by Kent Monroe
My father piloted B52s for the Strategic Air Command during the height of the Cold War, and it’s a damn fine thing my mother wasn’t beside him in the cockpit, because if she was our journey to the stars would have been placed on pause for a century or three. Trust me. She would have eventually said something that crossed the crooked line, and my crazy bastard of a father would have snapped. He did it all the time at home, so I see no reason to believe he wouldn’t do it up there, closer to the stars, to creation. That reminds me: one of the more savage beatings we witnessed came as soon as we arrived home from church. It was autumn of 1965, K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base, Upper Michigan, and the sound of the front door shutting had not made it to the end of the hall before he punched her in the stomach so viciously she vomited her communion. Then he dragged her by the neck into their bedroom, slamming the door shut. Bullwhip slaps, screams and choking sounds split the air like lightning. My two little sisters and brother held each other tightly, bouncing up and down like pogo sticks. I stood at the door and reached for the knob. I knew he kept a pistol in the top draw of his dresser, and for a second I thought about it. I’d dash to the dresser, pull the drawer out, reach inside and grab the pistol and…what? Shoot him? Kill him? Kill the man who flew hydrogen bombs around in the sky, the man who split the air like lightning on the ground? I was ten. He was my father. If he’d turned his head my way, I’d have pissed myself. I ran for my siblings. We cried as we jumped in place.
My poor mother–most times the harder she got it the crazier she became. Her words, toxic and profane, were her fists, and she threw them at him with a palpable violence meant to hurt. She’d have been right in his face mask, shrieking, cursing like a syphilitic sailor, spraying the cockpit with bloody spit. Her face mask would, of course, have been beaten off her head. There would be zero oxygen at that altitude, but she wouldn’t have needed it. Her rage would have been her air, her blood bright red with hatred. “That’s right!” she’d have screamed. “You can beat the shit out of a woman, you dick-less motherfucker, but you don’t have the balls to blow up the world! You pussy!”
And you know what my father would have done? Captain Monroe? He’d have done it, sister. He’d have dumped those bombs like he was taking a dump in her shoes, just to spite her. He’d have ridden one of those bombs down like Slim Pickens in Doctor Strangelove, punching and strangling my bleeding, screaming mother until the blinding, white-hot and furious end of everything.
As a child, I would sometimes lie in my bed, humming, pillows pressed hard to my ears. You never knew. It was mostly quiet in our house, but never peaceful. If you expressed the karma of my family sonically, it would sound like a wasp trapped between a window and its screen. It was the background radiation of our reality. You never knew when the violence was coming, only that it would come. You anticipated it. If it didn’t come tonight, that only meant it was more likely to come tomorrow. After a few days, you’d flinch at any sound—the furnace kicking in, the cat jumping, the neighbor cranking his lawn mower….
I carry a particular memory like a bomb in my heart, a memory so bittersweet the sweet is like matter and the bitter antimatter. It plays back automatically from time to time, year to year, decade to decade, always fresh and detailed and heavy with feeling, and always exploding into nothingness at the end.
I was twelve. It was the summer of ‘68, Dayton, Ohio, a week before my father left for Vietnam. I had spent the previous six days at this gathering of the entire state’s Boy Scout troops. It was like the Boy Scout Olympics, and both my parents came the last night for the closing ceremony, which was held about a huge bonfire. The firelight rippled like magic water on their loving faces. They kissed and caressed and gazed into one-another’s eyes with a tenderness I had never witnessed, and I felt this joy I cannot express. I remember thinking: it’s going to be okay now. The streaking lights from the universe’s burning stars intersected at that bonfire into a single point of amazing grace and kindness and love, and my family—life itself– was instantly transformed. Rainbows arced from my parents’ faces, melted into the verdant earth, poured up from the ground in a healing mist that permeated existence. The violent, menacing buzz of wasp wings drifted away, replaced by the bright, clear resonance of love and possibility. I could bring friends to my house. I could float into sleep in a cocoon of peace and security. I could anticipate happiness. Boom….
My father soon went off to war in Vietnam, returned home to war a year later. The domestic violence resumed, escalated; our home buzzed with menace, and our remaining years together grew progressively darker. The family karma eventually followed me out the door to school and beyond. My world buzzed. One sunny April morning, 1975, Fairfax, Virginia, the man who split the air like lightening left our home for good, quietly walking past my mother, who lay on a sofa with a broken tailbone, on to his career and his new life disconnected from his secret failure. Soon I left, and before long, we all were gone, moved on, blown apart like debris from a tornado, never to reunite.
My parents are dead now. I mostly remember them as they were that one beautiful night when their love seemed to shimmer like sunshine on the first snow. It always goes back to that memory. It just does. As I drove her to the hospital in 2002, my mother, dying of cancer, suddenly looked at me and remarked, “We missed it, didn’t we?” I didn’t reply, but not because the question was rhetorical. Interned within my silence, acrid and swirling like smoke from ruins, was the awareness that not once, ever, not as children nor adults, had any of us ever mentioned, much less discussed, that which had defined and destroyed us as a family. We endured it as if it didn’t exist, then faded apart without protest, our existence diminished. For a minute or two, I struggled with how such a thing was possible, how he, she, we, I could have allowed it — how merciless and meaningless this fucking world can be…and then, empowered by some unsummoned existential grace, I reached over and held my mother’s hand in mine.
I am a gardener. My life’s nebula has coalesced into beautiful tools: trowel and twine, weeder and trusty pruners. My gardens are my safe houses along my line of space and time. Seeds swell, flowers unfold, leaves orient towards our star… and sometimes I drift into the craziest, impossibly golden notions, like I would have made a good father, like I would have helped my son have peace of mind and a loving heart, like love can be communion for the lonely. Sometimes I create a door in the distance, today between the redbud and the gooseberries, tomorrow beneath the arbor covered with honeysuckle. I tell myself: This is my destination. I walk my bones up to my door, with everything I am—all my feelings and thoughts and memories—locked inside the smooth stone rubbed between my fingers, turn the knob and fall through a white hole to a new universe, where all that was lost hangs as fruit from the Tree of Love. Six pieces of fruit, luminous and sweet, hang for me. As I pick them, one by one my family appears, and as we eat our fruit–our sacrament– rainbows arc from our faces, melt through the verdant ground into the roots of the tree I have made from my heart for us, and we become whole and loving and inextricably, eternally connected –all those lovely things that might have been but never were.