It’s good to be back.
While my two-month delay has had a lot to do with the demands of my new job, I have to be honest: the real reason says far more about the challenges of farewells than it does about the challenges of paperwork.
About three weeks before Memorial Day, I made the decision to cross the therapist’s Rubicon, to go, like Caesar, where I had been told I was not to go, fully aware that my crossing, like his, would be an irrevocable one, an act, even, of rebellion.
I comfort myself now by revealing that my Julian meeting was at least not going to be a secret one: I had discussed it with my wife beforehand, given that I could not guarantee her that I would be home any time before 10:00 AM on that Monday before my second daughter’s high school graduation open house.
My wife had been fine with my going, nonetheless, especially given that my young adult children would most likely not even have been humanoid by that hour anyway, so she had figured that she most likely would still be nursing her Keurig-brewed Starbucks at said hour, channel-surfing in a desperate attempt to find something worth watching on TV after her having bid the day’s farewell to Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning.
Now true, I had told no one at the VA about the proposed meeting, but so it goes . . .
“You going to be free on Memorial Day—early, I mean, like 7:30 or so?” I asked the young veteran on that fateful, “the die is cast” day, both of us seated quite comfortably in my office.
It was an honest question, after all. I knew that he too had had a big event planned for the same day as my daughter’s, so I hadn’t been sure that the woman in his life would be as flexible as she in mine had been.
Brides can be funny about wedding days, after all.
“Why do you ask?” he replied, in a manner both comfortable, yet somewhat guarded, that hallmark of so many of our interactions.
“Well, you know,” I stammered, “in a matter of a few weeks, I won’t be your doctor any more, and you won’t be my patient, or at least officially you won’t be my patient—although some people do say ‘once a patient, always a patient,’ and I guess they have a point, if you think about it, but then—“
“Doc,” he said, his smile a familiar one, his roll of the eyes one that had once been a recurring response to a well-loved battle buddy of his, one still so missed by us both. “Just spit it out, why don’t you?”
I had to smile myself. Step in water. Cross. Step out of water. March.
“I was thinking,” I went on. “Last year on Memorial Day, I went to Crown Point Cemetery and placed a flag at the grave of a patient’s father, and . . . well, this year I was thinking of doing that at Porthos’ grave, you know?”
The young veteran’s smile slowly melted, first into the quizzical and then, dare I say, into the hesitant. Yet he didn’t say a word.
“So I was wondering,” I faltered on, “whether you would have the time or whether you would like to meet me there, at the cemetery, you know. We could . . . get a bit to eat afterwards, maybe. You know? If you’d like, of course. Only . . . if you’d like.”
Thirty years I’ve been a psychiatrist, with well over twenty more years behind me practicing the art of basic communication in the English tongue. One would think I could have come up with something better than that, but there you have it.
Thankfully, a rhetorical critic, Athos, the last Musketeer, is not.
“Of course, Doc,” he whispered, smile back in full force. “I’d love to.”
Apparently my children were not the only ones planning on sleeping in that Monday. I suppose every bride needs her beauty rest.
I bought the flag at the Canteen at the VA about a week before the Holiday, one of those tchotchkes that you always see people waving along the side of the road whenever the President is passing by in his motorcade from the airport to a convention center stage that looks the same in Seattle as it does in Poughkeepsie. I left said flag in the back seat of my Volkswagen, truthfully just so that I wouldn’t forget it and leave it at the hospital, yet also gambling that the sun would be merciful on it for the week’s wait, especially given that the chemical fibers of the flag’s “cloth” (ha-ha) would probably be strong enough to melt the sun itself before the latter would have the audacity to attempt to melt the former.
Monday morning, Memorial Day celebrated, finally came, and at the crack of dawn (i.e., 6:30 AM, same thing at my house on a three-day weekend) I headed south of Indianapolis, not even sure if the gates of my municipal cemetery destination would be unlocked at that time.
At 7:15, aided by the absence on the road of all drivers who had been smart enough to stay in bed that morning, I arrived to find the gates wide open.
It had been almost a good two months since I’d been there that first time. Yet without hesitation I recognized the winding road, visualized the tree by the veterans’ memorial, recalled the casket suspended over its final destination. Within minutes, destination found, I eased the car to a stop, turned off the engine, and just sat there, looking.
As if on cue, my cell phone rang.
“Sorry, Doc,” whispered the voice at the other end, in a tone familiar to anyone who has experienced that profoundest of parental joys, i.e., the waking up of teenagers on the first school day after Christmas vacation. “I overslept.”
No surprise, of course. By his report he’d never been the morning-type, even long before War had made sure that the dawning of a new day would never again spot him a feel-good freebie.
“No problem,” I replied. I remembered a mom-and-pop joint I’d passed by on the way into town. “Is it any good?” I asked. “We could eat before we head over.”
I swear I heard the smile over the phone. “Porthos and I ate there all the time,” he answered.
“See you when you get there,” was all I replied.
OK, so now: think Indiana. Now think of every diner that you’ve ever seen on TV where the show’s protagonists meet for coffee in the morning and where the waitress then walks up and reminds them that it’s Wednesday, so there’s still some peach cobbler left over from the day before, if they want some.
He arrived only about five minutes after I had, barely enough time for my downing two swigs of a coffee that, though not exactly flavorful, was not pitiful either, thank God. As he sat down, his whole demeanor, his whole “him” hit me again, full force. I could only imagine him in my mind’s eye, in some back-street club in Nashville, maybe, clad in a plain T-shirt and a pair of jeans, sitting by himself on a stool on the front stage, a couple of lights highlighting his each side, looking down at his guitar, strumming, quietly singing his soul as the patrons look on, their Miller Lites from the tap half-drunk, joining him in musical reveries of what had been, what might have been, what might still be hoped for.
“You gotta try the fried biscuits,” he said in an excited voice that I just as easily could also have imagined his having used with me had such a dream suddenly turned into a reality, after his having taken a break after the first set, probably, followed then by something akin to “Pretty good crowd tonight, Doc, you think?”
“The ones with the apple butter?” the real me asked. Yes, I’d seen them on the menu, I admit it.
“Porthos loved ’em. He’d practically swallow them whole.”
So of course I got them. Athos settled on biscuits and sausage gravy. What else for a Southern boy, right?
Porthos had known whereof he’d swallowed, it turned out. Lord, that place was so quintessential, I suspect they have one of the original patents on the whole breakfast menu.
We talked, not exactly buddy-talk, but certainly not doctor-patient “dialogue,” either. He was so excited to be getting married, so dyed-in-the-wool jittery. I talked some of my upcoming move, as I recall, as well as something of my daughter’s graduation, I’m sure, or of my son’s looking forward to his new school in Nashville, my wife’s looking forward to our downsizing, perhaps. Honestly I can’t quite remember. We needed only one java refill apiece, though, not that there hadn’t been time for more. I suspect neither of us had at that moment the stomach for more, literally and, yes, figuratively.
“Want to head over?” I finally asked.
For a few seconds he just looked at me, his face not exactly frozen, yet not exactly responsive either. He then looked down at his empty coffee cup, the only distraction available before him, the plate of gobbled-up biscuits long having been cleared away with a rapidity worthy of any waitress named Flo this side of the Mississippi.
“No,” he whispered, only then to bring his eyes back to mine. “But yes.”
As always, an honest man.
When we arrived at the graveside, we were still the lone living among the dearly departed, given the hour, most likely, but perhaps for other reasons as well, who knows. I got out first, shut my door, looked back at him in the car behind me. He was sitting behind the wheel, staring toward the grave. A few seconds later, jolted apparently by some slap across the face of his soul, given the sudden, quasi-violent shake of his head, he looked up at me, smiled (or at least tried to), and got out himself.
The headstone had not yet been placed at the grave, but the latter had certainly not been unattended: some flowers, a small wreath, tributes not having been lavished on any other soldiers’ remains in the entire area.
“His folks?” I asked Athos as soon as we’d reached the spot.
“I suspect so,” he answered.
“You come here any?” I continued, rolling the balsa wood flagpole in my fingers back and forth, back and forth.
He was gazing down toward the flowers and the settling earth before them. He’s a couple inches taller than I am, far more angular in appearance. Given that I was having literally to look up to him, his face somewhat silhouetted by the rising sun, for a moment he struck me as a young Lincoln, believe it or not, far more handsome, most definitely, yet just as burdened, just as sad.
“Every once in a while,” he finally said.
I turned my own gaze downward with him. After a few more moments of silence, I knelt down and inserted the flag into the ground, right next to the flowers. Down on my haunches, I was, for a few seconds at least, aware only of the man whose remains were below me, the man who only months earlier had so proudly assured me that he would get his prescription from the VA pharmacy on that day that he’d left his ID at home (an absolute no-no, of course), the man who’d then sashayed his way back into my office a half-hour later, dangling a sack of medications from his raised right hand, practically purring to me that “she thought I was cute, Doc, I told you. They taught us how to do that in Special Forces training, told you, told you.”
God, I miss him.
As I stood up, I heard a chuckle behind me. I turned to find Athos still staring downward, but smiling to beat the band.
“He’d have been so tickled that you did this, Doc,” he whispered, pausing only a few seconds before looking up at me, the tear trickling down his cheek, I suspect mine mirroring his.
The smile could only last so long.
“I miss him so much,” was all he could then say, clearly lest the single tear be joined by compatriots far too many, far too insistent.
It was only as we embraced right then, however, that our truth, his and mine, was spoken.
“I’m going to miss you so much, too,” he whispered into my ear, for a few moments hugging me even harder, only then to release me, to push himself back, to look down at the ground, to swallow, to look back up at me and then, without pause, to look back down again, his hands inserted into his pockets, his feet shifting, side, to side, to side.
“You know we’re going to stay in touch, don’t you, right?” I said after my own pause. I then moved a few steps toward him, took his face, and pulled it up slightly, bringing us one more time to that spot so familiar, so comfortable, so distressing to us both: eye to eye. “I won’t be able to do anything about the VA or anything like that, no medications, the whole bit. But . . . we’ll still talk. Just like always. Promise.”
I don’t think I’ll ever forget the gaze he gave back to me at that moment, the gaze of a man half my age, yet one who had lain by the coffin of Aramis in the belly of an airplane for hours on end, one who had taken Porthos’ folded flag from the hands of the highest-ranking officer of Indiana’s National Guard, only to pass it on to his buddy’s uncle with a solemn salute, the one who had buried his father, his sister. The last one standing.
He was reminding me that he could not afford to forget what I was trying so hard not to acknowledge: that separations matter, that Skype and FaceTime can only save us so much, that “still, just like always” is never either.
“Roger that, Doc” he whispered.
The good soldier, protecting his “superior” to the end.
I’m happy to report that he and I have indeed stayed in touch since my move. But, yes, it’s not just like always.
My last day at the Indianapolis VA was Friday, June 28, 2013. At 0400h (yes, that’s right) on July 1, 2013, my wife and I took my younger two children to the Indianapolis Airport to board a plane to Phoenix, Arizona, where they attended the national convention for the Mennonite Church USA. Only about an hour later, I drove my ridiculously-packed-up, blue Volkswagen away from my father’s house, where we’d been camping out since the sale of our home, after twenty-two years heading out of town one last time, now toward Nashville, Tennessee, toward a very different hospital than the VA, a very different life.
Yet I-65 South toward Louisville, with Nashville beyond, leads past a spot not too far away from a cemetery I’d visited just a month before. I thought of taking a brief detour. Yet I had a meeting to make in about four hours and then, after that, it was to be off to another meeting at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, forty-five minutes northwest of Nashville. No rest for the wicked. Or the weary.
So I drove on by. And remembered.
It has been ten days since I penned those last words. I’m still as clueless as to how to wrap up this essay as I was then.
We all so wish we could tidy up our lives’ endings, slap on some aphoristic wisdom and then mosey on down the road to another venue, another opening of another show.
Yet how do I do that, how do I tidily say “goodbye” to young men and women who have known so up-close-and-personally, often time after time after time, those most untidy of Life’s endings? How dare I even think that a nice thought at seventy miles per hour, followed by a sentence fragment penned three months later, could be enough to say to a Musketeer and his battle buddies, both literal and figurative, adieu, let alone claim to say à Dieu, Godspeed.
As I sit in the quiet of my brand-new, far-smaller condo, I almost literally experience faces pass before me, faces of those who have cried who have raged, who have laughed. Unlike the faces of the dead, these do not haunt me, thankfully. They do remind me, though, how much Life matters, how quickly it can change, for good or no, how long it lingers even after it has allegedly moved on.
And so I listen on.
Adieu, mes amis. À Dieu.