This is maybe the hardest thing to write about.
I’ve lost a lot of friends along the way – dozens, when I count it up – and I mourn them all deeply. There were things they never got to do, smiles and laughter and lovemaking they missed, children grown to full flower that they never knew the sweetness of holding, and never knew the bittersweetness of letting go. But they all, all of them, died doing what they dreamt of doing, doing what they loved best. Knowing full well that it was a dangerous business, and that it was a certain fact that not everyone got to finish the race.
And there’s a part of me that suspects that for each of us who makes it all the way to decrepit old age, and finds himself listening for endless hours to the hollow sound of his breathing on the ventilator, waiting for the reaper to arrive, there’s at least one man who maybe envies those who passed through the veil in the flush of hearty youth, with a stick in one hand and a throttle in the other, and no regrets. No regrets at all. There’s much to be admired in a quick and fiery death, when you compare it to some others you can think of.
But you don’t get much in the way of survivor’s guilt, in this game. And the thing I miss the most is not my absent comrades, believe it or not. I miss the time. The time at home. The time spent with my family.
The separation is the hardest part.
The best part of my day these days is sitting around the dinner table at the end of the meal. We’ll all be talking, and smiling and laughing. And I can bask in the warm glow of hearth and home, of family and even friendship. And I can fool myself for long stretches that we’re just like any other family. We’re the Cleavers, Marge and Ward – or even Ozzie and Harriet. We’re a still-life in motion from a Norman Rockwell painting. And then one of the kids, tears in their eyes from the shared laughter of the previous story, will be reminded of another tale. And in that telling a sudden coldness will come over me as I realize that this tale forms no part of my memory set. That I form no part of it.
“When did this happen?” I will ask, because I must. Because I always have. Because I always will.
And then severally, they will answer – “Oh – it was when you were away.”
There are far too many such stories, and other ones besides that start, “One time, when you were gone…”
When I was gone.
These stories are a part of the life that I chose, just like the moving from town to town is. As is the sudden, violent loss of friends. But of all the many things that I regret, I regret this the most. The times that I was gone. The stories that I am not a part of.
There are many wonderful things about a life spent flying fighters off of aircraft carriers, many great rewards from sailing the seas in your country’s defense. But I have lost thousands of days that I will never get back, days gone forever. And there are times, gentle reader, when I wonder if it was worth it.
I had meant this to be a longer entry, but as I said: This is maybe the hardest thing to write about.