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 itís 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 youíre too good for our
world to hold. Showering, I run
down the list of possible answers, but find none, and remain pondering your
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,
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
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
anguish and anger. The light
back on, I turn away and look at something elseóthe
razor, the shaving cream, anything.
Itís hard to look too long inside myselfóIím my
biggest enemy. Thereís
movement outside the door and I know itís 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 thatís just the way things go, the
way things go. But itís not
you, just the
wind, and I begin to put the white foam on my face, wanting it to cover
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 Iíd 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
lights. 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 beginóthe darkened sky, the
howliní wind. I notice the
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 Ėjust 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
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 wasnít 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 Iíve loosed, for all the tears Iíve yet
to loose, I simply
stand there, alone, not believing, thinking I hear you say, ďAnd daddy
warned me, ĎFly
low over the sea, these wings of wax donít fare so
well in the noonday heat.í But
youíre soariní over the ocean air, oh man itís such a rush; the power is
so intoxicating, I
never loved anything so much.Ē 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
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
and a prayer and then silence. Silence.
Four monks walk out into the middle, in front of
the altar, one holding something I canít 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
tears and I have no tissue and I hear youóMaybe itís
too much to see me dyiní, or maybe
itís 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
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.
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 Itís alright, Itís 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. ďI could never live in your world.Ē
Not now, not until my time has come. Maybe
I shouldnít have taken that philosophy
course, I think, and you sigh and say, ďWe
could meet in the next life, have a drink and
laugh about all this.Ē I ask
you about now, what to do now. ďYou
know me, I hate the
details,Ē you say. I tell you
itís almost true, I almost believe it, that part about you
walking on water.
ďLove is a power,Ē you say, and repeat it and then are gone,
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
over my shoulder. Itís
you. Youíre 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 driverís male and
heís bald and my
stomach drops out and I speed up to follow him.
When ya gonna come? When
come? Iím 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 endóthis story, this moral?
I look back over my shoulder, and maybe
itís 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.
immediately these comforts are gone, and I am alone, the car straining forward,
voice disintegrating into memory, and Iím pulling along
the right side of the bald manís
small red car, rolling down my window, sticking my face out into the whipping
undecided what I will do when our eyes meet.
the lyrics of Robert Rottet (including his own allusions to Danteís Inferno,
Joyceís Araby, and the myth of Icarus), Bob Dylanís Highlands,
e. e. cummingsí Buffalo Billís defunct, and
quotations from Psalm 4 and 90 as used by the monks at New Melleray Abbey Ė