“Who do you talk to when you want to remember?” I asked him.
I was on my long bus ride home, face glued to my phone screen chatting with a friend in Florida through the wonders of technology. He had been a friend of my brother’s when they were in the Army. They had been stationed in South Korea together but I had never met him until Paul’s funeral. While that whole day was a blur I do remember greeting him and his wife at that time, but I don’t think I was much for socializing at that point.
Somehow over time, mostly because he is better at communicating and saying a simple “hello” than I am, we started chatting online. I was writing and posting my raw thoughts to the internet and I suppose that in a way it made me more approachable. It was the emotional equivalent of flashing myself to the world and even a shy guy like him could feel comfortable telling me, “I miss him too.”
Over the years our conversation has ebbed and flowed. Sometimes we were in daily contact. Once I remember reviewing his resume as he was looking at applying for a tech job with the state. His best friend was recently killed, he was fresh out of the Army, attending school, going through a divorce, and he was a father to three little girls. Life was on this teetering precipice and even the thought of starting a new job was a scary. Or maybe he just wasn’t certain he deserved it. I’m only hazarding guesses to how he was actually feeling but it was a great thing to hear that he was already being called in for an interview the following day.
Other times the silences would stretch on for months. We were friends forged in pain, brought together by the common connection of care for my brother.
So today he was saying hello from his broken couch. He explained to me all the advantages to replacing it with a giant bean bag chair, except the gigantic price tag also attached to it. Then I offered the budget-friendly advice of looking on craigslist. I don’t think it had the same thrill as the bean bag though.
Then he changed the topic to my brother. “I miss him,” he said. “You know he held my daughter five years ago today.” Today was his daughter’s fifth birthday and Paul was there the day she was born. He then sent me the picture.
As I sat there hemmed in on the bus with the rest of the cattle, I had to blink quickly and breathe against the quick constriction in my chest. He was in that picture with those big bushy eyebrows and his dark five o’clock shadow showing on his face. A casual smile and his arms wrapped gently and tightly around the little pink babe wrapped in that little pink blanket.
“I remember that day quite vividly. He was so hesitant to hold her… Didn’t want to break such a newbie. ☺” The emoticon that came with the message made me think that my Florida friend had a sad note in his eye but a slight upturn on the corner of his lips. I can imagine he even gave Paul a hard time about “handling the newbie.” From the picture you wouldn’t have guessed he was uncomfortable about it. He looked like a natural. I always used to think that he would be a good father and I would get to be a crazy aunt. Some things aren’t made to be.
I asked if his girls even mentioned him. But they were really too young to know him or remember. Paul left the Army and moved to North Carolina not too long after that photograph was taken.
“Who do you talk to when you want to remember?” I asked him. It was more of a selfish question on my part. I have more people in my life that never knew Paul than people that knew him. There most certainly isn’t anyone that lives within the state of Washington that I could call up and to have coffee to laugh and cry over photographs and the stories that came attached to them.
“I don’t. I look at pics,” was his answer.
It left me unsettled to think of so many stray, frayed threads were left blowing in the wind when Paul left this earth. Another one of his friends in Austin told me on Veteran’s day that he just sat alone with his whiskey and remembered Paul. Are we all just playing the rests?
For anyone that is familiar with written music knows that there are notes to play melody and rests to indicate silence. The silences are what give us the rhythms to form the melodies that move us. The short rests can be easy because we’re just taking a quick pause before the next note flows in. It’s when the rests become long that it can feel uncomfortable for a musician, especially when they are used to being busy.
I remember being in orchestra class at eight years old and hearing the teacher say, “Now don’t forget you also have to play the rest.” The silences have just as much purpose to the whole song as the sound but it’s easy to forget that and rush past them to want show how much you’re contributing.
This same music teacher was one to remind us that unless you could play something slowly and accurately, you couldn’t truly play it. The hard parts of the songs are something that we might want to rush our way through or approximate. However, by playing it achingly slowly you got intimate with the parts that made you uncomfortable, including all of the rests.
I realized that my reaction had been to keep myself busy or distracted during my spasms of grief. Even in those moments of silence I am building strength even if no one else in world can see it. There are times when maybe I should have stopped trying to convince myself that I needed to make any sound and be satisfied learning to play the rest.
Maybe all I need is an upturned hat with a bird’s eye above it.
Whole rest. Fermata.