Standing in front of my buddy’s childhood home I breath deeply, willing my mind to accept what I am about to do. I raise my shaking hand to the door for a third time, fearing this will be the moment I am strong enough to announce myself to the broken people inside. Hearing a sob from just behind the door makes me wonder if it is in fact possible to die of a broken heart.
Dropping my hand in failure I squeeze my eyes shut refusing to break my father’s most sacred rule; men don’t cry. I force the tears back that have been threatening to spill since the day I lost my best friend. My best friend, those words don’t feel strong enough to describe what he had meant to me, what he will always mean to me. Leaning my head against the sun warmed door frame I think back on the day I met Jack. We had been assigned to the same unit and were both wrinkle free and fearless. Jack had been the first person to approach me on base. He had walked up to me with more swagger then any one person should have as I watched him over the rim of my book.
“Names Jack.” he had said sticking out his right hand, left casually stuffed in his pocket.
“Noah.” I returned, clasping his hand with mine.
“Well, Noah, what do you like to do for fun? Video games, football, workout?”
“I am more of a books and beer kind of guy.” I hadn’t intended to admit that I was a book worm. It was something that had always earned me curious and somewhat judgmental glances, so I had learned to keep my reading habits quiet. I tried pulling my hand back from Jack’s grip as I lowered my head in embarrassment but he had squeezed my hand tighter, yanking me forward slightly. The move had shocked me into looking up meeting Jack’s searching gaze, his smile had gone so big he looked like the Cheshire cat.
“Good.” he had said. “You’ll be the brains of this little operation then, and I’ll be the bad ass Zelda playing, Eagle’s loving muscle head. Deal?” Jack continued to grin at me in full force and I was powerless to do anything but agree.
“Deal.” Best deal I ever made.
God, how naïve we had been back then, thinking that the ways of the universe, like death, time and desolation couldn’t touch us. If someone had told that younger version of me I would end up hallow and broken I would have laughed in their face. If someone told that version of me how important Jack would become; I don’t think I would have believed that either.
Standing on his parent’s porch I wonder, not for the first time, how different my life would be if Jack hadn’t gotten it into his head that we were going to be friends. Knowing him, being his friend, it changed me. I was no longer shy and uncertain of my place in the world. His constant belief in me over the years snaked into my consciousness and helped create a man who was proud of himself, a man who no longer hid from the world for fear of judgment.
Turing from the door I let the sun shine on my face as my legs give out sliding down the side of the house until I am nothing but a pile of limbs and misery. Jack had saved me from a life of melancholy and claustrophobia. He was fearless, an adrenaline junkie with a heart of gold. He was the kind of person who would run into a burning building to save a cat and he drug me kicking and screaming into every one of those theoretical burning buildings.
He saved me in so many ways but what did I ever do for him? He changed the course of my life, him choosing me as a friend changed who I became, but I can’t think of a single thing that I had given him, a single way that I changed his life. I hold my head with shaking hands and let the years of memories wash over me, groping for a time, an instant, where I was the one giving instead of taking.
My mind lands on a memory of us returning home from our first deployment. We headed straight to Jack’s parent’s home; I had lost my parents years ago and had become an honorary member of the Parish family. When the cab pulled up to Jack’s house it was twilight, snow falling against streetlights as the reds and oranges of the setting sun gave way to the darkness of night. For once Jack was not moving, smiling, talking, instead he seemed rooted to the snow dusted pavement. Looking at him I saw tears flooding his eyes and spilling over as he gazed at his childhood home.
“Jack, what is it? What’s wrong?” My heart was in my throat as I reached up to grip his shoulder.
After few a beats he turned his head to me and spoke. “It’s just good to be here you know. A few times over there I wasn’t sure we were going to make it back home, but here we are, and I just want to remember every detail of this moment for when we leave again.” So we stood out there is the softness of the sleepy snow blanketed town memorizing every detail of the home in front of us. Before we made our way into the house, I had pulled out my phone and snapped a few pictures, a plan forming in my mind. Weeks later as we packed up our gear ready to head back to base I heard my normally chipper friend grumbling across the hall. Now or never I thought as I headed to his bedroom with his tactical bag in hand.
“I can’t find my tac bag.” Jack grumbled without looking up.
“Here.” tossing him his bag was harder than I thought it would be, my nerves sparking just beneath my skin. Jack laughed as the bag bounced off his side landing on the floor.
“Thanks man.” I watched as he started opening sections, adding gear, checking zippers until I heard his soft gasp. I remember being too anxious to look up at him.
“Noah?” He had said my name like a question. When I raised my eyes to his they were glassy with tears and I thought to myself maybe my father was wrong. Maybe real men did cry after all.
“I wanted you to have something to help you remember when we’re away, something to hold onto until we can stand on the sidewalk looking at this house again.” Jack’s eyes were more intense than I had ever seen them. He looked down at the intricately stitched portrait of his family home sewn into a hidden flap of his tactical bag. His eyes skittered over the details, his fingers landing on the stitched versions of ourselves as we looked longingly at the house, an except replica of the moment we had shared several weeks ago.
Jack had stood from his spot on the floor and pulled me up from the bed into a crushing hug. “Thank you, buddy.” he had said, his warm tears wetting my shirt.
I replay that memory on a loop in my head as my legs go numb and my back starts to ache. When things got sticky over the years I would catch him unzipping that hidden flap in his tac bag, sometimes with tears in his eyes, other times with a soft smile on his lips. He had told me one night under the stars in a distant country that I had given him his home. I may not have changed his world like he did mine, but I had given him something he needed, something that made the hard times easier to bear. Unwilling to break my father’s rule, I stand and take a shuddering breath forcing my knuckles to make contact, the sound of the knock breaks my already shattered heart. It’s a reminder that the days of barging into the Parish home without knocking, demanding love and attention are gone.
The door opens with a soft snick and before I can fully meet the eyes of Jack’s parents I am wrapped up in two sets of arms. I can’t make out their words as they steer me towards the couch, a body on either side of me holding on as if I’ll float away without their hands anchoring me to this world. I wonder how much pain a person can truly tolerate and still be able to take another breath. I don’t know how long we sit there in silence, a thick burning thing that will never really be broken, what words can be said now that will hold any meaning.
“I’m sorry, I am so sorry that I couldn’t bring him home.” I say the words that won’t change the grief these beautiful people feel. “I would give anything for it to have been me, for him to be the one sitting here, to give you your son back.” More words, words that are all true but still just words, they can’t change the world that we now live in, a world without him.
“Noah honey,” Momma Parish’s voice shakes as she squeezes my arm with her small hands. “You are our son too; you have been since the day Jack brought you home to meet us.” They keep their hands on me, bodies pushed close as we sit in our misery. I can’t find any more words and I think my makeshift parents know this since I find myself being led upstairs to my room.
“Can I…can I stay in Jack’s room tonight?” My request is quite and I’m not sure that I am heard until Pop Parish puts his callused hand on the back of my neck and pulls me into a hug, a hug so much like Jacks that I feel me knees go weak.
“Of course you can son.” Once I am sitting on Jack’s bed with the Parish’s standing in front of me I can’t help but apologize again for being the one that came home.
“Our boy was never good with words Noah, you probably know that better than anyone,” Momma Parish says as she hands me an envelope. “But if your letter is anything like ours I can say with confidence that Jack would not have been okay with you wishing to switch places.”
I don’t know how long it’s been since the couple left me sitting on Jack’s bed gripping a letter from the grave and for the first time in 10 years I hate Jack. I hate him for leaving me, leaving me with nothing but a piece of paper and a broken heart. Opening the envelope with shaking hands I feel a pain so poignantly in my chest I wonder if I am having a heart attack.
If you’re reading this that means that I am not standing on the front porch with you this time around. Please Noah, stay with mom and dad until they’re okay. I don’t know why I am even writing that; I know you will. I know you like the back of my hand, there is no one I know better. No one I love more. No one knows me better than you either, so maybe most of this letter is just stuff you already know, but you know how much I love to hear myself talk so bear with me!
You know that I grew up with love and freedom and choices but what you don’t know is that I felt like I was always drifting through life until the day I met you. Do you remember that day? I had spotted you in the common area and thought to myself, that man needs some fun in his life! But as we talked that feeling of aimlessness I carried around shrank smaller and smaller. Knowing you for just five minutes gave me a sense of direction, of calm. Knowing you for the rest of my life, now that gave me true happiness.
You said one time, (when we had been drinking whisky at that dive bar in Ohio, remember that bartender who wouldn’t stop flirting with you!), you said that I changed you. I never told you though, that you’re the one who changed me. I fell in love with you so easily, it was like breathing. So many times over the years I wanted to ask you for more. I never got up the courage though, because what if it drove you away? I can live without having more, I mean I’ve been doing it for years anyway right, but I wouldn’t survive losing you. I’m sorry, I know this is the coward’s way out but hey maybe I grew a pair and we’re sitting in my room reading this letter together laughing at what an idiot I am!
The day you gave me my tac bag with the picture of home stitched inside and the two of us in the background….it’s the image of the two of us that I cling to Noah when I need a reminder of what we’re fighting for. Knowing you, loving you, just being near you, that has been my home and I hope in some way you already knew that.
Now that I have gone to grace heaven with my presence I need you to do a couple of things for me. First of all get your head out of a book once in a while! If I haven’t beat Zelda yet you are required to conquer it in my name. Meet up with our friends. I know it was never really your thing to drink with the gang in run down bars but its good for you man! You need people and all their craziness in your life, trust me on this one buddy. Look at me Noah going all Dr. Phil on you! What else…. oh yeah, if we haven’t done it already take that trip to the Grand Canyon. Man we’ve been planning that for years haven’t we?! I hope we got to see it together, I would give just about anything to see your face when we’re watching the sunset in the canyons.
Well, I guess my time is up, you’ve been pounding on my door for like five minuets demanding that we get to the library before it closes. If you would just use the iPad that I bought you old man, you wouldn’t need to drag me to the library all the time.
I know that you will feel lost without me, please just stay with my folks for a while. Their letter explains everything, everything that I just couldn’t say to you all those times that I had the chance. Please take care of them Noah and let them take care of you. So far I have had an amazing life and my most favorite parts of this life are all wrapped up in you. Please just keep living that good life for me buddy.
I love you,
Keep on keeping on!
Clutching Jack’s letter I made my way down the stairs and out of the house stopping only when I hit the sidewalk. Turing back to the house I finally broke my father’s most sacred rule as I was unable to stop the tears that rushed from me. Dropping to my knees I let the tears stream down my face as I replayed the countless times that Jack and I stood in this spot. I wept knowing that I lost my future, gone is the person who made me feel alive, ripped from me before I could give him more. Sobs tore through my body knowing that with all I have lost I will spend the rest of my days breaking my father’s most sacred rule.