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I was 12 when my father, a Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, was called to a year in Vietnam. My mother, sister, and I moved in with Mom's mom in her turn-of-the-century brick house north of Little Rock. The year was 1965.
In the house was a boarded room. Without being told in so many words, I learned it was not to be talked about. When the attempt was made, eyes would dart to the worn carpet or out the window to the golf course across the road; or else another topic—Lyndon Johnson's beagles or what soup to have with lunch—would be broached. These were sufficient signals for even a boy thought dull and impertinent by some of his schoolteachers to sense nearness to the edge of an invisible, dangerous precipice.
My family had always been indirect. Plain-spokenness, it was felt, jangled the sensibilities beyond what could be reasonably endured. Better to wring from life such peace and happiness as one could, than deal with life's inevitable unpleasantnesses.
Death, in particular, was a thing most scrupulously to be avoided, not solely as a practical matter—as evidenced, for example, by overly-solicitous precautions against rare winter blizzards or admonitions to sip one's ice-water slowly on summer's dog days—but also as a mere subject of conversation. Although I never consciously formed the thought until much later, at some level I must have wondered whether such caution was induced by superstition or the habit of a healthy mind.
I, of course, was more than happy to oblige the enforced confinement to what one might call emotional green pastures; joys, after all, are hard enough to come by without dwelling unnecessarily on misfortunes. The unspoken consensus among us was that the Valley of the Shadow would come soon enough. On balance, I think it could be argued my first seven years were as felicitous as any middle-class American boy's.
My eighth year, however, was different. I was in the second grade when a classmate named Jack drowned in a swimming pool. I remember no details. As far as I recall it simply happened, and life for everyone still living, so I supposed, went on as before.
But something in a dull boy changed that day, though by degrees so imperceptible that, years later, only the Arkansas oaks could take the full measure as under their deepening shade he, with tears streaming, buried a kitten given him the day his father went to defend and kill sons in a faraway place.
A father, seeing his child die, dies every day until he dies.
With the passing of years, Death became to me ever more irksome and audacious; the Intruder who insisted it was I who was living in his home. When my best man committed suicide in 1979 and I failed, miserably, to console either his mother or myself, I felt, in addition to myriad other dark humors, mocked. How much must people suffer? “Too much,” came the answer. “If this is blessing in disguise. . . .” and then the slightly-less-trite repartee: “Then the disguise is too good.”
A mother, seeing her child suffer, suffers more than the child.
My Father! Is this a dream? What am I privy to?
I sat up in bed, heart pounding. My first confused thought was, my father is in Vietnam. But no, that was 1965. Dad died of a heart attack in 1980, the year my first child, my daughter, was born. What year is this? Where am I? Why did I think of Dad?
In my hand were notes I had scrawled hours earlier. At the top was one word, “Equanimity.” Beneath it, these:
They buried a child today as I looked on
I saw the mother submit publicly
To the raping spade
Polite eyes strayed grassward
As the father crumpled
Beside the earth’s deformity
A book was opened
Words strove out
But nothing was said, nothing heard
Over the din of futility
They were quietly led away from their brief miracle
The exoskeleton still clinging
The cicada flown
After seventeen years
The book’s vault was sealed shut
The sky did not split
Or the heavens implode
I knelt to place my incongruous flowers
Among the agony-strewn stones
And rose to damn the singing bird
I listened intently, in spite of myself, conditioned as I was by decades of silence. I wadded the paper and threw it against the wall. It seemed almost a sacrilege to have written it; and yet as I reflected, a greater sacrilege not to have done so.
I retrieved it and lay back down, and as I did I became aware, if only vaguely at first, that I knew something; something that, all along, had been slowly growing in my understanding, though I was not sure what it was. This is what I thought it was: “The fellowship of His sufferings.” Why did I think that? “A thing which cannot be uttered; the pain of Parents for sons and daughters, without number, without merciful interlude.”
Weep, child; weep with Us that weep; cry rivers of tears until the crystal sea from whence they flow is wiped away and is no more
That's what I didn't hear, but knew. With sudden clarity I realized I didn't have to be told why the room was boarded. But I had to know.
I returned to Little Rock in 1998, retracing with my own 12-year-old son the childhood steps of an itinerant Air Force family. The current occupants of Grandmother's house, strangers to us in what I silently realized was a most decidedly unimportant way, graciously let us “tour the grounds.”
As we made our way down the hallway on uncarpeted, hundred-year-old hardwood floors, I could see from the precipice edge that the room was unboarded, as, in faith, I knew it would be.
I gripped my son's arm tightly. He did not know why. How could he? I did not go in. That would happen soon enough.
Taped to the wall above my hospital bed, in scribbled utterance probably only the oaks, sworn to holy silence, can know the full significance until kingdom come, is a new song:
Beloved, how can you be troubled now
This final hour of unfriendly night,
When Christ has pledged, as with a marriage vow,
To take you to His house of cheery light?
If lavishly He spilled the bottled wine
To celebrate your love; if eagerly
He slipped into the thorny ring as sign
And seal of purest sworn fidelity;
If joyously He cast the veil aside
To steal the honeyed kisses of the mouth
That named Him as her love and she His bride,
How can you suffer any foolish doubt
That He shall shortly take you home as wife
Whose worth to Him He measured with His life?
Rolley Haggard is a feature writer for BreakPoint.