Christopher and Charlie
Life itself, and remembering that life, are two different things. Life itself happens in a line, sometimes straight as a beam of light, sometimes crooked as the Sawtooth Mountains, but nevertheless, a line. Memories do not happen that way. They come and go at random times and places, in random order.
This is most evident, and most challenging, when you are trying to piece together your past, to make some sense out of it, to gather the bits and pieces together into a story that makes sense to you and gives some semblance of meaning to your life. “How did I get to here?” is not the easiest of questions to answer, in fact most times completely irrelevant in regards to today. However, when today makes little sense, when memories and feelings crash their way into your mind and soul, when it seems the pains far outweigh the pleasures, the question is helpful, even necessary.
For me, the biggest problem is that as I find myself not wanting to go to the places that “How did I get here?” lead. It is like hitting your thumb with a hammer. If you do it by accident, with no warning, just moving along and then wham, the pain is instantaneous, surprising, overwhelming. If, however, you were to actually plan to hit your thumb, already knowing the pain that was ahead, there would be seconds or minutes or hours of hesitation before you actually laid the hammer to the thumb— if indeed you ever did.
And so it is, at least for me, when the question begins to lead me to the things which caused me infinite amounts of duress and pain. My heart begs me to go there and learn something, while my mind says No! I know what is there, and I do not wish to experience it again. I have already seen it and felt it and experienced every second of it a million times in my nightmares and dreams. If there is something in the past which can tell me about today, let it come to the front on its own. Do not make me go find it. I can make it suffice to live without the lessons.
It is probably different for me than for most— but certainly not all— people, in that I have experienced far, far more times of confusion, unhappiness, even unspeakable tragedy, than I have experienced true and lasting joy. My life is filled with more things I would wish to forget than it is with things I cherish with fondness, and those times I cherish have all without exception ended with a hammer to the thumb, an instantaneous change from the joy to the pain, going from what I would like to remember to what I wish to forget.
Some of my favorite childhood memories, like fishing in the Nishnabotna River with Freddie McCoy, can unexpectedly and rapidly jump to getting robbed of all my money and valuables on my first trip away from home. Winnie Mae alive changes back and forth to Winnie Mae dead, sending me from unbelievable happiness to unspeakable despair in seconds.
I want peace—peace with myself and peace with my past. I want peace with other people and other circumstances. I want to be able to go a day or even an hour without the despair. I want, I want, I want. I might as well want to be the President of the United States or the Queen of England. I might as well want to be an inventor or a famous scientist. As surely as I will be none of those, I will also never be normally happy.
Laura Stinson, Winnie Mae’s mother, and by any set of standards a wise and compassionate person, has allowed me to speak of my hauntings without judgment or condemnation. She approached me privately early on after I arrived in Idaho City, saying she was concerned for the darkness in my soul. My first response, and one which I am happy that I did not voice, was that first, it’s none of your business, and second, I carry this “darkness” willingly. Instead, I just responded with the question, “What makes you say that?”
“Oh, Christopher,” she said, “it’s as obvious as your blue eyes. Your countenance, your posture, your perpetual gloominess all speak more about you than your few attempts at conversation.”
“If you are talking about God kind of stuff, forget it. He and I are never going to be on friendly terms again. If God is required to get out of this ‘darkness’ as you call it, then forget it. I swear upon my darkened soul that I shall never come groveling to Him for anything.”
She was visibly pained by my vow, unable to hide her disappointment, or perhaps even her sorrow.
“Please believe me, Christopher. I have no agenda here. I see a wounded and hurting person, and I would like to help, if that is the least bit possible. It is not for me, or for Winnie Mae, or for God. It is for you. I believe that somewhere, at some time, both peace and happiness will find you. If I can but lessen your pains until then even a minute amount, I should wish to do so. I do not mean to intrude. I do not mean to be pushy in any way. I only mean at least to try to give you a moment here and there of joy.”
“What if I don’t want your joy or happiness? What if I deserve what I am getting? What if it is my penance for the life I have lived? More than that, why should I for one moment feel that you could in this lifetime or any other lifetime forgive me for what I have done?”
“Forgive you for what? I’m sure I do not know of what you speak.”
I could feel everything rising to the surface. I fought to hold it down, to keep it captive in my own mind and heart. Unable to do so, it boiled to the top, overflowing in every way. “Forgive me for getting Winnie Mae killed,” I managed. My voice had gone from a defiant determination to a wavering, quaking whisper. “It was me. Me. There are a thousand ‘ifs’ that could be different, and she would be here with you instead of in the ground up on that hill. Her death was my fault, my doing, and no words or amounts of forgiveness can change that.”
She looked at me, tears flowing freely and unashamedly down her cheeks. She moved the few feet to me, put her arms around me, hugged me with real love and real compassion. She said nothing for moments, did not object to what I had said.
She loosened her grip on me, looked me in the eyes, wiped both of our cheeks clean from tears. “We all feel that way,” she said. “We all feel like there was something we could have done or said that might have put her in a different place on that day, but none of us could have. Winnie Mae was always, from the day she was born, Winnie Mae. We could have ordered her to stay away, handcuffed her and thrown her into a jail cell and thrown away the key, and still, she would have been where she was, when she was.”
“But,” I started.
Mrs. Stinson shushed me. She turned more serious, pointed her finger directly at my face. “Do not let me ever, ever again hear you apologizing for or feeling guilty about the fact that my daughter loved you. Never. I shall neither allow it nor tolerate it. If you wish to feel poorly, I understand, but you cannot fault Winnie Mae for what she has done, or how it ended up. Have I made myself clear, Mr. Dunlap?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” I replied.
After this conversation, I was immensely surprised that she did not seem to hold a grudge or anger at me. I did not see a look or hear a word that would indicate she thought that it was anything but settled. We began to have more conversations in which I opened myself up more to her, and in which she opened herself up more to me. Eventually, she came to the subject of keeping a journal.
“Like a diary?” I asked.
“Sometimes yes, sometimes no,” she answered. “I have found that there are things which you can say much more succinctly and clearly to a piece of paper than you can to any person. We all have things which we would like to ‘put into words,’ but can’t. And put into words for whom? For someone else? For ourselves?”
“I don’t like to write.”
“Do you like suffering?”
“I cannot promise you that writing will assuage all of your pain, but I can promise you that it will help. Paper does not judge, does not talk back, does not offer inane advice or suggestions. It sits there, and accepts whatever you wish to put upon it. Paper can be a great friend and at times, a great counselor.”
Over time, and many conversations about the subject, I gathered what I call— to my paper only— “Laura Stinson’s Rules for Writing.”
—It doesn’t have to be in any order.
—It does not have to have great structure or grammar. We don’t think that way, so we do not have to write for our personal consumption that way.
—Assume that nobody will ever read it.
—Be honest and open. Say what you want to say.
—It doesn’t matter if you ever go back to read it. The fact that you put your thoughts together, and wrote them down, is a healing salve.
It took me months, nearly a year I suppose, to actually trust the paper to do what she claimed it could do. I found being honest was the most difficult. I found that I would have thoughts and memories which I did not wish to re-live, let alone write about, so I would either ignore the urge to write, or write some white washed version of it. Eventually, I managed to come closer and closer to my soul, prodding and poking for thoughts and feelings which were locked away in the “safe” place.
I allowed myself to feel guilty, sad, angry, happy, and dozens of other feelings and emotions. I allowed myself to re-visit time and time again those times and places which cause me the extremes of both joy and sadness. I tried to find the good in the bad, and the bad in the good, with both successes and failures. But mostly, I wrote.
One “rule” that Mrs. Stinson had by which I did not abide was that you never throw anything away. “Keep what you write, no matter what,” she repeated several times to me. “You don’t always know what little piece of life you may have put into your words until you see them later, in a different setting and at a different time.”
I must admit that I have thrown away far more than I have kept. I write, read, crumple, toss. Much, if not most, of what I have written is too personal even to risk it falling into someone else’s hands. I fear for the embarrassment I would feel if some of my diatribes and tantrums were exposed to someone else’s eyes.
Nevertheless, I found that I can be much more precise with my words regarding a particular subject or feeling when I write. In my thoughts, things are fleeting, words come and go. At different times, I will describe things differently— not necessarily in fact, but certainly in nuances of words and inflection. Writing slows my thoughts down, allows me the time to ponder my vocabulary for the most perfect word or description. And, yes, at times it is all a healing salve.
For me, the sole abiding purpose of writing is to make sense of what has happened. I do not write for fun or entertainment. I don’t want to be entertained; I want to understand. I want to be able to take full responsibility for the things which are my fault, and be able to live without guilt for the things which were not, and which nothing I could have done or said would have changed.
Some of my greatest confusion comes from things which I both would like to forget and like to remember in such detail that the memories become as real as the day they happened. If I could forget all things regarding Winnie Mae, forget everything, I could wander over this earth with little or no pain and suffering from the past. I would be able to take today for what it is, and look upon yesterday without remorse. At the same time, if I did forget her, I would be robbed of the only person who ever gave my life meaning, who ever caused me to think past my own selfishness, who pointed me toward the experience of love in its purest form. I cannot have one without the other. I either get both the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows, or nothing at all. There is no in between, no picking and choosing.
My memories become, in a shallow way, like a book with a sad ending. The first time you read it, you hold out hope, wish for the best, root for the character upon whom the tragedy is about to fall. When it does happen, you are sometimes surprised, sometimes saddened, but able to finish the book without lasting effects. You put it down and blow out the candle and still sleep well.
Reliving painful memories are like re-reading the same book over and over again, where you know what is coming, hate what is coming, do not want to continue. You wish to put the book down, even burn it in the fires of forgetfulness, but cannot. You experience all of the chapters in a different light. Where the first time, there was joy and hopefulness in the outcome, you now see them in the light of the ending which you already know. You turn page after page, hoping that the story has changed, but it has not. It is the same, and will always be the same.
Mostly, I want a happy story. I want life beyond the pain and sorrow. Most impossibly, I want to know love again, want to feel it both as the loved and the lover. I want to laugh and have joy again, look across the room and see the person who gives me both. I know I shall not, but still wish for it. I am desperate enough for it that I choose to believe that Mrs. Stinson knows of what she speaks, that perhaps it is out there somewhere, that perhaps I can untangle the past enough to be happy with what today brings. I have no real belief in writing, but also know that I have nothing to lose. I shall fill my notebook with memories and musings, perhaps stumbling now and then again upon something worthwhile or comforting.
It is a small hope, but also my only hope.
Christopher and Charlie is the sixth book in The Stinson Family Saga series.
Christopher Dunlap's life changes forever when he is severely wounded in a charge up a nondescript hill in Cuba during the Spanish American War. As he lays on the battlefield, he is found by his life's true love, Winnie Mae Stinson, a Red Cross nurse. As she tries to save him, tragedy strikes as she is hit by a sniper's bullet, and dies on the field in his arms.
Christopher descends into the darkest of places, wandering aimlessly to wherever he can find enough alcohol to dull his aches. In a jail cell, he is convinced by a young lady who brings him food and changes his dressings that he needs to go to Idaho to visit the family and Winnie Mae's grave.
He makes the trip, and is moved by the love and compassion the family shows him. They give him a place to stay temporarily, he begins to work in Mr. Stinson's blacksmith shop, he regularly visits the grave. And then there is Charlene, Winnie Mae's younger sister. She is outspoken, direct, unafraid to speak and act on her thoughts and feelings. Over time, after many interactions which are less than pleasant, they find that they have developed feelings for each other, and those feelings become the love that neither thought they would ever experience.