Almost exactly three years ago, I arrived home at my parent’s house to see three scruffy looking men approaching our garage.
My first thought was, “Oh great… who have we adopted this time?” The men were riding bicycles and it was clear that they’d been on the road for quite some time.
Within a few minutes, however, I’d revised my opinion about this latest crop of house guests. They were activists and they were riding their bikes across the country doing amazing things: helping veterans, playing music, sharing their experiences and educating people about the real Afghanistan, the real situation in Iraq. And they were doing it with such grace and such humor and such wisdom that I was instantly enamored of them. All three of them.
(I wrote several blog posts about them, but I was three years younger and three years stupider at the time so if you read them, forgive me: Three Male Houseguests, The Hillbilly Serenade, and My Deepest Date to Date).
When they learned of my blog and the “manthropological” experiment I was conducting at the time, they offered to take me on a quadruple date. We biked to the coffee shop a few blocks away where they treated me to a slice of vegan peanut butter chocolate cake. One of them whipped out a banjo and pulled up some sheet music on a laptop.
“What the laptop for?” I asked.
“Your serenade,” came his response. His name was Jacob and he was, amongst many other things, a veteran who had served three tours in Afghanistan. “We asked your mom what kind of music you like and she told us either Amy Winehouse or Duke Ellington, but neither of them work all that well for a banjo so we’re going to play you something else instead. It’s called Hillbilly Serenade.”
By the time we returned home, I was ready to renounce all of my worldly possessions and join them on the road.
Shortly thereafter I realized, of course, that my bicycling skills left much to be desired. And that the panniers in which Jacob and his companions carried their things would never be big enough for all of my shoes. And that I was better off staying put and changing the world in my own way. But the time they spent at our house was magical. It changed all of us.
I can still remember coming down the kitchen early in the morning after my first date with the man who would eventually become my boyfriend, my first real lover and, after two good years, my ex.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I told Jacob who was already in kitchen making himself breakfast. We’d only known each other for about 24 hours at that point but for some reason, I felt like I could tell him anything and everything.
“I mean, we had a great time,” I continued, “but he has two kids. I’m not cut out for this sort of thing.”
“Of course you are,” he assured me. “If you like the guy, give it a chance.” He shared the story of one of his past relationships, in which kids were also involved, and assured me that it could work out, that it could be really wonderful, actually.
And he was right.
It was wonderful. Even though our relationship eventually ended, it taught me a lot and helped me to become the person I am today. And it would have never happened if not for Jacob’s encouragement, for his cluing me into the fact that our capacity for love is, actually, much greater than we realize.
I was at The European’s house when I got the text.
It didn’t make sense. There must have been some sort of mistake, some sort of miscommunication, some sort of typo. Jacob had just bought a house. He’d just released an album. I’d proofread the album cover and the note he’d written for the inside. He was helping other veterans get their lives together. Why on earth would he, of all people, take his own life?
I stumbled down the stairs and into The European’s arms; he was trying to hand me a cup of coffee and looking confused. I tried to explain who Jacob was, what he had meant, but nothing I said made any sense or did his memory any justice.
Three hours later I was standing in front of my anthropology students wondering if I’d be able to keep it together long enough to get through two lectures, wondering if I should have held off on the mascara, trying to remember if I’d used the waterproof kind or not.
“We’ve had a death in the family,” I explained in the clinical, unflinching, robotic tones I’d practiced the entire way to campus. I’d wanted to just cancel my classes but I teach at a community college: some of my students are working three jobs to put themselves through school, some of them have already hired babysitters for the evening; they’re juggling so much just to show up so I force myself to do the same.
Besides, not to get all high-and-mighty about the teaching of anthropology, but maybe if we had a little less ethnocentrism in the world and a little more social justice, people like Jacob wouldn’t become cogs in the wheels of such fucked up systems.
On the way home I listen to NPR. It’s about Obama and Syria and the bipartisan “victory” in the senate that will grant the president authority to “to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels waging war against Islamic extremists.”
Moderate rebels? Islamic extremists? What the hell do these terms even mean? When is a rebel a “moderate” rebel? Are they still a “moderate” rebel if their rebellion is successful? If they eventually decide to stop cooperating with the American government? That maybe they don’t want to be “liberated?” That maybe they don’t actually want to form a democracy?
And what exactly is an “extremist?” I’ve spent all evening talking to my students about the fact that homogenous “cultures” do not exist, that you can’t just paint an entire group of people or region of the world with a single brush stroke.
But yes, let’s celebrate the fact that the Republicans and the Democrats can finally agree on something. I mean, why concern ourselves with people when we can concern ourselves with politics instead? Why bother trying to grasp the bigger picture when we can just label the rest of the world as either “moderate” or “extreme” and call it day? You don’t even have to think with terms like these; they tell you what to think; they tell you who is “good” and who is “bad,” they make it easy. Easy to dehumanize.
It breaks my heart when my students tell me they’re going to miss their final exam because they have to start basic training. It happens almost every semester. They start off the year dressed like normal kids but by the last few weeks, they’re wearing uniforms to class and walking differently and I’m putting their final exam at the Test Center so they can take it before they leave.
Others miss class because they’re in the National Guard. They submit letters explaining that they had to attend a drill, a medical examination, a mandatory something-or-other. They write their fieldwork reports on retirement ceremonies for former officers; they think they’re going to see the world; they pick up the shiny brochures in the student lounges that promise an education and a chance to travel and they believe the rhetoric that this is going to be their ticket out.
Sometimes, once in a while, they tell me they’ve enrolled in my class because they’re about to be deployed to somewhere in the Middle East and they want to know how to “interact with people from different cultures, you know, like how to be respectful of their traditions and stuff.”
When they tell me this, my heart breaks all over again. It’s not your average 18 year old who has the forethought to take an anthropology class before heading abroad. These are the sorts of kids who I’d like to see in the senate someday. But I watch them go, and I wonder if they’ll come back, and if they do come back, will they be unbroken?
I don’t like thinking of Jacob as broken. It’s not the right word for him, not for any part of him. And although I knew, of course, that he’d had his demons (who wouldn’t after three tours?), he had this seemingly impenetrable goodness about him—hard-earned goodness, like Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi.
I hadn’t seen him in a while but we kept in touch through Facebook and his pictures always made me smile. He used to bike everywhere, and one time he accidentally struck and killed a squirrel. A normal person would have just left it there on the trail, or maybe given it a makeshift burial, but not Jacob. He was southerner through and through and songs like Hillbilly Serenade weren’t all that off mark. He carefully tucked the squirrel into his jacket and, so as to honor and not waste it, skinned it, cooked the meat and made a pouch of the rest.
I remember shaking my head and thinking, “Only Jacob would do a thing like that.”
And then I laughed again as I remember the sound of his voice. No offense to any southerners who may be reading but you don’t expect to hear the sort of worldview that Jacob had, the sort of love and good sense he preached, coming from someone with a southern drawl.
So many of us are still in shock, wondering if we’d missed the signs, if we could have known, thinking if only we’d kept in better touch, if only we’d gotten around to sending that care package. His Facebook page is inundated with messages of goodbye, of despair, of gratitude; coffee shops are offering free coffee to veterans in his honor; donations are being raised for a memorial and his music is, once again, making the rounds.
I still find myself at a loss for words and I think to myself, “Dammit, Kat, you are a writer! Why can’t you figure this out?” My dance company is performing at a fundraiser for veterans this Friday and I decide that we’re going to dedicate our pieces to Jacob but it doesn’t seem like nearly enough.
And how could it?
How can you do justice a single drop of water that’s still making ripples, so many ripples, even when it’s evaporated, even when it’s rising up?
The title of this post refers to a 2013 investigation conducted by the Department of Veteran Affairs, which found that a military veteran commits suicide approximately every 65 minutes. I apologize in advance for any offense caused by noting this part of Jacob’s life before nothing the other more important parts but ultimately decided it was too important a number to ignore.