Hearing about someone’s death makes time hold still for a moment.
It’s not the kind of stillness you get when you pause a movie. That is just a momentary break in momentum; it can be undone and everything continues on in the usual way.
The stillness that follows death is both deafening to the senses and unbearably quiet. It’s a permanent shift in the direction and force at which everything operates from that moment forward.
Death creates absence, and both are familiar shadows in the military.
If you love someone who serves, your service requires tending to the absence. You stand guard, protecting the space—the space that is the exact size and shape of what used to fill it, a unique combination of the person who was once there mixed with your love for him or her.
You can almost see the outline of that which used to be, and you wonder, if there ever comes a day when they return, will they fill that space in a way that dissolves the absence?
Will they be the same and slide, like water, back to where they were?
Will they exist with your love in that space as they once did?
Or will they be changed or altered or come back in fragments?
Will they fight inside, having to bend and twist and break off bits in order to resume the space they once occupied?
Will they rub against your love in a way that bruises or burns or makes way for some kind of injury?
And what happens when they come back and no longer match the frequency of the absence that is waiting? What happens when uniforms are taken off, but they leave a stain on the skin? Something faint and hard to see with an untrained eye, but something invisibly dense that reaches the core of everything and is waiting to rise and burst and cry out in flames.
Absence is a hologram. It is a constant reminder of what used to be and it is an unreachable image begging to be held. If you love someone who serves, you know the truth. They return from war and they are forced to wear their own absence. It’s not a medal. It’s not a reward. It’s not even a punishment. It’s just there.
It’s part of the price, embedded in the barcode that was embedded in the contract they signed. And we hold them to it. We talk about honor and we salute and we put up flags. We write songs and we sing them with pride. And then we thank them for their service and respectfully request that they go on about the business of being a civilian, without any interruptions to our regularly scheduled lives.
And when they struggle, when their own absence starts to make noise, when it shifts and rubs like sandpaper at the base of every thought, what happens then?
Absence can only linger for so long before it commands attention. And those who wear it can only bear the weight for so long before they give in, fall down, ask for some kind of surrender, some kind of peace.
Some seek peace in what may be unthinkable ways to the rest of us. Many seek peace in ways that feel unbearable to witness or acknowledge or understand. A few turn to death and ask it in some way, directly or indirectly, to take over.
Break the contract and the barcode and then shatter the absence. Mulch it into tiny pieces so that those who are left behind can pick them up and add them to their own and try to go on about the business of being a civilian without any interruptions to our regularly scheduled lives.