That which doesn’t kill you reportedly makes you stronger. Or at least Friedrich Nietzsche thought so, as he wrote in Twilight of the Idols. If we’re talking about how life can sometimes sneak up on you in a “gotcha” kind of moment and all of a sudden everything is now up for grabs, the drama seems to play itself out in its own particular ways. This happened recently to a man I knew when doctors told him he had an incurable disease that would take him in short order.
With only a short time to live, he asked on my last visit that I eventually tell his story, which is more than worth sharing. He was a massive man, although he became somewhat faded with each passing day, whose booming voice had always held us all in the palm of his hand as he told tale after tale. We were left with mouths almost agape and hungrily expectant as his big, full-of-life narratives created a great company of characters we never were quite sure were real or imagined. But they stomped in, frightening at times and almost calming at others. They were brash and demanding in conflict, courteous and unassuming in moments of calm. They demanded everything, they asked for nothing. They heaved the wood on the fire at one second and they stood on the outskirts in the dark with just their eyes showing later. They were all we loved to be around as much as they were repugnant and to be shunned. He provided these rushes with ease, touching our many strings, deliberately adding new fears while wiping away old worries. And now, even he has been felled.
If there is any truth in learning to be a better person through adversity, he had many opportunities which he eventually took full advantage of. A wild and adventurous early adulthood had taken him on mental as well as physically daunting journeys. In his action-packed youth, he had been a member of one of the 1st Cavalry’s famous LURP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols) teams in Vietnam in the late 60s where I first met him. He was all gung-ho then but later, as our friendship blossomed after we had both grown older and presumably a bit wiser, he could only shake his head at his bravado. Afterward, his career had been focused on his years of law enforcement in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. During this time, he came up short a few fingers lost in the venture.
As a young man, he couldn’t get his hands around enough alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives. Before he got ill, though, he had become a tee totaler who never smoked. After one of the recent school shootings, he had sent his NRA membership card back to where it had originated. He also got rid of his arsenal.
With his kids all out of the nest, he became quietly philosophical and meditative in the last years of his life. He could still spin a good yarn with an exciting ending, but he didn’t tell them just because they were adrenalin-packed war stories. He told them, I think, to exorcise demons. He had sad eyes that had seen serious stuff and he had taken the lives of others. I know all this weighed heavily on him. He went about his atonement by volunteering in soup kitchens and giving of himself as well as his small savings in ways that might help others.
The last time I saw him, he said he was content with his life and was glad that it had come full circle. If he had another chance, knowing what he currently knew, he said he might well have joined an order, kept a vow of silence and learned to cultivate the good earth. As it was, he thought he had made a good stab at atonement. His favorite author was Joseph Campbell, whose The Hero With a Thousand Faces was always by his side.
His wife confided in me that he left this world with a grand and boisterous laugh, telling her he was more than ready for his next adventure. He had managed to leave one note behind, quoting Campbell that “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.”
The idea that the world eventually breaks everyone in some way may seem harsh, but it is one of history’s most powerful themes. I read recently that the bad news is that the world will — sooner or later — break us all. The good news, though, is that human beings, like broken bones, often become stronger when they heal. Unfortunately for my friend, he had run out of time, but I think his bones had already mended.
I will miss him greatly.