Ripple

The first words I can remember David Alan Edmonds saying to me were something along the lines of, “Try to get off your soapbox for a second. And it’s Edmonds, not Edwards.” The way he said it wasn’t confrontational or dismissive: It was matter of fact. He wanted me to stop talking, to listen, and to get his name correct. I didn’t know at the time that he had experience running a classroom. But, looking back at it now, it was clear. I’d only ever been a student. And a high school student at that. I was not even a year out of high school. He’d already finished grad school, from what I understand. He’d already lived an adult life and I was just starting mine, I thought. What did I know about life? Nothing.

I never got his name wrong again, and I listened to every word he ever said if I was within earshot. Edmonds taught me something everyday when I knew him and worked closely with him. I wanted to be the man he was, but just couldn’t do it. It felt good if I could keep up with him on a run. It felt good if I could learn half of what he was trying to teach me. I always fell short but, at times, came close. For Edmonds, his time in the Marine Corps was not just something he was doing after high school. This was his new life. Again, he was ten years older.

I like to think that Edmonds was on some philosophical journey during those first few years he was in the Marine Corps. Fed up with the superficiality of the civilian world and the world of teaching, he decided to give himself to the Marine Corps. To find something real. To test himself in a new way. To serve as a rifleman in a war. To risk the ultimate act of selflessness. 

“Greater love hath no man,” but not this way. 

To me, Edmonds was a picture of what a man should and could become one day. A Leonidas. The kind of people you only read about. A historical figure. A great writer or something. A warrior. A future king. We used to joke about becoming the new Grand Old Man of the Marine Corps. I wanted to be Edmonds, but I knew I couldn’t, and I knew I could definitely not spend my entire life in the Marine Corps. I knew it from the beginning. But part of me wanted to. I knew I didn’t have the enthusiasm he had. The fearlessness. While I couldn’t imitate his warrior spirit, I wanted to imitate his mind. So I got out. I went to school and became a teacher. I thought about him so much as a student in college. I saw him everywhere: in the great professors I had who took me under their wings, the ones who put up with my immaturity and lack of professionalism, the students, my friends. I met someone so much like Edmonds when I was in grad school. If you’re reading this, Hi, Duncan. Even a few of the people I work with now remind me of Edmonds.

I think about what my mother said when I called her. I was still in shock after teaching three classes of middle school students for what felt like days. I’d heard the news that morning. I pulled over on the side of the road. I was running late. All I could do was try to drive to work safely and worry about it later. The kids could tell. I remember just looking around, staring at things. When a kid finally asked, all I could say was, “My friend just died.” Were you my friend? What were you, really? What was I to you? A little brother? A child you had to babysit? I couldn’t make sense out of how someone I hadn’t talked to in ten years could create such a hole. I could barely drive to work and I could barely drive home. 

So I did what a child does. I called my mom. 

“Was he the really smart one?” I think she asked. 

“Yep. Yeah,” I said. “You met him before we deployed.”

I see his gloves absorbing the water as we rinsed them. Transparent pink water dripping into the sand. I think they burned the gloves later. I don’t remember. It’s blurry.

“Oh, David,” I think she said, to me. But she might as well have been speaking to him. 

I called a friend. And another friend. And another. Then I called a leader I looked up to and told him I wanted to quit drinking but wasn’t ready yet. He talked to all of us. Who knows how many phone calls he took that day? But I know he took every one. I drank for nine more months, then called that same leader again. He’d lost another Marine by then. Took more phone calls. That man is a saint.

Mom didn’t know about Big Dave and Little Dave. An inside joke. The warrior and baby brother. The man and the child. I’ve never thought about how similar our full names were. My last name was Young back then. It never crossed my mind. I don’t think I even knew his middle name. And I never called him David or Dave. Just Edmonds, or Corporal, depending on who was around.

I haven’t thought about that “Oh, David” in a while. I am now. 

Oh, David.

There’s no song I can think of that helps, or that doesn’t suck. “Ripple”? Maybe. But only parts. There’s nothing. Just an empty feeling. And it’s fragmented. I get bits and pieces of you out of everything, but never a complete feeling. Nothing that settles anything. 

And you know what’s one of the worst parts for my selfish ass, from my limited perspective and relationship with who you were when I knew you? I can’t think about the Marine Corps anymore, or talk about it like a sane person. If I do, I’m stuck. I’m there again, but without you. People barely understand what I’m saying. I don’t get to think about the long hikes, the grids, the kilometers of hiking, talking about everything, resting an MRE on a rock “or something.” I don’t feel pride on Veteran’s Day. I feel embarrassed. I can barely hold it together during Memorial Day Assemblies, the few we’ve had before the world went insane. I have to focus on looking sane and whole. The kids won’t get it.

Do you know how hard it is to teach Tim O’Brien and The Things They Carried now? You would. Guarantee you’ve read him. You probably taught it long before I knew what it was. “On the Rainy River.” To paraphrase it, “I was a coward. I didn’t re-enlist.” I can’t think of one other time you ever let me down. I honestly can’t. I don’t get it, man. Did I build you up in my head? Is it hero worship? Am I mythologizing? Who did you look up to like this? Am I writing this for you or for me? Is writing about you wrong? Who am I to write about you? Is it immoral? You’d know.

You re-enlisted. I didn’t. 

I left. You stayed. I’m sure I let you down.

And ten years went by. 

You died. I haven’t. 

I have to stay and you get to leave. But I can’t bring myself to say you let me down. 

And more years go by.

I just wish I would have spent more time with you, or fully understood how rare you were. I don’t even know what to tell kids anymore when they ask about the Marine Corps and being a rifleman and tell me they’re thinking about it. If you saw it, their eyes, I bet these teenagers would remind you of me when you knew me. A dog following someone around. The child trying to impress the man. I want to tell them to do it. “Go 0311.” I want to, but will they have an Edmonds? Will they have what I had? That feeling of safety? That feeling of knowing that somehow this insanely smart person is here with me, making sure I was safe and that I knew what I needed to know to keep others safe? I didn’t know shit. I was so lucky. Like so many people, I’m sure, whether they know it or not, or even want to, I know I wouldn’t have made it without you. I felt safe knowing you were there and knowing you were here on Earth somewhere. I don’t think that feeling will ever go away. I just felt safer knowing you were here.

Final Verse of the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple”:

You, who choose to lead, must follow.

But if you fall, you fall alone.

If you should stand, then who’s to guide you?

If I knew the way, I would take you home.

I don’t know what that verse means. But it makes me think of you.

I Already Go to Therapy

One of the worst parts about feeling this way is knowing I’ve felt this way before. Way before. Like, toddler before. At some point, it passes and things go back to normal for me. I would hope I don’t have to clarify, but this honestly doesn’t apply to anything that has happened recently or regarding anyone in particular. It’s just something that happens to my brain when there are long breaks and holidays. I don’t have any facts to pull from, but my guess would be that most human relationships and interactions don’t last a lifetime. Most relationships and interactions don’t even start. But people accept it and go about their business. I seem to be incapable of doing that in a timely manner, whether it’s a family member or friend or romantic interest. I want to know why the person didn’t choose to stick around or want me in their life or want me involved in anyway. I want to know what other people have that I don’t. Why are they unhappy with me, specifically? I want to know what other people look like and if they have something I don’t. Am I that uninteresting? Am I that ugly? Is my voice weird? Is it my teeth? Is it because I’m so skinny? Is it possibly because I don’t drink anymore? I go over every personal flaw and character defect I can think of. It does nothing for me, if only serving to worsen the problem (like posting this long thing), but I continue to go down the same “thought rabbit-hole.” It just leads to more questions with unknowable answers. Frankly, it makes me go insane: I become an insane person. Full Jane Eyre “…veins running fire…heart beating faster than I can count its throbs” insanity.

But what do I do about any of it? I don’t take a look in the mirror and decide I’d look better with a haircut. I will acknowledge that I am too skinny and need to workout more. I might even try to workout. I’ll give it a good go for a few months and I even see results in my physical appearance. But I’m still miserable inside and eventually I give up on myself and fall back into the same patterns of thought and inaction. At least I don’t drink anymore.

I’ve heard the suggestions and done most of them: I still go to therapy, paying out of pocket. I’ve gone outside. I’ve worked out. I’ve mapped out my day. I quit drinking. I’ve met new people. I’ve done full workups at the VA, VA counseling, and scans and scans and scans. I’ve been shoveled meds from the VA that made me feel like a robot living underwater for the few months I was taking them about seven years ago. I’ve listened to music. I’ve made music. I’ve played music. I’ve made art. I’ve started and finished projects. I’ve meditated. I’ve focused on my breath. I write. I built a fucking mini-ramp in my garage so I could skateboard whenever I want. But, at the end of the day, I’m left with what I started with: my own body and my own thoughts. And the thoughts can be scary and I only share them with a handful of people and my therapist. 

I’ve done all the things I feel like a person is supposed to do in life: I graduated high school, barely. I served in a war, as part of the greatest fighting force the world has ever seen, as a Rifleman in the United States Marine Corps and was occasionally (read: rarely) recognized for being good at it. I still can’t believe how badly I wanted to be a part of history, to serve in a war like my grandfather. I went to college immediately after, starting with classes I never progressed to or passed in high school. Taking algebra with teenagers at a community college has a specific humbling quality to it, but the thought of Edmonds and all he’d done before the Marine Corps encouraged me, as well as a dream I had about my dead uncle standing behind me making sure I was paying attention in class, even as I was going through a divorce. Anyway, I majored in my favorite subject: English language and literature, and even minored for fun in Creative Writing. I’ve volunteered in high schools. I went on to get a Master’s Degree in Teaching, while riding my bike a total of twelve miles back and forth each day, washing dishes at a restaurant, and eventually buying a car. I’ve moved so many times it’s exhausting just to think about. I was married once. I’ve since had girlfriends who were great, whom I could honestly never say a bad word about. And I’ve had girlfriends who felt great for a little while, but ended up not so great for me in the end (and let’s just not talk about her). I’ve put myself out there is what I mean. I’ve embraced the bad feelings with the good and accepted that that’s just how it is with some things. But the lows are so low, man. Like, shit. They are low.

I became a high school teacher to not only teach my favorite subject that has added so much fulfillment and purpose to my life, but also to help students who felt like I did in school and to return the favor for a teacher who made me feel like I mattered to her when it felt like I didn’t matter to anyone. But how I felt in school is the same way I feel now, at least in general if you average the last few months to a year: defeated, inadequate, de/undervalued, broken, done, and just plain over it. I find myself only interacting with students and my dogs, and occasionally a woman I met, talk to, and meet up with when she’s in Portland, Oregon (Can love bloom during a Portland Protest?). But lately, I feel like everything that the students and my dogs love me for is a lie. I’m not happy-go-lucky. I’m not funny. I’m not smart. I’m miserable. It’s an act. I tricked you. I don’t have any answers. I can’t help them. Everything the students love me for, in my mind, is bad teaching: The soapbox moments where I wax poetic about the Beats, Tim O’Brien, and David Foster Wallace. The finding out what music they listen to and what shows they watch. Videos to leave them with before long breaks. What they wish they knew about teaching and teachers. What they wish teachers knew about them. That’s not teaching. That’s not going to get them to the career or life they want. That’s not going to help them be happy. That’s just me trying to feel good about myself and the things I like. I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. I’m going through the motions of life and work and I’m repeating the same patterns. And I can’t help anyone.

And where did all of these bullshit feelings come from? I was confident, overly so, just eight (maybe ten?) years ago. But the last few years, these terrible feelings are finally catching up with me big time. Losing somebody, an embodiment of what an intelligent man is supposed to be, whom I actively tried to emulate, hasn’t helped. Are most of my problems really all from those first few years of my life? Most books I read and professionals I see seem to think so. But where’s the growth on my end? Cause I’m fucking trying. I’m fucking trying, you asshole. I’ve done the things and I’ve sought the help. To quote one of my favorite bands, “Where is the future that was promised [me]?”

I was born into foster care, most of which I don’t remember, other than I was scared and I have a picture in my mind that the house looked exactly like the Amityville Horror House. I’ve shown a picture of the Amityville house to people who knew what the foster home looked like, and they confirmed that’s what it looked like. I was given back to my mother. I was given back to my father. How many times back and forth, I don’t remember. But, at one point, I think it was more about custody than adoption. I was left at daycares overnight when my father didn’t or couldn’t pick me up. When I was eighteen, I went back and visited the nice daycare lady who kept me overnight when I was a kid and made me real (actually real!) green eggs and ham for breakfast the next morning because I loved when she read that book to me so much the day before. I couldn’t understand how something from a book was right in front of me. I also didn’t know what food coloring was. The lady remembered me by name, all those years later, and I still remember hers: Linda. She called me “Little David Addigator,” even when I met her at eighteen. I was obsessed with alligators and crocodiles as a kid but couldn’t pronounce most Ls. So they were all addigators to me and everyone around me. She seemed relieved about something when I met her as an adult, calling her entire family into the living room to come see me. They remembered me. How many kids’ faces and names had they forgotten over the years? Why did I stand out? Linda said she was selling the house soon and she was so happy I stopped by before they moved and that she thought about me a lot. But, in another foggy memory, I was mistreated in another daycare by a different adult, forced to sit by myself in silence while other children played. All because I made grooves in the carpet with my fingers while waiting for someone to pick me up and take me home. I was essentially in trouble for not being able to sit still while waiting for whoever was so late picking me up. I don’t remember being picked up that day. Or, rather, I remember someone trying to pick me up but wasn’t allowed to take me home with them. It’s foggy. When I was left there overnight, I slept downstairs in a furnished basement by myself, if I slept at all. In sad, rain running down the window, movie fashion, I remember looking out of the windows for a long time on my little tippy toes in velcro shoes, hoping to see a truck pull up and take me home. I still remember the lady’s name: Sheri. I remember it and I’ll always remember it. And not the nice Sheri whom my aunt and the rest of my family knew. This lady didn’t like me and I was only four. But, I wonder if this lady’s animosity towards whoever left me there was consciously or subconsciously taken out on me. I’ll never know. As much as I’d still love to visit her and spit in her face, alas, her daycare is now the Tacoma First Church of God on Canyon Road, in between 84th and 86th St. Sure would be a shame if someone burned it down. She probably doesn’t even have anything to do with it anymore. Sold and moved on. Later on in life, if someone forgot to pick me up from school or I had to walk home, I went home with that same feeling I had when I was left as a kid: How did someone just forget about me?

People in my family always say that I have such a good memory about things that happened when I was so young. And that’s basically true. I remember lots of good things, but they don’t bring back the same physiological feelings as the bad ones do. And, more importantly, I can control the good memories. But, yeah, I do remember a lot. Eventually, I was handed off to relatives and friends of relatives. And I was finally adopted by an aunt and uncle. But before and after, there’s a lot I don’t remember and probably don’t want to. Mostly, I remember things that hurt “child me” in some way, whether mentally or physically. But I’ll focus on mental. A big one that stands out is the last day I saw my biological mother when I was a child. The last time I saw her look how I, even now in dreams, still remember her looking and continue to hold on to: tall, skinny, long black hair, pretty, a soft spoken floaty voice, gentle, and graceful movements. Among many other things ranging from dead friends, issues with food, and life in general, this memory is something that pops up in therapy often:

There’s a small room in the state capitol in Olympia, Washington. Or, it’s somewhere in some other courthouse, but there’s a room that had a playhouse I hid behind in order to avoid seeing my mother and her seeing me. I’d learned that just closing my eyes wasn’t a good enough way to hide from my dad. But I used to try. In my memory and in this room, I had to choose between my biological mother and an aunt, right then and there, and I don’t think it was the first time. I do know now, that this was the last time: The paperwork for formal adoption was getting finalized soon. A previous time, I was in a different room with a two way mirror: with my mother one moment, my aunt the next, and I think both of them on one occasion.  It’s possible these were two different days entirely. Regardless, my aunt says the thing with the two way mirror happened at some point. But, on this particular day in Olympia, there was a finality to it. I could feel that a choice was being made. A decision was coming. And I didn’t understand any of it. None of it. Part of me, sure, I’m sure I wanted to hang out with my cousins, like any kid would. But how could a kid, no older than four, understand any of the finer details of adoption? What it might do? How it might affect him later on? People just kept telling me that I’d be better off living with someone else and that I couldn’t stay with my biological father or mother. How could a kid, no older than four, understand the complexities of mental illness of his mother and/or the alcoholism of his father? Even just those concepts alone are not graspable to a small child. Fucking ABCs look like particle physics at that age. I do remember praying for my father to stop drinking, but that was simply so that I could stay with him. Although, that part might be made up and it doesn’t matter anyway because god’s not real. But, anyway, I was hiding in the corner, avoiding my mother. I think one of my cousins was climbing on the playhouse roof trying to get to me, thinking it was a game I was playing. Only moments before, I’d been playing with my cousins and having a blast. I think part of me, hiding in that corner, wanted to be with my mom. Fuck it, yo. I was just a kid. Of course I did. But I couldn’t make myself come out from that corner. I remember feeling frozen in place. I didn’t know if I could go through with it, at least that’s how I interpret it now. I didn’t know my mother was unstable, so of course I wanted to see her. I can remember my mother’s fragile voice as it called me while I panicked behind the playhouse, not knowing what to do. I’ve always loved playhouses, I don’t know why. I even ended up writing a sad short story about one in college, without a conscious thought about my adoption. It came out of nowhere, but it also came from an ungodly amount of alcohol. Undergrad was a fine balance of writing drunk and editing sober, over the course of a few days or weeks. Anyway, someone in that capitol room told me my mother was almost there and I hid. I don’t even know if I was fully verbal yet, but I tended to hide from strangers and couldn’t look them in the eyes. I still struggle with eye contact. I have no memory of ever coming out from behind the playhouse. The movie just stops playing. Only bits and pieces. Is all of this a false memory? Then why does it feel like it’s happening again, right now? My neck tightens. My stomach hurts. It won’t hold food. My jaw clenches. And, if I let them, my eyes water. 

When I visited my mother when I was eighteen, fourteen years later, getting ready to head to Iraq, I discovered that she lived no more than ten minutes away from me and my parents (my aunt and uncle whom I now call Mom and Dad). I felt all the same things: My neck tightened. My stomach hurt. It wouldn’t hold food. And in the pictures I took and threw away, my jaw was clenched. I hadn’t seen her since that day in Olympia fourteen years earlier. I hadn’t heard her voice since I ran away sometime in junior high and called her number from a payphone. But that visit at eighteen is not something I want to talk about. Just to say, it wasn’t my mother. There was no mother left, at least not what I remembered or was holding on to. But I know that parts of a mother were there when I was a kid because I had to have felt some of them, or I wouldn’t remember them at all now. Thankfully, in that process, I found a half sister I didn’t know anything about who brought some sense that being functional is possible, no matter who or what pulled you out of nonexistence.

People can say it was a long time ago. That kids are resilient. If that’s how you want to think about childhood, and that works for you, then cool. But that’s not how it works for me, so please don’t tell me it should. And there’s obviously more to whatever problems I have than just this small little period of early childhood development. There’s military stuff, college roommate stuff, and other things that come up at random that I can’t prevent or predict. For example, in grad school, I remember researching foster care and the disconnect it sometimes has with the education system (my choice of topic) and learning that former foster children are twice as likely as war veterans to develop post traumatic stress disorder. I think I read that statistic for a few hours. Time just stopped and I realized I’d been reading that same sentence over and over again. So read into that however you want. There was another moment in community college, well after my time in the Marine Corps, where I learned about Harlow’s rhesus monkeys and his experiments with maternal contact. I had to leave the room. Not dramatic. I think I pretended to go to the bathroom. But I couldn’t stay in that classroom.

Maybe some people feel this way too. I don’t know. But stuff like this always comes up around the holidays or long breaks when I find myself stuck in my own head and living in isolation, because something about me still obviously isn’t right. And I guess this is healthier than drinking. And I bounce back like I always do. But for some reason, right now, it feels like it’s write and post this, or drink.

Old Man Hands

I lost an old mentor earlier this year and I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had time to sit down and really process much of it. Not with any perspective anyway. Normally, when something terrible happens, writing helps me learn from whatever it was, even if I don’t share the writing with anyone. Good or bad, writing usually helps me on a personal level. So the last few weeks, I’ve tried to write about it. Every time I do, I re-read it and I think it’s garbage. I have about six Word documents, and who knows how many actual words, sitting there that are just me writing about times I spent with him and some of the useless things I learned alongside him. I say useless because I don’t need to know how to call for close air support anymore. Not that I ever had to call for it, but if I needed to, I knew how. I don’t need to convert grid to magnetic or magnetic to grid anymore. I don’t need to remember the differences between grid, polar, and shift missions. Or how to shoot an azimuth, intersections, resections, etc. Those are just random bits of information that I learned with him and remember now better than I ever knew them back then. Anyway, I haven’t been able to write about the really useful things I learned from him.

One useful thing I learned from him that I haven’t been able to get out of my head is something he was never explicitly trying to teach me. It was just something he said once. In casual conversation he said, “You’d be amazed what the human body can handle when it has to.” He was talking about pushing your body to its limits. He seemed to live by this. He once pulled me to the bottom of a pool and wouldn’t let me go until I fully understood that the key to not drowning was to not freak out. Other times he’d take a few of us on runs until every single person, except for him, threw up. But we never actually had to go on these runs. It wasn’t him disciplining us. It wasn’t him doing some show of force. He wasn’t power-tripping. He just wanted us to know our potential. He wanted me to know that I was capable of great things as long as I pushed through imaginary limits that I set for myself. As long as I never quit, he would show me what I was capable of. I was always amazed at what my body could handle when it had to. Anyone who knew him would agree that he also applied this to his brain. He was insanely smart. Otherworldly smart. When I told my mother that he was no longer with us, she immediately asked, “Was he the really smart one?”

That lesson about the human body is what I’ve been wrestling with since I learned he passed. But I don’t think the lesson was about the human body at all. Knowing him, he was always emphasizing that it was all taking place in your mind, but I was just too young to see it. And now I’m left with a bunch of questions that he can’t answer. How did something break him? How was there anything he couldn’t handle? I hadn’t talked to him in nearly ten years and I’ll never get to talk to him again. I thought about him a lot and still continue to do so. He stayed in the Marine Corps and I got out. I opted out of re-enlisting. We would have re-enlisted right alongside each other. The last conversation we ever had was rushed. It lasted all of about ten seconds. We were getting ready for some battalion formation and I saw him moving toward the front. I asked him what he was doing in his new company. He laughed and said, “Nothing. I’m not doing anything.” I thought he was joking or doing his sarcastic thing that was always hard to read back then. Later I learned that they stuck him in an office during that time and that he wasn’t joking at all. They didn’t know he had a bunch of degrees and could have ran the whole show if they gave him the chance. They thought he was just another body with the right number of chevrons on his collar. We didn’t stay in contact when I got out of the Marine Corps, but he was ingrained into my brain. If I was studying for an exam, “Sleep is a crutch” would echo in my skull. I still say that about everything. I’d study all night. I barely slept when I went back to school. I pushed myself so hard that I think I went a little crazy for awhile. But therapy was a crutch. Eventually I had to admit that I needed crutches, even if I thought I didn’t need them. I pushed myself too far, I think.

I think back to the small period of time in my life when, for some reason, the Marine Corps had us doing everything together. I remember seeing the bloody gloves on his hands and him telling me he didn’t have anything to say about it, just that it was the worst thing he’d ever seen. I remember seeing someone pouring the water on his boots and hands. I honestly can’t remember if I was the person pouring the water or not. But it’s there in my memory all the same. After that, he was silent and walked off somewhere. A friend and I were left to stand watch over the hut. But I also remember the smile on his face, months before, when we were learning things together. The maps. The compasses. The radios. The artillery. The mortars. The runs. The swims. The hikes. The time a bobcat followed us for miles along the trails of Camp Pendleton. We called-in its every movement on the radio. I remember him letting me drive his truck while he talked about real punk rock and The Grateful Dead. I remember thinking, “This is the kind of person I want to be.” And now he’s gone because there was something going on that he couldn’t handle.

We joked for a while in Iraq about the way his hands looked when he wasn’t wearing gloves. All of our hands would get ashy and wrinkly. We called them Old Man Edmonds Hands. I think we even made a song out of it. But he was only thirty back then. He wasn’t old at all. And he certainly wasn’t old when we lost him ten years later.

I think back to what he said, “You’d be amazed what the human body can handle when it has to.” I can’t help but apply his lesson to the reality of losing him. I know I can handle anything when I have to, but what does it mean if he couldn’t? I mean, I learned that lesson from him. I’m left with another long block of words that don’t come to any conclusion and a sinking feeling that doesn’t really go away.