Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Why "Soldier, Rest"

Maybe it's as simple as this: I've been reading Sir Walter Scott.  I read The Lady of the Lake straight through a few weeks back.  Then I read this poem -- from that longer work -- again three days ago, in an anthology.  It is a song, really, the poem I read aloud and posted here last night.  Scott wrote many such, and collected many more in his three volumes of border ballads.  He loved nothing better.  He did nothing better.  I've only just heard it sung, Soldier, Rest! in a lovely recording I found online.

However then it's come to mind, I have it now and it's made me think, not of Scott, or his ballads, or of war and soldiers, but of rest, and of a good man only just gone, too soon, to his.

It may not suit the occasion, or better say, there may be other, better poems that might.  He wasn't a soldier, the man who's died.  His was a gentle soul.  The violence he knew was, so far as I know, all or nearly all interior, his struggles with and within his mind and illness.  Maybe that's why the poem reminds me of him nonetheless.  He fought.  Reading his obituary, I am touched and proud to see how much he won.

Mental illness was not what killed him, at only sixty.  Cancer killed him.  Cigarettes killed him, it may be argued I suppose.  His pleasures were few enough and simple, I should think that it would be hard now to argue even against this one.  I wasn't privy to his last struggle.  I hadn't seen him for a decade, or thereabouts.

I knew him because I loved his brother, Peter, as he did.  Because I knew Peter, I knew Mike.  One couldn't know my friend Peter and not know his family.  Hell, one could not sit by Peter on a long bus ride and not in the end know something of his family!  I like to think I knew Peter as well as anyone not related by blood, certainly better sometimes than the man knew himself.  He knew me the same way.  I doubt, however that Peter remembered my brother's name from one telling to the next.  Family with Peter however was often nearly all he had and if one wanted to know him, well, he brought them with him.  More, they welcomed me, all of 'em, as was and is their nature, as it was his.  I loved them, and do.  Peter's gone, as are his parents, his brother Tom, and now Mike.

Mike was a special case.  When his older brother's illness came, Peter was still a boy, with all of a boy's understanding and a little brother's natural resentment of the attention it drew away from him.  Boys can be selfish, parents distracted with worry, families complicated even before they are tested.  Mental illness is unlike if it is anything at all.  My family has had some similar experience of it.  I've seen the devastation it can bring in it's wake, to both the sufferer and those who suffer with and 'round him or her.  I don't equate my experience with theirs.  Tolstoy's famous line, "... each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" is true.  By the time I knew Peter, his brother's illness was managed, the family survived more or less intact.  By the time I knew them they were not, I should emphasize, unhappy, at least no more nor less than any other.

And when I was with them, more often than not they were more joyful than not.  A loud, dramatic, big and boisterous family, by any standard, a fact only emphasized when first encountered at the dinner table, and at the Holidays!  They were, I admit, a shock to someone more used as I was to shy affection and quietly smoldering resentments.  The noise of them!  I loved it.

Mike was very much of them, always, though his illness put him, as only such an illness can, somewhat apart, always.  Schizophrenia separates those who have it from not only other people but in many ways separates the ill from themselves; from their lives before the illness, and from the trust we all have, most of the time, in ourselves.  I saw Mike struggle, even when he was well, to trust himself, to read the reactions of others right, to trust that he was in fact well.  I saw my friend Peter, his brother, struggle to trust his own reactions, testing his patience, struggle sometimes to trust his love for his brother and let that be enough.

People who have been forced to doubt themselves as profoundly as only such an illness can, will, I suspect always thereafter be at some disadvantage in company.  I saw members of my own family, including a smart, even witty woman, well educated and professionally accomplished before her illness,  withdraw further and further into an agonizing uncertainty that eventually exhausted her.  I watched her with embarrassment as she faltered in commonplace situations, heard her lose the thread of simple things, and give up.  As with many people so circumstanced, we none of us knew how to help her.  I was a boy when all that happened, what could I do?  I still blush to think how little I might have done and didn't.  Eventually, my aunt lost the struggle to regain herself.

Mike did not.  Even the last time I saw him, years ago now, he was as he had almost always been when I was in his company, valiant.  It is a martial word, and now I think, apt.  It is no accident after-all perhaps that Scott's poem should so remind me of Mike.  If his first resort was to his faith and to those familiar and familial expressions that can sound to the better armed conversationalist regimented and rehearsed, the affection expressed was no less sincere for that.  It took a remarkable discipline I realize now to make that effort, to maintain, express and to emphasize love above any doubt and despite the very real disappointments even a more expansive life than Mike's might find, day to day.

I never knew him, in all the years I knew him, once I knew him, not to say he loved me, and mean it.  He loved me because I loved his brother.  That was enough.  That was brave, even noble.

It is no reflection on the character of those who can not do as he did that sometimes even love fails them.  I loved Peter, and I failed him, as in the end he sometimes disappointed me.  Peter was sick for a long time.  We were often separated and for a long time.  His illness changed him in ways neither of us could have anticipated.  It changed me too.  Illness only takes from us, and from some it simply takes too much.  I see no gifts in suffering.  It is human to want sometimes more than we can have or keep, but all we lose is lost.

Peter's family never failed him.  Sometimes he was disappointed in them, and they in him, but they never failed him.  Nothing good came of Peter's death.  Nothing.  Even in his dying though there were chances to see his better nature and the better natures of those around him.  His family loved him and I loved him.  People loved him who hardly knew him, believe me!  (He was a wonder that way.)  His brother Mike loved him as in the end I must admit I did too, without the luxury of conditions.  For Mike, with all his struggles, this one thing seemed easy.  Took me a long and intimate friendship to learn that lesson with Peter.  Peter I think, I hope, learned it sooner and from better examples, like his brother, Mike.

Scott's poem is an inducement, almost a lullaby, sung to a soldier to convince him he deserves to stop where he is and find peace.  I learn only now, reading Mike's obituary just how much, in the last ten years he earned his peace.  I knew he worked, and worked hard at being a man who contributed to the family and community that cared for him.  I had no idea how hard he had worked, and how much he had achieved in making that community a better place for people who had struggled as he did with mental illness.  When he died, he was a respected and recognized contributor to that most important fight for access to care, to dignity and self-suficiency for a population too often ignored and neglected by the rest of us.  His family must be proud, and well they should be.

Was he not a soldier, then, in his way?  And was not his way valiant, then, for all it was of peace?  Has he not earned his own at last?

Oh, how I wish him, and his family, peace.  I send my love, in memory of my good friend, Peter, and his good brother


(Donations may be made in Mike's memory to People's Oakland, 3433 Bates Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213)

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