Thanks, Dad

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.

“Twenty.”

“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.”

I smiled.

“Then we’re fine.”

He smiled then.

“Good.  That’ll make my Dad happy.”

“Your Dad?”

“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:

Thanks, Dad.

Good Night, Mother

When I met him at the clinic door, he smiled, one a little distant, perhaps, but genuine. Now with the build of a man in late middle age in Middle America, I could still see the young Marine underneath, even as his demeanor belied that legacy that he still so values, his very gait instead murmuring, “Those gung-ho days are past, my friend. No need to dally, but no need to rush as well.”

We did neither.

As he entered my office, I asked if the lighting were bright enough. “Just fine,” he said. “Kind of calm, actually.”

We sat down opposite each other, the first time we’d met together. But I’d read his chart. I knew the question that most needed to be asked.

“How’s your Mom?”

Not as distant now, his smile diminished slightly, yet it persisted, as if his very face, semper fi to its owner still, were not going to abandon him in his time of greatest need.

“She passed on Saturday.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, although, admittedly, I debated whether to say that, knowing the little that I knew. But it seemed right at that moment. Perhaps the remnants of the smile invited it. Yet I knew that even that smile, if it were to remain genuine, would not tolerate much more unbridled politeness.

“From what I read, she was often a challenging woman?”

Eyes still on mine, he continued smiling, now more as if we could dispense with pretense and just get down to business.

“How true.”

But then, something beyond facial musculature kicked in.

“But these last few months:  it was better,” he said.

He’d spent quite a bit of time caring for her in those months, along with his other siblings. When lucid, she had not brought up the darker days between them, which had, sadly, been many, especially in those days before he had decided that Vietnam was going to be a safer bet than home. He had not brought up those days either. There had been the physical work of moving her, feeding her, cleaning her that had needed to get done, after all.

When she had been less lucid, he had become her father sometimes, one of her brothers at other times. He had seen that she felt safer in her imagined presence of those men, no matter what memories he might have had of them. He had recognized that he was playing a role. It hadn’t bothered him. He’d played other roles in her life before. These roles had been better ones, for both of them.

“Vietnam raised its head in any of this?”  I asked.

He looked away, over an ocean, perhaps.

“When I first saw her body, after she’d died, I was there, in Nam. But then,” he said, looking back at me, “it became her again. It was OK. I don’t know, until they took her out on the stretcher, I guess. Watching them roll her away, that’s when I knew it was real. That’s when I started balling.”

At times like this, as a therapist, I wonder whether to leave the past in the past or whether to acknowledge, as did Faulkner, that the past never dies.

“A much younger man saw the dead carried away many times before, didn’t he?” I finally said.

“How true,” he replied, looking down, nodding slightly. “How true.”

Then he looked back up at me.

“Can I tell you something?”

“Sure.”

“Before they came to take her away, when it was just me and my brothers and sisters there, we all just sat down on the bed next to her, all of us around her, and put our hands on her. And you know, that made a difference.”

“A difference?”

“I don’t know about them, but it was as if I was finally being held. The right way.”

“As if her spirit and yours didn’t want to waste time on the bad stuff anymore,” I replied.

He looked at me, apparently surprised that a psychiatrist would actually say that.  Then, once again, the facial muscles came through.

“Yes. Yes.”

Perhaps even Faulkner can get it wrong some of the time.

From his record I had learned that only a third of those who had accompanied him to Vietnam returned home. I knew that the years afterward had been hard, very hard, but that he and his wife of almost fifty years had worked to try to make them better.  He values his therapist, his fellow veterans who have helped him along the way.  He has no interest in easy answers.  Just like that boy in the jungle so many years earlier, he has a task in front of him—to live, to preserve the lives of those he loves.

Semper fi.

“I’m going to be OK, Doc,” he told me as we parted. “Not right away. But it’ll be OK.”

Yes, it will.

 

 

 

Veterans Day 2016

In the past, I’ve waxed more eloquent on Veterans Day, but today, I speak a more simple truth, one about the men and women I have the honor to serve, one about me.

As I have returned to listening to the stories of combat veterans of all ages, more and more I have felt both the long-hidden youth of the older ones and the early-endured aging of the younger ones. Yet for both, I have heard men and women who simply wanted to do right, whether or not they were fully convinced at any particular moment of the rightness of their actions.

I hear man and women who still want to do right, whether or not they have a clue what rightness might mean in this particular moment.

I see men whom I once could have watched on a high school football field when I was an elementary school child, a pre-teen, a peer. I see men and women whom, in another life, I could have held in my younger arms, watched them head off to kindergarten, heard them squeak their first clarinet or stubbornly try another basketball lay-up, then another.

I see them. I see me. I see Life.

And I see what War can do to Life.

And I hope that by really listening to War in their lives, I can accompany them adequately as they create meaningful post-war Life.

To all the men and women, for their having desired to do right by their brothers-  and sisters-in-arms, to do right by those at home whom they loved and pledged to defend, to do right by those abroad whom they pledged to protect—thank you.

Simply put, a simple truth: thank you.

 

Plus ça change . . .

plus c’est pareil.  Or so say the French.

In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Meaning what, you might ask? Well, two things.

First, the change:  Yes, indeed, finally I have finished a draft of Beam Me Home, Scotty!: How Star Trek Can Help Us Make Sense of the Brain, PTSD & Combat Trauma. Click on that link, and you’ll get a PDF file.

What a change. I finally got it done.

In the future, I’ll likely record portions of the story and add them to blog entries. Who knows: maybe even I’ll do a whole performance and put that on as well.  We’ll have to see. But for now, and for any who are interested, there it is. Feel free to read. Feel free to download. I hope that you find it helpful.

Now, as for staying the same…

As any of you who have been following for a while know, over the past three or so years, I’ve not found myself as able to write longer essays about my encounters with the veterans I’ve had the honor to serve. Working during those years with active-duty soldiers, it became too difficult to maintain confidentiality, plus, as I’ve said elsewhere, I wasn’t quite sure exactly what I was hoping to accomplish with the essays.

During that entire time, however, I continued Listening to War, what had been the tentative title I had chosen for a collection of those essays. As a I return to a less conspicuous work, I find myself wanting to return to an old way of writing.

Plus c’est pareil.

In these past weeks, as I’ve enjoyed the changes in my own personal life, I have also reflected on the work of Dr. Edward Tick, whom I had the pleasure of hearing and meeting several weeks ago. I have long recommended his seminal work, War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I enjoyed hearing him speak of his most recent work, Warrior’s Return: Restoring the Soul After War.

Dr. Tick has long championed the idea that Western society has forgotten how to care for the warriors we send out to fight in our names. Even worse, we have, for the most part, even declined to accept fully our indispensable role in our having sent them into war—and thus our indispensable role in helping them return.

And what, according to him, is an indispensable part of that role?

Listening. Really listening. Listening in order to learn, to be changed, not just in order to teach or to change. Listening until it hurts. Listening for as long as it takes to listen.

And then fully taking responsibility for what we have heard.

I am no stranger to psychotherapy. I “grew up” in it an older time, with older teachers. From the beginning, I was taught that listening was, is, and always will be the greater part of doing.

But even we old-timers have to be reminded of what we know.

And so, I return to Listening to War. Even more, though, I hope to push myself to listen (and to write) not to show how smart or skilled I might be, but rather to show how, perhaps finally, I know not only my obligation, but even more my honor to make someone come alive inside my soul, no matter how much that might hurt, so that a combat veteran who once had to hurt in the body and the soul can know that, yes, what happened was real and, even more, what might one day happen in its place can be filled not with horror, but with hope.

If an old man in northern Indiana, of all places, is willing to feel the truth, then hopefully much younger men and women (and yes, older men and women as well) might begin to believe that old truths can be made into new ones, old tales of tragedy can be retold as tales of meaningful life.

And that the crew of the USS Enterprise can boldly go where once combat veterans, young and old, had feared that they never could go before.

I am a most fortunate man, in my family, in my work.

More to come.

Smiles. Amen.

img_1711

Dad sat to the side on Saturday, watching his eldest take a selfie with her soon-to-husband, her two sibs, his two sibs, and their best college friends. He mused, “Cute picture, I bet,” but thought little more.

When I look at this picture on Monday, however, Dad’s in tears.

In a world that too often makes no sense, hallelujah that there are still the outrageously hopeful smiles of the young. Life will go forward, with all its stubborn joy. Thank you so much, Abby and Jacob. Thank you so much, Bekah and Joey. Thank you so much, Lavonne and Anna. Thank you so much, Becky, Cara, Cristian, Stephen, Stefan, and Alex.

You give an old man the strength to face another day.

To life!

Amen, to life.

A Joyful Interlude

Just a quick post for all the “faithful few”:

It’s been some days since I finished Beam Me Home, Scotty! and, yes, there’ll be much more to come.  However, not right away, for you see …

I’m more than happy to announce and celebrate the wedding of my eldest child this coming weekend, bringing my “child count” from two girls/one boy to two girls/two boys.

‘Tis a busy time.

And a wonderful time, indeed.

While War can often engulf everything in its path, I am thankful that Life and Love still stubbornly demand their say. To my children, to the future—to Life!

And for that, a hearty “Amen.”

“‘Taps’ and the Last Musketeer” (Encore)

It has now been nearly two months since I last posted.  So much for “until tomorrow.”

I’m more than glad to report that my life has, indeed, been busy, colorful, hectic, the usual mea culpa‘s for not having written.  All are true.

And all are, of course, beside the point.

One of the occupational hazards of being a psychiatrist—certainly for those of us with a more psychotherapeutic bent to our trainings and practices—is that you can never quite take even your own excuses too seriously.

Another, again for those of us cursed to take listening as a task worth doing, is memory: memory not only of words and events, but of emotions and feelings that allow themselves expression only in the deepest, embodied repositories of experiences past.

Not that some things are necessarily that hard to remember, mind you. All things considered, modern psychiatry, especially as practiced in the United States, is relatively straightforward. Given the focus in my field on biologic interventions, I’m happy to report that, in spite of all the hope-filled research that keeps gushing out of our journals with the most esoteric of statistics therein dissolved, the formulary we have available to us to treat mental disorders is, practically speaking, not that hard to master and, therefore, not that taxing to the brain to apply.

Granted, one can lose oneself to one’s heart’s content in the symptomatic litanies of the DSM, arguing the finer nuances of serotonin versus dopamine for the most efficacious treatment of any particular syndromal consubstantiation of eternal, mental-health truths.   Also, there are the endless, prescribed combos of this-‘n-that-medicines that would probably serve as bases for the next set of O.W.L. Potions exams in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter world.  Everybody’s got his or her favorite, after all.

But there you have it.

After that, all you have are a few medical records, body, soul—and memory.

Three years it has been since Porthos died. I have heard “Taps” played since then. Sadly, I will almost certainly hear it one day again.

A mere cut and paste, and the embodied memories of 2013 become the entries of 2016. If only life could be as easily dispatched by a mere Control/Command C and V.

Procrastination in deed, procrastination in wordy preambles. To remember is to honor. To honor is to feel: sounds, images, words in Latin, words in English, death, life, and the connections that made—and make—it all worthwhile.

From 05 April 2013, just over three years to the day, comes “‘Taps’ and the Last Musketeer.” 

It’s time to get this written.

Spring has slowly been intimating its way into Indiana these past several days, although, admittedly, I’m being kind in giving it this much due. Still, the snow is gone, and temperatures are edging toward their becoming worthy of some notice beyond “scorn.” Yet while the thermometer has only been cooperating begrudgingly, the barometer has been anything but: beautiful, nearly cloudless skies have been ours to enjoy.

Funny, isn’t it, how the living prefer sunshine for funerals.

As I have noted in previous posts (Goodbye, My Friend and In Memoriam: Porthos, 1985-2013), my patient, Porthos, a combat veteran of two deployments to Iraq, age twenty-seven, died in an auto accident a little over a week ago. He had grown up in a town that had once had the decency to be out in the boondocks, but which has, over the years, become another bedroom community for Indianapolis. It’s quite a hike, nevertheless, from my house, so I headed out in plenty of time, ostensibly so that I could secure an adequate parking spot.

In reality, I was just needing the time to myself.

All the way down there, I couldn’t stop thinking about a topic so near and dear to so many therapists’ hearts, minds, and critiques: boundaries. Truly, I’m not sure what some therapists would do if they weren’t policing not only their own, but everyone else’s, twenty-four seven, usually with, if I may so say, a certain self-satisfied, ethical purity.

Yet in spite of my snarkiness, the topic is indeed a critically important one, signifying as it does the question of how much should the personal and the professional be allowed to co-mingle in a therapeutic relationship. Certain answers to that question are easy, of course: no sexual favors, no financial manipulation, for example. Others plague all young therapists and many older ones: when, if ever, does one accept a nominal gift from a client/patient? How much does one reveal about one’s personal life, one’s experiences, one’s disappointments?

Or . . .

Does one embrace a patient’s grieving father, his grieving mother, his grieving brother—his grieving best friend who also has medicine bottles in his bathroom cabinet that have printed upon them my name?

As the traffic thinned out, as the several lanes merged into two, I had to wonder: for whom was I going down there? For Porthos? His family? My other patient, his battle buddy through both deployments, Athos?

For me?

After thirty years in this business, I have come to the conclusion that the answer to all such questions is E, i.e., “all of the above.” I can live with that. I have learned that these things have a way of working themselves out.

I pulled into the lot of the funeral home with more than enough time to spare before the service, dutifully then backing into my parking spot as I was instructed, my purple “Funeral” flaglet well-perched on the roof above me.

Men and women were already there, though, even more dutifully standing guard along the sidewalk leading to the entry door, all clearly my senior, most dressed in leather, many with the familiar POW-MIA emblem from the Vietnam era emblazoned on their backs, holding the United States flags that so readily were flapping in the cool breeze, their Harleys parked only feet away, ready to be mounted, to be driven at the head of a procession to the cemetery, in a silence that not even the loudest of mufflers could pierce.

About ten minutes later, Athos and his fiancée arrived in their SUV. After backing the car in almost directly across from me, he turned off the engine and, in moments, was looking directly at me. The smile of recognition was there on his face, yet he knew it as well as I did: neither of us wanted to be seeing each other at that moment. He zipped an open palm past his face, once, in that muted “Hi” so often seen in old home movies when a person has that ridiculous light glaring into his or her face, hoping against hope that Uncle Maury will just move on to the next relative and leave me the heck alone.

I got out of my car first, only then to watch him somewhat pour himself out of his, almost as if he were maple sap reluctantly exiting through that spigot in the trunk of the tree during a sub-zero winter. Yet door shut, he turned to me in his suit, dark shirt, dark tie, a little too slender, true (as countless maternal types had reminded him at the viewing the night before), yet still ready for his Jos. A Bank’s photo shoot. He smiled again at me, adjusted his tie as he did his obligatory “look both ways,” so well learned in first grade, and then began to walk across the driveway toward me.

He marched right up to me, eyes refusing to let anything even approaching a tear to leak out, trying to maintain some semblance of a smile. His beard was well-trimmed. His hair was neatly cut, longer than military, definitely, yet still a certain “short chic.” Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway was back, in other words, at your service. Preparing to bury Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby.

For a second or so, we just looked at each other.

“Thanks for coming, Doc,” he finally said, a certain hesitancy more than apparent.

This was it. I knew it. The boundary decision.

So I made it.

I opened my arms wide.

His eyes saw their chance, and for just a few seconds they forced his entire facial musculature to contract in response, both giving in to tears and refusing to do so, as he nearly fell into me, wrapping his arms around my upper body, his head in an instant buried at my neck, his body seeking my ballast to help steady those eyes and get those partners back in line, buddy-boy, and I mean, right now.

“I don’t know if I can get through this, Doc” he whispered, quickly, desperately, right into my ear.

“I know you don’t,” I whispered back into his. “You don’t have to think you will. You just will. You’ll do it, and you’ll have no clue how. For his family. For him.”

For a few seconds, nothing, then another whisper entered my ear. “Thank you, Doc.”

Just as quickly we separated and looked at each other. His smile was trying to weasel its way back into place.

“I’ve got to go in and see his folks. You’re coming to the cemetery, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” I replied.

He cleared his throat, adjusted his tie one more time, and then his sunglasses. “OK, great, I’ll . . . I guess I’ll see you inside?”

“Of course.”

The smile having reasserted itself, he was gone with the nod of a head.

Several minutes later I entered the funeral home myself, making my way to the large room where just the night before I’d walked in to see at the end a large wooden casket, carved and stained in such a way as to remind any onlooker of a life that had been honorably, even beautifully lived. A United States flag, well-folded into its triangular form, lay on top of one end of the casket, various pictures and a sports jersey on the other.

As I took my seat in the far back corner, by all the pictures that had been assembled and displayed along the back of the room, I looked down to see on the table next to me a five by seven of two very young-appearing men, stocky, I think, more because of all the outfit and combat gear each was sporting than because of any good, home-cooked meals out in the desert. Each had a “go ahead, cross me, I dare you” look chiseled on his face. I had both to smile and to bite my lip.

Porthos and Athos, bodies so proud, yet eyes already having begun to be transformed by War.

In Central Indiana, it usually seems as if all funeral homes are constantly jockeying for the title of “Most Gaudily Edwardian.” Fortunately, this one had bowed out of competition at a more respectable moment. I was quite glad, in fact, that as the music began to be piped in, it was not the usual, top-ten hits of nineteenth-century, Methodist hymns being played far too slowly and far too cheesily on a Hammond, draw-bar spinet.

Quite the contrary. It made me smile without any lip-biting.

It was Josh Groban.

All I could think: Porthos, a veteran of many a barroom scuffle brought on by some unsuspecting, churlish drunk who’d made the poor decision to “dis” or threaten one of Porthos’ buddies; Porthos, the guy who’d argue a point with you well into near-absurdity just to prove to you that you couldn’t run over him . . .

Porthos, the man who, after being awakened one more time by the terrors of nightmares that had left him drenched in sweat, would calm himself by watching Harry Potter movies, over and over again, so often that he could quote entire scenes by heart . . .

Of course, Josh Groban. Of course.

Soon the room was packed not just with the usual cadre of retired individuals who apparently plan their golf schedules around funeral services, but also—even mostly—with dozens of young men, still well-built as their hairlines were receding, and dozens of young women, still with sensuous smiles after having put on that extra pound or so after their last pregnancy. Some were dressed to the nines. Some were wearing T-shirts and jeans. All would embrace over and over, smiles radiating “It’s been too long,” yet voices soft enough not to remind any of them that one of their gang, though still in the room in body, was now quiet, quiet as he’d never been in high school, never in the Army, never in life.

At some point, Porthos’ mother saw me, came over, hugged me, and said “Thanks for coming.” My reply was as it had been to Athos: “Of course.” We looked briefly at each other, two parents of different children, yet both parents nonetheless. We both knew there was nothing more to say. We left it at that.

Eventually his older brother and his girlfriend made it toward the front of the room, then his younger brother and his husband. His younger brother, D’Artagnan, caught my eye. He smiled, waved sheepishly, as did I in return. Once more, we left it at that.

Finally, as Porthos’ mother took her place next to her youngest son, his heartbroken father walked in and took his place on her other side, the college professor dressed for a no-nonsense lecture, ready to see his son off with the honor the younger man deserved.

Athos and his fiancée were barely a few seats away from them.

As the service progressed, as the National Guard chaplain whom Porthos had so deeply admired spoke, as Indiana’s Adjutant General looked on, as both his father and his younger brother tearfully remembered him, admired him as their hero, as the quintet of friends apparently from high school sang in Appalachian open harmony, quite in tune, a song drenched in country-western fervor, yet universal in sentiment, I could only think: my God, what if I hadn’t come?

Boundaries, schmoundaries.

I have to wonder: if more of my VA colleagues across the nation were to attend just such services, feel the lives of the men and women we have served, absorb the sadness and the futility of lives cut off far too soon, whether in battle, in the accidents of those who had always imagined themselves indestructible, in the self-destructions of those who could no longer imagine a future without excruciating pain of body and soul—what then? Who would we be? To whom, to how many in this country could we then announce, scream, pontificate, plead to not forget, not abandon, not leave these same men and women worrying one more day about where their next meal will come from, about whether they will have a roof over their heads?

The service over, I was one of the first to be escorted up front. For a couple seconds, I stood before the casket, not even sure I was wanting to have the wherewithal to understand the import of the moment. Just as quickly I turned to meet the eyes of his younger brother, to embrace him and hear him say “Thank you,” to hear myself once again saying “Of course.” Then it was his mother, same.

Then it was his father.

For a moment we looked at each other, Dad to Dad. As we embraced, his voice broke ever so softly. “Thanks for helping him talk about what he needed to talk about.”

This time, my “Of course” served more as my defense against the breaking of my own voice.

I shook the hand of his older brother, and then I turned to see Athos sitting there, head down, quickly batting at his eye. He looked up at me, and then in an instant was standing, and one more time, boundaries were . . . well, I don’t know, they just were.

Another firm embrace. Another “Thank you” whispered into my ear. Another “Of course” whispered into his.

The cemetery was not that far from the funeral home, though it wasn’t a stone’s throw either. It was quite a line of cars making its way down the divided highway, led by the police car and a pack of very loud, very silent Harley-Davidsons. Interesting, I thought: out in this more rural area, cars were stopping as the procession went by, even when they were going the opposite direction on a divided highway. You’d never see that in Indianapolis.

We wound our way to the rear of the cemetery—to the burial ground of soldiers from all the way back to the Civil War. His was a beautiful spot, right next to an ancient tree. The family sat down in the tent. The rest of us gathered along the sides. Across from us were the two rows of marksmen (and women), standing at attention, ready. To the far right, a lone man stood, also at attention, a bugle tucked underneath his arm.

Men and women in uniform gathered to the left of us, all ages, each falling into a respectful parade-rest. Six men then came to full attention and, in well-orchestrated fashion, marched their way to the back of the hearse. With a series of precise, right-angle turns, one of them made his way to the door and opened it.

There he was, Porthos, casket draped in the flag that he had more than once told me that, in spite of all his suffering, he would serve under again and again.

Ever so precisely the men maneuvered the casket out of the hearse. Ever so precisely they carried it to the grave site. Ever so precisely they rolled it into place. Ever so precisely they stood back, turned, marched off.

The chaplain spoke a few words. The crowd recited the Lord’s Prayer. A few more words from the chaplain, and then another man in uniform precisely made his way to the casket, precisely and respectfully requested that all stand.

From across the way the commands were barked.

Rifles clicked. Fired.

Clicked. Fired.

To the right, men and women stood at full attention, their white-gloved right hands slowly making their way to a salute as the bugler slowly, precisely brought the instrument to his lips.

Ever so slowly, ever so precisely, ever so, dare I say, musically, he made his way up the major chord, each note clarion-like and yet not, both forceful, yet haunting.

He hit the final high sol easily, sustaining it just long enough, then made his way down the octave, perfect interval by perfect interval, until the final do filled the air, no vibrato, just tone, a good eight counts.

Porthos would have loved it.

As the guns were firing, the salutes lifting, the bugle playing, one uniformed soldier stood at the head of the casket, a second at its foot. As the final note of the song faded, the two men clicked into action, lifted the flag draping the casket, and ever so slowly, ever so precisely began to fold it, in half, in half again, then right triangle by right triangle.

Finally only one of the two men was left standing there, holding the folded flag, as Indiana’s highest-ranking National Guard officer walked slowly up to him. The man handed the General the flag, then saluted. He walked off.

And then it happened.

From behind the family, Athos stood and walked toward the General. At full attention, he put out his hands, and slowly the General lowered the flag into his, ending with a salute, older man to younger, both living and dead.

Athos then turned and made his way to stand in front of Porthos’ parents, to be met there by Porthos’ Uncle Jack, a Vietnam veteran whom Porthos had often spoken to me lovingly about, his inspiration for taking his energy, his mind, his body to serve, even knowing that death could result, by his hand, to his dearest friend, to himself.

Athos handed Jack the flag. And he saluted.

Jack nodded, turned, knelt down, and handed the folded flag finally to Porthos’ mother, his father right beside her.

Minutes later, the service was over.

People began to walk around, speak softly, hug. I looked over to see Athos embracing his fiancée, whom I’d only met for the first time the night before, a woman who’d been Porthos’ childhood buddy, the girl he’d taken to Prom “just because,” the woman who’d have never known Athos, whom Athos would have never known, would have never found comfort with, had it not been for that wisecracking charmer from Indiana.

Eventually I made my way over to him. He was standing next to Aramis’ brother-in-law: Aramis, the first of the Musketeers to die, in battle, the kid from the big family in Maryland, the man whose body Athos had lovingly guarded to his final resting place (Taking Him On Home).

Athos looked at me and swallowed. For a few seconds we stood there. The tear was trickling down his cheek. I think one was trickling down mine as well. I can’t quite remember.

Slowly he walked toward me, and once again boundaries evaporated. This time, though, I could feel the shaking of tears in his chest as he embraced me, not sobbing, just . . . tears.

“I’m not ready to let him go,” he finally whispered into my ear.

“I know,” I replied.

Slowly he pulled back. As we looked at each other, we both knew there was nothing left to say. He nodded, as did I. Then he turned away.

I wondered whether he was going to finish what he had to finish.

He did.

He’d told me the night before. “The last salute. That’s what’s going to be the hardest.”

I watched him as he went over to another man, his age, in full uniform. Briefly they spoke. Then, together, they walked up to the casket. People continued to walk around, speak softly, hug.

The two men assumed full attention. They looked down at the casket. Then, in a fashion just as the men and women had assumed at the sounding of “Taps,” just as the General had done to the flag and to him, Athos and his friend slowly began to raise their right hands to their foreheads, the entire journey from chest to brow extending over four, slow beats, at the end of which their hands stood still, as did Time, one last time.

Although not in heart, but at least in body, the last Musketeer had done it: had let his second brother go, had saluted him one last time at a casket, had taken his place, unwillingly, yet bravely, as the last one standing.

Slowly both men lowered their hands. Slowly they turned away—and then embraced.

About five minutes later, I turned to find him standing in front of me.

“You still in the hospital this week?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Maybe I could come by on Friday?”

“Of course.”

I think we both attempted something like a smile. That may be the best either of us can hope for. For a while.

Eventually it was time for me to go. I walked over to the casket and lowered the tips of the fingers of my right hand down onto it.

I, of course, had not earned to right to salute.

And so I thought what I needed to think, whispered what I needed to whisper.

Words that I now must write.

For I, too, don’t want to let Porthos go. And I, too, like Athos, must find a way to begin to do just that.

And so I type what I whispered to his body—perhaps, I hope, in some way even now whisper to him. Even though I could not salute him, I could say something, something that perhaps as his psychiatrist—and even more, as his somewhat boundary-bending friend—only I could say.

You see, I was by no means the only one to whom he bared the terrors and grief of his soul. He did to Athos. He did to his chaplain. He did to a few other buddies. Yet I do know that even with them, he’d only been able to graze against the guilt in his soul, the grief in his heart, the suffering in his mind.

With me, however, he had honored me enough with his trust to allow me to watch him begin to grasp those demons more firmly, to take the risk with him that everything could blow up, to have the faith that it wouldn’t, to feel together what never should have been felt by him in the first place.

Perhaps, then, there are words that only I can pronounce, not as some sort of blessing—far from it—but rather as a statement of fact, a “performative” utterance, as the literary critics are wont to say, words that by their very speaking both acknowledge what “is” and bring that “is”into being.

I have to laugh, actually. Porthos gave me no end of grief about being a “Harvard hot-shot.” He, more than anyone, would have enjoyed the ridiculousness of some Westside Indianapolis boy acting as if he could spout off some highfalutin’ Latin nonsense in the tradition of the Lux et Veritas so proudly displayed on anything Harvardian one can buy at the Coop in Cambridge.

Yet at the same time, sometimes I would wake up in the morning to find that he had texted me in the middle of the night to tell me that another nightmare had awakened him, shook him to the core, but that he was “going to be OK, Doc. I’m feeling a little better.” Why?

Because he’d watched a couple Harry Potter movies.

It was J. K. Rowling, of course, who helped make Latin fashionable again, with her spells, curses, and family names that hearken back to the language of Rome. How Porthos would have so appreciated, then, at least one word in the phrases, that wizarding word for a curse that could, if left unchecked, destroy both body and soul of any man or woman who had to endure it.

He knew something of that process, after all.

Yet, thankfully, he also knew of other processes as well. He knew, like Harry, that ultimately what saves us all is simply faithfulness and love.

I only hope that well within boundaries, yet well not constrained by them, he learned something of the latter two from me, enough so that I can say what I have to say, perhaps the only good I can see arising out the sadness sounded in that bugle’s call, in that beloved brother-in-arm’s salute.

And so one last time, now with fingertips touching wood only in spirit, I let you go, Porthos. As your doctor, I give you the final diagnosis to set you free.

Cruciatus consumptus est, Porthos. Requiesce in pace.

Indeed, the torment is over, Porthos. Rest in peace. Amen.

Amen.

 

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