With the permission of his family, and with much sadness, I let you all know that this week, as I said before, I lost not only a patient, but a friend: a man whom some of you have come to know as Porthos.
In the late afternoon of Monday, March 25, 2013, he died in an auto accident, leaving his parents, his brothers, his family and friends, me—and a brave, tired, bereft battle buddy, Athos—rich in memory, yet broken in heart. He will be buried with full military honors this coming week.
I first wrote of him over a year ago now, just after the shootings in the village near Kandahar, Afghanistan, in an entry entitled No Trouble At All:
Today I was in contact again with one of the veterans I work with, one who has struggled almost incessantly since coming home. He’s a dashing rake, by anybody’s measure. He comes from a well-educated family. He’s smart. He’s intense. He was once a bit of a bad-boy, but he’s working now to pull his life together, to find love, to find a place back in his family, back in this world.
In a matter of days after landing in the Middle East, this man’s dearest friend—his brother to the core—was dead. Others in his unit soon followed. He wakes up in the night screaming, sweating, panicked. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t think of his friend, often—usually—with tears. To this day, when he promises me something important, he does so on that man’s memory and on his grave. . .
He always apologizes when he contacts me. He’s so ashamed to do so. But he gets so desperate. And he hopes against hope that I won’t hold the contact against him, one more time, another, another.
Honestly, they’re indeed no trouble at all. He knows the drill: if I can get back with him, I will. If I don’t right away, he knows that I’m with family or with other patients. He knows I’ll get back to him eventually, even if it’s just a “hang in there.” He knows he’ll have his time later that week to come see me, to try somehow to find that devilish smile of his one more time, to remember when it was all easier, to borrow as hope what is my certainty: that he will find a better day. One day. Not today. Most likely not soon. But one day.
I can say that because he’s a warrior’s warrior, through and through. Behind that Abercrombie façade (albeit a brunette one), there’s a force of nature. He was a handful as a kid. He’s a handful now. He won’t give up. Never did. Never will.
All I can say is: good for him.
We took care of today’s matters in short order. He thanked me quite genuinely. “I’m sorry,” he said again, “to mess up your weekend.” I heard the break in his voice, quick, but definitely there.
“No trouble at all,” was my reply.
What else do we have, really, except time, a future.
He doubts he has a future, of course. My job—our job, as professionals—is to disabuse him and those like him of that notion one day at a time. No guarantees of any particular outcome. Just life, with its joys, its challenges, its months off, its back-to-works.
We’ll see each other tomorrow.
“What else do we have, really, except time, a future,” I asked, so confidently, so seemingly a lifetime ago. If only, if only.
He reappeared nine months later, in Merry Christmas, Reality Notwithstanding:
I’ve already spoken of [him] in “No Trouble At All.” He and I have struggled back and forth over what to do, when to do it, how to do it. He’s always respectful, quite engaging, the whole gamut from jocular to irritable (with an apology therefor immediately afterwards, I might add).
He comes from a professional family, several members of which are not, shall we say, reticent to express views that he’s not too thrilled to hear, his younger brother in particular. They’re an intriguing pair, these brothers: both quite physically striking in appearance, kinetic-energy extroverts par excellence. When they sit in the room together, they jockey for position as to who is going to make the next comment about whom—and have no fear, the younger one is not about to be the loser any more than fifty per cent of the time. One might be tempted to call each of them a “pretty boy”—but believe you me, you’d better not do so to their faces, and you’d better not count on the usual associations to that term if you were to get on their wrong sides. . .
Whenever. . . the rakish Porthos . . . had spoken of [his deceased battle buddy, [Aramis], he’d only been able to choke out a few words before telling me that he could say no more. I never could learn from him [his] buddy’s full name, simply because he could never bring himself to speak it without beginning quietly to sob. . .
Porthos returned to a family with whom he has cried, laughed, struggled. He returned to a younger brother who can outflank his every protestation, yet who can then quietly shed his own tears as he listens to his big brother’s overwhelming grief.
Again, with tears that younger brother called me Monday evening, just as I was texting him to express my concern and condolences. We spoke only briefly. There was little to say.
Yet as I thought about it that night, the night I wrote the previous entry, Goodbye, My Friend, I did realize there was indeed one more thing to say, to text to this handsome, younger brother, to this—perhaps?—D’Artagnan:
“I wanted you to know: when he and I met on Friday, he told me that he was worried about you and asked me to check on you. . . I know the two of you could go at it at times, but please do know that he loved you dearly and was proud to be your brother. That I know, and that I wanted you to know as well.”
I finally, then, wrote of him just last month, in To Remember, Not Relive:
Porthos and I have known each other for a while. Our relationship has always been warm–though, shall we say, complicated as well. As the middle of three strong-willed sons born to a strong-willed father, he knows how to make his wants and wishes known. Fear not that, I can assure you.
And I might add: I wouldn’t get into a scuffle with him. Some of the more foolhardy in his time have. They learned. Forthwith.
Yet can that boy pour on the charm, or what. His is a perfect mixture of the quite genuine and the quite consciously manipulative. He’s had more than his fair share of practice through the years.
He actually leaves me reeling much of the time, truth be told. I’m never quite sure whether I want to give him a warm rub on the top of his head or smack the living daylights out of him. Usually both.
Porthos, in other words, is one of those individuals about whom no one–and I mean, no one–can feel nonchalant.
Porthos is quite a handsome man. How we think the attractive never have to suffer, don’t we? How wrong we are. Anguish is just anguish, whether on the good-looking or on the plain.
He looked at me, with a face both steeled and tear-stained. He has all the gear in place for “Leading Man” status, yet I’m hard-pressed to come up with a modern exemplar for him, given that most A-list stars today are simply too “pretty.” Perhaps a young Mark Harmon as the surgeon on the “St. Elsewhere” of the 1980’s, even then oozing the “NCIS” Gibbs-attitude that would one day make him America’s favorite Marine, back then painfully walking down that hospital hall for the final time, his character well-aware that he might soon die of AIDS.
“I sometimes just don’t know if I can do this, Doc,” he finally whispered. “I’m not going to kill myself or anything, but sometimes I’m afraid I won’t make it. It just hurts so, her, Aramis, the War, everything. It just so, so . . . hurts.”
The final word had plopped out of him, as if it had been teetering on his lip all the while, not wanting to risk the reality that would result from its mental equivalent having found voice, sound, transmitted out to a world, to me, to . . . what?
And then it happened: in the middle of his anguish, he started to look as if he were ready to fall asleep, to look as I imagined he must have looked at the end of that twenty-four hours he and Athos had had to stand watch over the body of Aramis, waiting for the helicopter to arrive: too exhausted to run, too charged to collapse.
And I realized: he wasn’t with me. He was in Iraq.
“No one has any idea, do they?’ I finally asked, too exhausted, too charged myself. “You’re there, right now, aren’t you.”
He was staring off to the side, grudgingly allowing one tear at a time past the checkpoint, his eyelids in a bizarre, internal arm-wrestling, the upper halves determined to shut this show down, the lower halves determined not to give in ever, do you hear me, ever!
“I’m sorry, Doc,” he whispered, his tears, few as they were, so robust, so proud to be Army-strong, his eyes fixated miles away. “I’m trying, really I am. I hope you believe me. Please believe me, Doc. Please.”
“I do,” I answered, hoping perhaps that some information, meager as it was, would jar us both out of the grip of those tears. His energy, his intense drive, his inner push never to give up, never: there they were, torturing him, yet keeping him alive, simultaneously, right in front of me, with my every verbal reminder of the truth, the Truth.
It was horrible to watch.
All I could think at the moment was, “My God, this is what they all go through, isn’t it, all these men and women, the ones whose Facebook posts, whose blogs I read, who talk of being walloped back and forth through Time, through emotion, psychically miles away from the loved one before them, then within nanoseconds careening right into them, then back, then in, tethered to a yo-yo only Satan himself could have manufactured–with a smile.”
I had to stop. Had to.
“Will it ever get better, Doc?” he asked.
“Yes, it can,” I said as I leaned forward.
Still exhausted, but somewhere, unbelievably, still rakish, he closed his eyes, took in a deep breath, opened his eyes back up, looked into mine, and merely whispered, “If you say so, Doc. If you say so.”
I do say so. And I do believe so.
And I can at least say this, for the sake of his family, for the sake of Athos, for the sake of all combat veterans who have worried that, indeed, “hope” is an oxymoron: he was indeed getting better. He had a long ways to go. His road would have been a challenging one. But he was walking it. He would have continued to walk it.
The reliving was becoming remembering. In a way, he’d gone out on the road this past weekend to continue that very process. It was the process he was living when his time—like that of Aramis, also one to Live capitalized until the very end—came.
I can write no more now. Amazing what you can do with the Ctrl-C and the Ctrl-V commands. Copy and paste. Works like a charm.
I’m dreading next Wednesday. I’m dreading the guns. I’m dreading “Taps.”
And yet who am I, really? I did not raise him. I did not wrestle with him, argue with him, dream about the future with him, at five, fifteen, even twenty-five. I did not stand with him over the body of a dead comrade, sing with him at the top of our lungs Back Where I Come From, miles and miles away.
But he did permit me to feel his heart, to honor me with his pain, to trust me with his future.
I so wish there had been more of the latter, Porthos. I so, so wish.
He died at age twenty-seven, having seen so much death, having hurt so much pain, yet having also smiled so many smiles, having pulled so many pranks, having charmed his way out of so many tight squeezes, having watched so many episodes of The Vampire Diaries with his Dad, having known he could talk to his Mom about anything, having deeply enjoyed his brothers’ happiness with the loves of their lives, having texted one last time to Athos, the last Musketeer, just hours before his death, “Love you, bro.”
And he did, Athos. He did. That I know, and that I wanted you to know as well.
Goodbye, my friend. Goodbye.