Empty Chairs, Empty Tables: From Paris to Fallujah and Kandahar

This past Thursday morning, I opened up my e-mail on my iPhone to find the following:

Songs That Stab

And now so soon once more again
The rock has turned in its due course
And “empty tables and empty chairs”
rings from ear to soul.

The poet is the writer of A Soul’s Walk, a blog that I follow regularly for the author’s inspired ability to link words that quite often ring for me from ear to soul. Periodically he writes about war, noting in one entry that “I have known a lot of people who are now dead.” I have always had the sense that he is no stranger to the painful consequences of combat.

He wrote the day after I had enjoyed my one (albeit two-part) Christmas request of my family: a). to go see the movie Les Misérables on its opening day, and b). to do so without my children’s complaining. While my son did remark that he had not planned on there being “so much singing,” I am pleased to report that I succeeded in getting both halves of my wish.

Les Misérables, originally produced by Cameron Mackintosh from a French musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, is a story of loss, justice, mercy, and redemption. In an earlier entry, 2K, 1 by 1, I referred to one of the centerpiece songs of the musical, sung by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman in the current movie), “Bring Him Home.” The poet in A Soul’s Walk  refers to another such centerpiece song, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” I can only assume that he had seen the movie on Christmas as well.

I have no surprise whatsoever at his response.

Eddie Redmayne, a British actor and singer who was once an Eton classmate of Prince William, in the movie plays the role of Marius Pontmercy, the wealthy young man who joins the student revolutionaries as they try to establish a Republic amidst all the political intrigue that arose in the twenty-some years since the fall of Napoleon. Marius falls in love with Valjean’s foster daughter, Cosette, and Valjean goes off to protect Marius before an emotionally climactic scene of the novel and film, the Paris Uprising of 1832. (Valjean sings “Bring Him Home” at that point.)

In the Uprising battle that ensues, Valjean does indeed rescue Marius, while all Marius’ other companions are killed by government forces. Soon afterwards, Marius returns alone to the tavern at which he and his companions had dreamed their revolutionary dreams, the place now in shambles, bloodstains still on the floor. There, he sings the following:

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken
There’s a pain goes on and on
Empty chairs at empty tables
Now my friends are dead and gone.

Here they talked of revolution
Here it was they lit the flame
Here they sang about tomorrow
And tomorrow never came.

From the table in the corner
They could see a world reborn
And they rose with voices ringing
And I can hear them now!
The very words that they had sung
Became their last communion
On this lowly barricade . . .
At dawn.

Oh, my friends, my friends, forgive me,
That I live and you are gone
There’s a grief that can’t be spoken
There’s a pain goes on and on.

Phantom faces at the window
Phantom shadows on the floor
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will meet no more.

Oh, my friends, my friends, don’t ask me
What your sacrifice was for
Empty chairs at empty tables
Where my friends will sing no more . . .

To call Redmayne’s performance a tour de force is not to give the man his due. The director, Tom Hopper, had filmed the movie with the actors’s doing all their singing during the actual takes, with orchestration added later. Therefore Redmayne had not been constrained by the stage singer’s need to belt out a song for the back row, over a full orchestra, whether live or recorded.

In theory, the sentiment of “Empty Chairs” is one worthy of any Verdi or Puccini.

In practice, though, it is the song of a young man who had never been prepared by his family for the worst that life can bring, who was saved finally not by that family’s money, but rather by the happenstance of his having fallen in love with the right woman at the right time, who had then provided him the right father-figure who was willing to take the risks that his patrician grandfather would never have dreamed of taking, Valjean, a reformed convict who covered himself with the excrement of Paris and faced his deadliest adversary just in order to “bring him home.”

But isn’t that what music does all the time, though: turn dumb luck into high drama?

That, Redmayne certainly provided. Unlike the song of any Marius I had ever heard, his began a capella, orchestrated by a stillness that, nonetheless, within a matter of only a few guitar and violin notes plunged itself directly into his chest, expelling his tenor voice with the quiet ferocity of a heart being ripped right down the middle, musical phrase by phrase, whispering, weeping, belting out to the back row, collapsing, until finally he and we, the audience, were left helpless before the final murmurs of a lone cello, wending its way up the scale, from bass clef to treble, into a fermata of grief that neither he nor we could escape.

If it was indeed a grief that can’t be spoken, it certainly became one that could be sung.

For many combat veterans, however, themselves often the happenstance recipients of happenstance rescues at the right time: if only it were that easy.

The young man came into my office the day after Christmas. I had met him on several occasions previously, yet that day’s visit had all the makings of one to turn out either ominous–or trivial. During the weekend before Christmas, he had been caught up in a high drama of his own involving other veterans with whom he had been living, several of whom I knew well. Accusations had flown. Searches had been undertaken. Outrage had been expressed. By all.

He came to see me because he needed his Suboxone, the opiate antagonist medication. Fortunately there had been no misuse of the medication whatsoever. (At least one does not need literal chemistry to have explosions that can make life more than memorable.)

I opened the door to find him in the hall, dressed in casual, post-Army chic, well-prepared for the blizzard that had been howling around him only moments before he had stepped into the building. His hunter’s cap was well-ensconced on his head, yet his facial smoothness (not softness) was worthy more of Marius standing tongue-tied at the gate before Cosette than it was of any ersatz lumberjack. He still had hints of a boyish smile, with eyes that I suspect had once even twinkled.

He was ex-military, though, through and through, one of those types I often see trekking down our VA hallways, a man who could have chosen the life of the “pretty boy,” had he so desired, but instead had thrown himself into perilous situations, because of which it is now clear to all that you wouldn’t want to mess with him, yet a man who at the same time can’t quite yet give up his birthright as “he-with-the-genes-to-make-girls-swoon.”

“Hi!” he said.

He was a bit more chipper than I thought he should have been–but that says more about me than it does him. After all, some of his drama had invaded my Christmas weekend, too.

“Come on in,” I replied. (“Countertransference, Rod,” I whispered to myself internally, those pesky feelings that patients can sometimes engender in us therapists. “Live with it, pal” was my only self-retort.)

We chatted a bit. To his credit, he was taking seriously what had happened to him the weekend before. Truth be told, knowing many of the actors who had been involved, I believed his version of the whole saga. Unfortunately for him, though, he had squared off against an adversary who is much more skilled at camouflaging his anger than my patient is, so my patient had far-too-readily swallowed the latter’s bait, along with the proverbial hook, line, and sinker. Ugliness ensued–as did my patient’s eviction.

I have to admit: I’d have probably reacted the same as he had.

Perhaps that was why I was a bit irritated: if I’m willing to play the there-for-the-grace-of-God card, I guess I expect a little reticence in return from my co-conspirator-in-fantasy.

This was not, however, the first time that my patient had pulled a “What, who, me?” line on me. That very morning, for example, there had been a bit of a song-and-dance about whether he’d given a urine specimen for a drug screen.

He’d turned up dirty, of course.

He’d partied down the after the Great Drama, having been sent out on his own. I actually believed him when he told me that he had done it more out of anger than he had out of a desire for recreation. No reason that spite and fun can’t go hand-in-hand, after all. Still, in the matter of only about twenty-four hours he’d managed to anger not only his “landlords,” but also both his estranged wife and his parents, so he was counting on an all-forgiving relative to grant him shelter until he could arrange a place of his own.

So I took the risk–and given countertransference, I mean risk: I decided to talk with him about his attitude.

For the non-therapists out there: I cannot overstate how dangerous this decision was. “Confronting the patient with reality” always sounds great in theory, and, granted, it usually plays well on TV-psychologist shows, whether fictional or “real” (LOL). The technique, however (if one dares grace it with that name) is fraught with perils. Such “therapeutic confrontations” often end up being no more than self-justified hissy fits on the part of peeved therapists.

My only saving grace, if any, was a simple one: I really like this man.

And I can never forget the symptom he’d reported to me at our first meeting: at night he often awakens to the crying voice of an Iraqi girl. It has often seemed so real, he has had to search his house before he can settle himself back down just to consider returning to sleep, a reprieve that he is rarely granted.

“I want to tell you something,” I began, “but it won’t be easy to hear.”

Because of his smooth facial features, it was hard to tell whether any apprehension was registering in him. His eyes did widen ever so slightly, though. Not his usual.

“Sure,” he replied, without a hint of swagger, yet without one of tenseness, either.

“It’s important that you know that I believe in your sincerity and in your desire to bring some kind of peace to your family, whether or not you and your wife stay together. But you also need know: you often appear as far less than sincere. Frankly, you can often come off as a guy who depends on his good looks and charm to get him out of any mess he’s finagled himself into.”

For a few moments he just stared at me. He looked neither like a man who’d been caught in the act or like one who was about to harangue me with the excuse du jour. He just stared.

Finally he whispered, “I know.”

After another few moments of silence, I whispered back, “That’s not who you really are, so . . . why?”

He swallowed, shifted in his chair, looked down, then began rubbing his hands.

“It’s so hard,”he said after another hard swallow had barely begun its way down his throat. “I mean, if I don’t keep going, keep acting like everything’s OK, keep telling everybody to stop making such a big deal of everything, I . . . it all comes back.”

“What comes back?” I asked.

He looked back up at me, no tears, yet no defensiveness, either. I had to wonder, in fact, whether his face was what Thoreau had been referencing when he had written of “quiet desperation.”


“As in?”

He took a breath, as if to steady himself.

“Houses all blown up. Tanks running over the cars. The people I killed, Doc. My buddies, picking up their body parts, putting them in bags, there never being enough parts for one bag, never . . . enough.”

The stillness of my office reminded me of the stillness of Marius’ tavern.

“We have to face it,” I finally whisper. “It’s not just going to go away.”

He just looked at me, then “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know . . . what to do.”

As I looked back at him, I thought of Valjean’s words in his song: “He is only a boy.” Yet my patient had seen too much. The baby face was gone.

But he was still Marius, wasn’t he–or perhaps better, a male Éponine, the girl who had loved Marius from afar, who had wandered the streets of Paris “On My Own,” much as my patient had had to wander through his adolescence living on his own. Like the ill-fated Éponine, he had tried to make his way in a world that at one point had seen him, like the young Éponine, as “pretty” and “entitled,” a world that, however, no longer allowed him, as it did not the older Éponine, that luxury.

“I know I’m just running away, Doc,” he finally whispered. “But if I don’t run, I . . . I can’t stop seeing the pictures in my head. I look down at my daughter and . . . “

That was when the tear came, demanding both of us to give it enough time to trickle down his cheek with the respect it deserved.

“It’s going to have to hurt,” I eventually said to him. “I can’t take that away. But you and I both know that it’s already hurting. It just needs to hurt in a different way, a way that can get you somewhere, that can help you put into words what you can’t say now, that can make it real for both of us, make it a pain for us to share, not just one to torment you alone.”

“But you’ve got to understand,” I continued. “You’ve developed a talent that once served you well, that will one day serve you well again, but that right now is doing you no good whatsoever. You have the ability to store your deepest pain on a shelf in your brain and then tell yourself it’s gone. You can even convince yourself that’s the case at least half the time. But not only is it not gone, the rest of us can feel that it is not gone. You stand there looking at us as if the world’s just fine and dandy, yet your whole body is practically screaming to us out here that nothing is right. Most folks haven’t a clue what to do with that mixed message, so they either just leave you alone or come to the conclusion that you’re shallow and self-centered and then leave you alone. Either way, you end up alone. I know you think you deserve to be alone, but that’s a consequence you’re creating, not enduring.”

It was odd. He shed no more tears. Yet I could feel his soul weeping.

Yet also, had I not just spent the previous minutes with him, absorbing his words, not just hearing them, I could have looked at him and thought: grief that can’t be spoken? Seriously?

I know that looks can deceive. But can they deceive so thoroughly that even when I know–I know–a man no more than three feet away from me is, even as we are speaking, doing everything in his power not to be running down an Iraqi street, screaming, dodging bullets, without a single Parisian barricade between him and those who have no care whatsoever how few body bags he’ll require for the trip home, can even then I find myself wondering: does he get it?

“I shouldn’t be here, Doc,” he says, answering the question that must have been obvious from my own looks. “My buddies are gone. I still hear that girl crying some nights. I shouldn’t be here. And now my relative is the only one who’ll speak to me. Except for her, I’m alone. I don’t want to die, but I can’t live like this. But I don’t know what to do, Doc. I don’t know what to do.”

Just because a grief can’t be seen doesn’t mean that it can’t be spoken. You just have to be open to hearing it. It’s in the notes, whether sung or not.

“What you do now,” I say to him, “is go stay with your relative, keep out of trouble, and don’t file this away one more time and forget about it until the next disaster. It’s OK to forget sometimes, but not all the time. It’s OK to watch mindless TV. But you also need to hurt some this weekend. Don’t worry: you’ll have your relative there, and remember that you’re only going to have to hurt for a while, for a reason. Hurting now does not mean hurting forever. Yet if you don’t hurt now, you might hurt forever. We’ll pick up right there next week, OK?”

“OK,” he replied, his voice once again affirming what his facial musculature, once again, had not yet found itself ready to affirm.

Eddie Redmayne proved that a grief that cannot be spoken can nonetheless be seen, be sung. My patient proved that a grief that cannot be seen can nonetheless be spoken, even when there is no song to sing.

It’s in the notes, the silence and the notes.

We go forward from there. Marius did. The poet of A Soul’s Walk will. My patient will.

As the Les Mis cast sings at the end of Act One: One Day More.

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