Tuesday, August 6, 2013

8/6/13 The Lives of the Dead

The Lives of the Dead

But this too is true: stories can save us. I'm forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive. . . . Linda was nine then, as I was, but we were in love. And it was real. When I write about her now, three decades later, it's tempting to dismiss it as a crush, an infatuation of childhood, but I know for a fact that what we felt for each other was as deep and rich as love can ever get. It had the shadings and complexities of mature adult love, and maybe more, because there were not yet words for it, and because it was not yet fixed to comparisons or chronologies or the ways by which adults measure such things.

I just loved her. . . . Even then, at nine years old, I wanted to live inside her body. I wanted to melt into her bones -- that kind of love. . . . Neither of us, I suppose, would've thought to use that word, love, but by the fact of not looking at each other, and not talking, we understood with a clarity beyond language that we were sharing something huge and permanent. 

The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness.

I'm forty-three years old, which would've seemed impossible to a fourth grader, and yet when I look at photographs of myself as I was, I realize that in the important ways, I haven't changed at all. I was Timmy then; now I'm Tim. But the essence remains the same. I'm not fooled by the baggy pants or the crew cut or the happy smile -- I know my own eyes -- and there is no doubt that the Timmy smiling at the camera is the Tim I am now. Inside the body, or beyond the body, there is something absolute and unchanging. The human life is all one thing, like a blade tracing loops on ice: a little kid, a twenty-three-year-old infantry sergeant, a middle-aged writer knowing guilt and sorrow.

As a writer now, I want to save Linda's live. Not her body -- her life.

She died of course. Nine years old and she died. It was a brain tumor. She lived though the summer and into the first part of September, and then she was dead. 

But in a story I can steal her soul. I can revive, at least briefly, that which is absolute and unchanging. In a story, miracles can happen. Linda can smile and sit up. She can reach out, touch my wrist, and say, "Timmy, stop crying." . . . .

Linda nodded at me. She was under a yellow streetlight. A nine-year-old girl, just a kid, and yet there was something ageless in her eyes -- not a child, not an adult -- just a bright ongoing everness, that same pinprick of absolute lasing light that I see today in my own eyes as Timmy smiles at Tim from the graying photographs of time. . . . 

It was a kind of self-hypnosis. Partly willpower, partly faith, which is how stories arrive.

But back then it felt like a miracle. My dreams had become a secret meeting place, and in the weeks after she died I couldn't wait to fall asleep at night. I began going to bed earlier and earlier, sometimes even in bright daylight. My mother, I remember, finally asked about it at breakfast one morning. "Timmy, what's wrong?" she said, but all I could do was shrug and say, "Nothing, I just need sleep, that's all." I didn't dare tell the truth. It was embarrassing, I suppose, but it was also a precious secret, like a magic trick, where if I tried to explain it, or even talk about it, the thrill and mystery would be gone. I didn't want to lose Linda. 

She was dead. I understood that. After all, I'd seen her body. And yet even as a nine-year-old I had just begun to practice the magic of stories. Some I just dreamed up. Others I wrote down -- the scenes and dialogue. And at nightime I'd slide into sleep knowing that Linda would be there waiting for me. Once, I remember, we went ice skating late night, tracing loops and circles under yellow floodlights. Later we sat by a wood stove in the warming house, all alone, and after I while I asked her what it was like to be dead. Apparently Linda thought it was a silly question. She smiled and said, "Do I look dead?"

I told her no, she looked terrific. I waited a moment, then asked again, and Linda made a soft little sigh. I could smell our wool wittens drying on the stove. 

For a few seconds she was quiet. 

"Well, right now," she said, "I'm not dead. But when I am, it's like . . . I don't know, I guess it's like being inside a book that nobody's reading."

"A book?" I said.

"An old one. It's up on a library shelf, so you're safe and everything, but the book hasn't been checked out for a long, long time. All you do is wait. Just hope somebody'll pick it up and start reading."

Linda smiled at me. 

"Anyhow, it's not so bad, she said. "I mean, when you're dead, you just have to be youself." She stood up and put on her red stocking cap. "This is stupid. Let's go skate some more."

So I followed her down to the frozen pond. It was late, and nobody else was there, and we held hands and skated almost all night under the yellow lights. 

And then it becomes 1990. I'm forty-three years old, and a writer now, still dreaming Linda alive in exactly the same way. She's not the embodied Linda; she's mostly made up, with a new identity and a new name, like the man who never was. Her real name doesn't matter. She was nine years old. I loved her and then she died. And yet right here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can still see her as if through ice, as if I'm gazing into some other world, a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all. I can see Kiowa, too, and Ted Lavender and Curt Lemon, and sometimes I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I'm young and happy. I'll never die. I'm skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story.

excerpted from the final chapter of Tim O'Brien's collection The Things They Carried


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