I read “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien some time ago, in the 7th grade. Its deeper meaning was lost on my younger mind, but even then, I understood that the book was not discussing war or death or even soldiers. It was discussing something else, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Now, 4 years after reading it initially, I think I have finally realized the meaning of the book and the purpose of its creation.
In the last chapter of the novel, O’Brien compares the death of a classmate, Linda, to the death of one of his platoon members in the Vietnam War, Ted Lavender. The juxtaposition may seem strange in the initial, but in its conclusion the reason becomes clear. It makes you rethink the entire novel, all of the vignettes inside it, and the meaning behind each and every one of the words he has written on the pages of the book. It becomes clear that O’Brien’s work has nothing to do with war and death but rather everything to do with life and the preservation of it. He discusses that the purpose behind a war story isn’t to provide moral arguments or justify actions. A true war story is, instead, meant to keep those who died, both on the battlefield and inside themselves, alive. O’Brien writes that Tim is telling this story to keep Timmy alive, and similarly, every war story is a method with which people keep those they lost, including themselves, among the land of the living. These stories are a method of preservation when memory fails, although they do become corrupted in much the same way. In this way war stories are little more than memories to be distributed. But they aren’t an absolute truth. They are part of the subjective.
To limit such a purpose to war stories would be unfortunate, however. When you view other stories through this lens, you realize that this purpose stretches to every story discussing loss. These stories are rarely told to communicate teachings or for a factual purpose. One does not sit down and re-tell a legend of some great warrior for the simple purpose of teaching a lesson. Rather, the motive behind these stories, when viewed through such a lens, is to keep alive those who no longer are capable of doing so themselves. This extends to both the dead of the physical world and the dead of the emotional. In the end, a story is a summation of the subjective experiences of one, their truth, for lack of better phrase. That does not make it any less true, however. When it comes to storytelling, the maxim of “A is A” does not apply. Here the truth becomes warped, giving way to a maxim that “A is what you see it as”. As a result, no story can be said to be truly false, just as one cannot be said to be completely true. The truth is non-existant in a story. There is only perspective.
The title of this entry is Lily. Everything beyond this follows the maxim “A is whatever you see it as”. Beyond this, you will find the truth, but it may not be yours. It will, however, be mine.
Lily was a she. Lily is also dead. She died over a year ago due to heart complications. A few days ago, I found a photo of her. Now I am unable to tear myself away from the memories.
Lily and I were close. I spent much time with her. I, being a well read individual, was able to help her with her literature assignments. She, being an equally well read individual, was a match for my own intelligence. She claimed to simply have trouble getting down her brilliant ideas on paper.
If you haven’t read the story of Harrison Bergeron, I advise you do so a this point. This was the first item I discussed with her. After three hours of intense discussion, I knew how brilliant she was. Why she needed my help was beyond me. Nevertheless, I found myself at her house almost every day when summer vacation arrived 6 months later. I may have been a well read individual before I met her, but during the course of our short relationship, I read more books than I had previously read in all my years before that. It is only due to her that I have hit and surpassed the 1000 book mark since I started seriously reading little more than 6 years ago.
In the late night, my thoughts often drifted to a non-existant person. Imagine Ayn Rand’s illustration of John Galt. The perfect individual. Flawless in appearance, state of mind, and intelligence, the three factors that make up all human beings. This otherwise non-existant person was starting to show itself in Lily. She was the standard. To me she was the objective standard to which everyone would now be measured. I have never met someone so complete.
If I still think hard enough, I can smell the perfumed scent of her hair conditioner; the scent of the white lily, most likely an intentional choice. I can feel the warmth of her when she hugged me. I can almost touch her hand if I take a moment to think.
I remember on the third of July I went over to her house. It was warm that day. I remember we just laid on her bed, side by side. Not a word was spoken for an entire hour. Neither of us slept. Neither of us did anything. You cannot imagine the extent of emptiness I experienced in my head in those moments. Simply thinking of it causes my whole body to flush. There is no emotional or physical experience equivalent to a thoughtless moment. At that moment there is nothing. There is no clarity or distraction. There is no existence. You are not capable of anything. You simply are.
After an hour we talked. We held hands. We took a nap. He head rested in the bend of my arm until I, too, fell asleep. The level of innocence in this relationship is something I am no longer capable of creating. Just as the truth of this has been corrupted by time, so has my own person. There was no undercurrent or ulterior motive. It was pure.
To say I loved this person would not be a falsehood, but it would be somewhat incorrect. To say I cared about this person would not do the relation justice. What one must understand is that none of it felt real. I have never met anyone who was able to think on the level I think, or follow my thoughts at all, except for her. It was natural.
It was later that summer that I boarded a cruise ship in Florida to sail to the Bahamas. What would have otherwise been a pleasurably experience became an act in fabrication as I danced around issue after issue, avoiding them all. I attended the cruise with my mother and step-father, along with his extended family. It remains one of the most mentally taxing experiences I have ever had. It was impressive, the amount of manipulation was going both ways. Although neither of them could hope to be a match for me in knowledge about most things, they are just as, if not more, crafty than I.
On August 8th we dock at the Florida Keys. I receive a call on my personal cellular while I and the extended family explored the city. The number is one I recognize; the father of Lily. He is an investment banker. I imagine that this helped him in delivering the message to me. Lily had suffered a random cardiac event which killed her within 30 seconds. The pathologists were examining the body. I think I may have been among the first he called because his voice was laced with emotions, and it was clear he was struggling to suppress them for the duration of the call.
I returned to my cabin, one I shared with my sister for the duration of the cruise. This cabin had a small counter with a mirror. I didn’t want to break anything so I resorted to punching the table. It held while my finger broke. Pain was irrelevant. I calmly called my mother to the cabin, telling her I had fallen on the way out of the cabin’s restroom and needed medical attention. It was a quick job and my finger was soon patched. It was the least of my injuries that day.
This was the last day of the cruise. There was an event called the “Captain’s Dinner”, some glorified feast to boost the ego’s of everyone aboard. I dutifully changed into my dinner clothes and went to dinner, feigning interest in everyone’s nugatory issues and observations. I pretended to eat, something I have become a master at, and engaged in supposedly intelligent conversation while not even giving half my attention to it. My mother and step father, as with many things, were unaware of this. I found no reason to tell them. It required too much effort.
I returned home by the 10th, and my step mother and father, having known the parents of Lily, were already aware of her death. I didn’t mention it except to say I wanted to see the body. They didn’t speak of it at all, and simply nodded. They were not fully aware of the extent of my relationship with Lily. They thought we were close friends. Her parents were more aware of the extent of the closeness, but didn’t see it fit to meddle in otherwise private affairs while they maintained such an innocent status.
I saw the casket that day. The smell was overpowering. The scene was frighteningly similar to that of Tim O’Brien’s novel. The experience was disconnecting. It was not an experience I can even describe. I’ve never seen something so lifeless. Something so foreign. It was not her body that was there. Her perfect face, flawless in its complexion, was now waxy and sallow. Her body, normally supple and well built, now looked gaunt. I stood there for 10 minutes. I just stared at her, and then closed my eyes. Then I turned on my heel and left. There was nothing more to see. It was not her in the casket. I didn’t attend the burial, even though I was invited. To me, there was no point. She was already gone. A ceremony to return her to the earth was not necessary. Every night for the next few months, I dreamt of her. It would always be of that afternoon in July. Us, laying on that bed, her head resting on the bend of my arm. And then they stopped.
My sleeping became irregular. I stopped dreaming of her and started dreaming of nothing but fear. Raw fear. There were no images. Just fear. So I stopped trying to sleep all together. For three or so days I just didn’t sleep at all, and then finally, on Thanksgiving day, I collapsed. People thought I was just exhausted. My school does that to people. I was a physical wreck though. Muscles atrophied, brain having trouble forming coherent thoughts, and social interactions becoming more and more difficult. Then I got better, physically. I was forced into a vegetable and exercise regimen. Mentally, however, I was still raw. I threw out my soft sheets and my soft pyjamas and started using course fabrics instead. Otherwise those soft sheets would remind me of her. I removed my comforter and elected to freeze my behind off during the winter months. I closed my heater vent so the warm air wouldn’t be able to come into my room. Otherwise, when I was warm in bed, I would dream of that warm day in July. I sold most of my books to a used book store and donated some collected $250 to a domestic abuse charity. At least the money could do some minuscule amount of good there.
Then I slowly became accustomed to the migraines that came with serious sleep deprivation and the lack of energy I felt every morning when I woke up from my three hours of nightmarish sleep. As the migraines became worse and I became better at tolerating pain, it was an increasingly rare occurrence to find a moment where I would express any sign of physical discomfort, no matter the situation. I remember falling into a rose bush while biking and not really paying attention to my hand which took the main brunt of the blow. It was not until I set my hand down on my desk and lifted it did I notice how much it was bleeding. The paper I had touched was crimson and the wood of the desk was already stained.
I gradually forgot. The state I was in became my normal state of being. I didn’t try to understand the reasons for my state anymore. It soon became habitual. I would expect these things every day, wait for them even. It was not long before I forgot her entirely, buried in the physical manifestations of my grief. I soon completely paved over her memory with my suffering. It was not until some days ago, ironically when I finished reading “The Things They Carried”, that I found a photo of her. The only photo I have.
It is of her holding her dog. When I found it earlier this week, I looked for more and more pictures. I looked through the thousands of pictures I have on my computer and cloud storage. It took 5 hours to view them all. This was the only picture I had. Since then I have been unable to stop thinking of her. Every night, whenever there is a gap in my thoughts during the day, when I wake up, I feel as though she is there.
It was often that we would fall asleep on her couch. I spent a lot of time at her house through July since both my parents were called away to manage our financial assets in India. It was a common occurrence for us to discuss things late into the night and fall asleep, and later for her parents to wake us up, allowing me to sleep in the guest bedroom. I can feel her head on my shoulder as I fall asleep. I can feel her soft hair against my cheek when I lay my head on my own shoulder, where her head would have been.
My nights are cold again, with the winter months approaching. I still keep my vents closed and my window open, flooding the room with frigid night air. But I am not cold because she fills my mind, distracting me from everything else around me.
She was flawless when she was alive. Her intelligence was astounding, her physical beauty was untouched, and her state of mind was one of absolute clarity. I don’t know what I felt for this person. I don’t know what I felt when she died. The only thing that is certain is that she cannot be forgotten.