Autumn is always bittersweet and beautiful―like a memory. I am nearly fifty now and yet my childhood seems as close as the doorway. More distant, and more painful are the memories of my sons. I had only two, Joseph and David, both fine young men, each born with a high sense of duty. One is dead now and the other might be soon. People tell me that I can’t change anything―that fate is what it must be. I try to accept that. But the memories haunt me, like autumn. They beguile me with their sweetness and then frighten me with what comes after.
I grew up endowed with a mission to change the world. I was going to be somebody. My relations going all the way back to Adam and Eve were much the same. It must be something in our genetic code. We were the branch that reached for the sun and was never content to live in the shade of another’s glory. My father was a radio broadcaster and my mother was an artist. They both strove with straining hearts to be great at what they did. You probably never heard of them. Few ever did. But they lived and died believing that they made a difference. And I guess that is all that really matters, believing in yourself. At least, that is what David keeps telling me.
It is late now, and the house is quiet. The cicada came out late this year, and I can still hear them in the evenings joining their songs with the crickets and the frogs. It makes a low, pleasant hum, always in the background, like the music in a movie. You aren’t always aware of it, but it affects your mood and soothes, or warns you, as the case may be. Right now, the evening sounds are soothing. There are no dreadful winds screeching against the windows or thunder hammering on the roof. Right now, I feel peaceful and even a little drowsy. David should be home soon. His shift ended at 8:00 P.M. but he said it might take him a little longer as he was going to talk to his director about his options. That is what he calls it, his options.
War broke out again four years ago and I thought that Joseph would stay out of it, but since he was trained as a psychiatric nurse, he saw it as his duty to join up as soon as possible and help out in whatever way he could. I admired his patriotism. Everyone did. After all, we had not looked for war. It came to us, landed in our laps when extremist terrorists set off bombs in our cities. There have always been problems in the world and tensions were especially high with threats at the time, but I had always figured that we were secure, our lives would remain on the periphery of events. I had hoped that living in the countryside might shield us. But fate crosses all boundaries and Joseph was determined to make a difference. He wanted to save people. He wanted to be helpful. How could I blame him? Over a thousand people were killed in those attacks and more died in the following battles. War comes at a cost. But I hoped that it would not cost the life of my son. I am not sure why I thought he should be exempt. But I did. I honestly thought that he was too good to die.
So now I sit here trying to make sense of my memories and trying to decide what I believe. If fate rules us, then it really does not matter what I believe. I can sit here until Doom’s Day, and nothing will change. But if fate is just an excuse for not accepting our part of things, then perhaps it does matter. Maybe I have more to do with Joe’s death than I realize. Maybe David still has a chance.
Kurt and I were older when we got married. It took us a long time to find each other. We were like that song―looking for love in all the wrong places. But eventually, we met right where you’d expect two Catholics might meet, in a church. It was at Christmas time and we were both out of college, and it turned out we had some friends in common. It didn’t take us long to decide that we wanted a life together. It did take a couple years to pay off old debts and clear out our lives so that we could make room for our marriage. But once that was taken care of, we went forward and had a big wedding, inviting everyone near and far. We’re both believers, but not terribly involved in church activities, except around holiday time. Our lives revolved more around our work. I had been endowed with a missionary spirit, teaching in poor neighborhoods while Kurt had worked as an English as a Second Language instructor. Both of us were zealots. Both of us wanted to make a difference. And both of us were rather tired and worn out by the time we got married.
It took us three years to have our first child, but there was never a more anticipated bundle of joy than out little Joe. Suddenly all our zeal was directed toward this tiny little baby. It was as if no other baby had ever been born before, the way we acted. Kurt made every birthday a major holiday and started to teach little Joe the letters of the alphabet and how to play ball when he was barely old enough to toddle across the floor.
I was intent on providing the best home and the nicest, most delicious meals ever created by any mother anywhere. The poor child never had a chance to know moderation. Moderation just wasn’t in our vocabulary. If he even got a sniffle, I ran him to the pediatrician so fast that the doctor would usually just tell me to turn around and go home, giving me nothing more than an encouraging word and a slight sigh. Joseph either had a great immune system or we frightened every illness away before it had a chance for Joe grew up as healthy as an ox. He grew big too. The other kids in school used to say that he ought to try out for football, but I’d never let him. It was too risky. He had a smart mind and I didn’t want his head broken in some game which would only decide the fate of a team for a season. I wanted my boy to make decisions about far more important things. Luckily Kurt agreed with me. Kurt would read him stories by the hour about famous men in history. That boy went to bed dreaming about knights in shining armor and martyrs who suffered for their faith. Though we lived in farm country and envied farmers their knack for bringing fruit from the earth, even if it was simply acres and acres of corn or beans, still we never saw ourselves as farmer types. We had the missionary spirit. So when Joe grew up and chose medicine as his field, Kurt and I smiled in complete understanding. This was something worthy, something grand that could make a difference in the world.
Joe joined Peace Corps after college, and Kurt and I were so proud of him; we could hardly contain ourselves. We sent packages and extra money to support him through the two years he spent in the Philippines. He got Typhoid while he was there, and Kurt thought about going over to check in on him, but Joe told us not to come. His letters became subdued. Joe seemed to be changing in ways I couldn’t understand. I wondered if he was depressed, but Kurt said that he was just seeing the world as it really was and that sobered him up a bit. Besides, everyone was telling me: “Joe’s his own man now; he’s over twenty-one; you need to let him be.” It wouldn’t do any good to worry anyway. I had no control over the world or my son anymore. There weren’t any options I could veto.
When Joe arrived back in the states one blistering hot July day, he met us at the airport looking like an overgrown scarecrow. He had lost so much weight that I barely recognized him. He was tanned but his face was gaunt with exhaustion. I was appalled, but Kurt gripped my arm and told me not to mother him. He was a man now. Joe needed to tell us what happened in his own way. At least Kurt realized that something had happened. But as we drove through the city noise of Saint Louis back toward the rural quiet of Illinois, I waited expectantly for Joe to say something, for him to tell us his story. He didn’t.
He hardly talked that whole drive home and he talked very little for the three months that he lived with us before he found a job in Washington D.C. He didn’t seem to care about anything except getting busy someplace far away from us. I couldn’t understand. I thought my heart might break. I had always considered myself a wonderful mother, but now I wondered what I had done wrong. Why didn’t Joe seem to care about me, or his father, or even his little brother? Joe and David had never been especially close but they had been good friends. Now it was as if they hardly knew each other.
David was finishing college, and he was busy with dreams of his own. He seemed grieved by the change in his brother, but he didn’t seem inclined to do anything about it. I remember David came to me as I was sitting on the porch watching the sunset one evening and said, “Don’t worry about Joe, Mom. He’s made his decisions. He can’t go back to being your little boy anymore. You’ve got to accept that.”
I had no idea what David was talking about, but it seemed to be the advice everyone was giving me. Even Kurt told me not to worry. Joe was a big boy. He would make his own way. And he did. He made his way right into a psychiatric ward where he was helping men who had returned from the war with serious mental conditions. He was a very capable nurse and he got along with everyone, well, almost everyone. It was one of his own patients who killed him. Shot him in the heart. I never knew how a patient got ahold of a gun. At the time, it didn’t seem to matter. Joe was dead and that was all I really needed to know.
At his funeral, the director of the hospital came over and shook my and Kurt’s hands and tried to console us. He looked me right in the eye and said that Joe died making a difference. I had to believe that was true. But I couldn’t understand why it was supposed to make me feel better. After all, if he was making a difference, wouldn’t it have been better if he lived? How did his death serve anyone?
It wasn’t until Kurt and I was cleaning out Joe’s apartment, when I came across his journal, that I began to understand the man my son had become. I found the journal tucked under a copy of The imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis. I had heard of the book, but I had never read it, and I was surprised to find it among Joe’s things. I had been more afraid of finding girlie magazines, but there was none of that. In fact, his whole apartment was rather Spartan. Kurt put a few of books in a box and then he said he needed to make some phone calls. He left the room and didn’t come back until later that evening when I was about done. I wanted to be angry at him for leaving me to work alone, but then I realized that he couldn’t help himself. Kurt wasn’t the kind of man who could cry in front of people, even me. He needed to be alone to deal with his grief. I figured pretending that everything was okay was the nicest thing I could do. Sometimes not talking was our way of getting through things.
I gave most of Joe’s stuff away, but I kept the journal. I couldn’t read it for over a year. But then in late September the following year, I picked it up after lunch, and I didn’t put it down even to make dinner. Kurt had gone to a game with some friends, and David was living on campus. I was completely alone. I wish I hadn’t been. It was an experience that seared my soul forever.
I’ve Played My Part
The first part of Joe’s journal was much like what I would have expected. He was obsessed with his work, and he wrote about the people he worked with and the things he was doing. But then he wrote about a series of nightmares which were haunting him and his reflections about what they meant. Then a few entries later, Joe finally admitted that he was struggling with his faith. There was a long time lapse between entries at this point and when he finally started writing again, he wrote about his experiences in the Philippines. He had become good friends with a girl there, and he had even thought about bringing her home and marrying her, but then he discovered that she was pregnant. His friends warned him that he would be in a lot of trouble, so they advised him to help the girl get an abortion. Abortion was not an option for this girl or Joe either, but her father found out, and there was a big scene and Joe discovered that he was in bigger trouble than he had realized. The girl’s father wanted Joe to marry her right away, and Joe knew that his dreams for the future were seriously compromised. A friend got him some medicine that was supposed to end the pregnancy quick and easy. Joe gave his girlfriend the medication, telling her that it would make everything better. She believed him and took it and soon became so sick she nearly died. The baby miscarried and Joe transferred to another village. After that, he fulfilled his time in Peace Corps as perfectly as possible. He wrote that he never even looked at another girl for a long time. He tried to put the whole event out of his mind and promised himself that he would make up for his mistake by being the best nurse he could be. And everything seemed to work out. Except that he couldn’t completely forget the girl he once believed he loved, or atone for the past with promises for the future. Nightmares haunted his nights.
I sat there sobbing, hugging Joe’s journal, thinking that my son had died a tormented man when I realized that he had left three pages blank before his last entry. When I thought about it later, I realized that perhaps he had left those pages blank for a reason. Maybe he had wanted to mark the place in his journal with white pages, to show the difference in his life. In any case, Kurt came home before I could read that last entry, and it was a long time before I could pick it up again.
Kurt never drank much but occasionally when he was out with friends they would stop by someplace and have a few beers. This particular night, he had had more than a few. I wondered at him as he came in swaying haphazardly and I asked him if he wanted anything to eat, but he just waved me away. He said he had finally realized that his whole life was a sham. He was never any hero, and he had never accomplished anything. The world would be better off without him. I was shocked and hurt. After all, if his life was a sham, what was mine? What was our marriage? I couldn’t understand this pit he had suddenly fallen into, but I did have sense enough to realize that a good night’s sleep would probably help, so I pretty much agreed with everything he said, and I helped him to the bedroom. I gave him a back massage and let him mumble himself to sleep.
As I watched him lying obliquely on the bed half dressed, since I couldn’t manage to get him completely undressed or completely straight on the bed, I realized that this was our life. A half-done life. We had the ideals and the zeal, but we didn’t have something that made things really work out properly. I wondered about that as I made my way to the living room. I didn’t bother undressing either, for I thought Kurt might get sick in the night; he wasn’t a drinking man and this little bout with the bottle might have other unpleasant consequences. So I just piled up the couch pillows, and I lay in the dark living room and thought about what I had read in Joe’s journal. I don’t know why I didn’t just get it and read the last entry, but I felt so overwhelmed that I couldn’t take one more emotional revelation. I just lay there and wondered what Kurt had meant by his life being a sham. Was his life really a sham? Didn’t he love me? What did that say about my life? I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I awoke to the sound of Kurt calling me from the bathroom. There were other unpleasant consequences all right.
That spring David graduated from college with an engineering degree. He had decided that he wanted to specialize in aeronautics and though I didn’t see the “big plan” David seemed to feel that there was one, and he needed to be a part of it. The war had slowed down and was rolling along like many modern wars, mostly on someone else’s turf. I read on-line reports and I wondered if anyone would ever find a way to convince leaders that killing each other’s young people was no way to solve our differences. But I could see the necessity of protecting the innocent. After all, “the only way for evil to conquer was for good men to do nothing.” I had always believed that. So had Kurt and Joe. But now Kurt was submerged in doubt, and Joe was dead. I had a hard time lifting myself to the heights of idealism that I used to love.
During that spring and early summer, Kurt seemed to be getting ill a lot. He lost weight and looked tired all the time. I urged him to go to see a doctor, but he insisted that it was just a summer cold and he’d get over it. He didn’t. By the time he finally did see a doctor, the cancer had spread throughout his lymph nodes and into his bones. It had progressed to the point where even the specialists didn’t think he had much time left. They were willing to do chemo treatments, but Kurt said that he was too old and too tired to fight that hard. He was ready to go. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I felt like I never knew my husband at all.
By the fall, Kurt was in the hospital a lot. I would go see him after a full day of teaching and spend the evening with him before I went home to shower and get ready for the next day. As we sat there in that white walled room, we would sometimes watch TV or we’d talk about stuff on the news. Kurt always enjoyed discussing current events, and he loved history so he’d often tell me everything he knew about the countries that were in the news. He loved sharing his knowledge. That was one reason he had been such a wonderful ESL teacher. He was smart, and he cared about the people he worked with because he knew something about them and where they came from. He had always seen a connectedness between people and events. Yet now, as he slowly succumbed to the ravages of cancer, he didn’t see himself as being particularly connected to anything or anyone. When I asked him why he was so ready to leave me and David behind, he said, “I’m done – that’s all. I played my part and though it wasn’t as big as I thought it would be, still, I gave it my all. Now it’s my turn to go off stage and let someone else take over.”
I remember; I wanted to slap him. I wanted to beat him on the chest and tell him that he wasn’t God and no one said he could slip quietly into the dark night. But even as I was shaking with fury, I wondered if I was being fair. Kurt had a right to face his death in his own way, and I should be glad he wasn’t suffering any worse. I should be relieved he was accepting his fate. But somewhere in the back of my mind, I was troubled. My heart was hurting and my head was aching. Nothing seemed to be making any sense. I tried to reach back to my youthful sense of high purpose but it was elusive. Everything that used to comfort me was slipping through my fingers. I sat there, the blinds closed against the blazing August sun and Kurt fell into one of his evening naps.
I wondered at my stomach crunching distress. I could feel the familiar ache in my middle and knew that inner turmoil was one of the worst pains in the world. I tried to talk myself out of my suffering. If Kurt was accepting his fate, why couldn’t I? If Joe had died making a difference, then what good did it do to grieve over his death? Was I was just lonely and frightened? No, I had friends, and I was certainly capable of taking care of myself. Though I was losing my best friend, I didn’t need to think I was losing my whole life. My life would still have a purpose. I would still be a valuable person, and I needed to accept what I could not change. But somehow all my reasoning just made my stomach clench harder and my brain whirl that much faster.
Late one October afternoon, one of Kurt’s students came by to see him. He was an elderly Asian man and though many of Kurt’s students had come before to say hi and engage in some kind of humanitarian kindness, this man, I don’t even remember his name, was the kindest of all. He didn’t say much, but as Kurt was sleeping, he just came over and shook my hand then he knelt by Kurt’s bed and began to pray. I was taken a little aback. I wasn’t sure what religion this guy was or who, exactly, he was praying to, but his sincerity was obvious. He stayed there kneeling for what seemed like hours but was probably only just a few minutes. When he got up, he smiled at me and just whispered as he left, “God knows.” I have absolutely no idea why those words comforted me so much, but they did. I could actually feel the knots in my middle unloosen a little and though I didn’t knee on the floor, I did bow my head.
Certainly, I had prayed for Kurt just like I had prayed for Joe. A priest had come in and anointed Kurt. Our faith had been an intrinsic part of our lives. But suddenly, I saw things from a different view. It was as if I was looking at my life from a new perspective. In my youth, I had always been trying to make a difference. Then as tragedy entered, I tried desperately to grasp its meaning. Everyone advised acceptance but that had seemed cowardly, elusive, a run-away kind of thing. But there, as an October rain drizzled against those never-opened windows, for a brief second, I grasped what I was missing.
Kurt died in November, the day before Thanksgiving. We hadn’t planned much since he was so ill but several of his relatives had come to town for family get-togethers so, in a way, it was good timing. Everyone was close, and the funeral was arranged without difficulty. Kurt had insisted on making out a will as soon as he knew he was seriously ill, so money matters slipped into place easily. David came home from his work at NASA, and he did everything he could to help me out. He was as good and kind a son as a mother could want. But he didn’t talk much about his work. He just said that there were a lot of wonderful possibilities in the future, and he wanted to explore some of them. I knew he had always been interested in space exploration, but as he turned his attention toward engineering and then toward planes, I figured his childhood fantasies of traveling to far off planets had vanished like other vaporous dreams. It turned out I was wrong.
His dreams had never died and as he faced a world in turmoil and the deaths of his brother and father, his dreams seemed to revive with alacrity. Even during that wet and cold November, he would sit out on the porch in the evenings watching as the sky turned from misty-grey to solemn-black. When I came out and asked him why he didn’t come inside where it was warm, he simply said he was watching for any stars which might break through the clouds. I remember telling him that any stars which broke through a November night were more likely to be airplanes or aliens, and he just chuckled and said, “Maybe so, maybe so.”
I finally had the courage to read the last chapter of Joe’s journal that winter, and I could have kicked myself for waiting so long. It turned out that Joe had met someone in the hospital that he really admired, and he had shared his turmoil with him. The man, whose name was Dr. Scanlon, was just starting out, but he must have had been born with the wisdom of the ages for he told Joe that his mission in life was not defined by his mistakes but by how he handled his mistakes. Apparently, Joe got a new lease on life, and he realized that he would never be a perfect man. That job had already been taken. He was called to be as good a man as he could be, and when he slipped up, he was called to stand back up and try again.
I realized as I read this, how common place those words seemed. They were the kinds of things I told my fifth graders. But I understood that Joe had grasped them on a whole new level. I suppose someone would say that Joe had been born again. He suddenly seemed to believe that his life had a meaning beyond what he could fully grasp. And that encouraged him. “Thank God,” I murmured as I sat there on my bed once more rocking and hugging his journal to my chest. “Thank God.”
The next time David came home for a visit, I handed him Joe’s journal and told him he’d enjoy the last entry. David only smiled and said that he probably knew more about Joe than I realized. Joe had called him the day before he died and said that he was thinking about asking out a particularly beautiful intern. They had laughed together, and David said he felt that Joe was relieved of a heavy burden. I just stared at my son and asked him if there was any hope that I would know him before I died, and he smiled that bewildering smile he has and said that he would share more―if he could. I just sighed and shook my head. David then did one of the most surprising things he has ever done. He took my hand and he led me out to the twilight sky and he pointed to the stars. He said, “Look up there, Mom, and tell me what you see.”
I told him I saw a multitude of twinkling lights that scientists tell me are really balls of burning gas bigger than the earth and that though I believe them, I’d be equally content to have them just be twinkling lights. David has such an infectious laugh. I had to laugh with him. We stood there, him holding my hand like a little boy again, and he suddenly turned to me and said, “What if I told you that out there lies the hope of humanity? If only we have the daring to realize it?”
Well, what could I say? What would you say? I remembered my youth and I felt a strange flicker of hope and life. I felt his excitement. But I also felt a ripple of fear. What was he about to do? What was he about to risk? So I looked at his upturned face and I asked him, “What do you mean? Tell me about it.”
So David explained. He told me all about how he was working on the design for a settlement on Mars and how one day he hoped to be part of a mission which would initiate the first building efforts on Mars. There was even talk of him being a part of the next space mission so that he could better prepare himself for that experience and have a better understanding of what would be needed for a lifetime in a space settlement. I stared at David, much like I had stared at Kurt, wondering if I ever knew the man in front of me. I asked him why he had never shared these plans with me before, and he chuckled again.
“Some of this is not for the general public, Mom, and besides, it still sounds strange even to my ears. I wasn’t sure I could handle the bewildered expression I see in your eyes now. There was a time when I would have doubted my sanity for even dreaming of such things.”
David had grinned. “Now I feel a confidence born of grace. I trust that if God wants this done, it will be done. And I’ll be the man to help do it.”
There was so little I could say at that point. I realized that my whole life had been the humus of this dream. David’s dream, like so many others: Christopher Columbus, Einstein, Albert Switzer, Mother Teresa, had borne fruit not from the desert of fantasy, but from the nurturing love of family who dared to believe in things, who dared to dream big dreams even when those big dreams ended up being little more than a life well lived or a death well faced. I stood there as the clouds passed away and the stars broke through, twinkling their hearts out. I held my son’s hand and I never wanted to let him go.
So the Earth continues to revolve around the sun in its allotted course, and seven more years have passed. David has been on two space missions, and now, he has to decide if he will go on this last one. This will be a mission which will take him further than even my imagination can travel. He will begin a new phase in his dream. He will be a part of a team that will begin building a settlement on a very, very distant planet. He will likely spend the rest of his life working with robots and men who have sacrificed everything for a home very different from this one. He’s never been a coward, and he doesn’t expect to start now. I always wished David would settle down and have a family, but now I see how that was always impossible. He was a man born for a mission. I guess, we all have our missions. Perhaps mine was to give life to such a man and to plant a seed of daring hope.
Have I made a difference? Did Kurt? Surely when Kurt read those stories to the boys, he made a difference in the kind of young men they would be. He did as much as I to form them, not just their bodies, but their very souls. Kurt died believing his mission was over. Joe died trying to help an insane man deal with his suffering, hoping to have a family of his own someday. His life was about never giving up. My mission?
The winds have picked up, and I can hear David’s car pull into the driveway. He said he would come home tonight, even if it was late. It’s nearly midnight. It is raining now and there is a rumble of thunder in the distance. I suppose, he has accepted his mission.
I suppose I have too.
The forecast says that the temperature will drop tonight, down to the forties. Winter is on its way. Autumn can’t last forever. No season ever does. I left some chicken and fixings on a plate for him. I guess I’ll warm them up and sit with him awhile. I even made a few chocolate brownies. They’re his favorite.