“My wife read your blog. She loved it.”
He surprised me, this handsome fly-boy, with his mentioning the blog. Since my move to Nashville earlier this summer, I’d been wondering how to proceed with it, given my new circumstances, i.e., an inpatient unit from which soldiers could be far more easily identified were I to write of them. It was not only my grief (strong word, but apt) over my leaving the VA that was blocking the writer, in other words, or perhaps taunting him, rather.
“Thank you,” I replied. “Coming from an English teacher, I take that as the highest compliment.”
He was looking at me quite expectantly, with a smile on his face both reserved and a mile-wide.
“How long have you been doing it?” he asked.
“Just under two years. It’s been a bit sparse this year, though, what with my move down here and all.”
He nodded quite amiably, like the good warrant officer he was, well seasoned in the fine art of making senior officers feel as if they’d just said something worth listening to. I was half-expecting a “Roger, that” at any moment.
“It’d be fine if you wanted to write about me, you know. I wouldn’t mind,” he replied instead, without a hint of hesitation.
“A story you’d like to tell?”
Funny: his smile didn’t really change, yet there it appeared on his face, diffused throughout, the seriousness of all that had happened to him.
“Yes, sir. Yes.”
I looked down to my left, to the floor next to his chair. A handsome German shepherd, appropriately decked out in his “working dog” attire, lay calmly there, at ease, both nodding off and aware, so aware. I was tempted to ask him, “Wirklich? Should I?”, as if he actually were one of those menacing hounds on Hogan’s Heroes who used to gobble up those fine French delicacies out of the hands of Corporal LeBeau.
Had I done so, I suspect all the dog would have done would have been to shoot me a look that would simply have conveyed the already-obvious: “Remember: I’m watching.”
How good it had been to see that smile that day, honestly. Only a few weeks before he’d first entered my office, then sans dog, looking for the world like some extra staggering behind Viggo Mortensen in The Road, post-apocalyptic smack-dab in the middle of Music City USA. He was on too many medications, to be sure. His treaters had known that. I knew that.
But that wasn’t just medications glazing those eyes. If only.
He’d started out his career as an enlisted man, impressing the bejeezus out of every senior soldier he ever encountered, yet completely oblivious thereof. After all, all his life he’d always assumed that he was never going to be good enough, that he was going to have to work twice as hard as everyone else to be half as good, that he would always be “almost . . .”
And assume that, he continued to do as he flew figuratively through the ranks into the position of warrant officer, flew so high that eventually he flew literally through Army flight school, rising, rising to the position of instructor, one deployment down, another, another . . .
Others whom he loved, though, his very own Band of Brothers traveling at the speed of sound, were not as fortunate as he, or so he assured me. They nosedived. Literally.
He was lucky, he kept telling me. Remember, he was twice-as-hard/half-as-good. He got the long end of the chance-stick. That wasn’t fair. He shouldn’t be alive. They should.
Through all his grief, though, all his explanations, all relayed to me in a tone of desperation that made even me think that perhaps the bad guys were just outside my office door, poised, itching for a soon-to-be-relished opportunity, I could sense that he knew what he knew he knew, even though he was doing all in his power not to know it: that while some survivals were indeed dumb luck, others were anything but. He was good at what he did.
And, almost certainly, better, yes, than others had been.
Survivor guilt is hard enough when all you have to show for it is chance. When you’re also carrying competence, the burden grows exponentially.
But the smile did appear, though, thanks to some med changes (nothing spectacular, trust me), a colleague who has turned EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, a trauma-focused treatment) into a quiet, yet explosive tour de force, and—you ready?—Norman Vincent Peale.
How to Win Friends and Influence People. I’m serious here. All your fancy-dancy treatments? Take that.
I’ll never forget his look when he showed me the life-changing passage, even though, for the life of me, I cannot recall what it said. All I know is that he practically did a 100m sprint to his room to fetch the book, the dog more-than-able to keep the pace, yet clearly unimpressed with the assignment. He beamed as he handed it to me, page dog-eared (sorry, don’t know how to avoid the pun). All I can remember is what he said to me as I looked back up at him after having read the crucial paragraph.
“It’s OK for me to be happy, isn’t it, Doc? It’s really OK.”
What else could I do but beam myself and chuckle?
“Yes, it is. Yes, it is.”
You go, Norm.
And so the day came for him and his fine friend to head back home. It’s such a different experience, this job. At the VA I saw men and women for months at a time, weekly, monthly, you name it. Here I see them daily for a brief while, sit with them at their most painful, work with them to calm at least somewhat the raging storms within them, enough so as to allow them to sleep, perchance not to dream, to find it easier to take the next hill, both literal and figurative.
He flew away. And he didn’t even have to die, hallelujah, by and by. He could be happy. He could live.
And the dog and I parted friends. I think.
A few days after he left our hospital, I received a note from his wife. She wanted to share with me an essay that she’d written just before my fly-boy had entered our facility, one she’d written solely to put into the words the pain that was tearing her asunder, day after day:
He is a man in a bottle. He sits atop our refrigerator. My husband’s grandfather carved the little figure out of some light-colored wood, balsa maybe. The figurine is a tiny fisherman. Unfortunately, there are no little wooden fish in the bottle with him. He must fish for the pace of mind it brings him, not the thrill of the catch. I wish my husband could find the same peace of mind. He is also in a bottle.
He came home from deployment, but he came home changed. There is a barrier between us now. The glass bottle that shields him from the memories also shields him from life. Anytime he attempts to leave his confinement, he suffers. The memories press in on him, and he retreats again. I miss him; I miss him so much.
I wish I could help, that I could make him better, but it’s his battle to fight, a battle of memories, fear and anxiety, a battle that only he understands. Right now he’s battling it with bottles, the many bottles of medications that crowd his bathroom cabinet. Each bottle, a different form of ammunition against his monsters. To help him sleep, to combat nightmares, to minimize his depression, to bury the anger, to tackle the anxiety, forty pills a day, forty temporary bandaids that cover up the problem, but cannot heal it.
So there he sits, day after day, confined in his bottle . . . out of my reach.
The essay was placed inside a small card, written just the day before. In it, handwritten now, not typed, were the following words:
Thank you so much for all you’ve done for my husband. He’s starting to act like my husband again, and I sure did miss that guy. You helped him find his way back from that dark place, and I hope everything he’s learned from your program helps him stay out of it for good.
I hope so as well. And even though I appreciate the thanks, I do think both she and I need to give thanks where thanks is due: to the good Reverend from Manhattan who, across time and space, reached into the heart of a Nashville pilot and breathed into him the words, “Live, young man. Live.”
Amen to that, Pastor.
And fly away, fly-boy. Fly away.
(Note: By typing these initials, “John/Jane Doe’s” and mine, I am signifying that the soldier about whom the essay is written has approved its content, received a copy, and given written permission for its publication on the blog.)
I never went “anywhere.” My friends did. I “got out” at “just the right time.” Some of my friends did not come back and I always hated that. I always hated how powerless I felt to change anything. I always wondered if I had “stayed in” and gone with them if maybe, just maybe, they could have come back… or at least I could have died with them. But of course I don’t know that my presence would have mattered and It would be cruel and a little naive for me to think that if I had traded places with them it would have been easier on them than it is on me.
I find it hard to really accept that it is OK for me to be happy. I can tell myself that it’s OK in my head… but the head and the heart are not always so connected. It is great to hear a story about someone realizing it and actually taking it in.
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