Monday, May 28, 2012

Watching the Parade

Every year there are fewer of them in the parade. They ride in convertibles or in vans labeled with the names of assisted living facilities. They do their best to sit tall, to wave. More than eight hundred of them die in the U.S. every day. The youngest are in their eighties. My eyes are always drawn to them, the World War II veterans.  

Watching these old, frail men, I think about my childhood, when the World War I veterans were the old, old men. And it seems incredible to me that those World War I veterans were once the elders of this now rapidly vanishing World War II generation. These men, as we see them today, stooped and slight, are the elders. How could anyone come before these men?

My grandfather, who served in Japan, would have turned ninety-six today, except like most World War II veterans, he didn’t live to see this century. And he never marched in a parade or went to veterans’ reunions or made much of his time in the Army. And it seems incredible to me now, but not once did I ask him about his service in World War II. Not once. It was, I believed, a distant, unimportant part of his life. It was the past.

Today I showed my children his photograph, and I told them that their great-grandfather fought in a war, just like the other veterans in the parade. Maybe my son will remember that once, as a very young boy, he saw World War II veterans. Maybe as an adult my daughter will remember that she marched with them in a Memorial Day Parade long ago.

I think of my grandfather when he was a young, young child like my son, and Civil War veterans were still alive. They were the old, old men. Maybe he once saw them in a parade like this one. Maybe he stood with a flag, saluting his elders.

For years, on and off, I’ve been working on a vast, sprawling historical novel that spans more than four decades and opens during World War II. Part of the book tells the story of an American G.I. fighting in Europe. I have read countless books and seen countless documentaries and films about the war; I know about D-Day and the layout of Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold, and Sword beaches and the paratroopers at Sainte Mère-Église and the Battle of the Bulge and Christmas in the Ardennes and the liberation of Paris. I know all of this, but still I don’t know enough.

Seeing these delicate, elderly men with their bird bones, their quaking hands held up in greeting, I try to imagine their stories. Seeing these human beings who were once younger than I, who were thrown into a war when they were barely past childhood, I realize how deep into my imagination I must reach, and I wonder if I am up to the task. I wonder if I can do them justice.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Airborne Trees

A sudden wind sends the maple samaras twirling out of the trees, the air abruptly filling with a squadron of gently descending helicopters, and my children run among them, looking up, laughing, their arms outstretched. As I stand at the kitchen window watching those silvery whirligigs glimmering in the yard, I think about writing.

Writing is like trying to capture in words that sudden launch, that complex spiral motion downward, each story or essay attempting to freeze that corkscrewing fall to earth, and yet the effort is doomed to fail every time, doomed to incompletion, inadequacy, because the words can never be the thing itself, the captivating whirlybird loved by children, but the words are what I have, and the words are what will remain—and so I will continue to write, and to fail, and to write again. I will continue to chase samaras.

But just look at the children: how they run and laugh among the twirling dancers released by the trees, as though this tender rain of samaras exists entirely for their joy. For them, a samara is a word and a word is a samara; for them, these maple fruits are the very keys to their existence, unlocking something from their hearts for which there need to be no words—and, indeed, there are no words.

Meanwhile, I stand in the kitchen and calculate, trying to find the words. Always, I am seeking the words, while my children chase samaras all over the yard, with their very motions asking: where will they land and what will they become and how can we be involved in their journeys? Perhaps they recognize better than I that this moment, though commonplace, is a miracle: this moment at the inception of its life when a tree, that most earthbound life form, is airborne.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Eighty-Four Years

Last week I listened to a woman named Karen give a three-minute speech about her experiences in our leadership class. She talked about how quickly our twenty weeks together have gone by, and how fleeting life is. One minute your child is two, she said, and the next he’s grown up and gone away. Her own three children are grown and gone. I thought of my younger child, my four-year-old, and while I appreciated Karen’s sentiment, the prospect of my son going to middle school, let alone leaving home, seemed distant.

Then Karen’s eyes grew moist, and she said that during the course of our class, her uncle died. And before he died, he said, “I never thought eighty-four years would pass so fast.”

Instantly I was with him—this man I never knew—on his deathbed, feeling his incredulity, seized suddenly with the sensation that it’s inconceivable that his life has all passed by, that this is all there is. How many times I have felt this myself at various stages in my life? It’s the same sense of I-will-never-get-through-my-newborn’s-first-year-of-life or I-will-never-finish-writing-my-book or even this-leadership-class-will-never-end—that interminable stretch of time during that goes on and on—and then the stunned disbelief when it’s all over, and you don’t quite see how it all went by so fast. The stages of our life—childhood, college, children—pass this way, and, as the story of Karen’s uncle reminded me, so does our entire life. How is it paradoxically forever and fleeting? How do eighty-four years go by so fast?

Karen finished her speech. Be present, she said in closing. Be present: that simplest and most difficult task of all.

Every day a moment comes when I think, almost in a panic—what am I doing? I should be writing! Instead, I’m building a nuclear power plant out of blocks, reading Traction Man aloud for the tenth time, setting out finger paints and mopping up spills. I should be writing, I think, but instead I am doing this. And then I have to tell myself: there will be time. He is four for only a year. Soon, so soon, he will go to school. Soon, so soon, he will be gone away. There will be time. I take a breath and say it to myself again. I focus on the pumpkin seedling cupped in his hands, poised for planting in the earth. I focus on his eyes looking up at me for guidance, asking me what is to come next in his mysteriously unfolding life. There will be time. And if it turns out there isn’t, I hope at least I will have done this well—this long and tender holding of my child's hand.