it does not bring them back

Last night after dinner, we walked down to the river. The evening was bright and mild. There were geese and their goslings and we approached, but carefully. The river ran fast. The air was sweet. Peonies and rhododendrons in bloom everywhere. 

I am thinking about the passage of time. How in midlife, these years pile up so quickly. Was it already two years ago that I wrote to you from the desert? Has it been three years since Montpelier in winters so cold my hair froze as I walked? 

Thirteen years since we moved into this house, embraced its decaying grandeur? We had only one child then. Your parents were both well, with no hint then of what was to come. 

I’m working on something new, something difficult. It’s going slowly. It has sent me back in time — to old notebooks, old notes, false starts. I find a bit of something — a line or two, a question — and sometimes will not recognize it as my own. Mostly, though I have found that themes emerge. Ideas and questions I have been circling for a long time. I find this pleasing. Like I am approaching the same central questions of a life from different angles, at different points in time. What else is a creative life, if not that? 

It’s a strange thing, perhaps, but I like to encounter references to events and people I can no longer remember. “Spoke with P about the Brooklyn debacle” and I will puzzle with it for a while. Who is P? What debacle? I like to think that at some other, future point, I will remember it with perfect clarity. I like to imagine my past self, making this note, confident that no further explanation would ever be needed. Writing from a time when P is so present, so alive, and the Brooklyn debacle so all-consuming that I cannot imagine that it could ever be another way. 

Mostly these days I am thinking about suffering. For the past few years, in one way or another, I have been reading about and thinking about the Korean War — and by extension, other wars — and its aftermath. Not only the death toll, which is significant and unimaginable, but of those who come home from war. The silent suffering they endure, the ways in which their suffering infects their homes, their families; the long shadows of war falling poisonous and suffocating over us all. 

My father served in World War II. I ask my aunt about it and she says, “Something happened there that we don’t know. When he came home he was not the same,” but she doesn’t say much more. She didn’t know him then, of course, didn’t meet him until ten years later, after his first marriage had ended and he was courting my mother. Whether she never learned what he saw or did in the war, or doesn’t want to talk about it, I am not yet certain. But she will say, on occasion, “He had a lot of baggage.” 

Over the years, I have heard suggestions. My sister claims to remember that he told her once that he had seen someone step on a landmine. “Blown up in front of him,” my sister will say. Our father left when we were so young it’s hard to imagine under what circumstances this conversation might have transpired, but I am no expert on memory. 

This note, from 2016: “We wage war, build monuments in the names of our dead, but it does not bring them back.” 

And later: “In war, don’t we do things in the names of our ancestors that they would not want us to do.” 

We are down by the little ampitheatre the city has built along the river, and my son runs across the stone stage, mugging and striking poses. He is drawing an extensive collection of characters for a game he is creating and he tries out the poses to know how to draw them. Of course, the characters will inevitably battle each other, so their identifying poses are stances of attack, meant to hint at their power. There is little respite from the ubiquity and insistence of war. 

The light fades. We can feel the temperature drop. It is still comfortable, but we know we will be heading home soon. We can hear easy chatter of people walking to their cars. The streetlamps glow, and now a row of white lights illuminate the bridge.