The Hardest Thing I Have Ever Written
Today, Feb. 22, 2013, would have been my son’s thirty-first birthday. He’s been gone ten years now, but as those of you who are members of the club know, they never really leave us, do they? This is both good and bad, mostly good now. I enjoy thinking about him daily.
Nobody here knew him, of course. What follows below are a few notes I put together for his funeral. I thought it might be of some interest, maybe a way of getting to know me. Or maybe I just wanted you to know him.
THE PUREST SILENCE
Endyll Princeton McDaniels Feb 22, 1982 – Feb 25, 2003
We choose our truths the way we choose our gods, single-sightedly, single-mindedly, no other way to feel or see or think. We lock ourselves into our ways, and click all the truths to one.
We put our truths together in pieces, but you use nails and I use glue. You mend with staples. I mend with screws. You stitch what I would bandage.
Your truth may not look like mine, but that is not what matters. What matters is this: You can look at a scar and see hurt, or you can look at a scar and see healing. Try to understand.
–From A Gracious Plenty, by Sheri Reynolds
My name is Edison McDaniels and I am Endyll’s father. I could stand up here today and tell you about my son. I could tell you about his years spent growing up in Minnesota and ice skating on the pond behind our house, of playing hockey at 4:00 in the morning before school, of his speed and excellence on the track field. I could tell you how much he loved skiing and how good he was at it, although he never really got to do it all that often. I could tell you about his love of sky diving and how, from the age of eleven or so, he would spend hours designing, sewing, and then actually testing life sized parachutes (on the wind, not in the air). I could tell you about the day of his first real jump, about how we were all gathered at ground zero and how big the smile was on his face that day, about how that jump was a tandem jump with a guy named Brad Foster who was, even then, a good friend. I could tell you how distraught he was when Brad Foster was killed in a sky diving accident last May after more than 4,000 jumps to his credit.
I could tell you what an incredible voice he had for singing and how his dream was to be discovered. If I was going to talk about my son, I suppose one of the main things I’d want you to know is that he was smart and funny, that he smiled a lot and, that he liked Japanese Anime. I’d want you to know that he loved to play cards with his brother England and sister Ehvyn, that he and his brother Edison split the chore of cleaning the kitchen and doing the dishes after dinner every night for years. I’d want to mention that he enjoyed going to the movies. In short, I’d tell you that his youngest brother thought he was “cool”, and that his sister said he was “just nice, always so nice.”
I’d tell you he was most of all a joy to have around, and that his mother and I were so proud of everything he was.
But I’m not going to talk about Endyll today. He has so many friends and loved ones here today and I’m sure we’ll all talk amongst ourselves and reminisce. And his mother and I thank you all for coming out.
What I want to talk about today…is silence. I want you to know about the two kinds of silence. About how one of them is just something called quiet, and how the other is what I have learned, over the last few days, to call “the purest silence.”
The first kind is the silence of an empty room, or it’s maybe what you hear when the TV goes off at night. Sometimes it’s a little spooky, but there’s nothing profound about it, nothing special.
I wish I could say the same of the second kind of silence. It’s what you hear when you’re lying in bed at night, with nothing to do but think about all the why’s and what could have beens. It’s what you hear in the afternoons when you sit for hours staring out a window, looking at the park across the street from your house, the park where they found your son the morning after he took his life.
It’s what you hear when you’re all riding in the car on the way home from the elementary school, after just telling your two youngest kids, who aren’t even teenagers yet, that their brother–their buddy, their best friend–is dead. You hear the tires humming against the roadway, the occasional clink of keys or coins, the raspy sounds of five people breathing as if they can never again get enough air. You hear all of this–and none of it. This kind of silence is absolute, it is so profound–so pure–it’s as if you are traveling in a void, as if you have suddenly been struck deaf. And it’s a painful silence, like a fever burning hotter and hotter and hotter inside of you. It burns down deep, in place you can’t possibly get at. It’s a pain you can’t cure.
In this silence—this purest silence—there are no voices, no words. No one speaks. Yet, suddenly, in the midst of it all, your daughter does speak, and you do hear her.
“We went from a loud family of six,” she says, “to a quiet family of five.”
And instantly, you understand the one thing that could work its way through this misery, the one cure for this silence.
But you will never hear his voice again.
He is gone.
Endyll had a lot of special gifts. He was just three days past his 21st birthday. He didn’t have nearly enough time in this world and we didn’t have nearly enough time with him. It is our most heartfelt prayer—his mother Jean, his brothers Edison III and England, his sister Ehvyn, and mine—that he has found the peace and tranquility in the next world that so eluded him at the end in this one.
England, our youngest son, said the other day that he didn’t even get a chance to say good-bye to Endyll. England, I’d like you to know that none of us did, but that here and now, in this place where God shines, we can say good-bye. I’d also offer that maybe we should just say goodnight though, because I’m confident that we will see Endyll again. And when we do, it’ll be like he was never away.
BECAUSE WE ARE NOT ANIMALS
This is an essay I wrote in 2002. It speaks for itself.
I served fourteen years on active duty with the United States Navy. In 2002, I was ordered to Guantanamo Bay Naval Hospital in order to do urgent surgery on one of the detainees from the war in Afghanistan. The man had been rendered paraplegic by an abscess in his spine. Since returning, indeed even as I was packing to leave for Cuba, I have repeatedly been asked why we should provide medical care to these people.
The answer, of course, is because we are not animals.
Winston Churchill once said: “Prisoner-of-war, you are in the power of your enemy. You must obey his orders, go where he tells you, stay where you are bid, await his pleasure, possess your soul and patience.”
Of course, it is not my place to debate whether or not these men are prisoners of war. However, it certainly seems that they are wartime detainees, and, as such, the significant implications of Churchill’s statement must apply. In times of captivity, the onus is upon the captors to see to the well being of their captives.
So what, you ask?
Consider the horrific consequences of not doing so. Actually, you need only to look at history for examples too numerous to count. Read, for example, the following account of captive life at Belle Isle during the Civil War, from a young union soldier named Charles Fosdick captured at Chickamauga:
“When we first went on the island, our rations consisted of a piece of cornbread…a little bit of bacon, and a cup of pea soup. With multitudes of weevils or black bugs which would rise to the top to the thickness of an inch, at first we would take a spoon or paddle and fish out those insects. But later on, we became so famished for food that we would break our bread into the soup and devour it, bugs and all… The pea or bug soup was set out in wooden buckets which made it very convenient for a herd of dogs, the favorites of the officers and men on duty, to go and eat and drink as their appetites suggested. This was done before our eyes… Finally one day, one of these dogs chanced to come within the prison limits and no sooner in, than it was seized and killed. It was then dressed to cut up and cook and furnished a pleasant repast for several hungry men. After this occurrence, and once a taste of fresh meat, the boys contrived all manner of projects to decoy an unwary dog to cross… And they were so persistent in their efforts, that in a short time there was not a live dog left on Belle Isle.”
Not vivid enough? Try this morbid account of life at Andersonville prison in 1864 from inmate Charlie Mosher:
“July 31st. I have been very sick for the past week with a dysentery. So sick that it did not seem as if I could hold together any longer. This is the worst sickness I have had, and there are thousands who are as bad and worse than I have been. It is awful. Men are lying all around in the hot sun, face up with their mouths wide. The fleas, lice, and maggots are holding high carnival in here. Human nature is made of good stuff or it could not stand the strain.”
Or consider the following: On 9 April 1942, 10,000 Americans and 62,000 Filipinos were captured at the surrender of Bataan. The ensuing march to Camp O’Donnell, Luzon, Philippines, between 12 April and 24 April 1942 resulted in the deaths of at least 10,000 (and possibly as many as 18,000) of them. The well known atrocities that occurred during the march included the failure to provide even the most basic human needs, including food and water. And the dying didn’t end when the march did. In the first forty days of Camp O’Donnell, an additional 1,500 Americans and 25,000 Filipinos died as a result of malnutrition.
In the Revolutionary War, at least 11,000 American prisoners died on a single British prison ship, the HMS Jersey.
During the Civil War, 25,956 Confederates and 31,000 Union soldiers died in captivity.
Of 43,648 Americans known to have been held as POWs by the Japanese in WWII, 12,953 of them died.
These are hellish numbers, and though they may seem to refute the statement made above, “because we are not animals,” they certainly do not justify letting a man die in his own excrement.
One of the detainees, waking from an operation to remove a blind eye, told his translator that he was surprised to be alive. He thought he was being executed as he went to sleep.
What separates Americans from those that would do us harm, is not the belief that we are any better, but rather a certain knowledge that all people are better, that all people have not just some intrinsic worth, but the same intrinsic worth. The central core value of the great mechanism that is American society, the crowning glory of the American way of life, is tolerance for race, for gender, and for religious belief–even when that belief is far a field from most western values. It is only when that belief crosses the line that separates man from animal that one can justify forceable intervention.
Though their acts may mark them as animals, we know better and must behave accordingly, because we are not animals.
We (the American people) have provided the detainees with food and water, shelter, lodging, and basic medical care. Nothing more and nothing less. In a reasonable and just society, it falls to those appointed over us to determine the ultimate fate of these wretched and troubled souls.
The Writer’s World
For most writers, reading is also a very intense experience; they don’t read so much as compete. The writer measure’s himself against every text he encounters, imagining he could do it better or wishing he had thought of it first. The natural writer would almost always rather be reading, writing, or alone, except of course when he needs to come up for air (that is, for subject matter, food, sex, love, attention). He may be a selfish son of a bitch, he may seem to care more about his work than about the people in his life, he may be a social misfit, a freak, or a smooth operator, but every person who does serious time with a keyboard is attempting to translate his version of the world into words so that he might be understood. Indeed, the great paradox of the writer’s life is how much time he spends alone trying to connect with other people.
—The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner, pg. 36.
When I first saw this a number of years ago, I couldn’t help but cut it out and pin it to the wall over my desk. It’s been there ever since. This is essentially how I feel all the time. Wow.