the commands. He was head of the sniper school at Fort Benning. He’d first approached me in Basic Training on the firing range at Lenard Wood, Missouri and handed me orders that led me to sharpen my shooting skills. Now he was presenting me with an award, a plaque that read TOP SNIPER, Corporal William H. Stiller, Third Army.
Southeastern Appalachia is split by Route 25, a concrete road running north to south into Tennessee. Each side is the same. The low lying foothills of Appalachia make it that way, unchanged for a thousand years. Even the coalmines, stills and sawmills hardly make a dent. The portion of side road we’re on is macadam coated but soon turns into winding gravel and dirt roads leading off to low lying foothills. That’s where you find the hollers. I’m Ed Cullum. I’ve been here before and I know the Stiller family, too well, I’m afraid. I know the deceased whose casket rides in a black limousine following the state police car leading a short funeral procession. I’m bringing up the rear.
Somewhere off to the right, I hear a radio blaring a song from the mouth of a holler, not the one we will soon enter. As we pass the entrance, the sound grows louder and I recognize the voice of a well-known country singer, Wagner, I think, and the lyrics ‘we got company coming, we got company coming…’ The music trails off as the trees and undergrowth bring silence. Even a gunshot wouldn’t travel a hundred yards around here and I glad, for I’m thinking this is not the type of company the Stiller family had in mind.
A SOLDIERS BURIAL
Lights flashing, the grey Ford Crown Victoria leads an entourage of Stiller family members and friends of the deceased to a small cemetery located a half mile from here. On approach, I see there’s a military color guard waiting, along with a minister preparing to give last rites. A Major is there holding a tri-folded American flag he will present to the family. His name tag says MARTIN. The funeral is sad, the women and men wailing, unable to hold emotions checked. I move off to the right and take a few pictures, making sure to include everyone.
I spoke in a low voice, solemnly asking, “Major Martin, I’m Edward Cullum, reporter for Popular Magazine. Do you have anything you would like to add to the obit I’m writing for the deceased?” “Did you know Bill?” “Yes. In fact, I gave him a lift two years ago to the Army Recruiter in Williamsburg, Kentucky near his home.” Cullum flinched at the 21 gun salute. Major Martin stood fast, a tear in his eye, and with deep pride and emotion in his voice, said loudly, “Mr. Cullum, you can report the Sgt. William Hedrick Stiller out-shot and out-soldiered 99 percent of the men in the United States Army! We are proud of Stiller and saddened by his loss in combat.” There was loud wailing.
Major Martin strode with majestic military fashion and approached Ben’s mother where he reverently presented her the folded flag. Both his tears and hers blessed the emblem of freedom her son died for. From a distance, I took more pictures. I’ll get their permission before printing my byline and obituary, especially her comments that Bill was the first of her sons to return to the holler, the first and only one buried here. A couple of brothers and all four sisters were present for the funeral, a sad commentary to a young life lost too soon.
I plan to write my story with a theme about an unintended war hero and his long road home.
Writing a book is a precarious and mysterious thing. Yes, mystery, fucking mysterious is exactly what it is. Where the words come from, where they go, and where they end up. Just a mystery. You sit there staring at blank screen or piece of paper and then next thing you know all this shit just starts spilling out from the tips of your fingers. It’s like something battling between the demonic and the angelic has possessed you. You’re sweeting. You’re intoxicated. You’re scared as shit. You’re smiling with insanity. You’re doing everything in your power to fight off the urge to piss or shit because you know how easily this moment can fade and oh yes it will fade. One moment you’ll be pumping out prose that would make your mother cry or your dirty ole uncle chuckle and then the next thing you know it’s gone. Like I said, writing is mysterious. It ebbs and flows to tides unknown. All you know is that you want to be somewhere with a fucking pen or near a goddamn computer when it hits. All you know is that you wish it was always this way. Inspiration is a fickle bitch. When you have it you feel all warm and fuzzy. You feel in love, but the second it’s gone you’ve never felt a loneliness like that ever before in your whole damn life. Writing is mystery and with all mystery there is a longing, a pain that only the creative soul beholds. You almost want to curse the almighty when that river of ink runs dry. Runs dry just as quick as it began to spring and rush forth. Where the fuck did it go? Why couldn’t it last one more hour, fuck five more minutes and I just would have had. I don’t know. I guess I’m just complaining at the moment because I was on one hell of a roll with this one piece I’m going to share with you and then it just stopped. Just fucking stopped. Mystery. Mystery I tell you. I don’t know, but here’s what I was working on. No it wasn’t for the book I’m supposed to have finished by the end of the month after next, but like I said you can’t control this shit. It just fucking appears and you got to snab it while you can less it be but to fade into the black of memories long gone. Mystery, fucking mystery I tell you…
IM NOT AN ADDICT
First off, despite anything you fuckers may think or come to believe, I’m not an addict. You need to know this from the outset. IM NOT AN ADDICT. Addicts aren’t people, despite everything you’ve been taught or read. Addicts aren’t people, they’re figments of a bland societal imagination. Bland and fucking blind to my suffering, to those whose suffer. Don’t get me wrong… I take an egregious amount of drugs. Maybe much more than one should. Maybe not. But that’s not the point right now. Again I’ll say it. I’m not an addict. See I’ve said it three times now. Dispel this bullshit notion or put this book down and put it down NOW. I don’t have a problem with substances, just a problem with being here. Don’t get me wrong… I numb myself in more ways than one. Speed, weed, boos, etc. but we’ll extrapolate that list later on. I seek the numbing and that I won’t deny for a fucking second. There is an emptiness of purpose I face at every waking moment. An internal vacancy that has pushed me to externalities to fill the void. I’m not chasing after some high, I’m not after setting my nervous system a flame to delights. Don’t get me wrong though, the highs, as few and far between as they have come to be, weren’t ever a downer, but they were never the point of my endeavor either. My yearning is existential at its core. Some serious weeping Nietzsche, Kierkegaardian ironic laughter type shit. Ya that’s it. The drugs they’re just a means to subsistence. A vehicle that lets me cruise along with the rest of you fucks and friends. They help me get along in all the love and nihilism this world slings at one’s face. And I don’t know which of those two things freaks me out the most… But if you still doubt my convictions on the matter. I guess I understand and I’m glad for you. Your life has meaning and I don’t really mean to take that from you. I don’t want you to feel like you should be me. Think my thoughts. Mimic the Ken Sen Mantra as if it was the true. No I just want you to know… I guess I just want you to not hate me, hate me for something I didn’t ask for because I promise I didn’t ask for this particular take on life. It was cast on me like herpes in the night. Participating in an act most do, but caught something foul in the process. The act… living. The herpes… my despair. Ya I guess I could uh, would uh, should uh been wearing one of life’s many ideological condoms. Maybe I was just being reckless. Exploring to much with the wrong people and their infectious thoughts. Maybe… Maybe. But my despair like the herp da derp… It’s for life. I have it now and it burns on the soul’s crotch like a son of a bitch. Again, I’m not an addict… I’m just alive.
- Thane Hounchell