If [Part X]

By Haven Lindsey  in  blog  on  11.30.2022

If I were to say to Justin, “If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on you,” he would respond with the next line, “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too.”

We initially learned to recite the Rudyard Kipling classic for a school project but eventually, the poem became a bit of a secret code – a comfort code, almost like the words to a favorite song that feels good to sing out loud.

He had enlisted in the Army and wherever he was, his emails would end with the first part of one of the lines and my response would start with the line that followed.

Then husband and I had relocated to North Carolina, hoping, wishing, and praying I suppose that somehow a change in geography would magically erode whatever was wrong – a southern elixir of sorts. I had sold my business to an employee and orchestrated the move south – leaving the life we created in Maine behind. I embraced a once-familiar culture where men wore polo shirts, everyone ate hushpuppies, and confederate statues decorated public squares – whatever it took to fix him, us, and it, I was willing. Thing is, all the problems I had hoped we were moving away from somehow got packed in one of the bags – and despite trading the grays of Maine for the famous Carolina Blue sky, the problems were the same.

It was as if I had traded the blinders I had been wearing in Maine for a thicker, larger pair. Living in a house one-third the size of the one we had moved from so he could easily step in and ride on the coattails of a retiring financial advisor in the same firm – a fresh start with a successful path was laid in front of him. Meanwhile, I started working as a healthcare paralegal.

Justin had come for a visit, a stopover on his way to Ft. Hood, the large Army base in Texas. He was preparing to serve one more year of duty and then leave the Army and enroll in college. He was going to be a teacher and despite my resistance to all things military, the Army had, in some ways, been good for him. He had just bought a car, a bright blue Jetta, and he had grown into a confident young man with a job, a paycheck, and a big ol’ dream. He was ready to leave the service and excited about college.

The Raleigh-Durham area where we were living, is a nexus for up-and-coming industries, research and technology, and both state and private colleges and universities. Durham was a particularly fun place to explore. Good restaurants, eclectic shops, and the home of Duke University. The lush campus with its combination of neo-Gothic and Georgian architecture was nothing less than stunning. As we walked the campus beneath old-growth trees and granite buildings Justin was clearly inspired. We joked that we felt smarter just for walking on the campus where some of the nation’s smartest students go to school.

That afternoon I was keenly aware of how the tables had turned. Me, feeling lost and ungrounded in a southern culture that wasn’t comfortable, and sensing that then husband seemed to be cracking at the seams yet still not knowing what was wrong or how to help and, Justin, confident and curious telling me how it wouldn’t be long before he would be walking to classes on a college campus.

“Do you think I could go to Duke?” he asked.

“If you can dream and not make dreams your master,” I replied, to which Justin immediately said, “If you can think and not make thoughts your aim,” he finished.

That particular day was one of my favorite days ever – the sunny afternoon walking the campus, sneaking into the stately Chapel, it felt like we were in Europe. “You know, we still haven’t gone to Ver-say-lees,” I said in the same way Martian Woman once pronounced it before Justin taught her to properly enunciate the Palace of Versailles. “Before you start college, we’re going to take you there just like we always said.” “I want to go to Normandy too,” he said, with a seriousness born from a young man who had already been to Afghanistan and would likely be returning.

A few days later, we stood in the gravel driveway of our small home as Justin was preparing to leave. I noticed on his front seat the notebook we had made a few years before, all the sticky notes with the inspirational and positive sayings now taped and sealed into plastic – the stickiness on the backs long gone. I held the notebook, remembering how those sticky notes had eventually covered all but a few inches of his bathroom mirror. I was proud of who he had become.

As Justin backed out of the driveway, then husband and I walked awkwardly alongside the car until he reached the road and put it in drive. He rolled down the windows, music already filling the interior. I leaned into the passenger side window and said one more goodbye. We stood in the road and watched the bright blue Jetta drive out of sight.

It would be the last time I saw Justin.

He was killed in Afghanistan a couple of months later. We were told it was “friendly fire,” but there is nothing remotely friendly about it.

His funeral was one of the worst experiences of my life. Other than the bagpipes – a sound that to this day, can still make me feel nauseated, I remember only fragments of conversations. I don’t remember where we stayed, who we saw, how long we were there, what we drove, or where we ate. I do remember boarding the plane to fly back to our new North Carolina home and having a full-fledged panic attack – the first I’d ever experienced. I thought I was going to die. There was not enough oxygen on the plane – grief had consumed every particle and I could not breathe.

Over the course of weeks and months and beyond, I learned about grief. I learned those seven steps of grief aren’t like steps at all – more like waves in the ocean, sometimes politely landing on shore, other times crashing down and disrupting every grain of thought-to-be-healed sand. Life changed – I gravitated toward volunteering, my Buddhist community, and my bike. I made the decision to apply to graduate school to earn a degree in social work. I figured I would likely never walk into the street and intercept a kid’s football again but it felt like the right thing to do. In every conceivable way, I moved in one direction and then husband moved in another.

It was many months later when I learned my financial advisor then husband had drained my once-healthy investment portfolio of every penny. While his IRA was safe and sound, there was nothing left in my name. He lost his license and his job shortly after as he apparently had moved on from my depleted accounts to start feeding off of others. One would think the blinders would have immediately been ripped off with the undisputable proof in front of me, yet it took nearly two more years of listening to more lies and promises before I finally summoned the courage to leave.

If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two impostors just the same… It’s just one line from the poem we recited hundreds of times but one that is difficult to achieve. Even though I understood the words, it would take more than a decade and a great deal of work for me to be able to come close to treating those two imposters just the same. In many ways, Justin had always been able to do that.

The End.

(But in all actuality, it was really The Beginning.)

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