Notes: Two years ago, I posted a story on SA on my birthday as a 'thank you' gift for my wonderful list-sibs. Somehow, it's become a yearly tradition. Here's this year's offering. Thank you all for your friendship.
March came in like a lion, but so far, it's showed no inclination of going like a lamb. Relentless winter winds have buffeted Cascade for days, and with the winds came the rains. My calendar shows that spring is right around the corner, but so far, March has given no indication that it cared.
I stand in the light drizzle, hands shoved deep into my pockets, and my jacket collar turned up against the wind. It doesn't offer much protection, but on a day like this, the slightest shelter is more than welcome. This is so not my kind of day, but I didn't questioned coming here, because I know how important this particular anniversary is to Jim. The man isn't much on celebrating the holidays society has deemed important, but he has these personal benchmarks. Occasions you'd never expect a macho guy like Jim to remember actually mean a lot to him. That's my friend and sentinel - tough as nails on the outside with a soft, marshmallow center.
He has never asked me to come along, not in all the previous years we've been together on this date, and he didn't ask this year. Even though I've never received a direct invitation to accompany him here, and he's never said 'thank you', I know my presence helps him. He doesn't tell me so with his words, but then, I've never really needed to hear Jim's words to know his feelings. I learned the language of Detective James Ellison within the first year we became a team. I learned it out of necessity. What Jim doesn't say with words, he communicates through his eyes and through his touch.
That's how I knew the very first year that he appreciated my coming along. On that first visit, I didn't need sentinel vision to see the tears glistening in his blue eyes as Jim turned and walked slowly toward me. He didn't speak a single word. Just wrapped one strong arm around my shoulders and pulled me tight against his side as we walked away. After that, he never had to ask me to come here. I already knew I was needed.
This is Cascade's Veterans' Cemetery. It is a simple place, really, with row upon row upon row of plain white crosses interspersed with Stars of David. So many rows. So many broken hearts. Huge evergreen trees encircle the graveyard, their unchanging presence lending a comforting sense of constancy.
Scattered around the cemetery are the special memorials. There are two for the vets of both world wars. Korea and Vietnam are remembered, each with their own marble and granite statues, along with a more recent memorial for Desert Storm. While Jim respects the soldiers who fought in those wars, theirs are not the memorials that draw us here.
It isn't any memorial to war we've come to visit - it's what I've come to call 'Jim's memorial'. The memorial isn't really for him, of course. God forbid. That's only the name I've bestowed upon it in my heart because it's the place Jim returns to every year on this date to pay tribute. It's the memorial to all who have died serving their nation in so-called times of peace.
A semi-circle of American flags outline the simple memorial. Today, they flutter forlornly in the strong breeze, their dampened red, white, and blue dulled only slightly by the mist. The black marble memorial sits in the center of a circle of dark, gray granite. It's a striking combination.
Just like the men it honors.
There is no memorial designed specifically for the men in Jim's unit who died on March 14 all those years ago. I think Jim's always regretted that. His men came from all over the country, so establishing a monument in their memory in one particular place would have been next to impossible. Their deaths did not occur in any sanctioned war. Not to mention the fact that theirs was a mission the Army would just as soon forget.
There remains one soldier who will never forget. Jim returns here each year on this day to pay a private tribute to the men lost on that mission. He was their commander. Their leader. While he has never said so in words, I know he still considers them his responsibility. It's his personal duty to come here. To remember. To honor lives lost much too young.
Jim never neglects his duty.
He stands before the monument of gray under a sky cast of pewter. Jim's hands are gloveless, and his shoulders are ramrod straight. His head is bare and covered with drops of mist that glisten diamond-like on his short-cropped hair. He's stood there for nearly an hour, all alone. A silent, solitary sentinel standing guard over those courageous members of his tribe he was unable to protect. No one else is visiting the Veterans' Cemetery today. Too cold and windy for most people. Not for Jim. Not on this day. Even a hurricane would have failed to keep him away.
As for me, I consider it an honor to be here, to bear silent witness to the courage of this man I call my best friend. I'm touched beyond words that Jim wants me with him on this particularly meaningful day. I consider it just as much my duty to be here for him as he considers it his to be here for those lost men. The same hurricane wouldn't be able to drive me away either.
So, here we stand on this rainy, cold March day, paying tribute, one to the brave men who died ten years ago, the other to the courageous man standing silently in the rain.
I'm not sure how much time has passed when Jim turns around and walks slowly toward me. His head is down, and the droplets of rain trickle from his face like tears. When he stops beside me, the pain radiating from him is so strong, it nearly sears my soul.
I ask him softly, "You okay?"
He takes so long to answer that if he hadn't been a sentinel, I would have wondered if he'd heard me.
"Yeah," he responds at last. "I guess."
He guesses? Now I am worried.
There's a small white gazebo in the center of the cemetery, surrounded by the final resting places of thousands of men. The least I can do is get him out of this weather. "C'mon, Jim." I start walking toward the shelter.
He doesn't argue, just follows across the wet grass, a few steps behind me.
We settle on one of the benches lining each side of the octagonal gazebo. Painted white, it echoes the grave markers all around us. Sitting so close that our shoulders touch, I feel Jim's arm press hard against mine. This time, I know he is seeking reassurance rather than giving it, and my heart constricts tightly. I've always enjoyed helping people, but nothing in my lifetime of experiences has ever given me as much pure, simple joy as knowing I'm able to help this man.
For long minutes, we don't speak at all. The rain picks up, pattering down on the tin roof over our heads. It's a comforting sound, so fitting for this day - the staccato beat of nature's tears. The walls of the gazebo are made of trellis, and they lend a welcome sense of privacy. From whom, I'm not sure. The cemetery remains deserted.
"Talk to me, Jim." My sentinel's a man of few words at the best of times, and when his emotions are involved...well, those few words can shrink to nothing.
Jim looks at me with unbearably sad eyes. "Ten years, Chief. They were such good men, you know. I can't help wondering. Where they would have ended up? What would they have accomplished? How many children weren't born because their fathers died in that chopper in Peru?"
For once, an easy answer doesn't immediately spring to my lips. What do you say to those unanswerable questions? How do you respond to such deep, abiding grief? As I sort through my own emotions, searching for the right words of comfort, Jim takes a long, shuddering breath.
"I realized something here today, Chief. I died that day, too."
My heart leaps into my throat. What does he mean by that? Before I can ask, he tells me.
Jim leans forward, elbows on his knees, his head resting on his joined hands. "Ten years ago, I lived in an ordered, structured world. Everything was black and white. Right or wrong. I knew who I was...what I was. A soldier. Their captain. My life was disciplined. Controlled." Once more, Jim inhales deeply, and his shoulder shake slightly as he exhales. "That Jim Ellison died on March 14th, ten years ago. I guess I'd never thought of it that way until today."
My heart aches for my friend. Sometimes I conveniently forget the man Jim used to be, the man I knew he had been before we met. There's some part of me that doesn't want to acknowledge my friend as the soldier, the disciplined fighting machine... the trained killer... that he must have been. That image is so utterly foreign to my experience of Jim. Oh, I've seen glimpses of that side of this very complicated man. I simply chose to believe that the Jim of today has always been just as he is, when, in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
This time, I know he is waiting for my response. Slowly, I begin to speak, gathering my thoughts as I go. "I'm sure a part of you did die in the crash, Jim, but not all of you. Besides, just look what was born that day." I'm careful to keep my voice low and gentle, hoping to soothe him by its tone. "And think what wouldn't have been if..." Now it's my voice's turn to quiver as the impact hits me. "My God, Jim, if even one of your men had lived..." I stare at him in shocked realization, and the truth is nearly too painful to voice. "You wouldn't have been alone, and..."
The words I cannot speak are drumming relentlessly in my head and heart, sending their painful echoes throughout my soul. Your senses wouldn't have come back to you. I never would have found you. You wouldn't have needed me in your life.
Jim sits up as his arm snakes around my shoulders. "It's okay, Chief. I know. I've been thinking the same thing today myself." He shakes his head. "I know what was born that day, but I also know the heavy price paid for that birth."
My mind's still reeling from the thought that if those men hadn't died in that crash, leaving Jim alone in the jungle, his senses might never have been activated. No sentinel would have been born. No sentinel...no guide.
No friendship. No partner.
My life as I'd come to know it would never have existed.
I've always known that, of course. I'd just never understood it on the gut-wrenching level where it has hit me now.
Then, I see the terrible guilt on Jim's face. Some instinctual, internal voice murmurs the source of the pain in Jim's haunted blue eyes, and, in return, I whisper the truth to him. "A part of you is thankful it happened."
Jim's head jerks around, and those expressive blue eyes are burning hot with anger. Yet, as he looks at me, the anger evaporates as quickly as it flared. One hand comes up to my cheek, as the back of Jim's fingers trail down my face in a slow, lingering caress. "I wouldn't have met you," he says simply. "How could I not be thankful for that? But at what cost...?"
I know that I should have the right words for my friend, that I should have within me the power to comfort him, the wisdom and insight to make this right. But I don't. I know I'm not the wise shaman that Incacha was. I don't have all the answers; I never have. So I handle this the same way I've handled so many problems that have come along ever since Jim and I started walking this path. I follow my instincts.
"I was wrong a minute ago, Jim. I'm sorry."
Curious blue eyes meet mine. His arm still encircles my shoulders, and I feel it tighten a little. "About what, Chief?"
"I was thinking that if your helicopter hadn't gone down, if all your men hadn't died, the sentinel would never have been born. That's wrong." I shift a little so I can see him full-faced. It's important that he hear me, that his heart believes as mine suddenly does.
"Jim, I think that your senses would have been activated eventually anyway. You had them when you were younger, right? They were just dormant, that's all. Any lengthy period of isolation would have triggered their return. As a soldier in Covert Ops, odds were something would have brought them back."
There remains a chord of disbelief and quiet despair in his reply. "But you might not have been there, Chief. It might have taken so long that you would have left Cascade for another university somewhere. Hell, I might never have returned to Cascade at all."
I can hear how much Jim wants to believe; I can see the restrained hope in his eyes.
Suddenly, it is all so clear. Reaching out, I echo his gesture of a moment ago, running my hand along his chiseled jaw. "Ah, Jim..." I'm certain of my words now, no longer struggling for my response. "We would have found each other, man. Don't you know that? Don't you feel it?"
I cup his face in both my hands, grinning now, my cheeks actually aching from the broadness of my smile. "Think what we've been through, man! Think of how far we've come. Do you honestly think that anything would have kept us apart?" I know I probably look a bit foolish, grinning like a Cheshire cat, but I can't help it. "I said once that it was all about friendship, right? That's only part of it, Jim! It's also about faith. In each other, yeah, but also in whatever it was that brought us together in the first place."
I can see the battle going on within my friend. Jim's listening to me now, really hearing my words and struggling to set aside his doubts and believe. C'mon, Jim! Let go and trust your heart, buddy.
I lower my hands from his face and grasp both his hands tightly in mine. Our fingers lace together, and Jim returns my pressure. "This, Jim, iswhat it's all about. We were meant to come together, to become exactly what it is that we have become. It all would have happened, Jim, even without the crash. Somehow...someway...we would have found each other."
Eyes locked, we sit in silence as the rain patters its rhythm on the roof. A slow smile begins at the corners of his lips, broadens, and spreads over Jim's face. "How'd you get to be so smart, Darwin?"
"I'm just making this stuff up as I go along," I tease lightly. "You know that."
Releasing our hands, he cuffs me lightly on the jaw. "Right, Chief. Tell me another one." A sudden cloud obscures his face, and his voice grows heavy with regret. "I just wish it hadn't gone down the way it did, Chief. All that fire...all that death." Jim shakes his head slowly as the memories burn in his eyes.
Quietly, I try to speak the truth as honestly as I know how. Jim deserves no less. "Of course, you didn't want those men to die. But it happened, and there's nothing you can do to change that fact. But don't you think it's cool that you can honor them this way? As the sentinel?"
I can see my face reflected in the liquid blue pools of Jim's hopeful eyes. He's listening so intently. Jim wants so badly to believe, to accept my words and allow them to heal the guilt that's plagued his soul for ten long years. A tiny shiver passes through me at the thought of how deeply Jim trusts me, of how he looks to me for the answers he needs so desperately. "Beautiful things can emerge from the ashes. You're the phoenix, man. You rose from the fires of that crash stronger and more beautiful than before. Your men didn't die for nothing. You - as the sentinel - have given their deaths meaning." I gaze deeply into his eyes, willing him to believe this truth as strongly as I do.
For a long time, neither of us move. Then, Jim cocks his head as he looks at me thoughtfully. "A phoenix from the ashes. The old Jim Ellison may have died in that crash, but the sentinel was born, huh, Chief? Guess that makes today sort of my second birthday."
Jim rises to his feet and reaches down to take my hands. He gently pulls me up to face him. Looking into his eyes, so clear now, and so very expressive, I can see all the way down into his very soul, and I find it at peace. "Happy birthday, Jim. Happy birthday, my brother."
Jim's arm wraps around me again, tucking me tightly beneath his shoulder once more. We step from the protection of the gazebo into the misty rain. Jim leads me slowly along the stone path out of the cemetery, but at the entry gates, he stops. Looking back over his shoulder, he stares silently back at the memorial behind us.
At that instant, the rain stops. The clouds part, and the sun slips through, shining brightly down on the wet monument, turning the clinging raindrops into tiny rainbows of colorful light. To Jim's eyes, they must have sparkled like the finest of faceted diamonds.
He watches them for a long moment, then turns away to look down at me with a smile and an affirming nod. "Faith, huh, Chief? I think I can do that. Let's go home."
I never had the honor of meeting the men of Jim's unit, dead now these ten years, but I knew them well. They were men cut from the same cloth as the one who now helds me so close to his side. They were men like Jim, who thought nothing of sacrificing all for the values they believed in. Things like freedom and duty and honor.
The words I have given my sentinel were the truth. I can think of nothing that would honor them more than the strong, courageous phoenix that rose from those ashes that terrible, long ago day in Peru.
A man like them, who would serve and protect those within his care. A man of honor and of sacrifice. A man I am so proud to walk alongside in this place of valor. A man I'm so very honored to call my friend.
I glance upward at Jim's profile. He catches my eye and for a moment, he looks puzzled.
"Chief? You okay?" He stops, waiting for my response, and I can see the concern building in his face.
I know my eyes are too bright, my smile too tremulous, for me to obfuscate and say it's nothing. "Yeah, man. I'm fine. Just..." Why is it so much easier for me to say the right words when Jim's emotions are on the line than when it's my own? I blurt out, "I...I'm just proud to be your friend, that's all. Thank you."
I wait for the argument, for the self-deprecatory remark. None comes. Jim's gaze remains locked with mine for a long moment. "Ditto, Chief."********************
The clouds have parted, revealing a beautiful spring day. On the drive back, I look into the clear blue sky and see an eagle soaring high above the mountains. Maybe it's one of those rare shamanistic experiences, but in my mind, it is no longer an eagle I see. Its figure shifts and changes until the soaring bird I watch is a glorious, golden phoenix, its wings spread wide in flight.
A phoenix rising.
The Enchanted Land of the Phoenix is located at: Phoenix
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