Where to start? What to say?
Yesterday, I was sure I would be spending all of today curled up on the sofa, wrapped in all the polar fleece blankets we own, and sleeping as much as possible, in order to escape myself. Even this morning, I wasn't sure that my prediction wouldn't turn out to be true. The sofa was so close, the blue blanket was available...
But somehow, for reasons unknown to me, I decided to try to spend some time out in Branchburg, with the Combat Paper group -- even though I was prepared to turn around and leave moments after arriving, because the emotions connected with my friend's death would be too overwhelming for me to be out in public. Going through the motions of preparing myself -- showering, shaving, bagging up the afternoon medications -- I still felt foggy and unfocused.
As sometimes happens, even pretending to do something can have unexpected results. While I had expected to embarrass myself yet again, by bursting into tears in the company of (mostly) men, because an old lover of mine had died, instead I felt a kind of comfort, being in that room with this group of individuals who recognize me when I walk in the door. I was even able to tell one of the other Vietnam-era vets a bit about my loss, and he responded with reserved sympathy, and some understanding comments about the wave nature of grief. As might be expected from someone who has had losses of his own.
A few minutes later, as I was taking some materials out to the van, I was asked not to go too far, as there was a surprise brewing. One of our group, Jan, had just turned 70 the day before, and there was a cake for him, and we sang Happy Birthday in a variety of keys. He blew out the single candle with one hefty puff, but said that, even though he'd just made a wish, he didn't remember what it was.
And then there was work to do. David, one of the co-leaders of the group, said it was time for me to make some of the pink paper I'll need for my book. We talked a while about what size the pages needed to be, and where the printed illustrations would fit, and how the text would be added. Then, while two other vets worked at their own paper-pulling stations, we set up another couple of big flat basins, and filled one with the loose pulp and water mixture which I would be transforming into double-thick sheets. There were a few amused observations about the striking pink with which I would be working -- such a contrast to the severe dark greens and neutral greys the other guys were using. But everyone there has met John, so there weren't any of the snide 'fag' comments I would have expected, maybe a year ago, when I was brand-new to this adventure.
Now, I'm just another vet, working on his particular project, which just happens to involve making what may turn out to be over a hundred sheets of pink paper. With God only knows how many block print illustrations, and a tangle of text. I think this is the first art project I've ever begun, that I estimate may take me two years to finish. This from the man with zero patience, and no interest in cultivating any.
So, I was busy. It was messy. I slopped water everywhere. Some of the sheets were too thin, and I had to rinse them off the frame and start again. I got pink pulp all over myself. The other vets were working too -- it was a little beehive of arcane activity. It was great. And when it was time to clean up, we all assigned ourselves a task, and worked with and around each other, like a smooth mechanical construction, in constant motion. It was very gratifying.
I even remembered to take my afternoon medications.
And then it was time to go -- but instead of heading home, I was driving to New Brunswick, to attend an open house, hosted by one of the men in John's choir at Christ Church. This is a young man who has been diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, and in the short time I've known him, he has progressively lost use of more and more of his upper body muscles. And he's hosting a big bash for maybe 40 people, in his immaculate home, with not one, not two, but three Christmas trees, each bristling with ornaments he can tell you about. He had some assigned helpers, but he also bustled about, as first appetizers, then main courses, and finally desserts, were spread out for his guests. I can barely manage to invite someone over for a cup of coffee.
Usually, at events like this, I become somewhat withdrawn, even though I'm supposed to be more or less extroverted. I always want to leave at the earliest opportunity. I hate to eat in public. I can't think of anything to talk about -- all the news I currently have to share being so dour.
But this, too, turned out to be more... healing? Is that what I want to say? Plus the food was great. And John was already in his overcoat, preparing to go home, before I was.
So. A day of gentle surprises, I guess I'd have to say. For which I am grateful. I may have no patience with patience, and I do prefer to take refuge in a more or less cynical world view, but at my core, I'm a pretty big fan of gratitude.
Please don't tell anyone.
© 2013 Walter Zimmerman