I’m not sure that even now he fully understands the impact of his presence, this soldier, notwithstanding our having discussed it several times. Of average height and very strong build, he, to be fair, would not necessarily stand out on an Army base filled with men of such description, if all you were to do were to view him in a still pose, standing or sitting.
It’s how he moves.
I’ll never forget first seeing him walk, sit down, lean forward, fold his hands, bend his head downward. He was not the first burdened soldier I’d met, not by a long shot. Yet there was something so measured about him, so willing to accept the load, no matter how heavy. It was as if Atlas had volunteered to Zeus to bear the weight of the heavens so that no one else would be so encumbered, no hint of martyrdom anywhere, simply duty and faithfulness.
Unfortunately for him, though, he had taken on weight that had been unfairly farmed out to the innocent, whether by the questionable decisions of superiors or by Life. As a veteran of four Middle East deployments, he had had more than his share of opportunities to do that.
Only then to return home and to discover that Life does not cease to provide such opportunities once you’ve hopped a plane back stateside.
More pertinent to this tale, moreover: true to form, to his character, he was even willing to bear such a weight for me.
It was probably our second, maybe third time speaking together. Already, in just those short encounters, I had come so to admire him, even as I had also come to feel so much sadness at his recurring assumption that if someone was going to have to take the “hit” for Life’s cruelties, it might as well be him.
The conversation that day took an innocent enough turn, in retrospect, a discussion of possible future options, as I recall, tossed out as one scenario among many.
I said what I said.
He didn’t respond as he could have. As I babbled on, he simply nodded his head in that most soldierly of manner, the ever-ready “Roger that, sir,” I’m sure, right there on his lips.
It was I who had to stop in mid-sentence, smacked in the psychic face by the import of the words I had just spoken to him.
You see, I had just “tossed out” an option that would have been impossible precisely because of something that had happened to him, something about which he had felt the greatest of blame, even though there had been none for him “realistically” to take on. For a moment, I had acted as if what had most rent his heart had never happened at all. I might as well have been talking to Atlas about that oversized beach ball on his shoulders.
This was not the first time this had happened to me, of course, although fortunately a mistake of this gravity is a rare one. Once I realized my mistake, I think I must have just sat there open-mouthed, wide-eyed, the whole bit. All I can remember is his face, a single swallow, a deep breath with his mouth closed, in and out, no change in countenance whatsoever, followed by that look of being willing to take the hit one more time and then to listen attentively to whatever my next words might have been.
“Oh, my God, I’m so sorry,” was all I could utter. I then spoke my mistake out loud.
“That’s all right,” he whispered, although the quick catch in his voice revealed that it had been anything but.
“No, it’s not,” I shot back, quite aware of my need to allow him, even urge him to put blame where blame was due. “You deserve better than your doctor even momentarily forgetting what I forgot.”
His discomfort was crescendoing. “Really, sir, it’s OK. I forget things all the time. No big deal, really.”
This was a hard decision point for me. On the one hand, I needn’t—and what’s more, shouldn’t—keep harping on something that a soldier has no desire to rehash. He or she has the right to request that we just let it go, already.
Yet somehow I knew that this was not one of those times.
For a few frantic microseconds, I dove inward, trying to interrogate every neuron I possibly could: “Why did I do that?” Only one thought, more image than language, came to me: I was already experiencing him as the strong, good, fulfilled man that he could and can be. I was, in other words, already experiencing him as having moved forward.
“You know,” I finally said. “I have no clue as to whether this will make things better or worse, but I do want you to know: I think at that moment I was experiencing you as the strong man you are, even though I realize that you’re feeling anything but that. Even though I know full well that you are struggling, I still think of you, feel you as the man who I know you want to become.”
For a few seconds, he stared at me, still not angry, but less anxious as well. He then looked down and even, for an instant, smiled, more out of recognition than out of anything approaching levity.
“You know, one of the other soldiers told me that exact thing, just yesterday, that I’m exactly the kind of guy he sees himself wanting to become. It . . . it helped.”
I leaned forward.
“You appear to be having no problem forgiving me for my blunder, am I right?”
He looked back at me. “Absolutely.”
“Then, maybe,” I replied, “could you see how all the rest of us, whether alive or not, would have no problem forgiving you—if in fact there were actually something to forgive? The hardest person on you is you.”
He dropped his head back down. “It’s always been that way.”
“Do you see, then,” I went on, “how because of what just happened, we proved together at least one instance of something that you’ve doubted much of your life: that words can make a difference, that trying to work something out is more than half the answer to whatever it is that comes between two people? All your life you’ve felt that words really don’t make a difference, so just soldier on. Sure, you’ve been to War four times: so you know that’s very often the case, the only case. But it’s not always the case, especially between two people who are trying to understand each other. Good intentions may not always lead to good results, but sometimes they’re all we have—and they really are at least better than silence.”
It took only him only a few seconds to look back at me with both that same “what do you know” smile and the words that I’d been expecting all along: “Roger that, sir. Roger that.”
Gary Cooper was certainly a complex man in real life, but on the silver screen he came to stand for all men of few words, yet of deep feeling. I’m not so sure that the sheriff in High Noon was ultimately that interested in forgiveness, truthfully. So I’m glad his counterpart in my life turned out to be more amenable to the notion.
The soldier has worked hard to understand himself, to give himself over to what cannot be changed, to begin to change what can. He’d have always been the type to live the Serenity Prayer more than say it, truth be told, though I’m sure he’d not be against it. Wise men, young ones included, are willing to give even the standardized a shot.
He’s still frustrated, no doubt of that, sad as well. But together we discovered that words can make at least the beginning of a difference when said sincerely by two persons trying to make Life better. The old analysts always said that there is no such thing as a “mistake.” It’s never random when we disappoint one another. I’m afraid they’re probably right.
Thank goodness that in spite of that, my Sergeant Cooper was willing to give voice to at a least a few more words than “yup,” “nope,” and “can’t rightly say.”
I am indeed most fortunate.
Sometimes Doc, it’s the words we initially wish we’d never said that we come to cherish the most. Hang in there Soldier.
When I have my “what’s the point?” moments I’ll come back and reread this post. Thanks Dr. Deaton.
Your candor and honest is a treasure.
I think of this man’s injury as what we’re now talking about as a ‘moral injury’ in that he can’t forgive himself for what he’s done (or not done!)
Hey! I have a quick question about your blog, could you email me at ewalsh @ mesothelioma.com when you have a chance? Thanks, Emily