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Volume 3, Issue 1
Spring 2007:

An Old Tarp

Jim Cain

Cell 2 Soul. 2007 Spring; 3(1):a1

Tragedy spills like darkness into the dazzling light of day; and there I was sitting in my front yard selling all sorts of things. Things that had grown old and things that I had lost interest in. I sat there watching my neighbors and complete strangers looking at all my stuff; lamps, a coffee table, an old mattress and couch, a velvet picture of Elvis my sister bought in Mexico 30 or 40 years ago, and that old clock my mother gave me as a wedding gift. It stopped working about 10 years ago, just about the time she was diagnosed with dementia.

I remember taking my father to visit her in the care home about two years after her diagnosis. He was so sad to see her lying there with tubes running into her stomach and bed sores from lying in bed all day. She never recognized him, or me for that matter, and I know that really hurt him. He died in his sleep a few months after that meeting. I felt bad because I wasn't there with him. The hospital called me around two in the morning. He looked so fragile lying there in that dim cold room. I remember thinking of the pictures I saw of the Jews in the concentration camps when I was a kid. I touched his cold body and felt his lifeless skin beneath my hand and tried to understand!

Wally, a congenial old man who was a good friend of my dad, lived next door. Wally loved to tell stories. He told me about a time during World War II when he was on a destroyer, somewhere in the South Pacific. One night while he was down below working on the engines, a Japanese submarine put a torpedo dead center into the heart of his ship. He told me how he and his shipmates franticly made it top side, just as that big destroyer was going under. They found themselves in the water the next morning, about one hundred of them. As the day wore on, he began to worry about sharks and exposure to the sun and water. He said a few were lost to exposure but more were lost to sharks. I was amazed at how eased he was telling this story.

You see, I was drafted into the army in 1969, probably about the same age as Wally during WW II. I was a grunt in the central Highlands of Viet Nam. I carried an M60 machine gun for one year, up and down leech and tick infested jungles; wet and dry, scared and angry, sane and insane, kill or be killed. I killed! Young men who had wives and children, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors; I killed because I didn't want to be killed. And now I know that's not the reason why I killed. I killed because I didn't know how not to kill.

I continued to visit my mother for a few more months, until it was decided that her feeding tube should be removed. I guess we all finally gave into the fact that she had left us years ago. Life can drag on at times and so can death. I sat there holding her hand, feeling her pulse and listing to her breathe. Just when it seemed as if my heart was in tune with hers, her pulse became irregular and her breathing shallow. I sat there watching her die, as she must have watched me come to life. I couldn't help but feel the joy of the moment and the sadness of the memories. I sat there holding her hand until her very last heartbeat pulsed through her vein, stopping at my fingertip.

There were a lot of customers that day; it's just that they weren't buying much. That is until an old lady arrived. She looked about 65 or so. Her hair was gray and tied up in a big bun with a small yellow bow holding it together. I thought that it was going to fall apart at any moment, just as I have felt about myself so many times before. She asked me how much I wanted for everything in my front yard. Now this really surprised me. How often does a complete stranger walk up and ask to buy all of your old things and all the things that you have lost interest in? Not very often!

I remembered the night that a complete stranger walked up to me and said, "Are you Jim Cain?" I said, "Yes, who are you"? She said, "I am from the coroners office and I have to tell you that you son has died." I couldn't believe that a complete stranger could have so much power over my life as she did at that moment. I didn't want to believe it! So many things flashed through my mind. I wanted to scream, run, disappear into thin air. I wanted to wake up and hear the television playing out in the living room with the sound of cartoons and laughter. I wanted pick him up like I did when he was seven or eight years old and give him a big hug and kiss, and watch him walk away without wondering why. I wanted what I couldn't have. I wanted to die. I thought about the young men who had wives and children, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors; who must have felt as I felt when that complete stranger took control of my life.

As I looked into the eyes of the little old lady standing there in my front yard, I could feel her distance. So I asked her why she wanted to buy all of my stuff. She explained that her husband had died last month and that she couldn't bear to live in the same place they had lived for over forty years. She wanted to start her life over, and all of my old stuff could be the beginning of her new life. I couldn't imagine running away from my life. But I didn't live hers, so who am I to say how someone else should live theirs. I told her that she could have it all for fifty dollars and that I could deliver it to her new home tomorrow. She agreed and gave me fifty dollars and the address to her new home.

I was standing there watching her leave when a young man about twenty-six years old asked how much I wanted for an old coffee table. I explained that I had sold everything just minutes ago and that I was going to deliver it tomorrow. He stood there looking around for a few minutes and then asked if I had any work that needed to be done. He said he was a handy man and was always looking for work. I had a good feeling about the young man so I asked if he wanted to help me load all this old stuff into my truck. He said that he would for fifty dollars. I thought what a coincidence. An old lady shows up in my front yard and buys everything for fifty dollars, and minutes after she leaves a young man shows up in my front yard and offer to help me load all of the things that the little old lady bought into my truck for fifty dollars. I guess I really didn't need those fifty dollars.

I remember a few years ago at work I had the urge for a cold drink. I went upstairs to the vending machine were it cost seventy-five cents for a can of Dr. Pepper. I looked in my pocket and found two quarters and one dollar bill. I knew I could find a quarter somewhere because I didn't want to break that dollar, so I went back to my office and looked around. No luck. I went back upstairs and asked a couple of people for a quarter; no one had a quarter. Now I really wanted that Dr. Pepper, so I put my dollar into the vending machine and got my Dr. Pepper and the quarter that I was looking for; only I didn't need the quarter anymore. Like the fifty dollars, just when I thought I had something, I realized that I never really did. What I had was the moment.

I pulled the truck out of the garage and we began to load all of the things from the yard into the truck, including the clock. As we were loading the truck I asked the young man where he lived. He said, "Not far from here." I didn't remember ever seeing him so I asked how long he has lived in this town. He said, "All of my life." I asked if he had ever thought about moving away. He said, "Why, this town is where I grew up. It reminds me of who I am. I have so many memories. Every day something reminds me of something that I had forgotten. I don't want to forget who I am."

I thought how beautiful that was coming from such a young man. I began to think about the old women and how she was running from her memories and wondered if this young man would still feel the same if he had felt the pain that the old lady had felt. Pain has a way of getting your attention. Have you ever been to a funeral and listened to the wonderful things friends and family say about the person who died, and know that they never told the person who died how they felt? It seems cruel to let someone die before they know how you feel. I guess it could be painful to tell someone how you feel if you're not used to it. Everyone hates rejection!

We finished loading the truck and I said good-bye to the young man, and asked him to stop by whenever he is in the neighborhood. He said he would and that he had enjoyed our conversation. I covered the truck with an old tarp, knowing that tomorrow I would remove it and all would be good!

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