The past few days have been challenging ones, with many men and women having passed through my door, most of whom I know well. Fortunately many are doing well. Unfortunately some are not.
It’s the nature of my business.
Sadly, there is an additional factor in the nature of my business. It’s called reality.
Reality, this week, has not been kind. For as many readers may already know, this past week our Nation achieved–if one only could, without bitter irony, call it that–a milestone.
Two thousand service members have died in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The New York Times published a powerful memorial for these men and women. In the print version, the pictures of all two thousand were laid out over the pages of the paper. On the website, however, was a memorial that simply left me, what, sighing, deeply, closing my eyes, rubbing the back of my neck, dropping my head back, opening my eyes toward a ceiling (a Heaven?), taking in a deep breath, letting it out, looking back down at a laptop screen, silent, staring.
I do the very same now.
Before me on that screen is a picture of man, pixilated. Two thousand pixels form his picture. As I move my cursor over an individual pixel, a box appears with a name and a date. If I click on that pixel, the overall picture changes. It is now that man, that woman whose name was in that box. Different pixel, different box, another click, different picture. Two thousand times over. The wonders of modern technology.
The title of the page is “The Faces of the Dead.”
You can search for an individual by name, by home state, by hometown. Click on the name, and you’ll see the picture, some with faces smiling, some serious, some clad in T-shirts, some in full dress uniform. You’ll see along the right-hand side of the screen the man’s, the woman’s name, date of death, home, service branch, age at death, theater in which they died. They are in their twenties, thirties, forties–their teens.
Of course I eventually found the young lad I had memorialized in Dona Ei Requiem. Yet for many of those about whom my patients talk, they are just first names to me, their dates of service and death somewhat of a blur.
But for one, I knew his home state. So I typed it into the appropriate search box and hit the button. It turns out that his home state has suffered relatively few deaths, all in all. I scrolled down the list. There was the first name, the date of death. Yes, that was when it happened, when my patient died–but didn’t.
I clicked on the name.
There he was.
Just another name, I suppose, another face.
I knew that I would end up having to write about this experience. But before I could even get enough breathing room to consider doing that, within hours of my having viewed that screen, I was sitting before my patient.
He is not doing well.
He is not suicidal. He is not giving up. But he is tired. He wants to move forward in his life. He wants at least some of it, the pain, the memories, please, God, to stop.
I debate whether to say anything to him. He is distressed already, after all. Yet I also wanted him to know that I had not forgotten, neither him nor the name of his best friend.
“Have you seen the pictures in The Times?” I asked.
“Would you like to?”
He looked at me, an odd mixture of blankly and knowingly. That was such a dangerous move for a therapist. I’d taken the risk that he’d say “yes” for my sake, not his. I might have misstepped.
“Yes,” he finally said.
I believed he meant it. I was tempted to check that out. I kept my mouth shut, though. What’s done was done. He didn’t owe me any more assurance than that.
He scooted his chair next to mine, and we both turned to my Government-issued monitor. Type, click, type, click. Page found. Search box clicked, state typed, menu appears. I began scrolling down. I saw the first name, but was that the last name? I continued to scroll down quickly. There, another with the same first name, but, no, I was sure that was not it. Scroll.
“You just passed it,” he said quietly.
My eyes focused. Indeed I had. There it was. I clicked. A picture appeared on screen.
I looked at my patient.
He was staring, nodding every so slightly. He was not smiling, yet he was not frowning, either. He swallowed. He looked at me.
“Yes, that’s him,” he whispered. No smile, no tears, no distress, just acknowledgment.
His friend had not been the only one who had died that day, in that place. I knew that.
So I turned to the screen, shifted the cursor one pixel to the right, to a new box, new name, same date. I clicked.
He looked at the picture with the same expression on his face. He nodded.
“Yes,” he whispered again.
I moved right another pixel.
More than one group of men perished that day. They served in different branches. Yet whenever I clicked on a pixel and saw the particular branch of my patient come up in the side bar, I looked at him.
When I did, I saw the same nod, heard perhaps a name whispered, watched a man watching a screen. I would then turn back toward that screen and move the cursor over another pixel, creating another box. A couple times he whispered the name before I clicked, then nodded at the picture, almost imperceptibly, yet with an ever-so-slight satisfaction that, yes, he’d been right.
Finally, I hit a box with an earlier date. I stopped.
I turned to look at him. He was still staring at the screen, not exactly lost, but not exactly there, either.
“You all right?” I asked.
He nodded, still looking at the screen. Then he looked at me.
“Yes,” he said. He was right there with me. Or at least I guess you could say that.
“How was that for you, seeing all them?”
He shook his head ever so slightly. For an instant, he even had the glimmer of a smile, more one of pity than anything. Pity for me.
“Doc,” he whispered. “I see them every day.”
That, I was not prepared for.
It took at least a second or so for it to hit me. And I mean hit. Funny, though, not in a sock-‘em way. More like the kind of hit that stops your breath in mid-stream. The kind that demands a tear in recompense.
I didn’t even try to hide it.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered back. It was all I could say.
He smiled, still slightly, but now with a warmth that melted pity into a shared humanity.
“It’s OK, Doc,” he replied. “Thank you.”
It’s now hours later.
I look at these pictures, in the middle of a night in which I can’t sleep, pixel by pixel by pixel, and two questions keep coming to me.
The first is why? I do not, however, dwell long on that one. I can’t afford to. I have to leave it to others to debate the why’s, to extol, to excoriate. The very men and women whom I see every day often ask the same, of themselves, of each other, of us as a society. My personal call, however, is not to the why. The political will have to be decided elsewhere.
The second, though, is when? Of course the political infiltrates that word as well, can’t help but to. Yet there is a yearning in that word–that demand for Time to provide an answer, damn it–that allows me to pull away as an individual from the communal, political aspect of the question, to ask simply as a man, a father: when?
When will the pixels end?
The song almost awakened me tonight, if you want to know the truth: the song of yearning, asking, please. I remember hearing it sung in a Boston theater over twenty years ago. Jean Valjean, praying for Marius at the barricades. Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Misérables.
God on high
Hear my prayer
In my need
You have always been there
He is young
Let him rest
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home.
He’s like the son I might have known
If God had granted me a son.
The summers die
One by one
How soon they fly
On and on
And I am old
And will be gone.
Bring him peace
Bring him joy
He is young
He is only a boy
You can take
You can give
Let him be
Let him live
If I die, let me die
Let him live
Bring him home
Bring him home
Bring him home.
How many Valjeans, Fantines pray that song tonight, every night. I am a father. I understand.
Yet also tonight, for me, that song implores on behalf of another, a young man who sees the faces of the dead every day.
Together he and I are working to find him a place where he can stay for a while, remember as he has to, cry and rage as he must, finally to inhale the pictures of those faces and then pass them through his alveoli, into his bloodstream, to be transported artery after artery, arteriole after arteriole, until finally they find their true, final resting place, in neurons of memory that are mere holding stations for the soul, to be called upon in times of need for strength, for purpose, for thankful love.
Like so many of his brothers and sisters, a part of his soul is still over there in the desert, outside that town where he finally lost consciousness, where, without knowing it, he said his final goodbyes.
Bring him home, God. Embed those pictures, those men into his heart, pixel by pixel, life by life. And bring him home.