“… we never know till they are taken away; till in place of the bright visible being, come the awful and dissolute shadow where nothing is …” (O. Dewey)
I knew the minute Momma uttered the words, “he’s dead,” it was true! There could’ve been no other reason why Cameron didn’t respond to me; we were lovers, soul mates, bound together for life. Cam never had been inattentive to me or let his eyes wander to another guy, nor had I. We were complete with each other and desired no one else! The pain from the mortar blast didn’t compare to the deep, penetrating, mind-stopping, heart-wrenching blast of sadness and loss that rocketed through my body and mind! I began to sob, uncontrollably, responding not to Momma’s soft ministrations and comforting words. I found little comfort, but we now shared a loss and grief; her, a husband and my father, and me, my lover and partner, Cameron!
When I calmed a bit and caught my breath, I moaned, “How?”
“According to the sheriff, it was an accident. Cameron was coming home from the library one evening after doing some research for a paper that was due for one of his classes and, when crossing the foot bridge spanning Rimrock Creek, slipped on some ice, tumbled over the side, and broke his neck when he landed in the creek bed. The coroner said it was quick.”
Momma sat a moment, waiting for me to digest what she said and for my next question.
“It happened shortly after you were wounded. I received word, shared it with Cameron, and he was so happy you survived. He was making plans to come with me when you arrived back in the states. He loved you so very much, you know!”
I knew too well his love for me and mine for him, we’d expressed it in so many ways and at every opportunity, but now there was an empty spot in my soul, a hole of canyon-wide dimensions, leaving me a vessel devoid of its contents with no hope or desire of refilling it. I moaned with the realization of the loss, spilling my heart out unto the world, crying aloud his name, cursing the God which had taken my love from me, vowing never to love again!
Momma tried her very best to convince me life would get better, painful in the process, but it would improve, as she explained how she pulled herself through the grief she suffered by surviving and healing for her son’s sake as a way of honoring and remembering her husband and their short life together. I know it was extremely difficult for her to relive and relate her pain to me and as much as I understood and sympathized with her, I could see no correlation between her loss and mine. I had no child to require my energy, my attention, give me strength, or love as she had for me and me for her. All I had was memories of a soft, gentle, loving mate who was with me no more. We talked and cried together until the tears came no more.
When Momma left to go home, with promises to write and visit as often as she could, I kissed her goodbye, wondering if this would be the last time I’d have the opportunity to do so, for I could feel my will to continue this life, crippled and alone without Cameron, slowly slip away that day! Over the next couple of weeks, that decision to leave the earth became more prominent in my mind, although I didn’t have nerve enough to end my suffering through violent means. The physical therapists began working with me, trying to build up the muscle strength in my arm and my leg. Occupational therapists worked with me on cognitive functions since they were concerned the brain injury I’d suffered may be contributing to my increasingly morose attitude. I made little attempt to participate in any of the activities, leading to angry outbursts on the part of the therapists to “get with the program, Corporal!” Frankly, I could give a shit how they felt! I chose to eat less, allowing my body to succumb to a slow deterioration due to the lack of nourishment.
My eating habits, depression, and loss of weight caught the attention of the hospital psychiatrists. A team of doctors began weekly, then daily sessions with me. As hard as they tried to draw me out, cause me to speak of my depression in order to affect a strategy to deal with it, I remained mute, unfeeling, desiring not to be “cured” but only to slip away! The military wasn’t very friendly toward gay service members and there was no way I was going to tell military doctors my lover died and left me alone to face an uncertain world without him! A dishonorable discharge, in my weakened physical and mental state, would devastate Momma. I chose to suffer in silence, letting nature take its course and allow me to join Cameron for eternity.
It was an early spring day in May, after a particularly grueling and unproductive session with the physical therapists and the psychiatrists, lying in my bed, weary physically and mentally, trying to get some rest, when I heard my room door open. Keeping my eyes closed, hoping whoever it was would leave thinking I was sleeping, I felt the side of my bed move and someone sit beside me on it.
“Hello, Nephew,” a deep and familiar voice sounded. “Open your eyes. You can’t shit me and you know it!”
I opened my eyes and looked into the sad face of Uncle John Gifford. He opened his arms, saying, “Come to me, sweet boy, and let’s grieve our losses together!”
I didn’t understand what he meant, but I understood his caring, his love for me, so I raised up and allowed his arms to encircle me, hold me, comfort me as I unloaded all of my grief into his warm, compassionate arms; an old man traveling so far, such an arduous journey to come to me and absorb my grief was overwhelming! My father who was not my father, was here for me. The man who was witness to my love for Cameron; the man who judged us naught, but accepted us, was here and I welcomed his presence! Somehow, I knew he could do what Momma and the minions of doctors couldn’t do.
“Life sucks sometimes, doesn’t it Nephew?” he began in his soothing, soft, and mature voice. I could but only nod my agreement as I lay my head against his chest, catching those familiar odors of Old Spice and wood smoke, as he continued, “Kind of makes you want to end it all and join Cameron doesn’t it?”
Again I nodded my agreement, knowing what passed between us would remain with him and be known to no others!
“I felt the same way during the Korean War,” he sighed gently into my ear. “It was nearly the end for me, however, when my lover failed to return to me from that faraway peninsula. I wanted to die and join him, my grief was so great.”
“What?” I stuttered out.
“You heard me, my lover failed to return from the front lines; just the reverse of your situation!”
I shook my head in disbelief, but I knew Uncle John wouldn’t lie to me!
“I never knew,” I choked out to him, in between the hiccups my crying had precipitated.
“No one else did either,” he responded, “times were even more conservative then, more difficult for male lovers to carry on in a liaison, although it did happen. There were few places we could go to be together without raising suspicion. I’m not certain, but really think there were as many secret lovers then as there are now. It’s a lot more open now, but not much. People usually don’t talk about such things in polite society, do they?”
My mind was racing with the many questions I wished to ask; emotions bubbling over as I lay with my head on his chest, listening to the steady, rhythmic thump of his heart, as he slowly rocked me back and forth as one would a small child suffering from a chaffed knee received in a fall. But it wasn’t a chaffed knee from which I suffered and now, apparently not Uncle John. I struggled, wanting to know what he meant, but I refrained, knowing I’d been made privy to his inner-most and closely kept secret and he’d reveal what he wanted me to know when he wanted me to know it!
“I was but eighteen and he was older, aged twenty-four,” he continued, “and we were very much in love, secretly of course! I was a ‘river rat,’ living on what I made from hunting, fishing, and trapping, along with odd jobs in the off times to sustain me. He was an accountant in a bank owned by his father; my lover was from wealth and I was from poor folks, but he loved me anyway. The fucking, nasty draft caught him first and he was inducted. Since I was of age, I thought I’d just enlist and join him. I would’ve thought between the two of us, I would’ve been the most physically fit since I was active, working hard on the river and elsewhere, but for some reason I was rejected and he was accepted. He was a man who loved me and his country with equal and unbridled passion. I didn’t want to see him go and he was hesitant to leave me, but his commitment was made and he would honor it.”
“The night before he was to leave, we motored my flat boat over to what you know now as Gifford’s Island, for one last evening together. There was a place, on the far side of the Island, where we often spent time together, away from the prying eyes of others, where we could be together and love each other as we should, rather than hide it. Toward dawn, just as the sun was beginning to peek above the horizon, we gathered up our clothes, dressed and prepared to return to town. Before we climbed into the boat, he reached into a pocket of his pants and handed me an envelope. Offering it to me, bidding me to open it, I extracted a deed to the small farm and a good part of the Island where I now live. It was his gift to me, giving me a place to live and a place where we could enjoy each other without the stigmatization of the community drowning us. He bought it quite cheaply since it was property the bank picked up in a foreclosure.”
“During his absence, I busied myself preparing the farm and house for us to occupy, while living in it myself. When word came of his death I was devastated and depressed, such as you are now. Life as I knew it ended that day and I wanted to die, not unlike your feelings recently. I was in the bank several weeks later and his father approached me, invited me to his office, and informed me his son had declared me, in his will, as his beneficiary and left me a considerable sum, by those days’ standards. He said nothing else and had one of his clerks take me to an outer office and review the monetary funds and stock I just inherited. I know you’ll think I was foolish, but in hindsight, you’ll agree what I did was the right thing to do.”
“I’ll admit I’m not the most educated man in the country, having only finished the tenth grade, but I read a great deal. I usually gathered all of the newspapers people no longer wanted, carted them to the Island, and read through them, especially the financial news. I didn’t feel comfortable with the increasing wealth seeming to be created and feared everything would come tumbling down at some point. My lover always told me to ‘buy low and sell high’ so that’s what I began doing. I put some of my money in the bank, invested some in moderate risk stock, invested more in bonds and securities which secured my principle, and I brought some back to the Island as currency, gold coins, some precious gems, and stored it safely away to be redeemed and utilized as the economy improved. Didn’t know that, did you; the Island is a hide-away, a place of treasure?”
I shook my head “no” having no idea Uncle John had such a hide-away, much less kept cash and who knows what else tucked away, safe from those who wished to abscond with his good fortune! I was beginning to think there was a great deal I didn’t know about Uncle John.
“It was there, on the Island, I rode out my own depressive state of mind. During the ups and downs of the economy in the years following, the only family member that didn’t turn up their nose at me was your Grandfather Gifford, my brother. The rest saw me as a poor slob, living in what they saw as poverty on the Island. Well, I was living better than they did, I just didn’t brag about it. I was able to help your grandfather some and I suppose that pissed the rest off, but your grandfather never complained and was always so thankful for what his older brother would do for him. When things began settling down, I made small purchase of farm property and other investments as well as some stock. Sometimes things could be bought fairly cheaply if you had cash money and I did. The Island saved my life, my future, and my brother’s family and it’s going the same for you. Later, when your daddy was killed and your Momma had no place to live, I moved her into the house she lives in now. She’s a proud woman and insisted on paying rent. I’ve taken the rent money over the years and invested it for her. She should have a nice retirement built up when she is ready. But, in the meantime, I’m going to stay here and feed you every day if I have to and force you to go to your physical therapy sessions. If you don’t do it good enough to suit me, we’ll do it again when you come back to your room! How can you take care of the Island if you’re not strong enough and, by God, if I have anything to say about it, you will be and damned soon!”
His last statement concerning me “taking care of the Island” resonated with me and was enough of an incentive, along with his persistence and presence to begin pulling me back from the brink. I wanted to please Uncle John, not disappoint him, showing him how much his love and faith in me counted! I also decided it was the one way I could remember Cameron and all of the intimacy we’d experienced on the Island, by healing and returning to it. Uncle John spent a month with me, visiting each day, all day; attending physical therapy sessions with me, repeating them in my room until each night I fell into the soundest sleep I’d had since I was wounded.
It was not the therapy that revived me the most; it was the opportunity to talk through my depression, my fears, and my grief with him, a man of like losses and sexual preferences without fear of rejection or judgment! I should say, I talked and he listened, intently offering only an occasional comment from time to time in order to bring me to that point where I could see brightness in the future, hope for survival, and acceptance of my loss. He gave me the strength to deal with the loss of my lover, Cameron, not a cure, but to conquer it and move forward with life!
After I was released from the hospital, Uncle John persuaded and encouraged me to take advantage of the college tuition and other benefits afforded to me by the U.S. Government for my service and injuries. Enrolling in the university, I completed a degree in Wildlife Biology and a minor in Business Administration. When home on various breaks, I divided my time between Momma’s house and the Island where Uncle John and I spent countless hours in discussion and enjoying each other’s company. We discussed his finances, his investments from his secreted wealth, and life on the Island. It was those long talks which helped me find my way, mature, and settle down to the academic life and life in general. I began to accept the fact I would always have aches and pains, be a bit weaker and unable to do tasks as easily as before, and found resolve to solve those problems before they weakened me again!
Graduation day at the university was a glorious, sunny spring day, full of promise and excited young graduates anxious to seek their fortunes or their places in the world. Uncle John, looking frail, sat with Momma in the audience, smiling broadly when I walked across the stage to receive my diploma. The smiles on both of their faces was all the reward I needed, knowing I’d made them both proud! Afterwards, giving both a hug, I said quietly to Uncle John, “Without you pushing me, understanding me, and giving me the incentive to carry on, I’d not have made it.” He and Momma both smiled their understanding.
A month later, on a visit and the intention of spending a few days with him, when I docked the boat at the Cabin’s boat dock, I noticed Uncle John was not standing on the porch waiting for me, waving and smiling as he usually did when he heard my boat enter the lake and tie up. I called his name when I entered the cabin and hearing no response I looked quickly around, headed toward the bedroom and found him laying peacefully, cool to the touch, gone from this world into the next to join his lover and Cameron!
The County Coroner declared his death one of natural causes. There were family members only at the funeral. The only one of his siblings left alive was my Grandfather so it was the second and third generations present as mourners and few of them. Uncle John apparently did not endear himself to others as he had Momma and me. His will named me as his sole heir to his estate, including the Island, with the admonition “to care for the Island and nurture it, preparing it for those to come who will enjoy it as we did. There’s a treasure hidden on the Island waiting for those who know how to find it.” He knew I’d do that anyway, but it was his last wish, his concern for his beloved Island, and his wish for future lovers to enjoy it as Cameron and I had and him and his lover. It was the portion about the “treasure” that caused many people to speculate over the years that gold and diamonds awaited the lucky finder, sometimes causing me grief as I confronted unwanted intruders. Uncle John never named his one-time lover and I never asked. If he would’ve wanted me to know, he would’ve told me.
I’ve lost two people who I loved dearly; Cameron and Uncle John, but I can cope with the loss. Even if I do grow somewhat despondent or morose at time, I realize Cameron will always be with me, along with Uncle John, the father not a father, as long as I stay rooted to the Island! It is here I feel the most comfortable, albeit sometimes overwhelmed with grief, but comfortable and able to handle it.
The summer continued hot, dawn breaking hot this end of July, but the afternoon sun was slowing waning, sinking farther to the west, but not quite yet reaching the trees lining the slough, allowing late afternoon to begin its soothing, cooling effects. A slight breeze was beginning to rise, cooling me as I sat nearly naked, as I often did in this heat, on the porch, nursing the final sips of a beer, when the sound of an outboard motor caught my attention. Looking toward the cut opening the lake to the main river, I saw a fishing boat, with one person in it, heading in my direction. This wasn’t a fisherman or someone out for a boat ride; the person piloting that boat was headed directly for the cabin, certain of his destination, an invasion of my private sanctuary. I quickly slipped my pants on, rambled into the bedroom where I kept a snub-nosed .38 caliber revolver, stuck in the waist band in the small of my back, and returned to the porch to await my caller.
The lone person in the boat, a young male, was experienced in the operation of a runabout and outboard as evidenced by the way he eased up to the dock and secured his craft. With a purposeful stride, he began the walk up the hill to the cabin, cap shielding his face and identity, but with determination in every step!
Wary, I waited until he climbed the steps and knocked on the screen door. Hell, he could see me sitting there and could’ve just said “hello,” but he chose to knock. I looked him over closely before answering, cognizant of the brown paper envelop he held in his right hand.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Mr. John Thomas Gifford?” he asked raising the envelope.What the hell was this all about?
Thank you for reading “Gif’s Island – Chapter Three – “… we never know till they are taken away; till in place of the bright visible being, come the awful and dissolute shadow where nothing is … (O. Dewey)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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