The thoughts come like jabs with a sharp instrument. Walking along, delivering mail, I’ll suddenly wince with a memory of a word ill-placed that embarrasses me now, only 30 or 40 years after the fact. There’ll be an untruth that I’ve kept secret to me for decades. I’ll remember a friend long gone and feel a deep pang of loss.
Such as it is, carrying the mail allows very little time to think. It’s all about the next address, the packages in my satchel I must remember so I don’t have to backtrack and lose time. And there’s always the nagging of time itself, as the Post Office runs on minutes and seconds.
But another narrative runs above the mail. It’s on a separate track of mind, something disconnected from my conscious thought but coherent in its own right. While I have little time to compose poems or contemplate essay topics, those bits of time when I have the mail for the next house and my mind is free allow me to consider that larger narrative and leave the thoughts to tumble around on their own. Often they come to me without my permission. They’re there as if carried by an obsessive. Sometimes, the daily narrative is about a pleasant event or events, happy times. Often, the story running in the background is about things I’ve carried so close to myself that no one, not even my wife, the person I trust most in the world, doesn’t know about me.
Just the other day, the line of thinking beyond the mail left me in tears. I’m lucky, in this case, that I work alone all day. No one notices the letter carrier as a person with complex emotions. To my customers, I’m a sexless, kindly older man who greets each customer with a smile and a wish for a good day. No one knows what I’m thinking, really, or even that I have thoughts beyond stuffing the mail into a slot or depositing a package on a porch.
I don’t know if anyone noticed that I was indeed weeping. Unlike many other days, the metanarrative for the day was about my friend Joachim, dead now ten years. Between addresses, scenes and conversations from our long relationship came to me. I regretted the times I didn’t call, didn’t send the postcard or the letter, when I had the time and didn’t reach out to him.
The sense of loss I felt began to weigh on me. I wish I had done things differently, that I had been a better friend. No one would know the difference, as his family and friends perceived me as a fiercely loyal friend and boon companion. He lived in Berlin for the latter half of his life. We connected at his parents’ house in Wawern, a small village outside of Trier. That’s where we met in 1986 and knew immediately that there was something between us. His mother would come to say that we were soulmates.
Over the years, I had seen him dozens of times. He would often come to the States to present at conferences where economists and academics met. He conducted symposia and classes, guest lectured, and was a well-known expert in his field. On these occasions, for years, decades, he would come early and spend a few days with me traveling before he had to make his scheduled appointments at these conferences. We traveled widely, from the mountains of Wyoming to the highways of New Jersey and the streets of New York.
The day I thought of him, I couldn’t help but become emotional. What would he have thought of me coming all this way and wind up delivering the mail? Likely, he would have cheered my effort, admired the fact that I never did give up, that I would devote my life and work to family, that I would do anything to keep the lights on.
As I walked, the thought of Joachim, his red hair, his mischievous smile, his ever-present good attitude made me sadder and sadder. I said a few words to him. “I miss you, my friend. I wish you were here with me. I want to call you on the phone. I want to take that cancer away and restore you to your family—and to me.”
Granted, it was a selfish thought, wanting the dead to live again for me. But I’ve come a long way. When Joachim died, I was bereft. I was so hurt and angry that I wished I never would have met him. If I had not ever encountered him, I would not have felt the pain I did at his absence. Now, I’ve come to accept that though he is gone, he has become part of my daily life. His influence works on me every day. He altered my DNA and stays with me all the time, not just when he comes alive in my thoughts.
Then, in quiet moments when I’m not working, I contemplate the thoughts that have run through my head all day. These bring other considerations. I wonder, for instance, if the deaths of others will leave me wanting for more human contact or, as in the case of Joachim after his death, drive me farther from people? So far, I have not yet built the defensive wall that will cut me off from others. But the potential is there. I’m always close to becoming a recluse.
I have told my wife that I’m afraid of outliving everyone. If I go soon, I leave people behind, as Joachim left me behind. But if I live as long as my family history may indicate, all those people who have influenced me, touched me, will leave me behind. I feel so helpless and that I will be left only with sorrow and loss.
But I feel sorry for myself, which, in the end, is only pitiful and sad. Cogitating on these thoughts, I’m led to realize that I’m surrounded with supportive and loyal friends. They are the joys of my life. I’m never alone, never feel lonely—even in those dark moments on the route when thoughts of regrets and people I’ve lost make me cry.
And, again, I’m glad that no one thinks much of the emotions and thoughts of the mailman. These thoughts, then, are my secrets. They are special to me and something that I wouldn’t live without, no matter how painful they can be.