How We Hold On

            for Robert Rottet


November, November, the skies are dark all day.
     . . . the winter has fallen, the sun has left the sky,
the silence has spoken, and you have gone away.

I get up from my bed as light comes through my window, and I think I hear you singing
one of your songs, but it’s only in my head.  Two friends sleep in the room as I make my
way to the shower, getting ready for your funeral, the day we all say good-bye, the day I

step towards understanding you’re too good for our world to hold.  Showering, I run
down the list of possible answers, but find none, and remain pondering your absence,
saying aloud the refrain, Tell me, how has death undone so many?  I say it over and

over; as the corpses cross the bridge, the clock strokes nine.  Has it been two days, maybe
three, a week?  I look in the mirror at my face.  I want to look my best.  Why?  I ask
myself why, always the one to analyze, like you, both of us looking too far beneath

our skin.  Now just me.  I switch the light off in the bathroom and gazing up into the
darkness I see myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burn with
anguish and anger
.  The light back on, I turn away and look at something else—the

razor, the shaving cream, anything.  It’s hard to look too long inside myself—I’m my
biggest enemy
.  There’s movement outside the door and I know it’s you taking out your
beat-up Alvarez acoustic, going to play a song:  If you accept the joy you must accept

the pain, I guess that’s just the way things go, the way things go.  But it’s not you, just the
wind, and I begin to put the white foam on my face, wanting it to cover everything, make
a new creation, and though I can barely find the strength to cry, I do, and hear your thin,

wild mercury voice somewhere above me.


                                    *   *   *


You are asleep, friend, when I see you last, alone in your small walled and lace-lined bed.
And I see you, and I can see that thing standing near you.  What is it, blue-eyed son,
blue-eyed boy?  From across the room, wind and light come through the windows, people 

dressed darkly begin to arrive, and I know I’d give my life to have you back with me.
Your eyebrows are you.  The slanting cleft between your mouth and chin, and your
nearly hairless head, these are you.  But the nose drawn inward and slight, the cheeks

rubbed with rouge, the gray that begins on the head and spreads over face and neck, these
are something other, like someone took off the steering wheel and turned out all the
.  You are sleeping, in your uniform: olive green, with bars and medals attached,

your name carved thinly white in black and pinned over your silent heart.  Your maroon
beret is by your hand, a black leather band around its base, an 82nd Airborne patch on its
front.  The wind begins to gust through the room, and I know the snow will fall again, the

solstice gone the storms begin—the darkened sky, the howlin’ wind.  I notice the cut on
your left hand, on your index finger, the cut still red, and I have what I think is a moment
of clarity.  Your sister told us –just last night- that there were gouges on your arms and

neck.  She said the family pulled up your sleeves and had seen them, cuts like claws, like
you had been fighting and frightened and scratching for air; and the cuts went from wrist
to elbow, inside the arm, your forearms that made six steel strings sing now lined like the

neck of your guitar, but in red.  But in red.  She said it proved who made the choice, and
it wasn’t you, that they killed in the way that cowards do.  And I notice your hands are
slightly clenched.  Clenched and gripping.  I imagine the bullet that entered your temple

and did not exit.  I touch your hand.  It is stone.  Not you.  It is cold.  It is stone.  I stand
there, friend, and for all the tears I’ve loosed, for all the tears I’ve yet to loose, I simply
stand there, alone, not believing, thinking I hear you say, “And daddy warned me, ‘Fly

low over the sea, these wings of wax don’t fare so well in the noonday heat.’  But when
you’re soarin’ over the ocean air, oh man it’s such a rush; the power is so intoxicating, I
never loved anything so much
.”  My hands clench and grip and the earth moves out from

under me where white-knuckled I hold your coffin and the storm is moving in on us, the
wind is blowing as it must, the rain is falling down on us, and burns our skin away


*   *   *


A week passes.  I drive to a monastery: for silence, to be spoken to, to listen, to write.
The first night I attend Compline at 7:30.  It is dark in the sanctuary.  I sit near the back
on a thick wooden pew, men of the cloth shuffling to their places in front.  There is a 

single candle on the far wall; it shines through a darkened glass, as it were.  Two chants
and a prayer and then silence.  Silence.  Four monks walk out into the middle, in front of
the altar, one holding something I can’t quite see.  Then the sound: six steel strings

reverberating off the jagged stones and masonry and wooden-beamed ceiling.  Two bars
played and the monks sing.  When I call, answer me, O God of justice, from anguish you
released me; have mercy and hear me
.  And I begin weeping.  My face is clogged with

tears and I have no tissue and I hear you—Maybe it’s too much to see me dyin’, or maybe
it’s too hard to share my pain
.  I imagine you see me, but with your new eyes everything
must look far away.  The tears continue and I let them rush forth, hot with anger, with

grief, with questions.  And the monks continue: You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the plague that prowls in the darkness, nor the
scourge that lays waste at noon
.  I go back to my room and read Colossians: He loved

and chose us as His own.  I go to sleep listing proofs that your exit was murder.  I wake
up in the night, in the limbo between sleep and waking, expecting you to be sitting in the
chair by the closet, watching me, saying It’s alright, It’s alright in that gentle voice of

yours which spoke so much of you.  The alarm goes off in time for Vigils.  It is 3 a.m.  I
walk the dark and lonely halls and hear you speak.  I could never live in your world.”
Not now, not until my time has come.  Maybe I shouldn’t have taken that philosophy

course, I think, and you sigh and say, “We could meet in the next life, have a drink and
laugh about all this
.”  I ask you about now, what to do now.  You know me, I hate the
,” you say.  I tell you it’s almost true, I almost believe it, that part about you

walking on water.  Love is a power,” you say, and repeat it and then are gone, and I
walk upstairs to the sanctuary to pray.  Driving back home I keep thinking I see
something in the back seat of my car; it happens when I switch lanes, when I look back

over my shoulder.  It’s you.  You’re singing, acappella:  When ya gonna come, Sweet
Lord Jesus?  When you gonna come?
  This compact car comes up on my left and I watch
to see the driver.  The car is just like yours.  The driver’s male and he’s bald and my

stomach drops out and I speed up to follow him.  When ya gonna come?  When ya gonna
  I’m miles out from the city, questions fueling me onward, pedal carelessly to the
floor, looking for the answers in all of this, but the story of the moral is the moral of the

story, and does it end—this story, this moral?  I look back over my shoulder, and maybe
it’s when I return my gaze forward, maybe it is then I see the nightmares are ending, the
demons start shaking, evil collapsing, in my dream.  A walk through the park with a

beautiful lion; a lamb in a doorway, a star in my hand; a crown on my head and my name
on a white stone; a glistening stallion rides through the air, in my dream
.  But
immediately these comforts are gone, and I am alone, the car straining forward, your

voice disintegrating into memory, and I’m pulling along the right side of the bald man’s
small red car, rolling down my window, sticking my face out into the whipping wind, still
undecided what I will do when our eyes meet.



MM McLaughlin


Italicized allusions:  the lyrics of Robert Rottet (including his own allusions to Dante’s Inferno, James
Joyce’s Araby, and the myth of Icarus), Bob Dylan’s Highlands, e. e. cummings’ Buffalo Bill’s defunct, and
quotations from Psalm 4 and 90 as used by the monks at New Melleray Abbey – Peosta, Iowa.