It is about six inches square and edged with crocheted lace. The fabric from which it is made is soft and thin. In one corner, stitched in tight loops of blue thread is the initial D.
I am clutching it as though it can staunch something other than the tears that pool, fall and then slide down my face toward the jaw that is looser than it used to be. Clutching it as though — if I were to somehow lose it — I would lose also my ability to sit still and would, instead, jump from this church pew and race out into the sunlight gasping for air. Clutching it as though it is the shaft of a spear in some medieval memento mori, capable of defeating death.
Though I have had days now to absorb, it still seems impossible that two men who have been my friends for most of my life, two men born within a few months of each other and of me, have, within the span of 24 hours, died.
I am not alone in the disbelief. From First Baptist at the north end of Main Street to First Methodist at the south, virtually the same group of mourners will join me in making my way from one ceremonial goodbye to another. And by the end of this day I will have stood in two long lines to grasp the hands of two strong women to say the most impotent of things — I’m so sorry. I will have listened to two well-crafted sermons reflecting on the too-short lives of two good men. I will have hugged dozens of men and women who were the boys and girls with whom I played dodgeball, learned long division, dissected frogs and decorated for the junior-senior prom.
And through it all, I will have held this, this blue and white handkerchief.
It is not mine. It belongs to the wife of one of those boys with whom I dissected frogs. One of those boys who became the man who is a pallbearer today. At both funerals.
The next day I am standing at the ironing board, pressing the newly washed handkerchief back into shape, stretching the square, smoothing the lace, feeling the heat. You cannot tell now that it has ever been anything but clean and smooth, warm and flat. You cannot tell that it was — in my hand — twisted and knotted, wet and stained.
There is probably a behavioral psychologist or anthropologist somewhere who knows why — in moments of fear and distress — humans instinctively seek to hold something. Does the baby grasping her security blanket sleep with the collective memory that open hands make her vulnerable? That it is only the clinched fist that can defend?
I fold the handkerchief gently to minimize creases and I slip it into an envelope with a note. The note extends my thanks. It is adequate, but only that. I have exhausted my vault of words in a multitude of 10-second encounters with people whose faces wallpaper my memories.
Tomorrow I will return the handkerchief to the wife of the boy when we will be together again, this time at a wedding. A wedding at which the father of the bride is yet another of those same boys.
From mourning to dancing. Where does one end and the other begin? We move in a Celtic knot, a complete loop with no start or finish. Eternity as lived out in loyalty, faith, friendship and love. Made with one single thread.