The Player of Games
It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.
These twenty-nine tales…stepped from the wings and began to act out something I must not interrupt or interfere with, but only be a witness to: a life, written in sand with a pointed stick and erased by the next high tide.
The Old Man at the Railroad Crossing and Other Tales
‘pon this day in history, 1 year ago, sometime in th’ mid-afternoon of June 12, 2014, Doc Shaw crossed o’er from this life and into the Great Beyond. Sometimes, when I think about it, I feel like we’ve all been struggling on for a hundred years, though th’ pain is often as sharp as if I just now found out that he’s gone.
Almost a year ago, I had said “there was a time when I thought I had it more-or-less altogether, and thought I knew what to say in moments like these.” More than 300 days later, while I still feel moved to again stand up and raise a glass to his memory, no words seem to be quite right, like struggling to put together a jigsaw puzzle with pieces won’t fit, that you study and pour over, turning them this way and that, attempting to mash them down into place because, by golly, they LOOK like they should fit, only to find that when you look at th’ box lid, what you’re holding is part of some OTHER puzzle that got mysteriously mixed in. Doc, were he here, would be able to make those pieces fit, I’m sure.
And, of course, he IS here; as Dickens said in his Ghostly Little Book, “I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.” I close my eyes and I can see him, those blue-grey eyes of his carefully studying me, that oh-so slight grin on his face as he sizes me up in these passing seconds, taking in this moment of silence, th’ gears in th’ well-oiled machinery of his mind contemplating what to say. In a moment, he’ll speak something short and pithy in that soft, mid-Ohio accent of his, and like dropping pebbles into still water, my own laughter will be the ripples that slowly fan out and off to th’ shores, th’ stillness of sadness broken.
…except, of course, I won’t be able to hear him.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien
The Fellowship of the Ring
Time has always been an elastic, slippery thing for me, stretching out well beyond th’ horizon and off past th’ orbits of Jupiter when I look to th’ future, and being as short as my own attention span when looking back, and yet somehow THIS last year, from June 12th roundabout to June 12th again, seems to have gone unusually evenly, one day rolling into th’ next, week into next, month into month. I think in part because it’s been a year of firsts.
I think perhaps T-H-E saddest word in English is th’ word “last.” One of th’ most crushing things I can read or think is that word in a sentence, like “this is th’ last time I’ll do this,” or “that was th’ last time she ever spoke to them.” There’s a horrible finality to those 4 letters, like a heavy wooden door shutting somewhere inside your soul, and you know no matter how you hammerpound upon its surface, or plead or cry or scream or dig your heels in and push with your back against it, it’s not opening again. Whatever it closed upon was the LAST of that thing, that event, that person, and all you’ve got left is memory.
However, I’ve also come to realize that th’ word “first” can be deeply laden with sorrows, too. While “baby’s first Christmas!” can bring a smile to most faces, it also can indicate th’ fingerposts along th’ Road of Life as you crawl away, exhausted, from that bolted door labeled “last.” For example, my first trip to Newark, Ohio, was to meet with Doc’s family and friends for his wake. Then came th’ first summertide gathering ‘round th’ fire without Doc present. Then came th’ first summer solstice (also with a fire-cookout sans th’ Good Doc(tor). Then th’ first Fourth of July, then th’ first Halloween (with my first All Soul’s Day mass for the dead, in which I processed with a votive candle in Doc’s memory to th’ altar rail of St. Joan of Arc’s).
Then, of course—Oh, Discordia!—th’ first Thanksgiving, th’ first Christmas, th’ first New Years, th’ first Twelfth Night and th’ first Groundhog’s Day, all, all, ALL without him. How were we to go on? How, when many times, to quote Dumbledore, “you feel as you will bleed to death with the pain of it”??
I’m not sure how we did it (and sometimes for a little while we simply didn’t), but th’ seasons have cycled ‘round and back on themselves and, like Ouroboros, th’ ancient snake that devours its own tail, we find ourselves back where we were, facing that great oaken door with th’ word LAST carved in deep, scarlet letters upon it. Our wounds, so fresh this day a year ago, have healed, though we can clearly see th’ scars, and we can see that where th’ ground had been raw from th’ slamming of this door, the wind and rain have smoothed th’ earth over and flowers and green things have taken root. We cannot help ourselves, and of course we reach out to give th’ knob a turn to see if it may open back up for us, though of course it won’t; it’s a unbudging as if it were carved from stone. Still, we’d be mad not to at least try, right?
God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse us in a deaf world.
The Problem of Pain
So, Doc, here I am, here we all are. A year older, hopefully a lil’ bit wiser, and further down our paths. We probably don’t have any more firsts to endure, though just because something is th’ second doesn’t mean it’s going to be at all EASY. I’m not sure how to end this, as there really IS no end—I think of you almost every day and feel you gather ‘round my chair and look o’er my shoulder often, so I don’t think of you as gone so much as just not here. I want you to know how much I miss you, and how much I value your friendship, and I hope my words have done you justice. Thank you for being my friend.
::raises beer mug:: to you, Doc!
*I’ll spare you th’ videos and references to Broadway actors portraying deeply damaged people singing about five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes (oh, dear…)