August 18, 2011
By Jacey Eckhart
In hindsight, the way those people entered the garden seems perfectly clear. They fell in love with (or gave birth to) this darling boy who longed to be a Navy SEAL. He deployed over and over because that was his job. Then this one bizarre day insurgents shot down a Chinook helicopter way over in Afghanistan. Twenty-two Navy SEALs and eight Afghanis were killed. It was on the news.
And suddenly these people we know—those funny little, ordinarily little neighbors and friends and workmates—those people woke up cold and wet and starving in the Garden of the Forking Path.
Where nothing is what it should be.
Where no one says quite what they should.
Where the world seems to fold back infinitely on itself in ways that make people lose their center of gravity, sick upon sick, lost.
We on the outside can see all that. We can witness. Yet we can’t do anything. We can’t fix anything. We cannot take back a rocket any more than we can raise from the dead or cure cancer or fix a miscarriage or resurrect from natural disaster or old age or disability. Instead the best we can do is know that people we care about are now walking in the Garden of the Forking Path.
This “garden” was first described in a 1941 short story by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. In his story, Borges describes a learned man who is instructed to renounce his job in order to write a convex novel and construct an enormous labyrinth, "in which all men would lose their way.” The man loses his way in the novel, preternaturally aware of all the possible choices that go on around us all the time, until the novel itself becomes the labyrinth--the Garden of the Forking Path.
That’s what I think happens to people when they suffer the unimaginable tragedy. Men and women lose their way. They become dwarfed by the way one instant ruins everything. They become disoriented noting how many tragedies do NOT happen when they could have happened. Those stricken are lost in the Garden of the Forking Path.
I understand that. But what about the rest of us? Those of us who attended memorial services, planted flags in a median strip, trained to be ombudsmen so that we would be qualified to help? What about us? We cannot walk in the Garden of the Forking Path itself because we have not paid the price to get in. I picture us on one side of the fence, merely catching glimpses of widows and orphans and lost loves and broken parents on the other. I picture us helpless.
When I talked this over with my Starbucks buddy Sid Baumann, he knew what I meant, but he thought that being present for our friends in the garden was enough. His image was one where we walk at the places where the forking path runs closer to the fence. He pictures fingertips touching through the chain link, trailing together along the path, keeping people we care about company while they make their way.
I like Sid’s image better. I like to think of those who mourn as not alone. I like to think of us trailing beside them still, available to them when they want us, making things a little better for as long as it takes.
Jacey Eckhart is a military life consultant in Washington, DC. She is the author of "The Homefront Club" and the voice behind the award-winning CD "These Boots." Facebook Jacey or contact her at email@example.com.