1. Four tiny bits of gravel

Few people picked up on my presence as they walked along with Benny, sat next to him over coffee, watched TV or shared a meal …. animals or birds were no more aware, even though for some reason a lot of people assume they tend to be more attuned to the vibey side of things. But the truth was that even the hum of the first light of morning passed over Benny without so much as a waver to signal the possibility of another aware spark, however closely tied to this human.

During the period of the preliminaries — childhood, school, the teenage years, discovering everything and relaxing into an identity — it was as though nothing sentient, not even Benny himself, wondered or questioned or guessed that there existed in these days of ours such a pairing of awarenesses, so inextricably linked, so anchored to every movement, breath and thought. There were really two Bennys, but for now this one glided rarely noticed, and never overtly acknowledged.

But the preliminaries were important, even though Benny had no way of knowing at the time that little habits or seemingly inconsequential quirks would become so very much a part of the future human he settled into being.

One was the collection he started when very young of the first coin that came his way that had the current year stamped on its tails side. It all began because of the shininess of a new coin to the young new person he was when he put away his first coin, the brightness and just-out-there-ness of it made him want to keep that coin and store it away; because it seemed so special. It didn’t matter which sort of coin it was, a $1, 5c or 20c — he had no control of that anyway, as it was always just whichever new coin ended up in his palm.

But his collection grew slowly, and Benny remembered being pleased with himself that he had managed to keep the coins together over what became years and years. By the time there were 10 or so in a little glass jar, they had all lost their sheen apart from (for a while) the annual new contribution, which mostly seemed to be made towards the end of each year. Over the whole period of the collection of these coins he only once had to actively seek out a new one (by asking at a bank). He never really knew if it was an unusual habit or not, and didn’t ask anyone, but a new coin almost always seemed to make its way to him.

Benny upgraded to another jar also only once, when the original cracked when moving house, but a short while later the whole collecting habit just petered out when in his late teens. For a long time the small coin jar was in the back of a drawer in his parents’ home, where it had returned after the first year of college and when he wasn’t living at home anymore. Benny would never admit it, but I knew (from my place of secret knowing) that ending the task of keeping these coins was more of a conscious decision than a waning of enthusiasm, a sort-of ‘I’ll leave that behind me now’ resolution that in an unguarded moment he would have admitted to. But of course there was no guardedness with me at his side, or waiting behind those eyes. I knew all there was to know. (By the way, other people called him Ben by now, because that’s what he called himself.)

But then we were here — the time recent and the place nearby. And here stood Benny, breathing just like everyone else, a grown up person doing all the usuals and more besides. There were nights out, travel, trips to the beach, junk food, bouts of exercise… and then a moment when death, until then a third-party, something real but understood through contingent experiences, sauntered into his personal space.

“I was going into the shopping centre and I saw a family sort of talking all together, like they were making a plan, or at least the eldest son was making a plan, and pointing here and there to make sure everyone else understood… you know, let’s go here, you do that thing, and we’ll meet over at that other place later. I mean I couldn’t understand the language, but that’s the sort of conversation that was taking place. The dad held two boxes of iced doughnuts, and I saw later that the cake shop had them on special. The rest went off but the dad headed back towards the car park, like he wanted to put his bargain in the car. He was backing away from the others while still talking and I had to go around him; then I went to get this and that, whatever was on the list (I usually need to jot things down… I really hate forgetting stuff).

“So I came out some time later, heading for the car, and there was a security guy directing everyone to one side of the main door of the shopping centre. An area was taped off near the big rubbish skip and a stack of pallets opposite the first row of parked cars, and there were most of that family again, standing close together. Between them and the cars, under a blanket, lay what I assumed was the dad, and the older son was kneeling there beside his dead father, looking around blankly as an ambulance came up behind him. No siren.

“I didn’t want to stare. Plenty were. The trouble was my car was only one row over, away from the taped off line of cars, but close enough to be in view of the distressed family… not really knowing what they should do, the son on the ground by his father, not knowing what to do either, but obviously feeling he had to stay close.

“I threw my things on to the back seat and as I got behind the wheel saw that the son and the blanket-covered dad were right there, right in clear view for me, between two cars. The ambulance guys talked to a cop next to them. I looked behind to back out of the car space, but when I turned my head back around I saw the ambulance was slowly driving off, the family still there but being talked to by that cop; the son still by his father. I don’t know why they hadn’t taken the poor guy under the blanket. Why had they left that family like that? Even if there was no medical help they could give, why not take him then? It seemed so unhelpful, like drawing out the pain.

“The son was mostly obscured from view now, but I saw his open hands move up to where his head would be. The poor guy. All I could do was drive away, as quietly as I could. There has to be someone else coming to help, I thought, to do something…”

The resonance this moment in the car park had for Benny was long and deep. He didn’t tell anyone about any of it, and kept the scene of sudden death he had witnessed close and unspoken. I knew this really rattled him, and for a long time. His innocent otherness of death transformed to own-ness, and from now on other people’s stories and moments became sharper and relatable — even the long ago moments he remembered of older family members going. From then on, every other death he came across (and there were to be many of course) picked up an echo from this moment.

There were now four tiny bits of gravel under every footstep… that life can all end so quickly and arbitrarily; that while it runs life’s fortunes are reliably tied to what came before (a sort of cause and effect); that being here means still being able to learn; because it all has to be dealt with as there’s nowhere else we can be.

 

(First, train in the preliminaries)

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