Arrival from always, departure to forever

David and Pam In 1966, just as the war in Vietnam was hitting its stride, my father retired from the US Air Force.

Packing up the wife and three small children (the oldest — me — having just completed the second grade) he returned to the town of his own childhood, a place in the Appalachian foothills of northern Alabama with the peculiar name of Boaz.

Moving was nothing new for us: by that time I had lived in military bases in Montgomery, Alabama (twice); Biloxi, Mississippi; Syracuse, New York; and had even spent a short spell in Boaz while my father was serving a stint in Vietnam. I knew that stability was fragile, possessions a burden, and that friendships had to be quick to form and shallow enough to walk away from without pain.

The final move to Boaz, however, was different. A military base is a special world for a small child, safe and vivid and full of excitement and mystery; Boaz was … well, quiet. No recruits double-timing down the street in front of the apartment; no decommissioned fighter jets parked in vacant lots, swarming with small children (for whom a chain-link fence was more an invitation than a barrier); no Commissary; no PX; no movie theater just around the corner; no library.

Despite having spent most of my life up to that point in the deepest Deep South, I did not have a southern accent — my mother, a transplanted New Englander, had bequeathed me her more precise grammar and neutral delivery. I was fairly well-read for my age (thanks to the easy access to books on base) and my previous schools had been somewhat more advanced that the one I now found myself attending. Teachers seemed irritated, even antagonized, by my efforts to please. Classmates were suspicious, sometimes hostile. The transition went from awkward to uncomfortable to excruciating in no time at all.

The adaptability that goes with being a military brat assumes certain preconditions — an urban environment, a population of other kids with equally shallow roots, and the levelling effect of never being exposed to the same group of people for more than a year or two at a time. Boaz had none of these things. This was an environment where cliques had long since been sealed, newcomers remained newcomers for years, and everyone spoke with the same accent. I felt, sounded, looked alien. The only thing that kept me from diving under the bed and never coming out again was the idea, despite being told otherwise, that we would move again before too long, return to the real world, the world of tanks and books and soldiers singing rude songs as they trotted down the street.

“… Look down through the five senses like stars/To where our lives lie small and equal like two grains/Before Chance — the hawk’s eye or the pilot’s/Round and shining on the open sky,/Reflecting back the innocent world in it.”

 

— Lawrence Durrell, “The Pilot”

Within a matter of months, just as the terrors of the new reality were taking firm hold, a family with a daughter my age moved in next door.

They were also from elsewhere, they were Air Force, they were also well-travelled, and Pam talked just like me. Naturally, we became friends — not in school, oddly enough, we were rarely in the same classes — but we spent much of our free time together, riding bikes, climbing trees, romping around in the cornfields (long since built over) behind our houses, tormenting our younger siblings, and talking, talking, talking.

After a year or so, Pam and her family moved around the corner, but remained within shouting distance. As time passed, we drifted in different directions — Pam was athletic, bright, heedless, the sort of person who excelled without obvious effort, while I was shy, small for my age, brainy, but an underachiever, irrationally terrified of my classmates and my teachers — but our bond endured.

By high school we had moved almost entirely into different worlds: apart from band (characteristically, I played clarinet while Pam played trumpet) we had little in common, and we each spent more and more time pursuing our separate interests.

College brought us together again, closer than ever, for a couple of years. We became almost inseparable. Teachers referred to us as brother and sister, and classified us as bright, but doomed.

Despite that renewal of our friendship, the separation that followed was more than just a relocation around the corner: Pam moved to Huntsville, fifty miles north, married, divorced; I moved to Birmingham, ninety miles south, stumbled through two more years of college, and then wandered off into a long and labyrinthine passage to adult life.

In the decades that followed we both moved, and moved again, changing as we went, putting ever more distance between us. By the time we reached our thirties, I had washed up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Pam had come to ground in San Diego, California — we had finally managed to place an entire continent between us.

We still met, at widely spaced intervals, almost always in Boaz, on neutral ground. Pam had remarried, with stepchildren to look after, and I was building a career, so the visits were often brief.

At our twenty-fifth-anniversary high-school reunion, we made up for lost time, spending the last few days of the holiday in New Orleans, reliving the past, lying to each other about the future. Pam drank a bit, and smoked a lot — these were habits she developed early on, and polished as time went by. (I smoked for some years, but finally gave it up as simply requiring too much effort, and never had much capacity for alcohol.) By our mid-forties the differences in our lifestyles had become deep, but even on Bourbon Street at four a.m. I still kept seeing the girl next door behind the haze of jello-shots and nicotine.

A few years ago Pam and I saw each other — for the last time, as it happened — while she waited for a connecting flight at DFW Airport in Dallas. I drove out to the airport to meet her and we sat on a bench in the Texas sun for a couple of hours and chatted, just as we always had. Despite the heat, she was cold, bundled up in a jacket and furry boots; thinner than I had seen her, smoking one cigarette after another, her conversation wandering, clicking, sometimes stumbling, sometimes dancing. She was ill, but I did not understand that — perhaps I refused to understand that: I believed that she wasn’t taking care of herself, that she was over-tired, under-eating, typical Pam. For me, nothing else was possible. I avoided looking too closely, asking questions.

In the years that followed I failed to keep up, to maintain contact, more concerned with sustaining my illusions than with the person who wore them.

This week Pam moved again, moved even further away, and the continent that lies between us is one that can only be crossed once, and then only in one direction. She’s gone further from me than I ever thought possible, and I am less now than I was.

We spent more time apart than we did together over the last forty-eight years, but that means that there was little time for bad memories — our moments together were precious and important.

Even there on that airport bench, sitting in the sun watching the taxicabs creep past us, the shouting men, loaded with luggage, shrill women in uncomfortable shoes — even there, I remember clearly that, different as she was –as different as I was — one thing had not changed: I could hear forty years of echoes every time she laughed, and with every smile we were children again, strangers in a strange land, sharing.

 

Journal: Thursday, September 12

My friend Sebastian, in better times

My friend Sebastian, in better times

My best friend Sebastian died this afternoon, snuggled up in my arms, whimpering and snuffling, trying to purr as I scratched the back of his neck. He had been suffering for several days from a very high fever that evolved into a rampaging anemia that turned his skin yellow and robbed his blood of the ability to transport enough oxygen to keep him alive, no matter how hard he struggled to breathe. He was frightened, and in pain, and he knew that, just like always, I was there to make it all better. Instead, I held him while the veterinarian injected him with a quick, silent poison that ended his life within seconds of my giving her my assent.

I know, intellectually, that death is a fact of life: I’ve outlived friends, said goodbye to family, and buried literally dozens of pets over the last fifty-five years. I know that we all die, and that a world in which we didn’t would be a grotesque and horrible place; I know that immortality could never by anything but a cancer, changing and deforming the very organisms it preserves.

Emotionally, however, every loss still hurts, burning with a different mix of denial, guilt, grief, anger, and loss. Emotionally, that elegant intellectual understanding of the proper sequence of birth and life and death and new birth smells like nothing more than a steaming bucket of excrement.

As human beings, we have always seen ourselves as perched atop the pinnacle of creation: second only to God; stewards of the Garden; the naked ape clinging to the very highest branches of the tree of life. For reasons too complex and too deeply-seated for me to ever articulate, it is important to me that the creatures in my care live without fear, without pain. I know perfectly well how artificial an environment that is: any living being in a natural state would not survive a day if he — or she, or it — did not know fear and pain, know them and understand them at a visceral level. Still, I feel the need to shelter my pets, to prove that I am greater than the arbitrary whims of nature. I defy entropy, thereby demonstrating that I am beyond it, above it, superior to it. If I were honest with myself, I would admit that what I’m doing is more about broadening and deepening my own sense of self-worth, my notion of my importance in the grand scheme of things, than about the animals, but if I were honest with myself, I wouldn’t be in this position in the first place, trying to drag the universe down these strange and difficult paths.

Sebastian depended on me, he depended on my omniscience and my super-natural authority to make his world a happy and secure one. He depended on me, and I failed him. The fact that success was not even remotely possible means nothing, at least for today: he knew that I would always make things right for him, he trusted me, and all I could do was end his life. I grieve for him, for the absence of him in my day to day life, but I’m also angry, outraged that the god-human image of myself that Sebastian and I created between us proved to be such a frail and useless fraud.

I did my best for Sebastian, or at least the best I believed I could do at the time. I know this. I really do. Eventually I will go beyond knowing and I will actually believe it, and the guilt and the anger will diminish, and the grief will mature, and only the loss will remain, the faint smell of smoke left after the fire burns itself out; and with time, even that will mellow, and I will remember Sebastian with pleasure and not with the gut-wrenching reminder that he is no longer in the next room, curled up in a chair, waiting for me.

But that’s tomorrow, or the day after. Not today; no, not today.

"...
And you find yourself
In a great house with many windows open
Running from room to room, not knowing where to look out.
Because the pines will vanish, and the mirrored mountains
And the chirping of the birds.
The sea will empty, shattered glass, from North to South.
Your eyes will be emptied of the light of day
As suddenly, all at once, the cicadas will fall silent."

(Excerpted from “Thrush”, by George Seferis)