He has the kind of face that stops you in your tracks and the first time I saw the Colonel I thought the Norse God Thor was visiting from Asgard. He is a head higher than most people I would consider tall. His blonde hair, which is cut barely a few millimeters in length, frames an almost perfectly symmetrical face. He has distinct cheekbones and his angular jaw look as if it is molded from granite. His eyes are a vivid blue but sometimes they look as if a great body of water has softly melted into milky green hue, the perfect match for his army fatigues. If you get close enough you can see flecks of silver in his eyes. He appears to be in his mid-forties and everything about his body screams discipline.
But as handsome as he is, I always had a sense that his beauty was more than skin deep. Since he had been frequently deployed I didn’t run into him often, but the few times that I did I felt something odd, unusual, unexpected. Also there is an undercurrent of gentleness that seems out of place in his warrior body.
Right before Christmas I heard of his wife’s sudden death. I simply stood shaking my head in disbelief. Their daughter and my son are in the same class at school and just the week before, I sat with his wife, on a bench waiting for the last school bell to ring. I still feel a chill move through my body when I think of it. I didn’t know her well, yet I felt the impact deeply.
I now run into the Colonel in the school parking lot, in class meetings, at a band concerts, and at birthday parties. Wherever his daughter is, he is there too. I am on the outskirts of their lives watching as they travel through their grief. I know first hand that grief never ends, but it changes. It’s a passage not a place to stay; it’s not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith. Grief is the price of love. I’ve learned it’s not the weight of grief that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it; and the Colonel carries his grief like Thor carries the weight of his hammer, with gentle dignity and grace. In doing so he doesn’t tell his daughter how to live – he shows her. Every day. Hard things shatter into a million pieces yet soft things don’t break. His greatest strength is his gentleness.
My grandmother used to tell me of the ancient Irish who had a mythic sense of how to weave the world back into fullness when the center failed to hold and all seemed to fall apart and be doomed into darkness. When disorientation became the common shape of life and the four directions seemed about to be blown to the wind, then the unifying fifth direction would have to be sought. This calming gentleness could only be found at the edges of the land in the darkest places and along the misty cliffs where the otherworld plays hide and seek with those of us on earth.
If people are willing to go to that place that seems darkest to them, each will find something of meaning and value. For as the darkness feels closer, the threads of existence move near as well. In facing the darkness one finds again the enlivening thread of gentle hope. If each then turns back again and pulls the thread of life toward the middle of things, then each automatically contributes to regenerating the unified center.
What the Colonel reminds me is that life is not always so certain; even straight roads have subtle curves in them. Perhaps the best thing one – anyone – can do is to listen more carefully to those hidden voices speaking from places beyond time and matter; places buried in the middle of the earth and the center, untouchable and gentle part of the soul.
(Please note: I’m not saying the Colonel is Thor, but come to think about it, I have never seen them in the same room together.)