As I watch the students walk through the student center, it occurs to me that a life is not just one single solitary life but layers of many different lives piled on top of each other. From the moment we are born, the layers are added and added and added, all the while creating the person we are at any given point in time, but not the person we will be when the next layer of life is added upon the last. Or, I guess, the person we were a few layers back in time.
First love, college, first job, each is something we live through and then the experience is filed away, and becomes a layer on top of a layer over another layer. Slowly, surely, certainly, the layers build up, you complete, untl you live through the next layer of life which is then laid gently in your wake as you step forward.
My journey, or quest is perhaps a better word, my quest of peeling back the layers to when I was nineteen years old and my father floated away from me, is something I have chosen to do; laying down my life and looking back and back, under layers of life and of me not seen in years. People often choose to pull back layer after layer and look deep inside and see what happened back then.
I know why they don’t. It’s not the easiest or most comfortable thing to do. It is not enjoyable or exceptionally pleasant.
Some layers strip away with ease, others hold fast to the one before or the bone underneath and peeling them away is not something I would recommend unless somewhere back there there is a layer that is still somehow incomplete and all the layers on top of it, therefore, are capable of shifting as the foundation is not solid.
So I peel them back. Sometimes with ease, often with great discomfort. I know it makes me quiet and distant sometimes and I know people see the solitude in it and worry about me but it is my quest, my mission, my next layer and I chose it after much consideration. As such, I don’t expect or wish my friends pity if you will, I don’t want them to feel sorry for me as I continue on my quest. I appreciate their love and their advice and friendship, but I am well aware of what is back a few layers and how the flesh will feel as it is pulled away.
Duke, where I sit as I write, is a layer, a deep complex multi-layered one, complete with my first love, lifelong friends and of course, I went to Duke when my father was alive and then when I left three and a half years later, he was gone.
More specifically, in the fall of 1984, I was a sophomore living in House CC on the West Campus of Duke University, in a basement room at the end of the hall with two friends. Fast forward a few layers and here I am, sitting on the West Campus of Duke University having survived, enjoyed, celebrated, shared, laughed, cried (with laughter) my 25th Reunion.
A 25th Reunion would be an emotional experience I suppose under the calmest of circumstance, for one who shows up layers intact. But for me, with layers rubbed raw and open back to 1984 almost every day, it was a curiously difficult one.
For while I caught up and told stories and laughed and looked back at Duke, I would catch myself looking at friends and thinking back to those days in November 1984, these are the people who shared the moment with me, and it would catch me, and stop me:
“What’s wrong? You’re so quiet,” my friend Herb comments from across the bar.
How do you tell him, you’re thinking of when he was your roommate and you got back from Boston and his dad had died young and now your dad had died, and he took you out for a beer and said ‘it sucks but it gets a little better.’ You remember looking at him as he said he had looked away, distant. You knew he was trying to help, offer words of comfort but in his face, it was the anguish of his loss and you knew comfort would be hard to find. You can’t tell him that in a bar surrounded by friends.
So you tell him you’re tired, you didn’t sleep well, and you become quiet and look around again.
You see your friend Hester and remember her hugging you when you came back from Boston after the funeral.
You see your freshman roommate who wrote “I never met your Dad but he raised you and that’s all I need to know that he was a great man.”
You see your college girlfriend whom you shared so much with and remember one of our first conversations where you bonded with her as she too had lost her father.
You see your friend Teri and remember her comfort and friendship then, and now. You tell her about this site, this quest and you see in her face, the layers peel away to when she was your friend then. Somehow you can hear her say “I am so sorry” in your ear as if it was yesterday instead of twenty-eight years ago around the corner from where you sit now.
As I sit here, thinking about all that, I watched as a student, a young floppy hair kid with his girlfriend pack up from studying and head to dinner, laughing and teasing each other and holding hands and I try to imagine what it would be like to be 19 again and have a friend lose their father, to see them leave school, in the middle of the week, gone.
Death is never easy to see, feel, touch, touch from a step away even. As adults we struggle with what to say, how to help, ways to lift a person up when they are taken down by the grief. It’s hard to think of then, to be so full of life and 19, and then have someone you know experience that loss, it would be hard to watch that. Hard to know what to do when someone you know gets that call, hard to know what to do when your friend goes through that.
Then I realize, I was that kid.
I was the sophomore living weekend to weekend, going to classes, sitting on the quad, bathing in the sun, I had graduated from the prep school, I was surrounded by friends, my bills were paid. I was that kid who got the call. I was the kid who went home and came back and dropped out and didn’t finish his fall classes. I was the kid who went back for Thanksgiving and Christmas alone with his mother.
The impact of that strikes me now almost as heavy if not more than it did then. When you are living through a moment like that, when the walls coming tumbling down, you somehow keep walking.
We have a capacity as a race to survive unsurvivable horror; war has shown us that. It’s the after that’s the problem, or as my beautiful friend Ellen said about her grandfather and World War II, that he had been through so much that ‘we bonded talking to garden gnomes when I was young.’
The war and the prison camp and the horror didn’t break him as much as the peace did. The quiet gave him the time to think about the war and the prison camp and the horror. Ironically, many find they can survive the unspeakable only to be consumed in safety and peace merely by the memories of that which can no longer hurt them.
Later, it’s later when you can see what you just went through, that’s when you feel too much. It’s moments like this moment right now, on my campus, near the room I lived in at the end of the weekend, when the light fades, when the voices of those so young echo around the building, in the quiet, alone, all these years later, the loss strikes a bit deeper.
It’s when I think of my son going to college that I truly feel what I lost, here, then.
Time heals all wounds.
If that was true, when you went to peel back a layer, you would hit stone, and the layer would be immovable, healed and impenetrable. But then why do the layers bled?
I know now those words are simply the cliche of the person who has never been deeply wounded, the province of someone who never got that call, the land of those whose parents never died young, who never buried a child, or saw a plane destroy an office with a loved one inside.
What time can do, and all it can do, and what it does, is create a scab that slowly turns into a scar that simply is something there to remind you, forever, of the wound.
Scars do fade but scars can be seen and even felt for decades. Certainly you can laugh and love again, you function and live and are by all appearances just fine but somewhere there is a scar, layers and layers down, a scar from a wound that drained the blood from a younger you and while again, almost everyone might say, a scar that old can’t be ripped open again,
I am not so sure.