Having finished reading Harper Lee’s novel last night, I’ve been absorbing and trying to organize my responses to its content. I will take some time just to identify, let alone articulate, the entire range of my reactions. Any review at this point must be fairly brief and quite probably not insightful enough to do the book full justice.
This is most definitely a story to be confronted head-on. There’s a deceptive innocence to its earlier chapters. The sweetness and humor of its flashbacks – so endearing to readers of “Mockingbird” – are ultimately countered by the unsettling developments within a character whom most of us think we know. In the process of being disabused of our illusions, we’re led to conclude that it might be impossible ever to understand anyone. The obvious becomes a facade concealing much less attractive underpinnings. Here is an iconic individual whose internal and external qualities prove to be greatly at odds. Yet this man’s remarkable equanimity, coupled with his acceptance of his own contradictions, enables him to live with himself, shadowed by neither guilt nor regret. We ask ourselves whether we could do the same, in any situation that might apply to us.
It is this very self-tolerance that most disturbs me, as a card-carrying member of humanity. Atticus, the defender of justice for all, seems utterly opposed to Atticus, the defender of racial segregation and social stratification. Can each aspect exist independently of the other? Can this man remain as an admirable figure in one context, while concurrently, the soft clay of his feet no longer supports him? These, I think, are questions fraught with thorns. We emerge bloodied from our encounter with them – just as Jean Louise must do, with her uncle’s assistance.
The expanded character of Jack Finch enhances my own understanding of the story. Some readers have taken exception to Uncle Jack’s meandering observations, many of which seem almost-irrelevant and extraneous to the situation at hand. However, they are not. I enjoyed his commentaries, because a number of the phrases were drawn from literary works that I knew and recognized. They showed the scope of the man’s knowledge; voracious readers draw upon so many sources. He must have carried a vast store of imaginary worlds in his head, since he could “paraphrase three authors into one sentence and have them all make sense” (p. 275). His allusions to specific authors provided clarification of what was important to him. If the reader is familiar with the sources of Jack’s references, then an “aha moment” can suddenly arise. From Shakespeare, Jean Louise recalls Viola’s misery when forced to either lie or confess her true feelings. “A blank, my lord” she replies to her uncle. (p. 262) She cannot – as Viola could not – admit to love, even though it’s there. And with her terse comment, we might also – tangentially, perhaps subliminally – be reminded of Lear, that noble and righteous king who falls from grace. The father who betrays his own best-beloved child when she is unable to voice her affection for him. Is this coincidental? I don’t think so. Nothing about this book is coincidence. Harper Lee is too astute a writer; her characters are seldom directed toward accidental inferences. They learn because they have no other choices.
While Atticus is pivotal to the story, and the revelation of his personal prejudices elicits dismay in the reader, it is John Hale Finch whose own revelation – coupled with his unexpected powers of observation – proves most surprising to me. He’s enigmatic without being obscure, and interestingly odd without being bat-guano crazy. Whereas Atticus’s legendary determination and keen sense of impartiality have made him a powerful force in Maycomb County, Jack Finch’s loopy brilliance provides a refreshing counterpoint to all that earnest duty and loyalty. In the final analysis, because he is so crucial to the narrative, all of Dr. Finch’s eccentricities click into place. As a result of his immense and rather free-wheeling intellectual life, he’s the perfect foil to his brother’s more pragmatic mindset. He becomes an unlikely figure of salvation, offering his own brand of redemption to both Atticus and Jean Louise. Is he afflicted with “divine madness” or something more? Is he, in fact, better attuned to his environment than anyone else in Maycomb?
Atticus Finch reveals a serious character flaw that incorporates attitudes prevalent in his era. As a result, his daughter is wounded almost past healing. Jack Finch unleashes – albeit briefly – a capacity for physical violence that catches us by surprise. He seems shocked by it as well. But out of that single action comes a resolution of sorts. The storm surge of his niece’s fury is broken and its momentum dissipated. The dotty uncle can deliver a powerful punch when the need arises. We ask ourselves which is most painful and least acceptable – Atticus’s unrepentant betrayal, or the good doctor’s backhanded blow. Neither seems to represent the man who has committed each act. So which one leaves the deepest mark? And is it possible for something good to emerge from hurt, even this entails the killing of hope and the death of belief?
The timeless battle between good and evil is hardly a theme here. If there’s a “moral of the story”, it’s not easily defined. Stylistically, I suspect this book will be challenged in some school districts because of its unflinching language. But Jean Louise utters the implicit (and sometimes unacknowledged) dialogues of that day. She voices the unspoken and holds up the flawed mirror to all of the “genteel bigots” who speak well and think ugly. That disconnect shocks us. We’re left reeling by it, just as Jean Louise is reeling. She pulls us into her own horrifying enlightenment. We emerge with changed perspectives, not only on her father but on the entire spectrum of society which he represents.
To those who condemn the language and would prefer to see it censored: no ethical publisher has the authority to alter an author’s work except in an editorial context – syntax, for instance, or typos. No principled author would permit this alteration. The power of a novel that tackles unexpected prejudices is partly based on the way these prejudices are expressed, in the diction of their day (not ours). We would not speak in this way, but THEY would – and did. If part of a story’s purpose is to evoke strong emotion in the reader, then that purpose is more than fulfilled here.
As the novel progresses to its conclusion, a critical juxtaposition emerges on page 265, lines 1-2: ” … every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.” Quality of character is set at odds with awareness. Can we possess an innate sense of fairness without at the same time being aware of existing unfairness all around us? Does individual conscience supersede the group’s perceptions? This, I think, is a subtle but significant observation on Dr. Finch’s part. The novel’s title specifically points to this significance. We’re meant to grasp it.
For all his wanderings through a maze of apparent non sequiturs, the good doctor scores a touchdown that would have made the ghost of Jem Finch proud. It just takes time for the points to register.
I have been a widow for exactly three months now. “21” was always a lucky number for me and I chose it for any lottery card or game of chance that I played. I once won an enormous stuffed elephant on the wheel at a fair – can’t recall which one now – because I picked 21. But that number represents another event now. If one sees death as release from pain and suffering, and as a journey into another realm of light and healing, then it is still a number of good fortune. But perhaps not so much for anybody dealing with the aftermath of that release. It takes awhile to shift perspective.
I’ve stopped wanting to make phone calls that cannot be answered any more, or sort through yard-sale books in search of specific themes that would please another reader instead of myself. I walk through the rooms of our home in town and they feel empty of anything or anyone. It’s such a beautiful, cozy setting with its burnished wood floors and bright windows. I keep hoping that today – or tomorrow – the right person will walk in and say, “THIS is for me!” It needs to beat to the pulse of a new family. I’m not desperate financially, just hopeful to place this dear house with people who can build their future in it. And maybe walk the hiking trail as David so loved to do, while he still could.
“What would you do, while you still could?” is one of the questions always posted on ALS sites. David would have a ready answer: “I would WALK!” And walk, and walk. Bend his fingers, raise his arms, shout across the hills to hear his own echo. Yes, he’d do all those things. Simple things we don’t tend to think about.
David’s memorabilia – the prints he collected over the decades – still adorn the walls. Armies, ancient battles, ships of beauty and grace. All the history that he cherished. His rows of books wait for attention, carefully collected and arranged on shelves he built himself, just before his hands failed.
Then I stand above the river, here in the country where he so enjoyed spending the warmer months, and gaze across the water as he so often loved to do. His zero-gravity chair sits empty now. The hollowed grass where the dog curled up is grown back. Cash would lie in the shade next to David by the hour. I sometimes wonder what he thinks of this absence. How much he understands. Whether he has forgotten already or still waits for a return that can never come.
At night, the flowers glow on the little memorial cross until their solar power is spent. By the time I go to bed, it’s faded. Brief illumination in the darkness – like us, I suppose. We shine for our allotted span and then the shadows fold around us.
I’m learning to wear my changed status with greater comfort these days. Or at least with acceptance. I know there are no reversals, not unless some brilliant physicist unravels the true meaning of time and enables us to move freely on its continuum. That may come, but not yet. For now, we’re perched in the present. We feel the mist falling soft on our hair and breathe the sweetness of today’s lilies as they open. Every word I type here represents an increase in my age. This is irrevocable. In some future not imagined, I shall have my own significant date with an exit. Someone will recall that number with a certain sense of loss, regret, maybe even relief.
I can only pray that I’ll do good with the balance owing, between now and then. I need to cut through the clutter and clatter until I find what is most likely to make a difference. The rest is just extra layers. These can become heavy and pointless. Perhaps the greatest blessings, the finest gifts, have no weight at all.
The Life we have is very great.
The Life that we shall see
Surpasses it, we know, because
It is Infinity.
But when all Space has been beheld
And all Dominion shown
The smallest Human Heart’s extent
Reduces it to none.
– Emily Dickinson
Someone in my neighbourhood has either a car alarm or a house alarm that keeps going and going – it is the Energizer Bunny of alarm systems. It does this several times each day or night. Nobody appears interested in turning it off when this happens. I have timed it at 11:20 PM, in fact. It’s on so often now, Cash ignores it and won’t bark (he did at first). The sound isn’t all that bothersome to me personally, as it’s in the distance. Merely a curiosity. I have no idea who owns it.
But still … it suggests one of two things. Either we have a massive number of attempted break-ins here, which seems odd since this is a back road where everyone knows everyone and we keep our eyes on each other’s homes; or this is the most sensitive and possibly defective alarm system on the market.
However, if the whole point of having this feature is to alert us – or the police – to a potential intruder, and to act accordingly, wouldn’t it become redundant after awhile? If no one responds, and it’s just another local noise that we all accept as normal, what would happen in a REAL “situation”?
Just a rural ramble from my morning brain.
Enjoy your day! There’s so much happening in the area. The big Museum sale starts at 9, I think. We always attended that; David and I never wanted to miss it. We’d lug home all sorts of treasures. Last year it was an oil painting of two ships passing in the night. Countless books, collectibles, pet supplies, plants … you name it, we bought it. I got a doll for $2 and discovered her original, handwritten price tag dangling from one wrist: $195 before tax. David loved beautiful dolls, women or children dressed in vintage clothing. He was a Romantic at heart; he would have felt comfortable in the days of Keats and Wordsworth. Or even Queen Victoria – which was later but nonetheless, a fashionable era. He never failed to notice when someone was wearing a lovely dress – as opposed to my usual jeans and tee-shirts or other casual attire. In his head, he wanted to see me in lace and straw bonnet, trailing gauzy skirts and flowers. In my head, I wished that sort of garb would actually have suited me. Alas, my friends all know that if I were to show up looking like a “tea lady” from Maycomb, some sort of medication for my illness would not be far behind.
I tactfully refrained from mentioning that his own fashion statement consisted of tan cord pants with suspenders and a brown Argyle vest, often with checked shirt underneath. But clothes don’t always make the man, or the woman. They DO, however, make the doll!
So another annual sale has arrived. The ropes will be in place to prevent early birds from rushing the tables. There will be a constant murmur of chat punctuated by laughter, and not a few Timmie’s cups in hands waiting for their purchases. This year I will be staying home. I’m discovering that I have limits when it comes to crowds, and also to reawakening recent memories. I avoid big yard sales for the same reasons. I know I’d find many items that David would have so enjoyed having. I’d think, “I must pick this up for him.” Of course, I’d have to travel a LONG way for him to receive my bargains. As it is, at our Tusket Frenchy’s a few weeks ago, I bought a small framed print because it was just the sort of thing he liked, and he would have appreciated it – a carriage drawn by immaculate horses through what looked to be a nineteenth-century town. I felt he wouldn’t have wanted me to leave it behind. After 35 years of yard sales, I understand exactly what would have caught his attention.
I hung it on my wall as a posthumous offering of sorts. An acknowledgment that he still matters; that we all matter, because we were here and left out imprint on the fabric of the world. Memory in a thrift-shop frame.
Maybe in a few more months, crowds and flea markets and sales won’t daunt me. I wish I knew whether this is a regular occurrence among the recently-widowed? I wish we had a little support group I could attend, just to find out how to grieve. How to heal; how to tell myself that it’s all right if I skip a few once-favourite occasions. How to grasp when it’s time to buy just for me, and feel no frisson of guilt if I forget to include an unseen companion as I browse.
So go to the Yarmouth County Museum, folks. Buy lots of good stuff. Drag it home and gloat that you grabbed it before anybody else could get his or her mercenary hands on it. Have fun!! I hope the rain (badly needed) won’t descend until the sale is finished. This is an important fundraiser.
Next year, I do believe that I’ll be back!
One month ago today, my husband fell. It was Good Friday, and thus began his descent into the final weeks of his mortal existence. He entered the ER as a man still fighting, angry at fate, determined to get out of there as soon as he could. Sadly, that vital man never left the hospital.
On his darkest day, spring had extended a tentative hand. I’d expected to take him for a rambling drive along the shore, as he so loved to do. Instead, an ambulance bore him away. My drives will be solo now. He will be my unseen passenger, gazing through the windows as the road unfolds and rolls behind me. So much changes in a month!
Today, May 3rd, is one of those mornings when I can truly say, “God’s in His Heaven; all’s right with the world.” Of course, that applies only to my small corner of the world. In Nepal, nothing is right. In Baltimore, the aftermath of devastation will take time to clean up and heal. In many places, life is a struggle and the odds of survival are far lower than our own. We would be foolish to imagine ourselves the center of any universe, great or little.
Still, all I can do is celebrate the sunshine here. Where is Heaven, anyway? Is it a location? A spiritual state? An energy field? Another dimension? If God – either gender – is there, can He or She also be here? Do the two realms overlap? Will those of us in our material bodies ever connect with those who have moved to another form?
Is David wherever Heaven might be located? I’m assuming he’s in a place of rest, grace and healing. He deserves to be. He’d often claimed to be an atheist but he quite probably wasn’t. Agnostic, maybe, unable to know for sure and always up for a lively argument. But not a man in denial: his massive library testifies to his exploration of the vast and distant frontiers of science, history, philosophy, art, religion – everything that stands as testament to humanity’s finer (and lesser) achievements. Everything that makes us look up in awe and wonder. He has his answers now.
At the last, I choose to believe he accepted the existence of another, incomprehensible dwelling-place and of the Power that invited him to be there. He was alert and aware when matters of the soul were shared with him. His dear friend, John Symonds, sensed the strength of his acceptance. David had no voice, no movement, nothing but his eyes and ears. He had been reduced to vision and sound – the basics, his mind no longer concerned with food or drink or any other physical act. So he saw and he heard – watched and listened. That was enough, I think.
Who else might have been present in that room? His father, whom he never knew? His mother, with whom he needed to reconcile? His old friends long gone? The shouting boys of his childhood, the companions of his middle years? Whose faces were in the group assembled to lead him home?
In the end, he chose to leave for that unknown realm and departed in peace. Today as I work in the gardens, David will be in my thoughts. He so enjoyed his zero gravity chair, where he’d read and listen to the river. Cash was inevitably curled in the grass beside him. Gollum – who adored David and perhaps is with him again – slept in his little grave not far away. Nothing and no one is ever truly lost. This morning, I’ll walk across this bit of land and tend my flowers. I won’t be alone. The knitting of the heart’s bones will be slow. But they will knit in time.
“What an adventure my life has been!” – Napoleon Bonaparte
One of the crucial questions often posed on ALS sites reads like this: “What would you do while you still could?”
I often think about this. What, indeed? We’re all gifted with time and capability – until suddenly, the gift is withdrawn. A moment missed, an event planned and never carried out, an invitation refused. These are gifts not unwrapped. But there’s no refund for returning them. They’re just gone.
On the day my husband fell, we were anticipating a lovely drive in the early-spring sunshine. He has always enjoyed going to Sandford, seeing which boats were in (or out), meandering along Main Shore Road, parking on Port Maitland wharf across from the breakwater. We’d stop at Edna’s Bakery for tarts and fresh-sliced bread. As his disease advanced, he knew that most of it would be uneaten, except by me, but the scents were delirious! When a man can’t swallow food, his nose must provide a substitute experience. Nothing beats the olfactory “high” of bread straight from the oven.
That drive will never be taken now. A stumble – and everything changes. We’ve been well aware this was coming. ALS destroys mobility, one way or another. Falls, limb dysfunction and atrophy, or both combined. The neurons die and their tiny sparks fade. Anyone with a neurodegenerative disease will recognize this forward lurch toward stillness. For some, it happens quickly. For others, it is a slower part of the process. But inevitably, the critical point arrives.
So the gifts handed to us must be taken out of their boxes as soon as they’re received; appreciated and enjoyed. As the old Nike slogan goes, “Just do it!” Take an extra jaunt into unfamiliar territory. Spend a few nights on the road somewhere. Be open to whatever opportunities arise. Seek out friends of long standing, renew acquaintances, laugh together. Remember those who have always been there, through the darkness and the dawn, and cherish their company. Give yourself and your days to the people who stand to lose most from your absence. Allow them to keep pace with your journey, because you can’t go back again.
David was blessed to discover a companion named Gary from his long-ago childhood in the south of England. He has kept in touch with this man for a few years now. Of all our friends, only a few can know us as we were from the beginning. We scatter like wayward dandelion fluff on the wind. We might end our days without ever seeing or speaking with a single person who climbed trees with us, ran beside us on the beaches of our youth, went to camps and on school outings and off to college together. Swapped stories and traded the exciting secrets of adolescence. It is no surprise that for many older folks, recent memory erodes while recollections from past decades spring clearly to mind. They’ve worn the deepest grooves in our psyches. We speak of the ’40s or ’60s, of classic cars that were new when we first saw them, of old warriors and movie stars, politicians and adventurers – most of them dust now. Most of them unremembered by the young.
What would you do? Take a course in a subject that’s always interested you. Study a new language. Sign up for a cruise or hike to some unknown place. Read more. Learn a skill – garden, make wine, create art. Write or sing or skip down the country lanes of the heart. So what if you skip slowly? That merry girl or lively boy inside your head is going to enjoy it!
When you’re lying in a hospital bed or confined to a wheelchair, surrounded by machinery that gasps and rattles and whooshes as it sustains you, make sure you regret nothing. Do it while you still can! Celebrate wherever you are right now. Unwrap every gift – including the weirdest ones – and toss away the boxes.
Even if something breaks into a thousand fragments, the sunshine will turn those pieces to a glitter on the grass, the jewels of your own history. The mosaic unique to you, which nobody else can assemble.
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
– Edna St. Vincent Millay
The morning is a pearl. Not a twig moves in its shimmering globe. Not a bird stirs. All is tension between reality and potential – between now and later. Stasis. Welcome respite for some; anxious pause for others. The moment of keenest awareness before all the clocks in the world stutter and continue their endless, Sisyphean rounds.
Hopeful chickadees have arrived now, and a junco, picking at seeds embedded in the frozen crust. My two rats have eaten well, and crafted a maze of tunnels through the drifts. They pop up and disappear like groundhogs. As the rains move in and the snow shrinks, they will lose their winter warren. I wonder if this will disappoint them. So much effort, such complexity – gone at the whim of Nature.
Then again, isn’t that what happens to us as well? Mayan ruins, Roman walls and aqueducts, Sable Island spars drowning in sand … the winds passing indifferently over all this wrack and glory. “Cloud-capp’d towers and gorgeous palaces” dissolving, Prospero’s vision come to pass. But for now, for this hour, the rats build their corridors of ice. They never invade my human domain, for they have no need. I let them be. We live too far in the back country for pestilence to touch them, or me.
A car crunches the frozen ruts on my road. Cash barks to be let in, his urgent business completed. The cardinal enters with crimson flare. He is my Prospero, my Mage of the Snows. Someday, perhaps he will magick me to ancient Egypt or Uluru. Waking time is brief; sleep is long. And always, the pearl rolls away and the revels end.
The holiday season is well underway now – concerts, gatherings, staff parties at many establishments. Excited children, dancing lights, Santa at the local mall. Stores with groaning shelves, carolers in red velvet, cheerful music wafting through all available airspace. Trees glowing in corners; menorahs gleaming on tables or in windows.
Indeed, a festive and celebratory month.
Except when it’s not. Some folks view this time of year with dread and even despair. They may be battling illness, whether or not it is obvious to the casual observer. They may be reeling from the impact of a recent loss within their circle of loved ones. They may be financially pushed to that cold stone wall which offers no doorway out. They might be struggling to sustain a relationship, or mourning a breakup they may not have wanted. Every balm for their wounds will turn to salt, and the salt to tears.
They could be estranged from family members, unemployed and unable to find work, recently-moved into an unfamiliar place. There might not even be a home they can claim, other than a doorstep, a bench, a temporary shelter. This is the season when the homeless feel the cold. This is the season when fires – meant for heating houses – end up destroying those houses instead. And this is the season when children go without the gifts their classmates enjoy, because these gifts cannot be provided.
And so the people who stand outside endless, glittering windows must confront the joyous displays, the songs, the endless “Ho Ho Ho” messages, with a certain bitterness at the brutality of fate. These are people within whom no candles are lighted. Broken people, burdened people – voiceless, isolated. People with little hope of relief and little expectation of the simple kindnesses many of us take for granted. Afraid to ask anyone for support; reluctant to seek help for themselves, although they may do it for their children. Too proud to come forward and search for a loving face in the crowd. Terrified of being judged, and knowing full well that, indeed, judgment is being passed upon them.
No shared Facebook meme will make a difference to those who most need comfort. No “post on your wall for an hour” will help them. No “I say Merry Christmas” preaching will breach their sadness. Many won’t even have computer access. Others will be craving a personal communication that never comes. Some might even retreat from the internet – or at least from social media – until this whole glitzy, glorious, glaring time is over and the bells have rung its death. Then they’ll return, quietly and without explanation. For them, the Christmas weeks are their signal to disappear.
Joy to the World … but the world can shrink to a bubble for some. It can blow away, carrying with it all the rainbow swirls that shine so brightly. Then the night becomes silent, indeed.
People speak of the “dark night of the soul”. It is real. It is overwhelming. You wake up to it and wonder where the door is. Every step is barefoot on glass that has no shine. The cup sits at your left hand, glimmering with its burden, and you beg for it to be taken away. But of course, it isn’t. You have filled it yourself. Every sin you have ever committed – even those you’ve forgotten – swirls in its dregs. Every regret, every sorrow, every wrong done to others – they’re all part of that elixir. You stare at it, terrified to drink. But you will. Inevitably, you will.
This is the time for family – if you have one – to gather and shut the drapes against a darkfall that many will never endure. This is the time for friends to toot their horns as they pass, their headlights leading your pathway out. They have, after all, thought to acknowledge you, and thoughts are another kind of beam through the dusk. But on this night, you’re lost to family, though they may be unaware of it. Friends pass and follow their own destinies. They don’t see that overturned sky over your head. And they couldn’t raise it, should they want to try. You must protect them from that knowledge, and from that attempt.
So you draw the blankness around yourself like a robe. You turn off your porch lantern and cancel the warmth falling on your yard, where the grass is frozen. No sleepy birds murmur in this winter of your discontent. In the old days, wagons ringed a comforting fire. Wolves and night terrors dared not intrude. But there are no wagons now. No fire but a candle clumsily lighted. And the wolves tiptoe closer, baring the teeth of those who hate you. Sadly, they far outnumber those who love, because after all, this is your darkness. You have shaped it through your own pain.
Because no one is entirely without fault, and you understand this, you’ve muddled along as best you can manage. No one believes you won’t keep on doing it. You err because that’s the human thing. You get back to the road and survive a few more years. Your twist your ankle or shatter your heart as you fall off the margin of that road and of those years. Then you either limp forever after, or work out the injury and build yourself stronger for awhile.
And in the irony of ironies, chances are you will be noted most for the brilliance of your smile. You’ve learned to hide everything behind it. You’ve cultivated it like a flower that blooms best after sunset. And when people say, “You have the most beautiful smile,” you feel reassured. You have hidden well the shadow that would turn your face to a mask of grief.
But the dark night still comes. It closes down around you, the way cooling stones trap water. Perhaps this is how crystals feel, locked in their geodes, unable to shine for anyone until the rock is broken. The risk involves smashing the best and most beautiful of those gems. Escape entails a cost. Something inevitably cracks.
Ask not for whom the bell tolls, indeed. You need not raise that particular question. The ringing drowns out all other music now. It goes on and on; it shakes the windows. You block your ears and it swells inside without the slightest softening.
But like the winecup, poured at your behest, you can identify where this tolling started. There’s no need to ask. You’ve hung that damned bell in your own soul, after all. Now you’ve hauled on the ropes, it won’t stop. It peals into that not-so-good night where no one goes gentle, and most don’t go at all. Only you, and only now.
You walk into the darkness on a carillon trail, unspooling silence behind you.
Today, we remember the lost, the fallen, who often lie in waters or fields unknown except to God, without recorded names – without anyone now alive who can recall their faces.
I think of Ezekiel’s vision, the Valley of Dry Bones, when dusty skeletons are clothed in flesh and rise, a vast army, to stand before us. We are about to clothe in flesh – for an hour’s communion – these honoured dead. They were the children of Israel in Ezekiel’s dream but now, they are the children of all humanity, friend or foe, resting together. For this one day, our own are standing again; we can see them on the periphery of the crowd, gathered among trees, walking down cemetery rows. They lean fold-armed beside their old comrades and circle the poppied cenotaphs; they touch the shoulders of young cadets who stand watch with heads bowed. They pass as the wind, and a teenager in immaculate uniform is moved to wonder at this; at the feeling that someone has gently touched her face in greeting. The old man beside her has no curiosity. He already knows what and who it was.
These great armies and squadrons and fleets marched, soared or sailed forth with hope and resolution, bound for their own destinies, praying they would not fail. They must have been daunted by the enormity of this task, frightened by their own frailty, unable to dwell on that fear lest they give in to it. They would have been anxious to return home at the end of it all. And while many did survive, numberless millions did not. No one endures any conflict untouched; if the body remains unmarked, the mind carries its own gashes. The living, too, have experienced a form of death. It is heavy on them; it is in them, in their eyes and hands and voices. They have given up something that most young people take for granted: some call it innocence. I believe it is, in part, the idea that there can be permanent victory or defeat with clear boundaries between them.
But in any war, although I’ve shared only in my father’s reflections rather than the actual experience, I suspect that clarity might be difficult to grasp. Who, really, is the enemy? Is it the kid who was driven to fight because his community or national leaders demanded it? The commander who knows that no matter what he might do to protect them, his men will be placed at dreadful risk and that many will fall? The artist sketching a propaganda poster in some stone building far removed from the guns? The father desperate to protect his family from threat of destruction? The German submariner who enters a Derry pub and finds himself surrounded by sailors from an opposing navy, men who offer him a foaming pint and clear a place at the bar?
We can easily recognize the brutal and corrupt leadership whose motives have forced such horrors on everyone else. They are almost unreachable and they destroy anyone who dares to confront their authority. But between these war-dealers and their adversaries, there strides that vast army of clothed bones – youth whose parents loved them, hugged them, cried when they left home. They march for the side of evil, or for the side of right and truth. We can tell the difference, of course. Or so we believe. But the lines blur over time. Monsters are destroyed, warring parties reconcile, treaties are established and the world lurches forward. The dead sleep well, even among those who have killed them. They cannot differentiate. Only we can do that.
Still, every combatant understands the price of victory.They have all paid their tokens in advance, but the coinage weighs more for some than for others. And now they come to us, full of love for this nation they have so proudly served, and asking that we remember – not for themselves, but for us. That we acknowledge the apathy, the callousness, the depths of both greed and hatred that bring devastation to humankind. That we choose to take another road and give everything we own to keep it secure.
Surely, we can promise them this. While war brings its uncertainties, the protection of peace is a choice that few can argue. We must promise them our best and finest efforts, in memory of theirs.