What good does it do to wrap up our heartache and loss, fear and anger, even joy (if it appears to be boasting) and hold these emotions captive for a private showing, preferably behind closed doors with a licensed keeper of secrets. It’s a cultural norm and a family tradition and I make no judgment at all.
I just don’t follow the rules.
I’ve come to know that where there is damage and pain there is also truth to be found. And when one of us somehow finds our way out of the abyss or the tunnel or the woods, we need to share our way out or through.
With the World.
It comes with risk, this story telling. Still, I release my life and lay it bare for the entire world to see that it may provide one widow with the strength to go on, the endurance to love an impossible man, cherish a thrown away child, inspire a lost soul to find a way, or hold tight to the edge of a cliff until help arrives.
Live Out Loud
And freedom rings.
Imagine two massive boulders, each thirty feet wide. One formed a seat ten feet off the ground; the other sat perfectly perpendicular, reaching twenty feet into the sky. We called it The Chair, a giant granite lounger overlooking miles of agrestic field, scrub brush and wild oleander, far enough from our Southern California neighborhood to keep parents’ duped, but for our youthful bodies, a short ten minute hike. It was there, with my back against solid granite and my legs stretched out tanned and shapely, I smoked my first cigarette.
I was 16 and righteous. Still, I stole the pack of Tarranton 100’s, full strength filtered, my father’s brand, from the pantry in the kitchen. I wrapped it in tissue and shoved it to the bottom of my oversized bag and announced that I was heading to Katy’s house. Mom, chronically distracted, never noticed what she didn’t want to see.
The Chair held our crowd of six comfortably. The last to arrive, I made my way to the exact middle of the rock, sat down and inhaled the late summer air , salty with eucalyptus and sweet from oleander in full bloom. Donald passed out plastic cups filled with Strawberry Hill wine and as though reverent to unspoken tradition; we sipped in silence so as not to interrupt the choir of cicadas.
I wasn’t acting on a dare. And thinking back, had I been goaded, I would have dug myself in to a staunch no-smoking position. Rather, I was irked at the labels assigned to me by my friends: logical, practical, proper. It didn’t matter what they meant. The adjectives screamed boring and controlled, different from my cool and clever friends. So, acting as though I knew what I was doing, I pulled the pack from my bag, lightly tapped the top against my palm, peeled off the sliver of protective cellophane, and slid one sleek cylinder out with my fingertips.
Donald sat to my left, our 18 year old token adult. He smoked in front of his parents and dazzled us with his sap green Nova and bad boy looks. Claudia, sweet and tame, sat next to him with her legs folded under her, eyes wide with expectation. On my right, Tom and Katy sat side by side, legs tangled, holding hands, pretending to ignore my induction into sin. But I could see Katy blinking, almost twitching, as she stared straight ahead into the falling light. Katy was like that, nervous and theatrical; probably thinking the rock might crack and split, swallowing the whole of us all because of my indiscretion.
Mentally, I disappeared for a moment. I was six again, a small girl on a different rock on the top of a mountain a hundred miles away. I could see the world below, or what I knew of it, and a vision of my dad with his arms extended, a cigarette dangling from his curved mouth while smoke spiraled up and away. I would run straight at him and jump, wrap my arms around his neck and breathe in the sweet, acrid smell of tobacco, the scent of my childhood. I blinked, held the filter between my lips, closed my eyes and ran my thumb and forefinger down the length of the taught thin paper.
The strike of a match broke my daze and I opened my eyes. Donald held the flame to the tip and I pulled in a breath, coughed, and pulled again, coughed, until smoke drizzled from my mouth and out my nose and my eyes stung until they watered.
I liked Donald, but he wanted something from me that I wouldn’t give up. Instead, I offered him the cigarette. He shook his head slowly, patted his shirt pocket, “No,” he groaned the word, staring at me with his mouth slightly curved, as though he’d just turned down a sexual favor.
I could still back out. Stub the burning end against the rock and say I tried it, didn’t like it. Even then, I was stubborn. They knew it and I knew it, and the wine was sweet and the smoke dizzying and for just that moment I had a tiny surge of rebellion; 16, carefree, pulsating with life, and tasting freedom.
Three thousand miles away and thirty six years later I wake up remembering that evening on The Chair so vividly that I can feel the rough warmth of the rock on the back of my legs. I roll over to tell Steve of my dream and know right then the cruelest part of death is that it happens again every morning.
This wave of grief leaves me restless and lost and what I want is beyond where I can touch. It is crushing and breathless and does not fade even as I shrug my coat on over my pajamas, pull on my boots, and gather dogs for the morning walk. I feel betrayed and wild and overcome with the want of a cigarette, something I have not wanted for many, many years. And I know just where to find one.
I stay the dogs at the door and go in search of Steve’s backpack – perfectly intact from the day he died – months ago now. I touch each item, reverently at first. His knife, a pair of socks, a rolled t-shirt, an extra clip full of ammunition, a length of Para cord, a flashlight, his cell phone with the last number dialed. Me.His final words swirl in my head: I’m off for a bike ride. I’ll call tonight. Love you… A surge of anger rises and I see a flash of the medical examiner’s report in my mind’s eye: Excellent physical conditioning, lungs clear. No head trauma. Cause: Sudden Cardiac Death. Six months before he died, Steve took up smoking one cigarette each evening. I didn’t argue hard enough. The thought, when it reaches me, tells me he knew something inside of him was irretrievably broken. And all over again I am pissed off at God. How could he build this strong, larger than life, hero of a man who gave every ounce of his life to others, and not bother to heal an inheritance of rotten arteries? It’s as though he always lived on the edge of this one final challenge.
I claw through the rage until my fingers wrap around the renegade pack of stale cigarettes and, righteous with emotion, I slip the pack and a matchbook into my pocket, slam open the door and think, Janis was right… maybe freedom is just another word for nothing else to lose.
I stomp down the porch steps, across the yard and fling open the gate to our back pasture. The dogs remain by my side until I realize I’m holding my breath and with a long exhale I raise my hands and they bound away, excited about bunnies and bushes and sticks and all the adventures life holds in the new day. I cower from their infectious circle of joy. How dare the world keep spinning.
As if sensing my mood, Cowboy, my paint gelding saunters up and together, silently, we watch dawn peek over the top of the farthest hill. Deep pinks and brilliant purple frame the sky and tiny shots of light glitter through what’s left of the leaves.
We know this path, all seventeen acres of trees and ponds and open pasture. The breeze is slight, the air crisp and fallen leaves crunch under my boots and Cowboy’s hooves like a private morning symphony. The other three horses join us and single file we march along, stopping only long enough to throw a stick. I want to breathe in their peace and the fresh air of the morning, but indulging in such calmness means I have to give in or let go or give up.
A large oak marks the half-way point of our walk and I stop to lean against it. I want to lay down right here, curl back into sleep and wake up again next to love. Instead, like a defiant child I pull a crushed cigarette from the pack and strike a match. I have not smoked in years and inhaling assaults my throat and nose and lungs. I imagine this is what hell feels like from the inside out. The soot invades the deepest part of me and escapes in an explosion of putrid fog. When the dizzy hits I slide my back down the trunk of the tree and collapse into a sobbing mess.
The dogs form a half-circle around me and inch forward until their paws rest on my thighs. The horses edge closer too. Cowboy nudges my pocket for a treat, but in my angst I forgot to replenish my pockets. The only thing I hold in my hand is a smoldering cigarette and his disappointment is palpable. I stub it out in the dirt and say, this is what grief is, this tragic, angry, sniveling mess of despair. They barely care. He moves closer and nudges my shoulder with his nose. And as though he’s conveyed some unspoken message to his herd, the other horses all look up and I catch the gleam of their eyes, noses wet from dewy grass and the rising sun shadows their faces into long silly grins. The dogs alert and give chase to a deer – all except Spike – who returns with a stick and a full body wag. Cowboy snorts and pulls his hoof through the dirt. It is his way of calling bullshit on my pathetic attempt to conjure up something meaningful wrapped in rebellion.
I cannot help but smile. And I am more than slightly taken by God’s wondrous work with creatures who talk to me, lovingly nudge me and coax me out of a long ago dream and into the only moment they know. There is no going back. There is only now, right here and their absolute truth: play, work, eat – but mostly Love with every breathing moment. Anything else is smelly and pointless.
Like His creatures… we are here to live and love with purpose every day.
Lynnette Bukowski © 2012
Lynnette Bukowski is a freelance writer, the founder and director of LZ-Grace Veterans Retreat and the proud Widow of a Veteran Navy SEAL. She presently lives in Virginia Beach, VA