His names first caught my eye, all three great: first, middle, last, like something straight out of Downton Abbey.
The man I saw in the waiting area could have come out of central casting for the same show, turns out. Imagine Ryan Gosling fresh out of Marine Corps basic training, but who’d managed to keep enough hair to make either a comb-back or a comb-forward look rakishly stylish. That pretty much summed him up. Dressed in his clean work uniform, his (admittedly non-boot-camp) beard well-trimmed, any photographer in his or her right mind would have been foolish to pass up the opportunity to shoot him in the latest from J. Crew.
It was our first meeting. He apologized for having had to cancel an earlier appointment. He’d had to make an alternative appointment that day, he said, one that he’d dared not miss. I later learned with whom. He’d been right. Only after finding that out did I finally understand his initial tentativeness: respectful, true, but guarded. Most definitely.
It was not his first visit to our clinic, after all. He was not a “regular” in any sense of that word, but he’d been there often enough, it would have seemed to me, to forestall the degree of hesitancy I sensed from him, even with his meeting the “new doctor” for the first time. His medication needs were straightforward. A review of his records showed that he’d had a history of dealing with some combat issues, but in recent visits he’d assured other colleagues that he had been doing well enough.
And, indeed, in many ways, he has been. A relatively-new girlfriend, but one whom he’d fallen head-over-heels for: he smiled as he informed me that he was trying to think through how he was going to afford the aftermath of the proposal he was nudging himself toward making her. A good job, one that surprised him with its challenges, given how ordinary it might seem to some: the man who had taught it to him was funny, interesting, even, and not about to let him get away with a half-ass job, a compliment that, in a way, perhaps only a Marine can fully appreciate.
It was his father, however, whose psychological presence filled the room, a retired military physician—and a steadying hand. For, indeed, things had not been well after he’d returned from War.
“I can still get so angry,” he said to me, “over the stupidest things. I get so upset with myself. My girlfriend helps a lot, but I can’t tell her too much, you know? I can always tell my Dad, though.”
Yet I could see in his eyes that he was struggling more than he would have wished.
“How does the War still follow you around?” I asked him.
“Oh, not that much anymore,” he said, in a non-defensive way, to be sure. There had been more nightmares, more flashbacks in the past, but the support of his family, his girlfriend, his Dad: they’d made a difference over time. He no longer took any “standard” medications often prescribed to those who suffer from combat PTSD. He’d never been a fan of them ever, given their side effects, and he was doing well enough without them. Seeing the presentation of the man in front of me, I had no reason to doubt that.
But, still, there was something.
“You talked of the anger. So how does the War still weigh on your heart?”
He shot me a look and didn’t skip a beat.
“The guilt,” he whispered, almost hissed, and then silence.
“So tell me about that.”
And so he did. Two incidents, primarily, ones in which had situations just been altered just a bit, he would have been the one to have lost parts of his body. Not his teammates.
Each man of each incident survived, it turned out. In fact, it turns out, both men are thriving. I don’t even have to add the caveat “relatively speaking”: they are thriving. Period. He seemed genuinely happy to report that to me, that hint of a tear in the left eye notwithstanding.
He talks to them with some frequency. They always sound glad to hear his voice. Semper fi, the tear stayed right where it lay. All is OK with the guys, after all.
So no need for no tear to go mucking around some cheek where it has no business being in the first place.
“You were how old?” I asked.
“So,” I had to ask him, “do you imagine that you might ever be able to forgive him, that twenty-year-old kid?”
The look he gave me was genuinely one of puzzlement.
“You know,” I continued, “that kid who could have an attitude, but who would have done anything for his brothers, and his brothers knew that, who just didn’t happen to be where he might otherwise have been, and so who didn’t suffer what he might otherwise have suffered. That kid.”
He just looked at me. Or rather, he looked in my direction. I suspect that inside his head, he was looking somewhere much, much farther away.
“You’re the only one left who hasn’t done so, you know,” I said. “Forgiven him. Truth be told, you’re probably the only one who ever blamed him in the first place.”
His look shifted into one of self-reflection, his eyes dropping down, flashing side to side, looking, interrogating, maybe. He then looked back at me.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes. I think I could forgive him.”
Now I’m sure my look turned into puzzlement.
“Really?” I asked. “That easily? You haven’t done so before, you know.”
Ever so slightly, he smiled.
“I never thought about it that way before.”
I suspect I too moved from puzzlement to self-reflection as he added, “It might have been different, had they not been doing as well as they are. But we’re all doing the best we can now. Yes, I think…maybe I could, one day. Forgive myself, that is.”
In the few seconds afterwards, so much flashed through my mind, happy stories, not-so-happy ones. At one level I knew he was so fortunate: to have friends who survived, who still wanted to reach out to him, to have a girlfriend who is willing to give him space when he needs it, a family who loves him and welcomes him back into their raucous, multi-child world.
To have a Dad who still comforts his heart even when Dad literally cannot do so as regularly as both of them might like, yet who psychically—spiritually, maybe?—can, without regret, whisper into that young Marine’s heart and keep an embarrassing tear from revealing too much too soon to a new doctor.
Medication issues managed, we soon prepared to part. I started to stand. He did not.
“So, I guess,” he said, “if things should change—because of that other interview, you know?—we wouldn’t be able to see each other anymore. Right?”
That, I wasn’t prepared for.
“You were honorably discharged, right?”
“Oh, yeah. Medically retired. I didn’t really want it, but…I see now that it was for the best.”
“Then we’re fine.”
He smiled then.
“Good. That’ll make my Dad happy.”
“He kept telling me that I needed to get hooked up with the VA. He’ll…he’ll be glad I finally did what he told me to do. I can be stubborn sometimes.”
I’m sure my smile back radiated the rolled eyes inherent in the phrase, “No kidding”
On this Thanksgiving Day in the United States, let me simply recognize the fathers, mothers, husbands, wives, lovers, children, brothers, sisters, grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, cousins, old friends, new friends, future friends—all who do what they can, in the best way they can, to bring home men and women who have gone to War, changed irrevocably, and yet seek to create new lives for themselves and for those whom they love.
And from one particular psychiatrist who is glad that one particular father has made the life of one particular son calmer, at least more days than not, let me simply say: