I have been putting off this post for several days.
Fortunately, Life has been more than accommodating in this procrastination, given that it has certainly proceeded at a hectic pace recently, what with travel, snow, college visits, surgeries (my wife’s, and she’s fine, all things considered), and—hallelujah!—the book manuscript finally at the editors, ready to be sliced and diced.
But it’s time.
This past Sunday, as CBS’s 60 Minutes was airing, I was in the car with my eldest as she was driving us back to Goshen College after her (so-called) Spring Break. Our most pressing issues of the evening were, upon arrival, a). whether her fish was or was not pale and b). whether she and her boyfriend would have the leftover Costco chicken pot pie the next night or the night after that.
How lucky a father I am.
Only much later that evening, as I was checking my e-mails far too late in the night, did I learn from a Google news tracker that earlier that evening the CBS news show had aired a segment, presented by Byron Pitts, entitled “The Life and Death of Clay Hunt.” Given that it was well past midnight, I decided to check it out later.
On Monday, I did.
It is this picture that I cannot get off my mind, the one that greets the curious web surfer who happens upon the 60 Minutes site:
It’s his eyes. Pure and simple, the eyes.
God, how many times have I seen those eyes.
Not only am I a lucky father, I am also a lucky psychiatrist. On many a day as a Suboxone provider, I have had the privilege of helping men and women who have struggled with opiate (painkiller/heroin) dependence re-find their lives. For many—and, thankfully, I do mean many—relief from opiate addiction helps relieve them of much of whatever combat stresses they might have endured. Thank goodness, “return from combat” does not have to equal “PTSD.”
But then there are the days I see those eyes.
Uniformly, the men behind those eyes are, like Clay, quite handsome, sturdily-built, intense as all get-out. Whether in the waiting room or upon entry into my office, they sport that same smile Clay flashed so naturally, so alluringly as he struck that “hey, I’m just a cool guy” pose in the college video interview shown on the segment, straddling the table chair, forearms debonairly leaning against the chair’s back, looking, for the life of him, as if he were a screen-test finalist at the next Ryan Gosling look-alike contest.
Yet how much more than charm and magnetism do such eyes convey. Mirrors of the soul, they are, or so the proverb tells us. How sad it is to realize that, yes, the proverb knows whereof it speaks, painfully, wrenching-ly so.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: how we’d like to believe that the attractive never suffer, that somehow good genetics and a few extra hours at the gym insulate someone from the truths that Life will simply not let most in this world avoid.
Even more, though, how we’d like to believe that the attractive never think deeply, never ponder, never see the images of the dead pass before them, daytime, nighttime, never feel their very souls being wadded up and flicked into some plastic-lined, psychic receptacle at the far end of the park downtown.
Clay was born a mere two weeks before I finished my last medical school rotation, Pediatric Neurology at the James Whitcomb Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, over thirty years ago now. Seeing his eyes; seeing the effect he continues to exert two years later on the men and women he touched; seeing his battle buddy, Jake Wood, no slouch in the looks and intensity department himself, struggle to maintain his own cool-guy composure not just in front of a camera, but clearly, by his own admission, day after day after day, at his every thought of this man who, even as we speak, should have been preparing to get himself measured for a groomsman’s tuxedo—seeing all that, I’m glad that I have thirty years behind me, that I’m foolish enough still to believe that I can somehow hold within me another’s sadness that can never be fully held, that I’m self-forgiving enough to allow myself to keep trying to do just that long after a wiser man would have hightailed it out of town and not looked back.
“Survivor Guilt” is what they call it, of course, the progenitor of those eyes. Clay hauled it around as a rucksack heavier than any that a sadistic, higher-ranking chain-of-command could have ordered him to carry. Winston, my “correspondent” over the past several posts, has been doing the same, though still alive, thankfully, still hoping that one day it will no longer commandeer his dreams, hijack his all-too-brief moments of happiness.
How many times a day do I see it in the men and women whom I have the privilege of serving, the guilt, the sadness in those eyes? Sometimes they flash before me, those pains, much as they did in those moments in which Jake Wood was no longer the honcho from Team Rubicon, but rather was simply the grieving best friend of a good man. Sometimes, though, they camp out right there in front of me, in eyes that literally have seen too much and that now, somehow, are desperately trying figuratively to see again, uncertain whether they dare brighten again, uncertain whether they are worthy of even considering doing so.
To Clay’s parents, his family, to Jake Woods and all those who served with him, I can only say: I wish I could have known him. I wish I could have appreciated those eyes in much lighter, much more rascally days.
I am so glad that each of you had many of those very days with him.
May the memories of them sustain you always. And may he rest in peace.