Or Love Notes from an Invisible Companion
“The time of trial is the express opportunity for the one to win glory, for the other to perfect his wisdom. Hence, indeed, virtue gets its name, because, relying on its own efficacy, it yieldeth not to adversity.” ““Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
Or any of my brothers more?
William Blake, “A Little Boy Lost”
I saw you first as a child, an almost infant, swathed in the love of mothers and fathers, hearth and home. My heart broke, echoing the crackling timbers of your burning homestead, and I watched as you rushed forth, bearing child in hand. Child with child. Mother for son. Such a weight of the world on such small shoulders. If I could ask you one question, I would ask how fares the tired Atlas? Do you grow weary with the memory of such fiery girth?
The small, toe-headed four year old you were bounded into our story full of life; you were the fleeting glance of what could’ve been. But soon your small, huddled form cast a long shadow. You grew taller in the orange flames that burnt away your childhood. How sad for you that you remember what was, that you would be cursed with the before, with the what if, and that you and I both would carry that curse onward. There is a before to this story where demons, ghosts, and monsters were distant echoes of a movie in the background or imaginary figures in a picture book.
You are life before death. But more than that, you are the nexus of love in this story.
Over the years, I would see this child again and again, even as you tried to hide him, make him disappear behind leather and gruff, behind cynical hope and loving despair. But the first glimpse is always the purest. That of the motherless child thrust into a world where joy would be stolen from duty, where love would be got from a soldier’s code or a hunter’s creed. Even as you pour the last of your cereal into his bowl, I see that younger version, that more innocent heart, pay the dues of an ancient tax, a blood debt which is never a debt at all. A bowl of cereal for an empty stomach is the infinite gift of love. The price of brotherhood repays moments of spite.
Your love turns obligation into endowment. In a non-descript motel room with the missing letters of a neon sign providing our light ““ here- here is where I chose you as my companion.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.
– Rupert Brooke, “The Soldier”
Sometimes when I watch you, I am reminded of Pericles’ funeral oration when he speaks of fallen Athenian soldiers, “They ran away from the word of dishonor, but on the battlefield their feet stood fast, and in an instant, at the height of their fortune, they passed away from the scene, not of their fear, but of their glory.” Your war is not the wars of man, not the petty squabbles over land and fortune, over breaches and breaks. You fight the war of humanity, companion.
Cemeteries, funeral pyres, tombs. They all mark the limits of the human world ““ you’ve always existed on the other side of the grave. I see the ghosts through your eyes, a knowing gaze that anticipates the defeat of an encroaching chaos even as it throws pity on the ones who must be conquered. Silver knives in the chests of broken souls, teeth bared in hunger for blood. A vampire, yes even a vampire, deserves compassion at the moment of downfall. You know that life is measured by death, that spilling blood always results in spilled blood. I know this, as well, through you.
Unlike Pericles, who put stock in the state and blind allegiance to it, your state is brotherhood, not nationhood. The world is not the honor of riches or even the fealty of kings ““ no, for you fellow traveler, the world condenses to a car, a brother, a road, and a journey. A soldier’s strongest weapon is not the gun that he carries or the knife that he wields. No, his greatest weapon is also his heaviest burden ““ the kindness of his conscience. Your conscience sets the compass of the journey. Your fight drives toward the horizon where a cliff looms large.
I stand behind you in the silent phalanx.
They refuse to awake at the touch of any man but me.
– Walt Whitman, “A Woman Waits for Me”
Amazing how gentleness can be born of sorrow and isolation. What would you have become in a different world? Father? Husband? Partner? The djinn did not answer you properly, fellow traveler. For you are not an accumulation of what is wrong in the world; you are the combination of what is right. Your strength is there in the mourning of your friends, the dignity with which you regard their passing. A soldier’s beauty is defined by his nobility, a nobility not of name or rank, but of heart and character.
When friends pass I have seen you cry for their loss and smile for their bravery. A kiss to the forehead, a look of forgiveness, a nod of acknowledgment. Words fail in moments like these. You know this, as do I. What can be said of an ending world? What can be voiced about the death of the beloved? We can only ever ventriloquize the suffering of others. I bore witness in that brief moment when the girl hovered between life and death, her shattered father bending over her, wishing that the bedtime stories she’d used to call on him had not been goodbye, but welcome home. I saw your face in hers ““ the face of the one who must teach the hardest lesson: the honor of surrender, the grace of letting go. A lesson you could not learn yourself, but one you needed your beloved brother to learn.
I wept for you, in that moment, as both of us felt your definition of freedom shift on its axis, felt as salvation turned to concession.
“Go and love, go and love, young man,
If the lady be young and fair,”
Ah, penny, brown penny, brown penny,
I am looped in the loops of her hair.
– WB Yeats, “The Young Man’s Song”
It is so easy to fall under the charm of your angst that sometimes I forget your impish nature. Often when I stand back and listen to that gallows humor, I both laugh and cringe. Only the damned can be so enamored of catastrophe. But humor, laughter, is the best defense against the known and the unknown. A smirk, a smile, a small chortle, and the world looks and sounds safe. Laughter promises truth without pain.
What would a soundtrack of your life sound like? Laughter on the day of your death? Sarcasm in the midst of a fight? The pointed innuendo that flees before it is fulfilled? Or would it be the delighted thrill of your shy admiration for television doctors, horror films, and Asian beauties? Whatever the album sounds like, it echoes in the backseat of this car, recorded on the vinyl dash, threaded through the worn leather ““ crackling classic rock and food wrappers, the din of acerbic wit and reflective ethics.
No wonder the girls love you so, little boy, little man. If we could construct the perfect American hero, he would be tall and blond and beautiful with an angel/devil smile. An imp of the perverse in a supernatural world where Jefferson Starship plays on continual loop.
Tonight my brother, in heavy boots, is walking
through bare rooms over my head,
opening and closing doors.
What could he be looking for in an empty house?
What could he possibly need there in heaven?
Does he remember his earth, his birthplace set to torches?
His love for me feels like spilled water
running back to its vessel.
– Li-Young Lee, “The Hour and What is Dead”
I sit in the backseat. Sometimes I look through the window at you. It’s a large car, filled with the bumps and bruises of age and use. You carry me through the tale. I depend on you to love a man who may be a monster, who may be cursed to always live the life of the damned, save for you and your love. You and I, we see him in shades of love that make the ugly beautiful. I love him through you, with you, for you, against you.
When you held his body, broken in half by treachery, I wanted to comfort you. A twenty year cycle to end where you began, with brother’s body in arms, clutching at the cloth around his shoulders. So Atlas, is the weight of the world measured in the pounds of his flesh? And as Death held dominion over your brother, your partner, the sum total of your life, did the cry to heaven feel as empty as the bottle of beer in your hand? Only those who have traveled the path of grief, the long road through the silent cemetery, can understand how loud a mute scream sounds inside the mind. We would all make deals with the devil in moments such as those ““ all my sins for all his breaths.
It’s hot in this car at times, like the heat of an unopened sarcophagus.
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face
– W.B. Yeats, “When You are Old”
When I am old, far past the age of trivial remembrance, I will recollect you. On a car hood in the middle of an abandoned road, crying over crimes you never committed. On a field of broken trees, bearing the dirt and dust of a mortal re-birth. On the floor of an anonymous house, bathed in the blood of a done deal. Finally, I will remember you battered and bruised, lying against the hot black steel of this car, staring lovingly at the small boy you carried to safety, again and again. And I will remember him too, through your eyes, through the eyes that love the run away boy, the reluctant hero, the sacrificial lamb, the brave brother who could only fall once forgiven. We know that at the end of the story, all eyes turn to you for guidance. You teach me how to know the story.
Each world turns on one axis, fellow traveler. This axis sits in the center of the globe, quiet and unassuming, most often missed in favor of the molten rock and lush ground that surrounds it. But the world cannot turn without its silent and invisible pole supporting its core. No world would exist without it. And no road would be built.
So when I am old, I will remember you this way, as a guardian of the tale. I will remember you stealing happiness from the dark world around you, which in this car, on this road, became my happiness as well.
Pablo Neruda, The Song of Despair