Ralph isn’t his real name.
I was recently watching the “Honeymooners” seeing some similarities between Ralph Kramden and my friend.
“My” Ralph had the same kind of gruff exterior that was so transparent to “Honeymooner’s” fans.
Ralph had a great job at Amazon in the IT Department. He had been around long enough to make wise decisions with stock purchases gaining him total financial freedom should he step away from his job.
For whatever reasons he stayed at Amazon using his accumulated sick days rather than walking out the door. I can understand that he might want to feel connected to something rather than being totally on his own. He was really sick resisting a lot of the drugs that were being tried out on him. He wasn’t handling it well.
Now, doesn’t that sound stupid! Handling it well!
Who are we to determine how someone handles anything that crashes down on him or her, as they make their way through life.
All that pap about a stiff upper lip and grin and bear it doesn’t work for everyone. Some can walk softly and some cannot.
Ralph was raging against it. He didn’t want to be at the mercy of others or depend on anyone to maintain his basic needs. He hinted often that he had limits to what he was willing to put up with-
There were not many times that Ralph joined me and others to talk to groups about challenges in our neighborhoods.
I did not always set up visits to schools, businesses strictly around HIV. Sometimes the audience was looking forward to hearing stories from people who had faced and “conquered” challenges in life. Occasionally the theme was about employment; travel in the third world, poverty issues or just getting through the day. I put on trainings around grog, drugs, and opportunities after a stretch in the pen.
Ralph might show up if the theme of the visit was about decision-making and strategies. Most college kids didn’t get any training on putting together a strategy to get what they wanted. Many had no idea what they wanted.
If Ralph attended he would occasionally talk one on one with college-aged kids about his days in Iraq and how that experience gave him the internal permission to “go for it” when he left the battlefield. Sometimes he spoke about how his injuries contributed to his illness. Sometimes he claimed that tainted blood infected him and other times he spoke to kids without mentioning his illness at all.
I had no idea to the truth of any of it.
I was never sure what he was going to share so I set up my introduction using generalities. It was never a very smooth introduction when he was present, but no one seemed to mind.
Most people knew/know about me putting together this little book. I usually mentioned it to groups somewhere in my introduction of what was to follow. I had completed a book compiling the tales of a homeless man that had some traction in and out of schools. Quite a few church and arts groups had invited in an actor to read what they referred to as a “dramatic monologue.” That book, View from the Tent gave me the impetus to share stories of those fighting for their lives.
I asked some of the people I dealt with if they wanted to contribute anything beyond what conversations and observations I might make in the book.
Ralph wrote me the following letter with the “The Sound of Her Wings” stapled to his letter.
I just wanted to take a couple of minutes to thank you for hanging out just when I needed it. I know you have had a hard time trying to forecast what I was ever going to say, so, know I didn’t try to make it any harder on you than necessary. I think what you’re doing is a good thing.
I’ve headed back home. A little town in northern Michigan that I have not visited since my parents died there years ago.
There’s a little lake tucked way back in the woods that I have rented for a month.
I scribbled out the following on the plane. Have fun with it-
I left Seattle because I need to make some decisions about what I am going to do about all of this.
The Sound of Her Wings
After a couple of years of pumping yourself up every morning, as you guzzle experimental drugs, you begin to pay attention to the creeping cacophony of voices riding the roller coaster in your head.
That buzzing seems to be telling you that your efforts are probably for naught.
The call for the last dance is closer than you thought.
Can you hear the music?
You ignore the voice telling yourself that you need to “think positively” and “create” your own reality.
Do you believe that?
Can you actually make a concrete difference in the fabric of reality because you are hoping, wishing, imagining, and projecting some image of success back onto yourself through the mirror of your mind?
Does the universe care about you?
Is something out there listening to your pleas?
Isn’t the universe a torrent of violent upheaval changing its nature constantly?
Does anything out there care what happens to our planet, our solar system or you?
A dot buried on a planet with six billion dots looking for recognition and acceptance from something more distant than the adjacent dots…
You can hear the clock ticking, ticking, ticking – calling you to one last rally.
Is anyone listening? Not likely.
Morning ritual. Follow the dog.
Go to Starbucks.
Have a coffee and leaf through the morning newspaper. A paper that no longer holds interest beyond what might be happening out there that could help you find health. News, offering a blink of hope to hold off the HIV epidemic. Perhaps a cure?
You’ve lost your fire about politics recognizing you’ve been disappointed one too many times and don’t want to go down that road again.
You’ve become either cynical or exhausted.
You are recognizing that the same old crew of experts has elbowed their way onto committees, studies, and panels to decide what is best for the rest of us. Their best may not be good enough but you’re tired of trying to ramp up your arguments to a level beyond a Gandhi quote that is either totally relevant or totally irrelevant.
The person you are talking to isn’t really listening.
You watch the unfolding mini dramas.
Illegal parking followed by sprints into the coffee shop!
Some are texting or conversing on their iphones in their race to claim the coffee prize.
You watch the anxious feeling of disappointment on some when they realize they will have to wait their turn to order and disappear back into the morning night.
Going somewhere quickly.
Somewhere where some one pays them for whatever it is they do out there in the dark.
Morning has not broken.
There is hardly a glance at you, or others, who regularly occupy time and space in little corner tables.
Reading the paper.
People are banging away on laptops, ipads or iphones in terror of interacting with anyone else sitting close.
A good morning!
What if they ask you about what you do when you’re not skimming the surface at the coffee shop!? Tell them you’re fighting for your life? No. Keep your head down.
Watch from an angle.
Women enter and exit without a glance in your direction.
You are not there anymore than the little man that dropped off the newspapers earlier in the dark.
You watch some of the ladies take two coffees out to someone waiting expectantly.
You are envious.
You are lonely.
You are on your own.
You are scared that this is it.
You fight back with a jolly euphuism about yourself to yourself.
You maneuver to convince yourself that you are really one of the good ones and they are all missing out by not swooping you up in a collective hug.
Maybe you’re wrong.
You are now back in that place where you started hearing your voice of reality telling you the party is just about over for you.
You push that aside grasping to the life raft of chance and hope.
If you just keep moving something will happen.
Keep trying. Keep praying!
To whom – for what?
For a day without pain, money, power, prestige, women, stuff?
What would you do with it besides giving it all away?
You dance with memories of times when you were significant, cherished, listened to, admired, envied and loved for a time.
Before you were sick.
Were you needed?
Actually needed? For a spell. Perhaps.
No one seems to need you now-
You don’t even know what to bring to the party anymore.
Let tenderness run rampant with your memories.
They are yours.
Be free-remember all those hugs that have gone the way of smoke.
The promises that echo off the canyons in the shady places!
Throw light on all the good times.
Skip over all the blunders and faulty steps that inhibited your journey. Feed yourself with a soft light knowing that it was all as it should have been.
You were a passenger on the wave that carried you to where you are today.
Lean into the curl and ride it one more time.
Shout out in joy as you head towards the beach.
The crash will be silent.
She will come for you when you are ready.
Look for her.
She is more beautiful than you ever could have imagined.
Everything else is illusion.
That’s it. I never heard from him again.