One of those weeks
Time, though, has given me the opportunity to reflect, even if unconsciously. And to experience.
I saw a young man this week whom I know well. In the Middle East, I suspect he did have an “Achilles-around-the-walls-of-Troy” event. The past is past: I don’t ask questions I don’t want to know the answers to, and I’m less-than-convinced that my doing so (at this point, at least) would provide anybody any relief anywhere. Yet he knows that I know what we both know: War invaded him, and it was not pretty.
Again this week, on the verge of tears, he told me of how unworthy he is of anything good, of how he holds onto his children for dear life, the only reasons why he can imagine that his presence on this earth should be tolerated. He said to me, “They try to call us “heroes,” you know. They don’t have a clue. There was nothing heroic. We were just trying to stay alive. And sometimes nothing mattered, absolutely nothing. And sometimes you just had the power, and nothing mattered, nothing. That’s not a hero. That’s not even a person.”
Several months ago, I participated in a workshop attended by VA employees from throughout our Indiana-Michigan region. As part of the introductory exercises, we were asked to tell the group something about us that we thought might be “unique.” I told the group that I am Mennonite, and that Mennonites working for the VA may not be exactly run-of-the-mill. And what do you know: one of the VA chaplains in attendence was, believe it or not, Mennonite.
Also attending, though, was a couple, both advanced practice clinicians. As they introduced themselves, it eventually came out that they had lost a son in the Middle East within the previous year. Their story came up occasionally during the course of the workshop: they had been proud of him, especially in that he had been involved in efforts to improve relationships between troops and locals. This had been his goal of service. He had achieved it. He died achieving it.
During the course of breaks, I had a chance to talk to the wife. She wanted to speak to me precisely because I am Mennonite. She and her husband, both roughly my age, attend a mainline Protestant church, and both have felt quite committed throughout their lives to peace-related causes. Their son’s decision to go into the military had caused them great pause: they had seen firsthand what war does to men in combat, and they were not at all convinced that the current conflict was one to be embraced. They did embrace him, though, his dreams, his need to be his own person, his need to respond to an inner sense of service that did, yes, embrace violence as an ultimate option that sometimes must be taken in order to bring justice and order to chaos and evil. They acquiesced. They loved him. They buried him.
You cannot begin to know how many times I have thought about this couple over the past months. My eldest is now a freshman in college, soon to be twenty years old. I think of her, of her boyfriend, of the young men who hang out in her dorm room, of the young men I watched grow up with her and who are now hanging out on college campuses throughout the state and throughout the country. Perhaps out of self-protection, perhaps out of stereotypical assmptions, I cannot imagine her taken in combat. Definitely out of self-protection I cannot imagine my son taken in combat.
But I think of my daughter’s boyfriend, a fine young man whom I barely know, yet who has such a pleasant smile, is so intelligent, has been bringing her so much happiness these past several months. What if I had to stand at a coffin, knowing that what’s left of him is in there, not even daring to open it, to see just that: what’s left of him. What if I had to feel the rage inside of me of “Good God, I told, I told you!” What if I would have to stop that last sentence in mid-sentence, hear him say to me, “And I told you!” What if I would want to scream at George Bush, Barack Obama, every chicken-hawk Neo-Con who’s dared walk the face of this planet and show his (not her) face on Fox News–and then hear my daughter’s boyfriend say again, “But I told you. It wasn’t about them. I told you.”
And what if I then had to show up at work the next day and see another young man, the same smile as his, the same dry wit, looking at me with similar eyes, pleading with me, “Please. Help me.” What if I did help him, see the real “him” come back, disentangled from The War, hear him one day say “Thank you,” one day show me the pictures of the baby, of their last trip to King’s Island amusement park.
What if all I could feel was that wondering, that my-God wondering of what if, what if it had been my daughter’s boyfriend, their child there in the picture. What if.
A roller coaster, what if.
And then I would have to see the next hour another young man, a little different smile–what little he could muster–but similar, really. A little too hurt to be witty, but it’s there, yes, the wit’s there, I can see it. Knowing that, yes, we might be able to get some of that wit back, yes, I think we can, I hope, no, I think we can, we can, let’s try, we can. And maybe there’ll be a roller coaster for him too, someday. That’s what roller coasters are for you know, for–for pictures, for smiles.
For what ifs.
Each day my young patient, this couple have to live faithfully: my patient to his children, my colleagues to their values, now to the memory of the boy each once cradled. In Western culture, the hero both belongs and doesn’t belong. He is part mortal, he is part god. He does what he does for the community, yet because of how he does it, he is never fully a part. My patient, this couple: they are mere mortals. Yet each does what he or she does to connect to life, yet because of what cards life has dealt him/her, he/she is never again fully part of that life. Yet each lives faithfully, not knowing why, maybe, some days, but knowing there is no other way. They want no other way.
They are my heroes. Day to day. Welcome home.