I want you to get something out of this.
I want you to know, especially if you hate what you’re hearing, that I am reading this more for me than I am for you.
I want you to know I am enjoying this.
I want you to know I don’t usually enjoy reading, but I want you to know how good it feels to read you these words as articulately and accurately as I am right now.
I want to say thank you to you for inviting me here today.
I want you to understand that I have never read this before, and that I want you to love me, and I want you to hate me, and I want you to tell your friends to read this. I want you to become my fan. I want you to become my fan in spite of all this solipsism.
I want to edit out the self-reflexive portions of this.
I want to tell you about the big empty lot across the street from the house I grew up in, where now there are two houses, both bigger than the one my family lived in, and with newer paint jobs and professional lawns. I want to tell you how the neighbor boy and I used to pick blackberries from the bushes that grew there before the new houses cleared them out. I want to tell you how our mothers baked pies and cooked jam and how we’d sell the jam and pies on the side of the busier streets like we were a lemonade stand.
I want to tell you how we used to play war in that lot, in The Woods, how we’d make bows and arrows from whittled sticks and tree limbs and shoot at each other or at pop cans we’d line up on flat rocks.
I want to tell you about the pocketknives we both got for our thirteenth birthdays one year, his red and mine blue, and how he got his first because his birthday was three weeks before mine. I want to tell you how even though I knew I was getting a knife too, for those three weeks I was jealous and hated him as only a twelve-year-old boy can hate another. I want to tell you how for those three weeks the weapons he whittled were so much better than mine because he had a sharpened red pocketknife to whittle with, and I had only an old steak knife. I want to tell you how, because he didn’t share the red knife, our games of war then became more real, more fierce, and for those few weeks we stopped playing games and had real fights. I want to tell you how I took that red knife finally, when his mother called for him to help bring in the groceries, and for those few minutes I had the power to make better weapons too, and I did, a sharp and heavy arrow like a spear, and when he came back outside he was crying because he’d realized I’d taken his knife, and even though I put the red knife back on the rock where he’d left it, it was only after I aimed my brand new arrow right at his chest and said, Go ahead, it’s right there, I left it for you. I want to tell you how he took it and ran, still crying, and how, even though I didn’t fire, I just stood there in the woods alone, and started crying too, because I knew a couple days later I would unwrap my own blue knife and be sad, because then we would both have these more powerful knives, and we would both know, looking at each other across all that wrapping paper and birthday cake, that we couldn’t play war anymore.
I want to tell you about my grandfather, a real soldier in a real war.
I want to tell you about the medals he won but never talked about. I want to tell you about the house on the lake he built, the home where his medals hung, the room and the wall on which they glittered behind glass in a frame.
I want to know how my grandfather won the medals. I want him to tell me the stories. I want to know how many people he killed. I want to know how many friends he saved. I want to know how many bullets he fired. I want to know how many times he missed, how many times he didn’t.
I want to know if it’s true that the Germans used to string piano wire between trees across Italian roadways, so that Americans driving in jeeps without windshields would lose their heads.
I want to know if it’s true that soldiers would sometimes play hot potato with hand grenades as a way to kill the time.
I want to know if it’s true that the first day my grandfather’s company landed in Italy, it was Christmas Eve and snowing. I want to know if it was beautiful.
I want to know if he ever held a dying friend’s head in his lap. I want to know if he ever gave a friend too much morphine on purpose.
I want to know what getting shot smells like.
I want to know what getting sent home feels like.
I want to know what he felt.
I want to tell you how, when my grandfather was dying, he was almost ninety years old and dying of Parkinson’s disease, so the closer his body got to giving out, the more it shook in protest. I want to tell you how, toward the very end of it, my grandmother said he started seeing things on the walls. I want to tell you how he built those lake house walls with his bare hands, and how now they were attacking him.
I want to tell you how, when he had to stay in a hospital bed, my grandmother had him moved from the bedroom they’d shared for forty years into one closer to the front door, so it would be easier for the emergency people to reach him when something happened.
I want to tell you how my father and I carried a small bed into that room for my grandmother to sleep in, so she could be there when he woke screaming at night.
I want to tell you how the small bed we moved into that room was the same bed I used to sleep in when I stayed over as a kid. I want to tell you how the blanket my grandmother would wrap herself in late at night was the same blanket I had been wrapped in.
I want to tell you how, the summer I was eighteen and about to leave for college on the east coast, my grandmother went on a trip to Reno with some of her friends. I want to tell you how my grandfather had been doing better the past couple months, and how very tired my grandmother was, and how much she needed a break, and how I knew this might be the last time I’d have a chance to spend time alone with my grandfather.
I want to tell you how he wasn’t supposed to drink coffee, but he asked for it and so I gave it to him.
I want to tell you how he wasn’t supposed to have sugar, but he asked for cookies and so I gave him a whole plate.
I want to tell you how he wasn’t supposed to have alcohol, but he asked for schnapps and so that was the only drink we ever had together, and we sipped those sweet snifters while watching videos of old World Series, because he liked to keep score, even after the tremors in his hands got so bad he couldn’t hold a pencil.
I want to tell you how, when he woke in the middle of the night, he said he saw spiders crawling out of the walls, and I didn’t know what to do but slap at what I couldn’t see. I want to explain to you what it felt like when he pointed his shaky hands around the room at the spiders breaking through, saying, There, there, there, and I crushed them beneath my palm each time, scrambling, shouting back, Don’t worry, don’t worry, I’ve got you.
I want to know what would have happened if he had seen something other than spiders, something too big for me to kill with bare hands.
I want to know if it is possible to kill outside of war, or if any act of killing defines itself as such.
I want to know if I really meant to kill myself that time I tried. I want to know what would have happened if I had.
I want life after death, and assurances against hell.
I want to know if there is also a death before life, just as there may be life after death.
I want my wife to know that, with her, I am both more and less afraid of death.
I want my wife to know that, because of her, I’ve never again tried to kill myself.
I want us to be US forever, never parting.
I want you to know I mean this completely and sentimentally, but unabashedly and honestly and without shame.
I want to know if we love harder, or if it just seems that way, and I want to say that maybe this is just the nature of love, that it’s hardest for those who are really in it.
I want to know if you’re still listening.