When I met him at the clinic door, he smiled, one a little distant, perhaps, but genuine. Now with the build of a man in late middle age in Middle America, I could still see the young Marine underneath, even as his demeanor belied that legacy that he still so values, his very gait instead murmuring, “Those gung-ho days are past, my friend. No need to dally, but no need to rush as well.”
We did neither.
As he entered my office, I asked if the lighting were bright enough. “Just fine,” he said. “Kind of calm, actually.”
We sat down opposite each other, the first time we’d met together. But I’d read his chart. I knew the question that most needed to be asked.
“How’s your Mom?”
Not as distant now, his smile diminished slightly, yet it persisted, as if his very face, semper fi to its owner still, were not going to abandon him in his time of greatest need.
“She passed on Saturday.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, although, admittedly, I debated whether to say that, knowing the little that I knew. But it seemed right at that moment. Perhaps the remnants of the smile invited it. Yet I knew that even that smile, if it were to remain genuine, would not tolerate much more unbridled politeness.
“From what I read, she was often a challenging woman?”
Eyes still on mine, he continued smiling, now more as if we could dispense with pretense and just get down to business.
But then, something beyond facial musculature kicked in.
“But these last few months: it was better,” he said.
He’d spent quite a bit of time caring for her in those months, along with his other siblings. When lucid, she had not brought up the darker days between them, which had, sadly, been many, especially in those days before he had decided that Vietnam was going to be a safer bet than home. He had not brought up those days either. There had been the physical work of moving her, feeding her, cleaning her that had needed to get done, after all.
When she had been less lucid, he had become her father sometimes, one of her brothers at other times. He had seen that she felt safer in her imagined presence of those men, no matter what memories he might have had of them. He had recognized that he was playing a role. It hadn’t bothered him. He’d played other roles in her life before. These roles had been better ones, for both of them.
“Vietnam raised its head in any of this?” I asked.
He looked away, over an ocean, perhaps.
“When I first saw her body, after she’d died, I was there, in Nam. But then,” he said, looking back at me, “it became her again. It was OK. I don’t know, until they took her out on the stretcher, I guess. Watching them roll her away, that’s when I knew it was real. That’s when I started balling.”
At times like this, as a therapist, I wonder whether to leave the past in the past or whether to acknowledge, as did Faulkner, that the past never dies.
“A much younger man saw the dead carried away many times before, didn’t he?” I finally said.
“How true,” he replied, looking down, nodding slightly. “How true.”
Then he looked back up at me.
“Can I tell you something?”
“Before they came to take her away, when it was just me and my brothers and sisters there, we all just sat down on the bed next to her, all of us around her, and put our hands on her. And you know, that made a difference.”
“I don’t know about them, but it was as if I was finally being held. The right way.”
“As if her spirit and yours didn’t want to waste time on the bad stuff anymore,” I replied.
He looked at me, apparently surprised that a psychiatrist would actually say that. Then, once again, the facial muscles came through.
Perhaps even Faulkner can get it wrong some of the time.
From his record I had learned that only a third of those who had accompanied him to Vietnam returned home. I knew that the years afterward had been hard, very hard, but that he and his wife of almost fifty years had worked to try to make them better. He values his therapist, his fellow veterans who have helped him along the way. He has no interest in easy answers. Just like that boy in the jungle so many years earlier, he has a task in front of him—to live, to preserve the lives of those he loves.
“I’m going to be OK, Doc,” he told me as we parted. “Not right away. But it’ll be OK.”
Yes, it will.