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I became aware of it, this thing that was to obsess me, in l976. That was the year my wife's fatal illness of three years ended. It was the year I buried her. It was the year I found myself alone with a great emptiness, sadness and memories continuously flooding my mind. Memories out of the past, good ones, bad ones, a lifetime of them.
Those three years watching the woman I loved die had left me emotionally and physically drained. I was at a loss to cope. And so it was that in the fall of l976, I sat on a screened-in porch overlooking a small lake in Wisconsin and my past mixed with my present. I thought of World War II. I thought of my wife. I thought of the present and how useless I felt.
I was at a cottage that had been in the family for several generations. I had spent my youth here, my honeymoon here. I had watched our children grow and mature here. But now there was a bittersweet flavor to the memories, to the place. I found myself staring too long at the glistening moonlight on the lake and even longer listening to the night sounds. Being alone and being depressed was something I had seldom experienced. I sought relief in the only way I knew how, by work. And work brought fatigue. Fatigue?
I cannot explain what happens when death, one's age, one's entire life, comes marching forward in dreams, in awakening moments, and overwhelms one entirely in the bright light of day. But it happened to me. It came in sudden flashes, without warning. Standing on the edge of the lake and suddenly it was before me, a long line of people, bent, humbled by war and savagery. And shots, and people who became bodies. And aGerman officer, proud, erect, snarling authority, shouting "Hande Hoch".
Then the shot and the small hole that erupted with a red surge. He was dying and I had killed him. And it went on like that. The episodes of the past, the surge and pull of memories, of realities long since pushed down, now awake. And the calm soft voice would fill my mind, and the woman, simply sitting by me and we would talk and she was gone, was never to be again.
Day after day, I walked, I thought, and it came surging back into my mind. A lifetime! A disjointed collage of experience. I would be sitting on the dock at sunset and it would well up and suddenly it was dawn, cool and cruel. I actually felt the wind, that cold wind, and hanging there in my parachute and feeling fear, and knowing it wouldn't end until I struck the soft earth of the fields below.
And another day, a full day with friends playing golf and later back at the cottage, trying to become absorbed with the TV. I would hear it and it would become real, my wife, murmuring to me from her deathbed. "End it for me."
I knew I had to do something, anything! But I could do nothing. My life surged and flowed through me and I tried to understand, to deal with it all and could not. I had been all but retired during the years of my wife's illness, having been a full partner in a highly successful consulting firm based in Chicago. After her death I had approached my partners about resuming my role. They had acquiesced, realizing that work might be the one thing that might take me out of my moods, moods so intense that even they had been alarmed.
It was only a matter of months after her death that the Falling Down Man shouldered his way into my life.
She had passed in the spring and it was now fall. I sipped a glass of wine, trying to remove memories by forcing myself to review my business notes from my last trip to Chicago, and there--the boldly underlined notation--"The Falling Down Man." I stared at that notation and concentrated on the strange series of events that had taken place over the summer that had led me to focus upon it. It was at that moment I realized, that lonely empty night, that a subtle passion had formed within me. Blending with my past, a long distant past that I had thought I had suppressed, a more recent past, which I knew I could not suppress, yet must try, and all was hardening into the present. A present that roused memories of long ago, of things I had forgotten, and now made me view my life in ways I hadn't done for endless years. That was what I needed, or thought I needed: to fill my life with other than the pain of my loss, now so amplified by my loneliness. The Falling Down Man was my answer.