Facing grief, life, cancer with truth, not homilies.
Where’d My War Go?
Back in the old days, when I listened to music, except for radio time, I listened to whole albums. This was before the internet, before mp3’s, just plain old before. Over the years, Michael began to compile cassette tapes and then CD’s that were eventually called House Favorites.
They represented the tastes of all of us in our family with something on them for everyone. We listened to these on road trips and eventually, I got used to the order of the songs on them, which replaced the order of songs I expected on the albums from which they’d been extracted. Then the IPod came and along with that was the “shuffle.” So any song could come along at any time until there really wasn’t any order atall, no expectations for that next tune. That was okay. Ultimately Michael loaded 2502 songs on one of those 30 gig early version IPod devices with the scroll wheel which miraculously still works after too many years to count. Although I now have the contents of that IPod on an external hard drive, I don’t think I’ve ever heard all the songs on it. That shuffle just does its random thing. The summer after Michael died I listened to it every day as I prepared exhibits for his celebration of life.
I discovered Pete Yorn, someone I’d missed during my busy mom and work years. I wound up buying his CD’s which was ironic as we’d sold Michael’s vinyl and CD collection which numbered in the thousands, only the year before.
He’d saved a few hundred of our absolute favorites but, after listening to the Ipod, I realized that there would be hidden gems I’d discover as I moved through his collection which had burgeoned over time. I actually when to St. Louis to see Pete Yorn this past year, a posthumous gift from Michael to me.
I’ve just returned from a road trip. I’ve set a goal for myself – to see all 50 states in this country before I die. I only had two left in the eastern portion of this vast space, Alabama and Mississippi. I can’t say I was particularly eager to go these last two as I have really negative feelings about their political persuasions, but a goal is a goal. So I took off with my sister as my companion, along with that trusty Ipod. Recently, I wrote a post about feeling like riding in a car is like zooming along in a time capsule. The only chores you have are focusing on your directions, paying attention to traffic on the road and letting yourself get lost in your mind, often having thoughts stimulated by music. At least if you’re like me. Podcasts and books are also ok, but I like to sing and I like to get carried to the places that music evokes. This trip was about 1400 miles round trip. Lots of places to explore both outside and in your interior. We stopped in the southern part of Illinois and explored part of Shawnee National Park, Garden of the Gods.
There’s no doubt that immersion in nature is soothing to the soul. We ate delicious barbecue and managed to cross both the Mississippi and Tennessee rivers on day one. In Tennessee on day two, I was fascinated to see my first cotton fields in bloom. Some cotton was picked and stored in shiny pastel bales. I had to pull over and grab a few bolls that had blown away and were caught in the grasses and weeds along the highway. So soft and white, yet emotionally evocative as you could easily imagine slaves with sacks slung across their backs on hot days, picking and picking until their backs and feet ached and their fingers bled.
The GPS I was using always seemed to direct me to two lane highways, many of which took us off the beaten path, through small towns where you could get a feel for how average people in the state live. Tennessee was supposed to be a pass through state. We were being instructed to make turns on side streets which required some concentration. I was turning right in one such place, when to my left I spotted one of those brown historical markers that said Shiloh National Battlefield. I braked, stopped and checked the distance from where we were and found that we were only 25 miles away.
Shiloh was a hugely significant and bloody battle that occurred in the Civil War’s western theater in 1862. One of the most talented generals in either army, many of whom were sought by both sides as the war began, was killed at Shiloh – Albert Sidney Johnston. You may think that I’d been doing a little research to come up with this information, but the truth is, I just remembered it. From the time I was about 10 years old, I’d started reading lots of books about Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War.
I can’t specifically recall what the hook was for me, the idea that slavery was allowed and coddled in this country, the fact that fellow citizens and neighbors lined up in the heat and the cold and marched straight into each other’s withering hail of cannonballs, grapeshot and musket fire or the fact that thousands of people did that for four years. I don’t know what it was. But what started when I was a young girl stuck.
All through my life, I read book after book, and did lots of research, not for school or a career, but to try and understand what was for me, an inexplicable waste of human life, when civilized ideas and changes should have worked instead. Over the years, I was lucky enough to go to several battlefields, to feel the ghostly presence of the dead, to imagine the hellish sounds and the chaos and the impossible gore and suffering.
I’ve been to Gettysburg which was almost a religious experience as I’d read dozens of books about the battle and had a strong grasp on the topography of the battlefield. Back in 1980, Michael and I had been trying to get pregnant and my doctor suggested we take a vacation and distract ourselves from that goal. We drove out to Colorado and went to a small town called Redstone to stay in a converted lodge that used to house mine workers. We went on a horseback ride up into the mountains, where I was promptly tossed off my horse, injuring my back.
The next day, I could barely move so I sent Michael off for a hike, while I lay in our bed, reading the book “High Tide at Gettysburg.” Over the years, I continued to read and was able to travel to battlefields in Virginia, Maryland and Georgia. Many of my women friends couldn’t understand my fascination with this war which didn’t seem in keeping with my political leanings. Me neither.
But on it went, the endless fascination. I had always wanted to go to Shiloh. So instead of heading to Tupelo, Mississippi to Elvis Presley’s birthplace, we were on the battlefield. A lot of my memories of what I’d read came flooding back. The countryside is beautiful, wooded and peaceful with deer wandering through the meadows and trees, in between the many monuments and markers which described the progression of the battle. The day was warm and breezy and the atmosphere was remarkably hushed in light of what madness we knew was occuring a mere 157 years ago.
Not very much time has gone by on a relative scale. After a few hours, we left there and moved on to Tupelo where we’d resume our itinerary the next day. But I found myself a bit dazed by that visit and managed to scour the maps to look for more Civil War sites that we could squeeze into our plans. I was happy, excited and grateful that my sister was enjoying the experience as well.
But I was also puzzled. What happened to my war? This interest which had stayed with me for most of my life had gotten away from me. As we drove along, from historical site to historical site, with the redolent music playing in the background, carrying me from memory to memory, I couldn’t find the place in time where this constant preoccupation had slipped into the recesses of my mind. It wasn’t like I never thought about it. But I stopped pursuing my passion. Then I started thinking about other interests that I’ve shunted off to a corner somewhere.
I still have a long way to go in Native American studies even though, again, I’ve read quite a bit. I was an avid college basketball fan and in recent years, I’ve been completely out of that loop. I remember when Michael’s illness blotted out everything. I put all my intellectual energy into cancer, science, studying immunological drugs. Did I lose my focus back then, when my caregiving skills were in high demand by both Michael and my aging mother? I really don’t know. But as I’ve thought about this some more, I realize that I’ve perhaps set aside some valuable tools that might make coping with being a widow more palatable for me. Sometimes things just slip away without you being aware of what’s happening. I want Michael to come back which is an utter impossibility except for the curious otherworldly feelings I get sometimes. But I can get my war back. And who knows what else? I’m going to make another list of goals. And then I’m going to hit the road again.