Merry Christmas, Reality Notwithstanding (Encore)

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

 

Today, I continue to ask you to join me as I remember Three Musketeers: one whom I never met, one whom I’ll not meet again, one who still lives his life in the best memories of both.

Anniversaries are not the only times to remember. So are Holidays. So it was three years ago, in December.

From December 25, 2012 comes our next tale, Merry Christmas, Reality Nothwithstanding.

I’d say they came as a matched set, but since I knew one of them a year before the other, that’s not quite true.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that the second one was not quite aware of me that whole time.

I’ve already spoken of the first one before, in No Trouble At All. He and I have struggled back and forth over what to do, when to do it, how to do it. He’s always respectful, quite engaging, the whole gamut from jocular to irritable (with an apology therefor immediately afterwards, I might add).

He comes from a professional family, several members of which are not, shall we say, reticent to express views that he’s not too thrilled to hear, his younger brother in particular. They’re an intriguing pair, these brothers: both quite physically striking in appearance, kinetic-energy extroverts par excellence. When they sit in the room together, they jockey for position as to who is going to make the next comment about whom–and have no fear, the younger one is not about to be the loser any more than fifty per cent of the time. One might be tempted to call each of them a “pretty boy”–but believe you me, you’d better not do so to their faces, and you’d better not count on the usual associations to that term if you were to get on their wrong sides.

Recently, though, even with all the Sturm und Drang in essentially every area of his life, my patient has primarily been grieving the loss of a deeply-loved girlfriend. As a man who has in all areas of his life been big in all the meanings possible in that italicized word, he has not given up this big pattern in his grief over love lost. He can only speak of her with me briefly before he visibly begins to shake, clutch his gut, and shed more than a few tears.

He has come to acknowledge the past, that what’s done is done, that there is nothing more he can do. Still…

My patient had always told me about his best friend, his battle buddy “who’s not doing much better than I am, Doc. I wish he’d come see you, but he can’t stand the VA.”

About two months ago, his friend finally did come.

_______________________________________

Borrowing from this coming year’s release of a new film version of The Great Gatsby, if my first patient is Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby, my second is Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway. Quite handsome himself, he is—though in that Maguire kind of way that made Peter Parker so alluring to Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson.

When I walked out to meet him that first time, he was sitting quietly in his chair in the waiting room, eyes downcast, sporting a full beard that was neatly trimmed, dressed as if ready to head out for deer hunting just as soon as we were done—yet alone, most likely, with mixed feelings as to whether he would really want to shoot one of God’s creatures or not.

He looked up at me with a mixture of apprehension and deep sadness. I soon found out why.

His experiences at VA’s have not been particularly positive. He is from the South, where he grew up in a small, working-class family that has endured more than its fair share of tragedy, leaving him now the only living child of his parents. He moved up here to Indianapolis to live near my patient, and here he met a female friend of my patient (not the patient’s ex-girlfriend) who has become “my love, my rock, my everything.” They are planning on getting married as soon as they can afford to, and he is deeply happy.

About that.

Yet he too has struggled with intense symptoms of combat trauma/PTSD. He had once even come close to ending his life. He remembers his time in a VA hospital after that episode as one spent trying to avoid the angry, demented old veterans in wheelchairs, as well as the overtly psychotic, middle-aged ones who would suddenly start screaming for no apparent reason.

Then, in his recounting his most recent encounters with VA treaters, he told me that he was made to feel like a “drug abuser” and a “self-centered jerk, like someone unwilling to take responsibility for his life.”

He has been less-than-impressed, in other words, with the Veterans Health Administration.

As he spoke, I quickly glanced at some of the notes written from various providers from different VA’s. I have to say: it’s quite amazing what people will write down on a computer, leaving permanent, electronic traces, you know, for others to find no matter where, no matter when.

Consequently—and sadly—I have no trouble believing my patient on this one.

We talked for a while, about his symptoms, his treatment history, his relationship with my other patient. Then he just fell silent, head down.

“Is there something else?” I asked him, a bit taken aback by the sudden change.

Slowly he raised his head to look at me. He saw that I saw the tear streaming down his cheek.

“What’s the matter?” I whispered.

He swallowed and then quietly said, “I’m sorry, Doc. I’m a little distracted, I guess. You see, I got a phone call while I was driving down here. It was my mother. They found my father dead today.”

To be fair, it is not unusual for patients to talk for extended periods of time before finally, usually at the end of the hour, they muster the courage to tell me what has been weighing most heavily on their hearts.

Still, this was one for the books, I’ll grant you.

The details are of secondary importance here, except to say that his father’s death had been one more tragic chapter of a painful family tale. What was so strikingly clear, however, was how my patient had clearly entertained no thought whatsoever that I would take much interest in the fact of his father’s death or even consider trying to help him find a way to make it safely back to his home state, multiple hours away by car.

With tears now streaming down his face, he said to me quite calmly—and, I might add, without a hint of malice—“I just never thought that VA doctors would care that much to hear about something like my father dying.”

I’d like to say that I was stunned, horrified that a combat veteran could feel that way. I’d read those previous notes, however.

Fast forward two weeks, after he’d made it down there, made it through the funeral at which he’d played guitar with his father’s best friend because, when both he and his father had had one beer too many, his father had told him time and again that he had wanted the two of them to sing this one particular song at his funeral.

Should that day ever come.

I had to bring it up, of course, his guilt over his not being there for his father in his father’s time of need. There are ways, after all, to do that which are not too invasive. He didn’t seem to mind.

“He was always there for me, rooting for me, even when I did stupid things,” he said, now having no embarrassment over the tears, trickling as they were. “I miss him so much. I wish I could have been there for him. He knew he was dying. I just can’t believe I can’t pick up the phone and call him.”

We talked some more. He smiled through his tears, cried through his smiles. It does appear that he will one day come to acknowledge the past, that what’s done is done, that there is nothing more he can do. Still…

It is at moments such as these that I have to make the “therapist’s decision.” Links from the past to the present always present themselves, especially with combat veterans, yet brilliant interpretations can often be nothing more than cheap psycho-pyrotechnics if one is not careful, a therapist’s (i.e., my) momentary narcissistic gratification (“Look, supervisor-in-my-head, no hands!”) at the expense of a soul suffering in front of one.

Yet somehow, for both of these men, on different days, in different contexts, it felt right to say it, to one man grieving a lost love over which he had no control, to another grieving a lost father over whose suffering he had no control.

“It’s like TJ, you know. You couldn’t help him either. And he was everything to you.”

For you see, the Dynamic Duo had once been The Three Musketeers. Porthos and Athos had once had an Aramis.

Whenever my first patient of the two—the rakish Porthos, if you will—had spoken of TJ, he’d only been able to choke out a few words before telling me that he could say no more. I never could learn from him their buddy’s full name, simply because he could never bring himself to speak it without beginning quietly to sob.

My second patient, though—the fatherly Athos—had been able to speak more, tell me TJ’s full name, tell me about his large family, his Aramis-like youthfulness, his faithfulness to the religious faith of his family, his willingness to say whatever, to crack them both up over and over and over again.

He had been able describe his death in front of both of them, taking bullets that should have been either of theirs to absorb.

Both men realize that they will one day have to acknowledge the past, that what’s done is done, that there is nothing more either of them could have done. Still…

_______________________________________________________

So what does any of this have to do with Christmas?

At one point during our second conversation, the second veteran’s (Athos) phone began to ring. At the sound of the melodic ring tone, he smiled.

“That’s Porthos right there,” he said as he allowed the call to go to voice mail.

“What’s that song?” I asked him.

“Oh,” he replied with a smile both sad and relieved, “that’s Kenny Chesney’s song, “Back Where I Come From.”  Porthos and I used to sing it all the time when we were over there. It’s kind of how we kept each other going, you know? We’d sing about where we came from, where we hoped we could go back to. TJ died just days after we arrived in the theater. That’s how we coped.”

Chesney is an American country-western singer, and the song has become a semi-trademark of his. The words are as follows:

In the town where I was raised 
The clock ticks and the cattle graze 
Time passed with Amazing Grace 
Back where I come from

Now you can lie on a riverbank 
Paint your name on a water tank 
Or miscount all the beers you drank 
Back where I come from

Back where I come from 
Where I’ll be when it’s said and done 
I’m proud as anyone 
Back where I come from

We learned in Sunday school 
Who made the sun shine through 
I know who made the moonshine, too 
Back where I come from

Blue eyes on a Saturday night 
Tan legs in the broad day light 
TV’s, they were black and white 
Back where I come from

. . .

Some say it’s a backward place 
Narrow minds on a narrow way 
I make it a point to say 
That that’s where I come from

That’s where I come from 
Where I’ll be when it’s said and done 
I’m proud as anyone 
That’s where I come from

_________________________________________________________

Where we “come from” always remains a place to which to return whenever we find ourselves lost in life. For many combat veterans, thankfully, where one “came from” can be synonymous with a family who will always be there, even when they cannot be. Others are not that fortunate, yet still can find a “family” in the brothers and sisters who had once had their backs, with whom they had been, wherever they had been, when all indeed could have been said and done, with a single gunshot, a single IED.

Porthos returned to a family with whom he has cried, laughed, struggled. He returned to a younger brother who can outflank his every protestation, yet who can then quietly shed his own tears as he listens to his big brother’s overwhelming grief.

Athos returned to a family with whom he has cried, laughed, struggled. He made his father proud. Now he has laid the man to rest with overwhelming grief and a song.

Both men still fall silent at the memory of the funny kid who lost his opportunity to return to his own loud, ethnic family so that they could in fact return to theirs.

Combat veterans, like parents of children in Connecticut or spouses of firefighters in New York, know well how oxymoronic the words Merry and Christmas often seem together. Merry? You serious?

Yet if Holidays provide us memories of stockings overturned in a frenzy next to an artificial tree, or memories of Seder meals and who’s going to find the matzoh this year, or memories of the whole clan getting together on Memorial Day weekend to endure one more round of Uncle Harry’s high school football stories—or even memories of sitting in a godforsaken desert with once-total strangers who now mean the world to you, singing “Silent Night,” even if slightly off-key—they often, thankfully, also  remind many of us of one more thing:  we come from somewhere.

Relationships, Time, Life, all once mattered.

________________________________________

For my children, Christmas Eve will always bring memories of candlelight services at the only church they have ever known, at the end of which each person, with his or her own personal candle, files out into our large atrium, singing quite on-key, in four-part harmony, all verses of “Silent Night,” until finally all are present within the hall, illuminated by only a hundred or so candles, everyone humming a capella one more time the song that many Mennonites can still sing one verse of which in German.

It will then bring memories of our coming home to eat shrimp cocktail with cheese and crackers, after which they open up one present, only one, which is always pajamas, into which they change and then take turns hanging up the twelve tree bulbs which narrate Clement Clark Moore’s The Night Before Christmas.

One day they will have their own families, and it is from these memories that they will create their own, whether or not their mother and I will ever be able to join them.

I acknowledge that one day, Reality may make it such that we may have to cherish such memories without them. On such a day, I will be devastated. I will not be merry.  But I will have a place in my heart where I “come from.”

For that reason, as I blew out my candle in that atrium, I remembered TJ.

Perhaps that’s all that “Merry Christmas” is, especially for combat veterans: a reminder that there once was a place where they “came from,” even if such a place was miles from wherever they actually came from. Maybe it’s simply a reminder that Life can have meaning, a meaning which bring both smile and tear, a meaning which once was, and–perhaps–a meaning which, though never the same, can in some other form be again.

Perhaps.  It’s a lot to ask of two words. But it’s a start.

To the Porthos and his family, Merry Christmas. To Athos, his girlfriend, and his mother, Merry Christmas. To the family of Aramis, Merry Christmas.

To my wife, my children, my family, my friends and colleagues, to combat veterans everywhere and those whom they love . . .

Merry Christmas.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

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