On Shields and Swords

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Frank, what do you know? It's you and me again tonight.
 The rough riders, tearing up the streets, just like old times.
 This old bus is a warrior, Frank. I have tried to kill her, but she will not die.
 I have a great respect for that.
 Tom Wall - Bringing Out the Dead

An elderly man sits in front of a cold television set, the house is warm, but silent this day. There are plenty of homemade meals, frozen and put carefully away and labeled, things his daughter made for him, on hand. But tonight, he just wanted some canned chicken soup and a generous drop of amber liquid, something familiar and warm for his soul.

Outside the wind blows, new spring leaves clinging to still bare branches as fiercely as flags. Inside, the phone rings, it's the neighbors, a couple of "kids in their 60's", as he calls them, calling to check up on him across the little white brick fence.  For they'd not seen anyone leave the house for a walk in a couple of days. Beyond the simple expression of Christian caring, they were concerned. He was fine.

He was glad they noticed.
PA State Cop walking Abby Normal with me. 

His son used to live here, and he remembers those last days, his son sleeping, even early in the day, taking in little nourishment, but that which is needed for the pain. The two of them had some adventures, there in those days after the chemo was done.  It was a brief period of endless times, tearing up the streets, if only in the form of a road trip or two, a huge bottle of pickled herring, a six pack and a trip to the ER because someone got bad acid reflux.  Good times, times winding down, he thought as he watched his son sleep most of the day as if the heavens forgot to rewind him.

Tonight, his son is gone and his wheels are silent.  He's alone with his thoughts and the past, hoping the phone will ring.  It would be his daughter, who lives so far away, who checks on him daily and visits when she has days off that allow for a quick flight out there and back.

He thinks of her, not as a grown woman, but always as that little auburn-haired child who would sit on the couch for hours.  Her companions were the books she coveted, books that she did not so much simply love, but crave like an addict, the fire that flowed from the writer's mind through fingertips to be burnt upon the page, then doused with the water of laughter or tears, and wrung out again.  He always said there was no interrupting her when she was like that, the house could burn down around her as she embraced the words among the flames.  She remembers him saying  "She'll love everything that hard.  That will be both her blessing and her curse".  She wonders why she remembers it now.

He settles down as he waits for her call.
She, in turn, is glad he has neighbors that check on him, and a nurse's aide with him morning through night. He is a man that's already outlived two children and two wives, been part of a Great War and watched his friends die, limping back from battle in an aircraft punctuated with German greetings.  He's as tough as some hardy winter plant that can bloom under the heel of snow, unaware of the heart's unceasing combat with its own thinning blood

So someone always checks on him and she has had more than one call when his curtains weren't opened or the dog was barking, only to find he'd simply fallen asleep in the chair.  Apologies were made but she would dismiss them, for better to be concerned and have it be a false alarm when looking away from someone who is in need of dire help.
We are so afraid of getting into anyone's business or even looking closely at our own, that we often fail to look around us, to watch for threats, even as we appreciate all the good that is still around us. Tensions build, darkness threatens, yet there will always be someone, head down, not noticing, with a "lalalalala". It's scary when I see that in a young woman, prey for so many. It's even scarier when I see it in those who, by their power, are supposed to make things safer so when I am ready and willing to defend myself, it's against a manageable target.

It wasn't always this way. In my Dad's time, a nation attacked us without warning and we dropped a very large atomic bomb on them. Today, we apologize profusely to those who wish to kill us, closing the shutters so we don't see rogue nations continue to build their nuclear capability. We close our mouths, stopping our protests before they become sound.

Off work for the day, I go for a short run in sweatpants and a dark blue Citadel sweatshirt, the need to get out in the wind briefly stilled.  With a bad knee, it is a work in progress, moving always, finding the composition of lift and motion that will propel me forward, help me get past the pain that is more than a knee, scanning the horizon for anything unusual, gun on my hip under my shirt

The place I live when working is in a little town some miles from the city but close enough that we have to be vigilant. It's relatively quiet, with some nice houses, a young neighbor I recognize walking a lab, and his wife, pushing a stroller. But there are a few homes only a few miles further east that look like the only lab they have is of the meth variety. I see an older neighbor and stop and ask her about her grandchild, she asks about my family and tells me she misses seeing Abby.  I thank her, for small connections, small reassurances.

I see someone on the bike trail that goes past my road. I recognize her, a city clerk, another volunteer at the food kitchen, we chat briefly and wave goodbye. As I head out into the open area that's part of a nature preserve. I see a movement off in the brush. Dog? Coyote? Now I knew I was in no danger from the coyote or his brethren, as there were many walkers about, but I was in his world. To my eyes, his world was dark, every noise I make is a threat or a promise. Where he could see, I was blind, where he could smell, my senses were mute. What he could hear eluded me completely. What drew him in, was as old as time and as uncaring. While I had intellect and size he had the grimness of infallibility, instincts honed through generations of survival in an ever-dangerous land.

Despite the scientific part of my brain telling me that logically I was in no danger, there are primal forebodings that stir softly in our blood. Times, despite logic, cause a less than a subliminal sense of something lurking, watching. Something that stalks quietly, closer to our world than we want.
As I headed back towards my garage,I see a young man I don't recognize, coming from the direction of town I tend to avoid. His eyes are binge drinking slits, downcast, his hands in his pockets, his whole movement, one of coiled tension and anger, at his parents, at life, who knows. I clear my throat and make eye contact and move across the street towards the gleam of light in a window, walking head up, hand ready, determined in my movements, even if I still have a bit of a limp when I'm tired.  He moves away and past, paying as little attention to me as he does his own grooming, not knowing that had he moved with the intention of harm, I would have dropped the whole world on him.

I care, for people, for friends, and even for strangers who, having lived lives of work and honor, just need a little support. And, as Dad surmised in those last days before he left, I love deeply.  But I have a limited capacity for empathy for scavengers and predators, having seen in my travels around the world, some absolute realities beyond the billboard of illusion that the socially and politically naive never imagine.
I go inside my home, setting down on the table my own sword; one in the form of a large caliber firearm, dropping the badge in my coat pocket on the table; my shield, one that grants access to grief but does not protect me from sorrow. For sometimes you think you can fly, only to be destined to drown.

For years, I did all I could to protect not just my physical form, but my heart-- doing what people the world over do when they are hurt. I pushed everyone away.  I also pushed my boundaries, sometimes hanging up high in the air, the g-forces on my body a distraction from the pain, the air parting like the Red Sea, my only need to move on at maximum risk to my body, and minimum risk to my soul.

I wanted nothing from the world but the ability to push through it without being touched.  I talked little to people but much to the sky, whispering to it my regrets as I rolled through 40 degrees of bank, taking counsel with that great blue solitude.

You think that cheating death like that would make me feel alive but for a time, it was a battle without passion, grey and colorless, with neither the urge to win nor the fear to lose, played out before an arena with no audience.  I came within a few knots of a final pronouncement more than once and found that I had nothing left to say.

The only sound was the wings cleaving the air, a sound that is like all other sounds of profound mystery, the lap of a wave upon a shore, the echo of taps, the whispers of a voice that speaks to you in dreams from an eternity away, heard but not comprehensible.

There were a lot of good times, and there were a lot of good memories wasted as more than once I said "should have" or "would have"  Those are words in all of our hearts, at least once. We recall much of our life as each year passes, candles on another cake, warm breath against the flames. But what do you remember most - the best day of your life or your last regret?

The difference is profound.
How often do we stay silent, when we are searching, when we need help when we are hurt?  How often do we shut ourselves away when we want a cool touch upon the brow or a hand that helps us up a steep slope. How many times have we wanted to say what was in our hearts but kept silent? There is so much that can keep us from the truth of things, holding us in that toil of a heart's hesitation.

Sometimes it's pride, sometimes it's hurt. Sometimes it's history.  Often it's the fear of being judged or even rejected. The safety stays on, the mouth stays closed and while we think we are protecting ourselves, we're merely closing a door on life, one that can be as fixed as one of a prison.  In doing so sometimes we lose a friend, we lose an opportunity or we lose out on love- that improbable, inexplicable, and sometimes bewildering thing that binds us together despite our blood, or through it.

I remember those last days and when I looked at my Dad, and my brother's name was mentioned he got this look of profound grief on his face, even as I've learned to get through the day as a stoic. He was a man who was not Time's trinket and for him, my brother's collapse and death on Good Friday as if it was yesterday.

But he'd not have given up the experience of adopting and raising him, both of us, for any happier ending. That's what I will remember.

When I had to leave him I took comfort in those that watched over my Dad, someone who would knock on his door, with food, with care, making sure he wasn't alone that night. He'd look through the peephole, unlock the door, and open his home and his heart, all that was left to him, to those friends he loved and who loved him. In his closet is a military uniform, on his porch an American flag, and within his reach, until he was too frail to handle it, a shotgun that had fed and protected him for over 75 years. On the table, was a photo of a tiny spitfire of a woman, years before her bones shrank inwardly, her mind and her flesh growing sparse in those last days that he never ever, left her side.

I go inside and pull out a photo that's not on display, someone in a dark uniform, not here, but always present.  But I feel comfort in knowing, as I sit in this place alone tonight, that for now, this moment, our world is quiet. There's a certain warmth in knowing that someone you love is safe, even if they do not need to be present for that feeling to exist, the feeling, a wet finger on a burning wick, hot, but not scorching, possessing a slow deep solidity of heat that only the tragedy of time's cessation would truly extinguish.

We love with great depth, we defend with great pride, we protect with a generation's honor, even as we always keep our guard up, our eyes open equally to worry and wonder.