STOKES FOREST JOURNAL: EXCERPT #2

Sept.29. – evening

I believe this will be a good place for me to rest. Someone I love very much introduced me to Buddhism. The idea of learning to be present in the now, be in the quiet, is both scary and delicious to me. I remember when I would go camping I would just sleep peacefully for much of the day in the woods. Sometimes on day hikes, I would (and do) lay down somewhere warm off the trail and go to sleep. Something embraces me when I am in nature.

Later

I can hear (my father’s) voice at times in my heart. My stomach got a little queasy a short while ago after taking my meds. Usually I will have a piece of bread or an English muffing, something to absorb whatever troubles my stomach. All I have here is a Danish ring I’m saving for birthday morning. But I can hear Dad saying, “Pete, have a piece. It’s okay.” And I did and I feel a little better, which is what he would want – though he would want me to feel all better.

This is a beautiful night. And I am sleeping in the lower bunk! I don’t have a fire going. It’s not cold enough. Okay by me. I’m happy just to be here.

8:07 p.m.

Damned if I don’t get WBGO (a jazz station) here. Nice jazz for the background. Not bad. Just read some of Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. The man wrote a universe.

8:52 p.m.

My pen grows still when I think about how to write my love for my father. No words on earth can ever come close. I could say to a passerby, Look at me! Do you see? I am feeling all my love for my father. Don’t you see me glowing? You must!

Were there a just God he would let him come back to me, even if just for my time here (at Stokes). Why would that be so bad? I would promise not to tell. What is the point of death? What purpose does it serve? I suppose the answer is to make way for the new. Yes, we would run out of room eventually if no one died. But if there is an afterlife, if there is an existence beyond this one, why can’t there be communication, contact between those on both sides of the border?

Am I expected to be satisfied that my father helped me get up off the ground (after being shot) and without him in that moment, I would have died? I am not satisfied. I am deeply grateful, but I am not at all satisfied. I want to sit and talk with him. I want to hug him while he is wearing one of his flannel shirts. While I can’t describe it, I can remember his smell. His was the smell of love and safety – the scent itself cannot be expressed in words. What the hell would be the harm in giving us a little more time together? Time for us to go for a walk. I could talk to him about how things are going – and thank him for all he has done for me before and after his death. I don’t know what God’s game plan is, but I don’t like it one bit.
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STOKES FOREST JOURNAL: EXCERPT #1

Note to the reader: I celebrated my 55th birthday this October 2 in a cabin in New Jersey’s Stokes State Forest. My father and I went there when I was a boy. I arrived on September 29. His 55th birthday was his last birthday, so it seemed fitting that I spend mine in a place where he and I shared precious time. I will put some excerpts of my journal writing here in the blog. Before I end this note to you, let me say one more thing. If you love someone, don’t forget to tell them. And, if you love someone and find yourself afraid, don’t let the fear scare you. Love them anyway.

Sept. 29 – 5:24 p.m.

In cabin 6 at Stokes.

I am arrived. The cabin is small and beautiful….As I unpacked the car I had several bursts of handclapping. I was overwhelmed with joy – and proud. As I settled in, I realized that coming to a place like this is something my mother never would have done. This tells me very clearly that there was a part of my father she was unable to know. Very likely several parts.

As any reasonable reader might guess, you can’t come on a trip like this without forgetting something. I forgot a pillow and I could care less. It is the quiet I want to encounter, the quiet I want to learn from. It’s interesting how my instinct is to run from it, drown it out if you will. But if I do that, I am, in a very real way, running from the relationship the real me has with the world as it was intended. If there is a God, I doubt very much he intended us to develop television and video games so that we might more thoroughly fulfill his hopes for us, that’s for sure.

7:27 p.m.

I am getting glimpses of what I hope for here. Moments ago, I thought of ghosts and if they were real and I hoped beyond measure that my Dad’s ghost would appear. Then, as I entered the main room from the kitchen after having these thoughts, it hit me. I am trying to bring him back. I come here to bring him back. I do not think me silly for this; I think me a son.

There are moments beyond words, beyond the reach of thought. Moments where what to do is to be. I am blessed to have made it to 55. Given the shooting, homelessness and probably more close calls than I realize and remember, I am blessed to be here in Stokes Forest with my father.
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LOOKING AT 55

I will celebrate my 55th birthday on October 2 in Stokes State Forest in New Jersey. While turning 55 may not be a tectonic event for some, it is for me because it is the age my father was when he died. A beautiful childhood friend of mine, Patty Costello, lost her mother when her mother was only in her forties. Patty wrote me once that when she reached the same age, she held her breath the whole year. As I write these words, by the way, I realize I need to reach out to Patty. She was here on this coast not long ago, we got our signals crossed on a day we were to meet and then when she called, the depression I still grapple with had wrestled me to the ground and answering a phone or making a call was, and in some ways, still is, tantamount to climbing Everest without oxygen.

I have chosen Stokes Forest for this birthday because my father and I went there twice when I was a boy. He had gone there when he was a boy. Both times we went we were in heaven. In fact, once, when our rented time in the cabin was up, we were having so much fun we wanted to extend our stay. My father looked into the matter. He was told our cabin was booked but the folks at Stokes were nice enough to let us move into a larger cabin, at the same price, so we could have another couple of days together. The people who work at Stokes were very nice to my father and me then and, I can tell you, in the conversations I have had with them around my upcoming visit, the people who work there are still wonderfully kind and pleasant and attentive.

They are patient with, well, the likes of me, say. I was talking with one woman and asked if when I arrived I should just go straight to my cabin. They send you lots of information along with your cabin number before your visit. She was very nice and said yes, I could do this if I want, but I might be want to drop by the office for the moment.

I said I’d be delighted to say hello to everyone. She said they would be equally delighted to give me the key to the cabin. A key – go figure.

I will be there four nights. I will arrive on September 29 and leave on October 3. The question for me was what could I build into the time that would honor my father and bring him closer to me than he already is on a daily basis. I assure you I am repeating myself when I say that my father was and is the greatest gift life has ever given me. Other than the bathroom, his picture is in every room in my home, and his twigs are here as well.

Perhaps I should explain the twigs. My father died on August 16, 1969. He is buried in Kennilworth, New Jersey, not far from Elizabeth, New Jersey where he was born on February 20, 1914 and where he was raised. I visit his grave on a regular basis. One day, nearly 30 years after he died, I was standing by his grave. I found myself thinking that after so many years his body had begun to decompose which meant his body was feeding the soil which also meant, I realized, that the soil that was feeding the beautiful Oak Tree that offered his resting place shade and shelter had my father in it. Looking at the tree, I realized that in a very real way my father was part of the tree. I then noticed all the little branches and twigs that the tree scattered on the ground, like most trees do as the seasons move along. I gathered up a handful of twigs and took them home. Now, whenever I visit him, I gather up more twigs. By having a twig with me, I have part of my father with me. As you may have already guessed by now, I will be bringing some of the twigs to Stokes Forest with me. I will leave one in the earth by the cabin when my visit there is done.

My mind has turned to other things I can include in my visit to Stokes Forest to bring my father close. For instance, I have, I think, successfully hunted down a place to buy an Entenmann’s Walnut Danish Ring. My father and I used to love to warm them in the oven and have a piece with a morning cup of coffee. It will be the perfect breakfast for my birthday morning.

I will also bring a recording of violinist Jascha Heifitz paying Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61. It was written in 1806 and my father and I loved it. We listened to it many times. I remember one night the two of us sitting side by side on the couch conducting to the music. When the music ended, we looked at each other, smiled, nodded in agreement, and listened to it all over again (and conducted it all over again, thank you very much).

I plan on bringing my father’s copy of Don Marquis’ book “Archy and Mehitabel,” a delightful book about Archy, a cockroach who has the soul of a poet, and Mehitabel, a cat who claims she was Cleopatra in a previous life. There are still pages in this book marked by paper clips placed there by my father. They will never be removed.

I cannot say how this time will go, other than I am sure it will be, for me, deeply memorable. Moreover, it will give me time to be in the quiet of things. I know before my time is up I want to touch as many human hearts as I can in life, help them discover hope, help them discover that in bleakest of times, hope is there, even though it my be out of conscious touch and view. I want to help as many huma hearts know that every moment they are in has value and worth simply because they are in it. As a very dear friend said to me of the moment we are in, “It is the only place you have to be.” Even if those moments are the last in life, they are still yours, and still of marvelous worth and value simply because they are yours and you are present.

I don’t at all mean to sound maudlin or morose. I am feeling anything but about this birthday, this special time. The day of turning 55 and the days of being in Stokes close to my father. I will, for the days I am there, set aside much of what draws my focus now. My just begun journey to get back onto the rolls of disability, the finish strides on the final draft of a memoir, a book on my 15 years experience in the field of brain injury as one who loves with one, and then two other books, novels, that are nestled safe in my heart.

For now, my mind is on preparing for Stokes Forest, celebrating my 55th birthday, and rejoicing in the fact that while my father will not be with me physically, he will be in my heart, warm and close, just like he is every day of my life. Just maybe a little closer at Stokes. After all, as of October 2, we will be the same age.