I keep two photographs by my bed. They are my deepest wounds.
One is a snapshot of my parents at a party celebrating my younger brother’s West Point graduation ceremony. Sweet, funny, twenty-one-year-old Kyle, his sapphire-blue eyes smiling for the camera, looking so handsome in his gray and white cadet’s uniform.
In the photograph next to Kyle’s stands my colonel father, tall and proud, every inch the Army man, his uniform creases so razor-sharp they could cut tomatoes, every medal buffed and polished. We’re a military family, Appalachian settlers who come from a long line of battle-hardened Scotch-Irish warriors, the kind who seem to be born missing a fear gene.
And standing between my father and my brother is my mother, Martha Beth Kelly. I often remember her with a vodka grin on her face as she danced the evening away, her wild red hair tossed, one hand raised like a crazed rocker, in the other maybe a joint if she’d gotten hold of one, more often a cocktail glass kissing her smudged lipstick.
And always that look on her face, the one that told me there was no stopping her from making a drunken fool of herself, even as my father tried to coax her off the dance floor.
My father, the courageous six-foot-three colonel who battled his way across Iraq to the gates of Saddam Hussein’s palace. Who fought hand-to-hand at Fallujah and lost his left foot in a grenade blast.
Kyle and I adored my father. He was our idol. Someone gave my kid brother a miniature soldier’s uniform when he was six. He paraded up and down our backyard with his shoes polished and a stick in his hands for a rifle.
I asked, “What are you doing, Kyle?”
A smile lit up his face. “Playing cadet. When I grow up, I want to be a soldier just like Daddy.”
Kyle was already into athletics, a stickler for competition sports, but easygoing with it. When my dad saw him marching solemnly in the yard, he said, “Cadet Kyle, what is your motto?”
Kyle stood to attention, held a salute, and recited the cadet’s West Point code. “A cadet does not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”
My father beamed at me and said, “Looks like we got another one for West Point.”
My father, who always makes me feel safe, even though I am an adult. Once in a Florida bar a few years back while I was on vacation with my dad, two big, steroid-muscled guys drinking beer wolf-whistled at me and whispered a dirty remark as I passed them on the way to the restroom. My dad was over there in a second, right in their faces, his muscled arms bulging, his chest proud, spoiling for a fight, ready to beat the life out of anyone who taunted his daughter.
He insisted that the idiots apologize. They did and slinked off like a pair of sorry kids, abandoning their beers. He’s that kind of father. He has his pride, takes no prisoners, and backs off from no one.
A man who was never truly afraid of anything—except the fiery-tempered little woman from Temperance, Georgia, whom he loved and married but was never able to make happy no matter how hard he tried.
And all because they could never share their deepest secret.
* * *
The two photographs I keep are side by side in a silver-toned metal frame. The second image is of my husband, Jack, and me and our two smiling, beloved children, Amy and Sean, then four and eight.
The photograph showed Jack not in Army uniform, as so often in the images I keep of him, but wearing a Jimmy Buffett tropical shirt while on vacation at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina one blistering summer. It was a vacation meant to salve my husband’s mental wounds from a punishing deployment in Iraq—and it was three months before he and our children vanished, never to be seen again.
Three months before those “terrible events” befell us all, as my father refers to our tragedies, his anguished face like granite whenever he talks about our heartbreak, which is seldom. For a hardened veteran who witnessed many die in battle and who rarely flinched recalling the experience, any mention of our family’s loss brings him to the edge of tears.
And so I keep these photographs by my bed and not in the rooms downstairs, well out of his sight. The photographs do not make me cry, or at least not the way they once did.
And although they will always be a reminder of my sorrow, my wounds are no longer searing but a healing scar. Grief is still my shadow, but now my world has changed.
I have a new life.
In time, I found a new husband and child to ease the pain of those I lost.
* * *
There are other photographs I hold sacred, of my kid brother and me growing up, enjoying holidays and vacations together.
Kyle and I shared the same manic Kelly sense of humor, the same sometimes short-fused temper, the same taste in food and movies. We were born within eleven months of each other, so my father used to call us his Irish twins.
Kyle was the perfect baby—blond, porcelain-skinned, good-humored. When I was four, for a time we shared a room together. On stormy winter nights when he was scared to sleep alone or afraid of the dark, Kyle would climb into bed beside me to seek refuge.
“Ats, Amy. Ats.” As an infant, Kyle couldn’t pronounce “Thanks”; it always came out as “Ats.”
I loved the soft feel of his puppy-fat cheeks, the angel kiss of his infant lips, and the scared-tight arms around my neck after he’d crawled in to snuggle next to me. For me, there is nothing quite so heart-stirringly touching as the hug of a child clinging to you out of fear, as if it connects us to a thread gloriously human and yet divine woven into our souls.
For a long time, Kyle was the quiet one in our family. He’d tag along behind me, holding on to my sweater, head down and shy, hardly saying a word. One Christmas at a family party when he was eight, he shocked us with an amazing crimson-faced rendition of my father’s favorite song, “Danny Boy.” Kyle’s sweet singing voice as angelic as that of a soloist in the Vienna Boys Choir.
It wasn’t like Kyle to thrust himself into the spotlight, but someone discovered the reason: he was sneaking sips from my mother’s Irish whiskey and soda. For every childhood Christmas party afterward, carefully monitored to make sure he hadn’t touched the seasonal booze, he’d bestow his version of “Danny Boy” and bring everyone close to tears.
As he grew older, it became Kyle’s shower song. Whenever he stepped under the steaming jets and the sounds of “Danny Boy” rang through our house, we would all stop and listen, for deep in his honeyed voice was a touching echo, a sound that my father teasingly used to say, like the bagpipes, “never failed to light a blazing bonfire under our Celtic chromosomes.”
* * *
Other images I keep are in photograph albums of the day I got married at age twenty-one at Cedar Springs Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Snapshots of my children as infants and during their growing spurts, at treasured milestones in their short lives—vacations, weekends at the lake or the beach, the day a tooth was lost or when they’d dressed for Halloween or celebrated a birthday.
First came Sean, barely ten months after Jack and I married. Shy little Sean, always eager to please even as an infant, who loved to be read stories and have his back rubbed.
Three years later, I was pregnant again with Amy. She raged into our lives like a whirlwind, a spark plug of a girl, the exact opposite of her shy brother. A giggling rebel imp who never stopped talking, brimful of life, endlessly on the move.
“Ain’t that girl got no off switch?” Jack used to joke.
She seemed to have a powerful furnace burning inside her, until she collapsed into bed at night. Even then, she could never sleep in
the dark. I guess my daughter always gave me trouble at bedtime. She insisted on a light blazing or would instantly wake, become anxious, and call down from her room if the landing light was ever turned off. As if, like a flower, she thrived on light and sunshine.
So each evening, to ease her fear, I left a lamp lit on the landing.
Amy would see its golden light beyond her door whenever she awoke. And then she would fall back to sleep.
* * *
With children in my life, my existence felt complete.
These were days I wanted to inhale like fragrant air, each memory precious. And so I kept a diary. I hoped one day to be a writer, and I read somewhere that keeping a journal was important for an author, like a singer practicing scales. So I wrote about every tiny or meaningful experience I shared with our children, until another wicked tempest raged into my life and claimed my family from me, and they disappeared. From that day on, I never thought I would write another word.
Yet these images in the silver frame—my deepest wounds—are also my salvation. For when I feel the cool smoothness of the glass that covers their beaming faces and glide my fingertips over their outlines, it reminds me of the radiant spirits that once illuminated my world.
The lips I can no longer kiss, voices I can no longer hear, faces I can no longer touch.
And they remind me of the cruelest lessons life has taught me.
* * *
Write this down if you want, and never let anyone tell you otherwise: Love has a price.
There never can be—never will be and never has been—a single love that comes without agony. When loved ones die or leave us of their own choosing—when we stay but love no longer or when we shatter a human heart by our treachery or by our leaving—we pay the cost sooner or later.
As every sin has its own avenging angel, every giving and letting go has its day of reckoning.
Another thing I’ve learned: Sometimes those we worship harbor unimaginable secrets.
All families have secrets. Some are innocent. Some seep like poison through the veins of successive generations. Dark secrets that can maim and destroy as cruelly as any weapon. For just as the sweetest sounds can induce the greatest sorrows, so, too, can the purest love contain the seeds of the most malignant hurts.
Like the Celtic legend of the bird that sings just once in its life but more sweetly than any other creature on this earth. From the moment it can fly, it searches for a rosebush, and when it finds one, it impales its breast on the sharpest barb. In its dying agony, it sings a supreme hymn, a song so exquisite that every living thing in its orbit stops to listen and marvel at the beauty.
And so do we, each of us in our own way, seek out our own thorns to impale our hearts on. Not for the pained joy of some glorious hymn but because we cannot help ourselves. It’s as if our fortunes are written in our stars.
And so they are.
Have you ever stopped and realized that if you had not met a certain person, your whole life would be different? For this, too, I’ve learned, that whatever love we encounter in our lives isn’t just a chance meeting in a chaotic world.
It’s a fate.
A thread in the tapestry of our existence that is more mysterious than any of us can understand, one that echoes across the ages. To rephrase another writer’s words, you will find in each of us all the sums we have not counted. For every moment in our lives is a window on all time, as if the kiss that began four thousand years ago in Crete ended yesterday in Texas.
I believe that.
And that each heart and mind seeking and finding another is never the consequence of some accidental journey but a destiny, waiting to teach us a life lesson or ambush us with some terrible truth that the universe insists we must learn.
I know that because I have learned from my own bitter truths.
And my first lesson began on the morning I got married, when my mother arrived drunk at Cedar Springs Church with a loaded gun in her purse and murder in her heart.