“Oh I’ve got five years on you,” he says to me.
Three of us are standing around talking about my recent 60th birthday celebration.
Five years. Right away there’s a hunger. I want to ask him what year he was born, but I already know. I ask anyway, can’t stop myself from asking, because I want to hear him say, “1948”. I want to hear him say it out loud.
“What year were you born?”
I know this particular equation intimately. I was born in 1953. I know what you get if you subtract 5 from 1953. I already know what year he was born but I want to hear him say it. And he does.
“My brother was born in 1948,” I say.
I can’t stop myself from saying this, either. As the words come out of my mouth I wonder if they know, figure they must and then realize they might not. Then I regret saying anything because it’s clear they don’t know.
“Where’s your brother now?” he asks.
It’s a simple, almost automatic question. I’ve trapped him…carefully set out a snare that he can’t help but fall into. He was running straight for it and I just gently set it there, right in his path.
“Why did I start this?” I wonder.
I feel the hunger again, the urge to know anyone who was born the same year as my brother. As if just knowing someone who was five years older than me would bring him back, or bring me comfort, or what? It’s like a scar that’s beginning to heal and sometimes itches. I want to scratch it. I know if I do, it’s going to hurt. I do it anyway.
Now I regret saying anything – feel a responsibility to shield them, everyone, from his death, their deaths.
“Gone? To where?” as if he’d moved to a different state or country.
“He Crossed Over…passed away. He and his daughter were killed in a car accident.”
The conversation stops in its tracks – a pause, then what you would expect – apologies, expressions of condolence, grief. It’s a horrible thing to hear. It’s a horrible thing to have a scar knit from. I don’t want to hide it from people, can’t really, but at the same time I do. If it was an enormous gash on my arm, I can imagine that for a while, maybe a long while, I would want to cover it…wear long sleeves, to protect it from being touched or bumped. But I know that would get old, always wearing long sleeves. Always worrying about what would happen if someone glimpsed its thick, angry, raised, scar tissue still deciding whether or not to move toward healing, or fall back into a gaping wound. Living with it covered over is not living.
There are blocks of time when I can feel it becoming something other than a gash. Having had death come knocking all in an instant has taught me to have a kind of presence with life that I may have aspired to before, and attained some of the time – but now it’s burned into my consciousness in another kind of way. The gift of it means that when I say good-bye to someone, I know that it might be the last time we see each other…that one of us might go. Now. Right now.
So I appreciate the people I know, the things I see, the birds that sing or scratch or peck. The hummingbirds that came to drink nectar out of a crazy, in-love-with-life Pineapple Sage plant still blooming; its long, tubular, outrageously scarlet flowers dripping with nectar on a grey November day. Sitting at the base of that plant quietly weeding for a long stretch of time, the resident hummingbirds evidently began to see me as an extension of the plant. They dove in close: six, eight inches away from my head. Feeling, hearing the exquisite ferocity of those beating wings RIGHT IN MY FACE, watching a tiny chest with its enormous beating heart appear and disappear as the ravenous, thirsty dive-bombers moved this way and that: this is the other side of being touched so closely by “deaths-by-accident”. So maybe it is time that I wear my sleeves rolled up. Not to shove the scar in someone’s face, but also not to take a three-block-long detour to make sure that no one might even have the faintest possibility of seeing that scar of life, of love.
“Why? Why did I say it?” I struggled.
The hunger was tangible. As if brushing up against someone his age, especially a male somehow would…yes, would, bring him back. It was like meeting someone that comes from a town where someone you love, used to live. Hearing where they’re from means they might know that person, and if only for a moment, that person is present. It was like that.
I had to say it so I could hear it – I ached to hear it: