I met with Athos last week, one of the “Three Musketeers” whom I had described in an earlier post, Merry Christmas, Reality Notwithstanding. Athos is the second of the two men I have had the chance to work with, the quieter one, the Tobey Maguire/Nick Carraway to my first patient’s, Porthos’, Leonardo DiCaprio/Jay Gatsby, as you might recall.
The third musketeer, Aramis, was the man they each mourn to this day.
“I sent the link of your blog post to my Mom,” Athos told me before either of us had even had a chance to consider sitting down. “She wanted me to tell you ‘Thank you for taking care of my boy.’”
As he finally did begin to lower himself into his seat, he flashed a hint of the smile that, no doubt, keeps him his “Mom’s boy” even to this day. Even after all that has happened.
“Well, tell her ‘thank you’ as well,” I replied. “It remains my pleasure.”
“I haven’t sent it to Aramis’ folks yet, but I’m planning to,” he then said, a bit sheepishly, even though at the same time definitively, if such a combo could be possible.
“You stay in touch with them?”
“Oh, yes. I talk to them a lot. I’d spent time with them, gotten to know them. I mean, at his funeral, it was like I was there in his place, like a son, you know?”
“They let you come home for his funeral?” I asked. That’s not the usual practice, after all, not by a long shot, especially during the period of the conflict in which Aramis was killed.
Athos hesitated a bit, as if he hadn’t quite been expecting my query.
“Yes, I . . .” His swallow betrayed less an impending tear than more an impending dread, the dread of here we go, one more time, remember, one more time. “Yes, I came home with him.”
For a moment, I couldn’t quite place the scenes in my mind again, Aramis’ death, Athos’ and Porthos’ positions, their responses.
“You were there, weren’t you, when he died?”
“Yes, sir.” He swallowed again.
“Porthos too, right?”
“Yes, sir. We were both right there. We’d all gone by the spot earlier, and we were on our way back. Somehow we missed those guys the first time through. They must have just sat there as we walked past them that first time, I guess, I don’t know. But then they opened fire, just like that. I mean, man, I went down for cover, but Aramis just charged ahead, shooting right at them. They hit him five times, last one through the head, the one that killed him.”
I didn’t pause. I’m not sure whether I felt his momentum or dreaded it.
“You saw it all?”
“Yes, sir. I just started shooting. I’d never shot at anybody before. I just shot and shot and shot. Then I started to run out to him. I heard somebody shout at me to get back, and all I can remember doing was shouting back, ‘F*** you, I just lost my best friend.’ Then all of a sudden, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I whirled around, and there was my sergeant. He just looked at me, only could have been seconds, and he just said, not yelled, ‘I know, but not now, not now,’ and he pulled me back.”
Now there was a pause.
“You know,” he continued, in his mind perched on some rock thousands of miles away, in heat so real to him even I could almost feel it, “we couldn’t get his body out for about twenty-four hours, so we just stayed with him, Porthos and I, we couldn’t leave him. It was hot, it was . . . it was bad. The medic had covered his face, you know? So that . . . we didn’t see it. I took his gun, all his stuff. His blood was still all over everything. When the helicopter came, I climbed in one side and Porthos climbed in the other, his body in between us, and we were off to get him on the Blackhawk to get him out of there.”
“But what was even more crazy,” he then said, “was that when I got out of the helicopter, I just started walking–I mean, I didn’t even know which way was up, you know what I’m saying?–and then out of the blue this airman leaps right on me and starts screaming at me that I’d about walked into the propeller. And you know what, Doc, you know what?”
I figured that he was going to say what he finally did say. And even though he saw that I had already had it figured, no matter: he said it anyway.
“I wouldn’t have cared if it had.”
He meant what he said, of course, yet I have to say this as well: there was something less definite about him that day we spoke, less miles-away, less certain, as if somehow futile was slowly easing its way out of the centerpoint of his vocabulary.
Then after a few seconds, “And it was right after that that the big guy pulled me aside and asked me.”
“Asked you what?”
He snorted, although hardly at all, truthfully, and certainly not at all one of contempt, but more like one of a person’s somehow still not quite believing that what happened actually happened. He looked right at me.
“He asked me if I wanted to take Aramis on home, back to the States, to his family. And I didn’t hesitate for a second, not a second. I just said, ‘Yes, sir.’” Slowly his gaze left mine, wandered past my head, toward the window, out. “Yes . . . sir,” he then whispered.
I’m sure the next silence was only seconds long, but with his looking through the window, he pushed me back a good six psychic inches from him, not too far, mind you, but far enough to privilege me only with the sharing of his story, but not with participating too closely in it. He was in a world that was his and Aramis’s, theirs alone.
“When they put him in the plane to take him back, I just crawled in and lay down next to him. I didn’t leave his side the whole way. We’d heard that the escorts sometimes would do s*** like putting their feet up on the bodies. No way, man. No way.”
Those last words were not spoken to me, were no mere descriptions of what was or was not going to happen. Those words were a vow, spoken to a best friend who, though not hearing, would nevertheless know that Athos had not only had his back, but finally also his whole body, to the end, the very end.
Then, all of a sudden, he smiled, just enough to bring us both back to my office, to each other and to each other’s gaze.
“You know, Doc: that’s when I found out what happens when you’re lying on the bottom of one of those planes as it’s coming in for a landing. I mean, the presssure?” He gave me a are-you-kidding-me look well worth the price of admission. “Not good, Doc, not good.”
Freed from the reverie of his final one-on-one trip with his “bestest buddy,” he returned to a more steady, though still thoughtful narrative pace. He talked of his time with Aramis’ family, the funeral, the motorcade to the national cemetery, the graveside service.
“But you know what I’ll never forget?” he then said. “I’d just gotten out of the limo, and I was like standing there, not even sure where I was, who I was, nothing. And so I look up, and there he was, the big guy, the senior man himself, looking right at me. It took me a few seconds, but then I saw what he was looking at: I had something hanging from my uniform. But before I could even react, all he did was walk toward me, take a pin off his own uniform, and then pin mine back together. He put his hand on my shoulder and just said, ‘There you go, son. There you go.’ And he squeezed my shoulder and walked on. I . . . I couldn’t believe it.”
We talked more, about Aramis still for a while, but soon we were talking about his own girlfriend and his (quite funny) memories of trying to keep Porthos in line while they were back in the military. By hour’s end, he had already stood up to leave, our plans for our next meeting having been made, when he paused and looked right at me.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever told anybody all that, Doc. But, you know: I made it through without crying. That’s . . . that’s a start, Doc. That’s a start.”
With that, he walked out.
A week later, the pictures in my mind that I cannot shake are two. One is the picture of a young man, barely into his twenties, lying on the bottom of a cargo plane next to a box, vowing to remain faithful until the landing at Dover, protecting another man’s honor that, in one way, was only a memory and that, in another way, was the only bit of Aramis that no one–no one–would ever take from him. No one.
The second is of a senior officer looking into the eyes of a young enlisted man, quietly saying, “There you go, son. There you go.”
There is no glory in War. Only days before that officer took Athos’ shoulder, a family over in the Middle East had buried another man, a man perhaps who had died with hatred and malice in his heart, a man perhaps who had, instead, merely died wanting only to get these armed strangers out of his country. I will never know.
I do know that Athos, Porthos, Aramis, each believed he was “born to protect.” Each believed that 9/11 was an Act of War. Each believed that their mission was part of a greater mission to assure that 9/11 would not happen again. What others believed or to this day believe about that mission, that never was the point. They believed honorably. They acted as men, real men capable of rage and love. Their commanders saw them as men, real men capable of respect and even worthy of the title “son.”
One of them did not come home alive.
He did not, however, come home alone.
For it was, to the end, as Alexandre Dumas put in the mouths of his famous trio, “One for all, all for one.”
All for one.