It has now been ten months since I last posted, ten months of challenge and of growth, times for renewal, then and now.
For a while I have been planning my return to regular blogging, and soon (truly) I will be doing so. Yet, sadly, today I return with an entry I wish did not press itself into my heart, demanding I open up the laptop one more time to remember, to grieve, to honor.
On Friday, 30 October, 2015, mere days ago, my Facebook friends received the following post:
Yesterday, I lost a soldier and a friend, SFC Jonathan Downing (Ret). His son, Dylan, requested that those who knew him place this photo in profile. I am honored to do so.
JD so often got a twinkle in his eye when he would show off to me his command of Afghani Persian. And how many times did I hear him say to me, “Good to hear your voice, Doc.”
So, my friend, my voice speaks to you one last time.
Today, with a more clouded eye, yet with an eye that will soon twinkle again at your memory, I bid you farewell in another warrior language, one that the Romans carried with them from the edges of North Africa to the edges of Scotland, the language of your SF motto, yet…
…also the language once of a Church that, for over a thousand years, kept within it the hope of a faith that might otherwise have passed away, a language of less-than-perfect, yet faithful men who—perhaps much like young soldiers today, equally less-than-perfect, yet equally faithful—sought to preserve what they knew, for all our sakes, had to be preserved.
Cruciatus consumptus est,
Mi amice iuvenis.
Miles, frater armis, filius, maritus, pater,
Fidelis in vita et in morte:
Requiesce in pace,
O Vir Bone!
The torment is over,
My young friend.
Soldier, brother-in-arms, son, husband, father,
Faithful in life and in death,
Rest in peace,
O Good Man.
JD and I never spoke much together about this blog, given that my time these past many months had been consumed in other matters. Yet he always did say that I had a way with words—as did he.
So if my voice has spoken its last, let this blog entry be our final words together, his to me and mine to him.
You wouldn’t recognize me if I didn’t go “professor” on you one more time, my friend. Yet today, 2 November, is the day that the Church has, through the centuries, remembered those who have gone before us, All Souls Day. I had had no plans of honoring this day with words to you, that is true. But that day came, and this day is here.
I also hope you didn’t mind my getting all Latin-y on you, within a Facebook post at that. “Kinda overkill, Doc,” that’s what you would have told me. I know.
For you never were one to mince words with me, were you. While you ever valued the service that you gave, you were never one to stomach much of the over-valued ‘thank you’s” some of us stateside were too willing to give you. As a Special Forces soldier, you knew War up close and personal. I saw it in your eyes, eyes that would twinkle, yes, yet often, at least when we were together, could not afford to do so. There were too many stories for those eyes to tell, given how words, as they so often did, failed in all ways to do so.
I do hope that I heard those stories as well as I could. I promise you: I will do my best never to romanticize them. You took them too seriously for that.
And yes, my friend, I know that there was one conclusion upon which you and I could never fully agree. O Vir Bone! I just wrote. How much more you would have wisecracked about the English word “bone” than you would have accepted the Latin word for “good” spoken to a man who, I always asserted to you, deserved its attribution as much as any man I have known.
Spoken to you.
Yes, those eyes tried to convince me otherwise so many times, convince me that a man who had to act in War in ways that you had to act to protect innocent civilians and well-loved brothers-in-arms should never, would never be worthy of the word “redemption.”
Your eyes always shouted, even when they whispered, whether in joy or in pain.
But, my young friend, ” mi amice iuvenis,” I am glad to report that if my own whispering shouts, my words that tried to speak the truth to those eyes, if they did not get the last laugh, they at least got the last smile today, this day of remembrance.
You see, JD, many cultures tell stories of redemption, in whatever language. But on this day celebrated by a Church, in its various forms, whose faith you and I shared, I remind you of a story passed on to us in the Gospel According to St. Luke, 23:42, the story of a man who quite clearly, by anyone’s measure, was not ‘”worthy” of redemption by anyone, let alone by Him who, whether facetiously or not, was labeled “King of the Jews” in three languages, right above His head.
Scholars will debate the truth of the story ad aeternum—or better, as you would have said, until the cows come home. No matter. The “Thief on the Cross,” the only name we have allowed him, took a chance at that moment that has stood for the chance that all of us have taken ever since. In making his request that Jesus “remember” him, he spoke of a hope that all of us, no matter what Wars or wars we have fought, hold deeply inside us.
JD, some will say that in my writing to you today I am merely writing to myself, one more wishful exercise that is the product of grief. Perhaps they are correct.
But perhaps they’re not.
And precisely because the older I get and the more I suspect they’re not, I smile.
For now you know.
I suspect that a good old Southern guy such as yourself might not have heard much about the Taizé Community in France, where an international community comes together to sing quiet songs of sadness and of hope. I can’t hold that against you, guy. I’m the professor, after all, not you.
So as my parting words I leave a song, one that has always touched me, one that I hope will touch all those who loved you. And I smile. For if you would have heard it in life, I suspect you would have doubted that the plea to “remember you” would ever have been heard by Him Whom the Church remembers most this day.
But now, of course, you know.
Goodbye, my young friend. Rest in peace.