Sunday, November 1, 2015

Remembering

The view from my Dad's grave...
The first of November, All Saints' Day. A time, for me, to remember - people, places, emotions. It all started in Germany, this melancholy time of year for me. This darkness of the soul which will lift once Thanksgiving is here.

Or perhaps the first snowfall arrives.

Prior to 1998, I always was as excited as a little kid when mid-October rolled around. The weather got cooler, the leaves were a blaze of color, there was that morning of the first frost. I don't know why, but the approach of winter was something I always looked forward to.

Some of you will scoff at this story, perhaps think less of me for it, but that doesn't bother me. I intend to share something of my life and times with you here, that has always been the plan. The main goal though was to leave something behind of myself, something my children and grandchildren can someday read and perhaps know just what sort of person I was.

In November of 1998 I was within seven months of retiring from the Air Force. Something I loved doing, something I had been doing for nearly 24 years was about to end. The future loomed more so than it ever had before. In less than a year I would be a civilian again. No more uniforms, no more regulations, orders or directives of a military nature. It was all a bit daunting.

Then one of our cats (Tiger) got sick. He was only five, still young, too young to have kidney problems but that was the diagnosis.

Our Dutch vet tried his best, Tiger seemed to be getting better. In reality it was his last gasp. When I got home from work on November the 11th, The Missus Herself was holding him, he was barely cognizant of his surroundings. He looked so helpless and tiny in her arms. I made a phone call, the Dutch vet was out of town, most veterinarians in our area were closed on Wednesday evenings. So I called our German vet, yes, we had two. While his office was closed, it was behind his house and he agreed to meet us there.

We got into the car, my wife holding Tiger, talking softly to him and we headed out. I had forgotten that it was St. Martin's Day, a holiday we had enjoyed a great deal since coming to Germany. One aspect of the holiday is a procession through the town. Every village had it's procession. We had to drive through two such villages to get to the vet. It seemed to take forever to find a path around each procession. I was unfamiliar with the side streets in those two villages.

Finally we arrived. The vet met us at the door to his clinic and we went in. I have to say, the man tried hard to save Tiger. But it was all for naught. With one last protesting howl, Tiger passed into memory. A place where he still lives, chasing his ball (he loved to play fetch), wrestling with his brother Pat, and singing to his humans. The boy had an amazing repertoire of meows, it sounded like singing to us.

I was devastated. I couldn't eat, sleep or even function for nearly three days. To this day I don't fully understand my reaction to his death. He was my little furry buddy, now he was gone.

His urn was brought to the house on Thanksgiving Day, a holiday not celebrated in Germany or the Netherlands. I met the man from the pet crematoria in our driveway. We had a park bench in that driveway where we'd sit in the summer.

Well, I sat there on that bench on a cold November afternoon, hugging that urn to my chest, face wet with tears, for quite some time.

The next year, we were back in the States. As Thanksgiving approached I felt no excitement and very little joy, it was as if the spirit of the season had left me altogether. But the years passed, time healed that wound, somewhat, and I began to regain my sense of wonderment and joy at the approach of November. Since I was a child I always reckoned that the holiday season began with Halloween, followed some four weeks later by Thanksgiving, then a month later with Christmas. Fun times in my family for as far back as I can remember.

Then in 2003, two weeks to the day before Halloween, our cat Pat, Tiger's brother, collapsed. He couldn't move his back legs at all. He was only ten, it seems that he had thrown a blood clot which had cut off circulation to his hind legs. There was nothing the vet could really do, in fact there was the real possibility that the clot would move again and kill him.

We, I, made the difficult (and heart rending) decision to let Pat go, to "put him down."  (The guilt I feel from that decision will stay with me forever.) I held my little friend as the vet injected him, I held Pat as he too passed into memory, to a place beyond our ken as long as we walk in this world.

Years have passed, twelve to be precise, since we lost Pat, seventeen since we lost Tiger. Both lost during a season which once brought me great joy. Now things are better, but I try not to get too excited about the season. It's almost as if I think that if I enjoy this time of year too much, something I love will be taken away from me. Odd, I know, but I can't shake that feeling.

So as the leaves fall, as the days get shorter, as the frost touches the mornings with more frequency, I still enjoy the season. But that enjoyment is muted. Many I have loved have passed into what lies ahead since my youth. Grandparents, aunts, and uncles, friends and beloved pets have "gone ahead" leaving me wondering, as I get older, will I see them again? What lies beyond this veil of tears?

My religion gives me mixed messages. Do the dead wait for the final reckoning, the Second Coming? Or do they go to be with God, Jesus and the Saints immediately? The parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16) seems to indicate that Heaven (or Hell) is immediate. Other sections of the Bible seem to indicate that no one goes anywhere until the Second Coming of the Savior.

It's confusing to this simple old sergeant. My heart tells me one thing, the religious scholars tell me another. Have those scholars ever listened to the wind whispering through the pines on a sunny afternoon in autumn? Have they listened to the birds sweetly singing in the trees in springtime, singing their joy at the sunrise? I'm not sure.

I have heard those things, I listen when the crows talk to each other. I pay attention and listen as the water flows to the sea down a stony brook deep in the hills of my beloved New England.

So in this season, as the summer dies, as winter loosens up and prepares to take the field, I remember those who went before. I remember the good times, and the bad. I try to make sense of it all. There are days when it is beyond my powers of reason to understand, so I listen to the wind in the trees.

There I hear my God speak to me and know that all will be well.

My faith keeps me going.

As I remember.

16 comments:

  1. Combining two Army sayings, one from my son's era and one from mine, "Embrace the suck, drive on". Not being callous; just that every morning you need to get up and start putting one foot in front of the other.

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    1. Oh I get that, it's what I do when I need to, which is, fortunately, not very often.

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  2. You do have other cats now do you not Sarge?

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    1. Yes I do and I cherish them. Hard to forget the old ones though, my kids grew up with them.

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  3. What can I say, other than this is a beautiful piece? I've known that heartbreak and have cried similar tears; nothing to be ashamed of, in any way. Anyone who didn't give a damn would be the one to be ashamed. Think less of you for it? Hardly. If anything, it emphasizes my respect for you as a human being.

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  4. Part of being a real and complete human being is figuring out that faith doesn't have anything to do with certainty. I'm not sure a person can be a complete human without learning to resign themselves to never getting an answer to the metaphysical why questions. Life is sacred, at least in part because making life is far above our paygrade. None of us can make as much as a cell, let alone a cat or a person. Neither can we know why cells and cats and cattle and people are not immortal. All we can know is that's the way it is. We also know, or at least learn, that when life departs from the creatures we know the pain of that mortal separation is enormous. It's hugely more enormous when we lose those we've come to love. Makes no difference whatsoever whether the loved one is a goldfish or a grandmother. Love and loss are a package deal. As much as it sucks, I don't believe the former could exist without the latter. The tiny silver lining is that occasionally we can use our experience of love and loss to ease the burden of our fellows. Which is what you've done with depth and eloquence here. Thank you my friend.

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  5. Okay, I'm gonna admit that brought tears.

    A thought on when you wrote: "My heart tells me one thing, the religious scholars tell me another."
    God is in my heart, not in my head.

    Sean says it pretty well, too.

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  6. I embrace the "Fiddlers Green" eschatology myself--maybe a bit of Valhalla thrown in.

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    1. That's a good one, a place where sailors can carouse and be happy and have no fear of the shore patrol. Valhalla is another thing entirely, not sure I'd want to fight all day and drink all night!

      I do believe that the Heaven of the priests is nothing like the real thing. Nothing at all like that.

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  7. It's not an empty clearing there at the end of the path. There's plenty of room for all kinds.

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  8. In February 2000, my beloved Norwegian Forest Cat, Lazarus', time ran out, at 18 years of age, he was just worn out. He was a cat that radiated love, and liked being with his people. He knew when you needed comforting, and was there to give it. In 1994/95, I was involved in a nightmare relationship with a woman who, having been married to an abuser for 9 years, was no longer entirely sane.

    The aftermath of that has kept me from even asking anyone out for 20 years, as no one will be allowed to be in the position to hurt me the way Corinne did. All through that time, Laz would always meet me at the door, when I came home in the morning, and would curl up next to me as I mourned, snuggleing up to me, and purring for me. Sometimes, when things were really bad between Corinne and I, and I would cry myself to sleep, I found just how absorbant Forest cats are. He was a very, very important member of my family.
    When his life got to the point where he was in constant discomfort, I took him to the vet, and held him when she gave him the shot, and held him as he drifted off, and went limp. I then went home, and cried all afternoon, yet there was no Forest Cat there to help.

    So, I know of what you speak, and cannot imagine having to go though it twice. Remember, Sarge, you are Badger Approved.

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    1. Thanks for sharing that Scott.

      Thanks especially for that last bit.

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