A month after Putin invaded Ukraine, a retired Air Force colonel I knew flew her SUV into the Greenglass River. I didn’t see it happen. I was stuck mid-pew, stalled by all the churchgoers in town for Parents’ Weekend. When I finally escaped to the parking lot, a woman tugged at my sleeve to ask if I’d just seen a big white car flying in reverse. Bewildered, I shook my head no.
The woman who grabbed my sleeve was stout, with a too-short haircut and sensible oxfords. She was bewildered too. “It was Veronica. I watched her get in the driver’s seat.”
I didn’t know Veronica well, but I knew that she was one of the first women to fly combat missions in Iraq. “My God. What happened?”
“She looked like a bird. Like a seagull.”
I grabbed her forearm. “Is she still in the river?”
She waved dramatically with the other hand: “Swept away.”
By then folks were scrambling down the bluff as they heard the news. Veronica had parked on a patch of grass over by the old residence hall. I’d parked back there myself once and never again, because just beyond the narrow strip of macadam is the steep bank down to the river, with no guardrail. When it’s hazy or foggy—it’s always hazy or foggy in this sad river town—it’s hard to see where the road ends and the bluff begins. You have to cut the wheel sharply.
But come on. An Air Force pilot? It’s the late Mass-goers who park back there, and a career military officer would not have been late. She would have picked the spot early. A pilot would have put her RAV4 safely onto the roadway, turned in the right direction, fog or no fog. She could have done it in her sleep. She must have known exactly what she was doing. She must have sat in back so she’d be the first out the door. Pressed her foot hard, aimed for the one open path between the scraggly river oaks and pawpaws. Because the bank drops so steeply, the SUV shot out as Veronica must have intended—but just before it descended, it lost speed and caromed off an uprooted trunk, then backflipped into the river.
The stout witness who told me all this looked unhinged. She’d run over to the riverbank as soon as she saw Veronica flying, but after she called for help, what could she do? Other stout women pulled out their phones to flood 911 with redundant reports of the airborne combat pilot at the controls of an SUV. Young assistant professors slid down the wooded bank, hoping to act the heroes. But the snow had been melting all week and the river was churning. The woman with sensible oxfords was right––the RAV4 was completely submerged, vanished.
I couldn’t fathom, though, why she thought to say that SUV looked like a seagull. I suppose she was alluding to Chekhov; she must have known somehow that I teach Russian literature. She must have known that allusion would appeal to me, because it so conveniently removed me from the scene.
I’m always surprised to find myself in that parking lot, much less that Mass. I’m not a believer. I feel some kinship with secular Muslims who fast during Ramadan and atheists who attend seders, who keep the rituals to connect themselves to their tribes. In a town filled with colleges, including a Famous Catholic University, mosques and synagogues and churches tend to have multilingual liturgies and cerebral sermons punctuated with poetry. I suspect they have unbelievers like me lurking about, too. This church was on the grounds of the Catholic women’s college, its pews sprinkled with nuns who founded health clinics in Uganda, who taught at the college, who visited prisoners on death row and met regularly with our appalling congresswoman to shame her into some action. They’re a dwindling crew, aging themselves out of existence, but every now and again they sign up a novice, a student at one of their colleges in Bangladesh or Botswana, and then the whole order perks right up.
The other Mass-goers—I can’t call them parishioners because it isn’t, strictly speaking, a parish—are the kind of Catholics who, if they didn’t have this community where they can count on someone to pray every week for union organizers or LGBTQ rights, might abscond to the Episcopalians, the kind of Catholics drawn to apophatic theology and social-justice movements, Catholics who have their doubts but just can’t let go.
Camus says it’s the only question, whether we choose life or death. A couple of my relatives have made feeble attempts at suicide and my cousin actually shot himself––dead, I mean. That’s a story in itself, devastating to tell. That’s all I’ll say about that.
This is a town where no one else wants to talk about suicide, either. The paper treated Veronica’s flight as if it were an accident on a foggy day. At the wake, women whispered that it could have happened to any of us, that the poor nuns were distraught. Every member of our creative nonviolence reading group showed up at the funeral home, wondering whether the family would sue over that missing guardrail.
We scrutinized the scant remnants of Veronica’s family. Her brother was also retired, a naval captain wearing a pigeon-gray suit and a strange half-smile of regret. He introduced Veronica’s daughter, who might have been in her twenties or thirties: “This is Ronnie, my sister’s only child.” The phrase made her blink. She had one of those haircuts, spiked here and buzzcut there, that could have signified her sexual preferences or meant she fancied herself some kind of free spirit. Despite the young people in my classrooms, I have trouble reading the cultural signposts.
I was surprised to see a daughter. I told Ronnie that I’d known her mother from a reading group, which was true. I also said that Veronica had mentioned her, which was not.
“I’m gobsmacked to hear it,” Ronnie said dryly. “We haven’t spoken in years.”
Caught at the lie, I squirmed, hearing the bitter lines my mother and I once flung at each other. I went on compulsively: “It was a nonviolence reading group. We were intrigued to have an ex-military officer, but she was so private I never asked her about that. None of us did.”
“Maybe she stayed in the Air Force for the pension.” Veronica’s daughter, looking judgy with her one raised eyebrow, turned away to speak to her next interrogator.
I find that I do want to talk about Sonny’s suicide after all. Maybe I have to. I can’t talk about the Greenglass River without talking about my cousin.
Sweet, tongue-tied Sonny. When he was still small, my aunt gave him a buzz cut that made him look like a miniature Marine recruit, as if she wanted to ensure he’d grow up to be a soldier. Aunt Tildy was a single mother with a studio apartment, so when Sonny came to our house it took him half an hour to close his mouth at the sight of our latest acquisitions. He played Final Fantasy on my brothers’ new Game Boy, listened to Blue Öyster Cult on my new boombox. He defended me against my brothers, who called me Fatty Patty, and my mother, who barked if we sat too close.
When my mother asked where Sonny got that dirt mustache, Aunt Tildy answered: “I guess it’s the grit in the river.”
Mother raised herself off her kitchen stool for maximum drama. “You let him go in the river?”
Every child in town knew that the Greenglass was only placid until it wasn’t. When it was angry or petulant or spiteful, it could sweep us away even if we were only wading, and besides, it stank of industrial waste. We weren’t to go anywhere near the river unless we were in the company of sober adults, and Aunt Tildy was rarely sober.
“For crying out loud, Marlene, you think I could stop him? He’s got enough sense not to drown. He just stands there to cool off.”
But a dirt mustache meant Sonny wasn’t just standing in the river, he was sticking his whole face in, swimming out into the swift current. I lost sleep, imagining him swept away. My mother paid Sonny’s tuition at Our Lady of Mercy, where we were in the same class, but she was always threatening to stop writing the checks if his grades didn’t improve. All through grammar school, he practiced spelling and multiplication tables with me; he knew the twelve-times long before I did but barely passed the test. His favorite assignment was memorizing a psalm: he picked How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me? He had it down cold in five minutes and crowed it so many times that I learned it too, but when he stood to recite, he couldn’t get past that first lament. From the back of the room I whispered: How long will you hide your face from me? but Sonny was too flustered to see.