My American Adieu

With today’s entry, I am bringing the blog to an indefinite pause. I am not taking it down. In fact, over the coming days and weeks, I hope to reorganize it into an archive that might be worth an interested party’s future, casual perusal. In addition, I will give (most likely in the About Me page) a full accounting of the thoughts that have led to this decision.

Yet while I had been planning this action for a while now,  before this morning I had certainly not planned on doing so in the way I am about to do. Call it Divine touch, call it serendipity (it’s your theology or no, you choose), a “random” checking of an iPhone alert changed it all.

That alert brought me to the following story in The New York Times: “Refugees Detained at U.S. Airports, Prompting Legal Challenges to Trump’s Immigration Order.”  The article caught my eye and afterwards delivered big-time with the following words:

The lawyers said that one of the Iraqis detained at Kennedy Airport, Hameed Khalid Darweesh, had worked on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq for 10 years. The other, Haider Sameer Abdulkhaleq Alshawi, was coming to the United States to join his wife, who had worked for a U.S. contractor, and young son, the lawyers said. They said both men were detained at the airport Friday night after arriving on separate flights.

The attorneys said they were not allowed to meet with their clients, and there were tense moments as they tried to reach them.

“Who is the person we need to talk to?” asked one of the lawyers, Mark Doss, supervising attorney at the International Refugee Assistance Project.

“Mr. President,” said a Customs and Border Protection agent, who declined to identify himself. “Call Mr. Trump.”

Well, they did.

The detentions prompted legal challenges as lawyers representing two Iraqi refugees held at Kennedy Airport filed a writ of habeas corpus early Saturday in the Eastern District of New York seeking to have their clients released. At the same time, they filed a motion for class certification, in an effort to represent all refugees and immigrants who they said were being unlawfully detained at ports of entry.

Habeas corpus is, loosely translated, Latin for  “Show me the body!” Think of it this way: the writ is the next best thing to having the President’s new cell phone number.

A case, a narrative—a mere human story—is now before a federal court.  Now it’s time for the common law tradition to get to work.

At this moment, I am so proud to call myself lawyer.  And just as proudly, I call myself psychiatrist, the keeper of stories.

I’m so proud to be an American, where even a President has to answer to a judiciary.  True, it’s a judiciary over which he has some power of initial appointment. But that’s the President’s one shot. After that, even the President has to live with the decisions of that judiciary. Just like the rest of us.

I could say, “So now, let the Games begin!”  Instead, I say, “Let the Law begin!” And all of us, including the President and I, will have to live with the consequences.

I will state it directly: I, personally, writing on behalf of no one except myself, will not be happy if the President “wins” this particular case.  However, as long as the judiciary, in declaring that “win,” at least not-so-subtly warns the President that “one day will come a day when you will not ‘win,’ so prepare yourselves, Mr. President and Mr. Bannon,” then, yes, while I’ll be anything but happy, I’ll live with that decision.

Yet for me, personally, writing on behalf of no one except myself, if indeed a judge of the Federal District Court of the Eastern District of New York, judges from the United States Second Circuit Court of Appeal, and justices of the United States Supreme Court send a faithful United States government servant and the spouse of a faithful United-States-government-supporting servant back to their deaths, then the new Washington Gaslights will have indeed dimmed the world sufficiently to darken my very soul.  Even as they assure me that those very lights have never been brighter.

So this is how I bring Paving the Road Back to its pause. For now I must take a break from telling the stories of others.  But I do have one final story to relate, a story that has been told to me, far more than once.

If the federal judiciary fails my hopes in these cases, dashes them, there will be other battles on other days. Yet two men whom I will never know, their images, coupled with the emotional traces of images I have within me of many of their fallen countrymen and women, images related to me and formed within me by combat veterans with tears in their eyes, those images will bring a tear to my eye as well.

It won’t be the first time for such a tear, nor will it be the last.

I know nothing of War via my eyes, my limbs, my nose, my taste buds. But as this blog has shown (I hope), I do know something of War with my ears.

If I can brag about one thing (if I may), if I may be so grateful to God for the one gift I can willingly bring each hour, each veteran whom I meet? Every day, I do all I can to keep open the passage from my ears to my soul.

Many, many days, for many, many of the combat veterans I have had the privilege of serving, such a gift is not only the best I can give, but also, sadly, all that I can give.

But a gift—for them, for me—it is.

My own political views are not relevant here.  I have them, of course.  Most readers will be able to guess them, of course.  My only (admittedly fiendish joy and) desire is to leave my faithful readers, leave you, the reader of this final entry, with a question: “So what’s this Mennonite, who actually used to work for the United States Army 101st Airborne Division, doing here?”

Yes, the United States Army 101st Airborne Division, Fort Campbell, Kentucky, USA (upon whose behalf I do not write).  This United States Army 101st Airborne Division:

Mr. Darweesh worked as an interpreter for the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Baghdad and Mosul starting shortly after the invasion of Iraq on April 1, 2003. The filing said he had been directly targeted twice for working with the American military.

What, indeed.

I’ve always been a believer in the oft-maligned adage, “All politics is personal.” Thus I’ve never (really) questioned an analogous one:  “All Law is personal.”

Yet I also have to remind myself that personal need not describe solely the individual, but also the corporate, the group.  Us.  We must speak Law. We must evaluate Law’s debates. We must engage the “personal” I’s to whom we have given the power to speak Law for us.

And not only for us.

For example, also for that Iraqi interpreter who was willing to take a chance that, perhaps, those “Christian invaders”—or at least some of them—might actually mean what they say, might mean it when they say “Let’s try to make life better for all of us,” who say, “Really, we’re not just a bunch of terrified bullies who will do whatever we must to keep our gas tanks full.”

For that Iraqi man—who has a name, Hameed Khalid Darweesh—who was willing to believe those assertions and risk his life for them,

For those American and Coalition Forces men and woman—all of whom have names, trust me, I remember many of them—who believed those assertions as they were making them and were willing to risk their lives for them,

For those American soldiers of the United States Army 101st Airborne Division, of the United States Army Special Operations Aviation Regiment, of the United States Army Fifth Special Forces Group, for those men and women who sat in my United States Army office on the Kentucky-Tennessee border and cried tears of anguish for the interpreters who stayed with them through thick and thin, who did not betray them (even though a few others did), who were willing to die—who, many, willingly died—so that bad men would stop torturing and killing good people,

For that American Law, that crazy law of the personal story, the case.

May that Law, that Law of which, as lawyer and psychiatrist, I so genuinely, even tearfully—if not some days angrily—am proud, that Law to which I gratefully declare my support today,

May that Law preserve you Hameed, Haider, my Iraqi friends,

May that Law preserve you, Hameed, my Iraqi friend of those invulnerable, yet so linguistically and culturally vulnerable Americans of the 101st Airborne Division,

May that Law keep you both safe.

May that Law, may Life itself, keep us all safe, safe to tell and to live out all our stories, another day.

With this, I bring this blog to an indefinite close.  Not my work of Paving the Road Back, though. Not at all.  Monday will come, and the stories of the lives of more combat veterans will again—sometimes loudly, often hesitantly—inch their way through the air between us, give a quiet nod of acknowledgement of my hearing apparatus as they quickly pass through, then head straightway to their final destination, the only destination they ever sought:  my soul.

And there get to the work that those stories intended to accomplish in the first place.

To all the men and women whom I have had the honor to date to serve, to all those whom I will serve in the future, truly:  Thank you for your Service.

And to all of you, whether any blog entry ever appears again or not:

Á Dieu.  God speed, and Godspeed.  Adieu.

On Saying Farewell to Katniss & Peeta

Today, in the United States, it is Thanksgiving Day.

One week ago, though, in IMAX theaters across the land, it was Katniss Everdeen’s Day.

Much to President Coin’s chagrin.

For those of you acquainted with Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, whether in print or on the big (and I mean, big) screen, you know exactly what I mean.

For those of you not acquainted with it, or at least with Jennifer Lawrence’s/Josh Hutcherson’s/Liam Hemsworth’s incarnation thereof:  good Lord, where have you been buying your groceries this past month?

Sure enough, I was there, Opry Mills theater, right off the Briley Parkway, Nashville, Tennessee, USA, far too close to the screen, but there you have it.. Wouldn’t have missed it. I had to see if the ending was going to disappointment me.

It didn’t.

Interestingly, though, just the week before I’d spoken with a journalist about my old posts on the books, written around the time of the first films. He was surprised that I was as gung-ho on the books’ ending as I was.

“I think a lot of people thought it was a let-down,” he told me.

I suspect he’s right.

Was I let down that Dr. Aurelius, the psychiatrist in the book, never made it to the big screen?  Sure.  I’m a shrink, after all. It was our big moment, and to end up on the cutting floor? Another day at the office, I guess.  Next patient, please.

Just the other day, David Brooks, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote an op-ed piece entitled “Tales of the Super Survivors,” in which he stated (quite well, I think) the idea that one recovers from trauma only by learning to tell new stories about life, stories that must take into account the truth of the world, yet which must have the optimism to see beyond those truths.

I think he’s right, of course. I did find his tone a bit on the chipper side for my taste, admittedly. I’ve attended one too many funerals in my day, I guess.

Still, he’s right.

And Katniss and Peeta knew that as well. After all they had gone through, all they had left was home, back in what was left of District 12, in houses whose grandeur evoked the memories of all the smiles and largesse forced upon them by a government that had rather found them both dead in those beds they curled up in, nightmare-night after nightmare-night.

All they had left were the stories to be lived of Haymitch sober, of Annie and Finnick’s son, of primroses growing in gardens Prim would no longer tend, of an ugly cat, of a love, whether or not it was ever “not real,” that became so quietly real.

Does love conquer all? God, I wish it did. Too many veterans return to homes that, even though not on the edge of a genocide zone, do not have the luxury of quiet that the Everdeen-Mellarks were eventually afforded.

Narratives are easier to re-write, after all, when there’s a steady supply of food on the table and a warm-bed-for-life on the second floor.

Yet, in the end, love, connection, friendship, a willingness to let something in life matter again, someone in life: they are all that the traumatized veteran of War has. Treatments will come. Treatments will go. Sadly, in many parts, treatments never even come in the first place.

But to take the chance to love again, to love a man who once tried to strangle you, yet who endured your bite to keep you from swallowing pills of death (the one book scene I wish could have made it into that movie scene of the “execution’s” aftermath)? Katniss did.

To take the chance that the memories you worked so hard to retrieve could leave you once again, like that young lad outside the bakery on a cold night, tossing a loaf of bread to a beautiful girl rather than to a pig, without anything to show for it but a broken heart and a maybe an occasional wild turkey brought in from the woods and left at your doorstep to cook up that night if you wanted to invite, what, maybe Haymitch over for a beer–or nineteen? Peeta did.

You know, the high-drama-guy in me wanted to shed a tear or two as I watched Peeta giggle with that little blond guy in the field at movie’s ending, as Katniss recited the book’s ending to the baby in her arms, as the two of them looked at each other and knew—and yet lived and loved and smiled anyway.

Perhaps because it was only about a week after JD’s funeral, I couldn’t.

Yet I was happy for them, those two fictional characters, yet still, two veterans of horrific wars, ones televised live and overanalyzed, two young veterans, slowly growing older, with nothing more to show for it than love and a willingness to play different games.

Thank you, Ms. Collins, for your books and for your care over the films. Thank you that even when there are worse games to play, there are always better stories to tell.

For that, the fictional ones and the real ones, all of us can whisper, “Thanksgiving.”

Back in Town

Hey, folks!

Yes, I’m alive. Yes, I’m still working with very courageous men and women who are working to move their lives forward.

I haven’t been posting recently for a variety of reasons (none, I’m thankful to report, bad or illness-fiilled). I’m looking forward to getting back into the blog over the coming weeks, the hectic nature of the Holidays notwithstanding!

For right now, it’s just : stay tuned. It’s a good time for a reboot. Thankfully, though: I still have the honor of working with men and women who have served to the best of their abilities and who are still working not only to “pave the road back” home, but also to move into more and more meaning-filled futures.

I have a great job.

Talk to you all soon!

The Vet Whisperers

Hippotherapy, it’s called: horses that calmly offer the wounded a chance to re-find connection, a mutual gaze, to venture a stroke of a hand across a neck, proposing the possibility of trust once again. In Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, Straw, a mare once gravely injured herself, offers herself up as equa semper fidelis et parata, always faithful and prepared to engage combat veterans in a silent conversation about what it means to heal, to move forward again.

In War, the soldier at another soldier’s side is not merely a back-up, but rather an extension of one’s very being, a part of one’s self who just happens to be a few steps ahead, behind, a chunk of one’s soul who might, moments from now, be propelled into oblivion, leaving in the wake a crater in land and heart that dares anyone to try to fill it.

When one has a gaping hole in one’s essence, one often does not find comfort in language spoken by any human, no matter how loved she or he may be. Yet a gentle nudge along the edges of the wound by a horse, a dog, can possibly begin its closure, one tail wag, one snort at a time, an unspoken whisper to remind man now, not beast, that peace, even if it never seemed possible again, still perhaps can be.

Yes, Mama, Yes, Ma’am

When I asked her if she would be interested in my writing a blog entry about our work together, she at first appeared pleased, but then turned wary, ever so slightly.

“I’d talk about your mother,” I assured her.

With that, the smile I had come to admire beamed like the proverbial spotlight.

“Well, OK, then,” she replied, her whole head-to-toe demeanor practically shouting in addition, “And, Lord, won’t that be a hoot . . .”

How true, how true.

My patient is the first woman combat veteran I have written about.

I have received some criticisms for not having written previously about the women combat veterans I’ve had the honor to serve, some intimations of misogyny, even. Until now, I’ve not known quite how to express my challenge.

Thankfully, she’s changed all that.

My challenge has been one all too familiar to those who work with women combat veterans, one all too rarely addressed even remotely adequately: many, if not most, of the women combat veterans I’ve served were, at some point in their careers, sexually traumatized by the men with whom—and even worse, often under whom—they had been serving.

As the months have gone on, I’ve come to write this blog as a sort of memoir, reflections rendered in the form of “I remember So-and-So,” glimpses (I hope) of men whom I’ve served as filtered through how they have impacted my own experiences, my own understandings of what it means to be both incredibly powerful and yet incredibly vulnerable in the world. I have always strived to assume that I have no idea as to the men’s actual sufferings, but rather, through my inklings of those sufferings, to consider that I can nevertheless find a way to fathom what little of those sufferings I can fathom and then to respect them for all that must (thankfully) remain unfathomable to me (at least so far in my life, thanks be to God).

With military sexual trauma, however, whether perpetrated on women or on men, I have been loath to make any assumptions whatsoever.

How often we hear platitudes such as “War is war,” or, in the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, “Stuff happens.” Behind them is that most questionable, yet rarely-questioned of “truths”: even if the violence of War feels personal, nine times out of ten, it’s not. You don’t get shot at, in other words, because you’re you, but rather because you’re American or Afghan or in the wrong place at the wrong time, etc., etc.

Not so, sexual trauma, the zenith of the personal, even among strangers, let alone so-called friends.

As a man, I’ve had occasion to know (again) an inkling of the feeling of imagining myself powerful when, all of sudden, I am anything but. As a man, however, I have never grown up in a world where the power differentials between me and the other fifty per cent of civilization have confronted me day in, day out, where my deepest desires can be, at any moment, hijacked and obliterated without an intelligible word being spoken. I have never had to find a way to redefine myself in such a fundamental way vis-à-vis the other men and/or women—other humans—in my life such that I have had to decide whether today is a day worth surviving.

I have never had to face how someone who is supposedly on my side of the “Good vs. Bad” continuum can force me to redefine not only me, even after years of faithful military service, but even more those very words good and bad that have formed me.

As I have no inkling, I have believed that I dare not even intimate that I have a right to reflect on such—here unquestionable—truths.

My patient, however, reminded me that the treatment of trauma is not always about trauma, and certainly not just about trauma. It can be, should be about Life itself.

Fortunately I have a wise, dynamic, deeply empathetic psychologist colleague at my current job who just happens to be female in addition, and she and my patient found together the words that needed to be found to deal with, as well as could be dealt with, all that needed to be spoken, at least for now. I was, at first, glad simply to be the medication consultant, a man willing to listen, a man willing to face that my very being could itself be traumatizing. My patient and I did the best we could. She soldiered on. She began to feel better.

Then one day I overheard a conversation on the phone. “No, Mama, you can’t bring all your friends down here with you.”  A pause, then “It’s a hospital, Mama. Visiting is for family.” Another pause, and then, “Well, Mama, I know you don’t like it, but that’s the way it is.”

We spoke together a few minutes later.

“Was that your Mom?” I asked.

Even though our previous conversations had mainly been marked by few words and even fewer emotions, she gave me the semblance of a half-smile, sort of.

“Oh, yeah,” she replied.

“Sounds as if she’s got quite the mind of her own,” I quipped, careful not to put too much emotion into my end, either.

That provoked a three-quarters-smile.

“You can say that again.”

“She wanting to bring half the church with her or something?”

Seven-eighths, now, with even a shake of the head.

“Don’t tempt her.”

We were on a roll, so I thought, why not?

“Pack up the church bus and maybe the van, too?”

This time she even leaned forward slightly, the asymptotic smile approaching, approaching . . .

“You’ve met my Mama?”

I gave in to the first chuckle.

“You know, there’s that old heliport out there that they’re not using. They could set up a meeting, bring a musician and a keyboard, have themselves a whole service, wave at you during the greeting time, the whole bit.”

Apparently, with that, asymptote reached, laugh achieved.

“I told you,” she grinned, “don’t tempt her.”

Thus began our own continuing rendition of “I Remember Mama.”

“I’m somehow suspecting that nobody had better cross your Mama,” I remarked later that week.

“Just let ’em try,” she answered, the smile by then so much easier to appear, the demeanor so much less tense. “My Mama might not be tall, but you’d never know it. She still tells me, ‘Girl,’ and I hop to. Why, I’d once been out one night when I was a kid—just one night, mind you—and I sure learned never to do that again, I tell you. It wasn’t more than a couple of weeks later I walked upstairs from the basement, looked at her, she looked at me, and then she gave me this little swat, just like that. I asked her, ‘What did I do?’ all self-righteous, you know? And she just looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘You looked like you were about ready to do something.'”

At that, my patient paused and gave me, I think, her first of many full-faced, eyes-twinkling smiles.

“She was probably right,” was all she said.

My, how the stories went on.

I finally had a chance to meet her mother a few weeks later. In front of me indeed was a woman who may not have been that tall, but I sure didn’t know it. She was decked out in what they used to call a “pant suit,” and I mean it was a pant suit, bought full retail, no doubt, for no self-respecting outfit like that would last long enough in the store to make it to the sale rack. And did she know how to accessorize, let me tell you, not too much, not too little, without old-lady shoes to boot. My patient had once told me that her mother always flies, thank you, never drives to Nashville or anywhere else her kids might be.

Seeing the lady in front of me, I had no doubt of that whatsoever.

“Nice to meet you, ma’am,” I said, offering her my hand.

Her posture perfect, her head tilted slightly, she offered me her hand in return, not regally, for that would be too stiff, too formal, just pleasantly and confidently. Imagine the Queen Mother with a pinch of attitude.

“Nice to meet you, too, Doctor,” she replied.

“Doing my best to keep her honest,” I said, my head nodding toward her daughter.

As she let go of my hand, she turned her own head toward her, gave her one of those looks, and then she turned back to me to give me the selfsame. “Good luck with that,” she muttered, her wry smile telling the rest of the story.

I looked at my patient. She looked at me. What else could she say but, “Yes, Mama.”  What else could I say but “Yes, Ma’am.”

There is no tidy way to wrap up a trauma narrative, sexual or otherwise. All of us bring givens, histories to our every encounter that shape what can or cannot, should or should not be said. Sometimes all I can do as a therapist is watch and hope that this other human being before me can re-find and redefine all that he was, all that she will become.

Other times, though, I catch a break. I get to meet women who have served faithfully, suffered as they must, and never let go, no matter what. I get to see strength cross a generational divide and infuse both sides not only with hope, but with a smile. And I get to learn, once again, that some stories are best told in their subplots, down in the deep streams of human connection that just flow on, baby, just flow on.

At least you can get a good laugh out of it every now and then. And believe you me, if anyone is good for a laugh, it’s Mama.

Yes, ma’am.  And thank you.

 

JD/rjsd

Veteran’s Day 2013

Last year on Veteran’s Day, I posted the following. Sadly I can only add to it this year, names of veterans I have known only by their impact on others (Dr. Peter Linnerooth, Clay Hunt), names of veterans I have known deeply by their impact on me (Porthos, Ethan, Kurt) .

Yet with deepest respect, I can only say it all again. Gladly:

I’ve said it many times before: there are much easier ways to get an education than by going through boot camp, a statement as true in times of peace as in times of war. In basic training one learns—body, heart, and mind-—that one may have not only to kill, but also to die, and furthermore that one may have to do both precisely because one is not the center of the universe, because one has chosen to become part of a group that has volunteered to defend a larger group from those who would harm the innocent.

Some persons in this world will voluntarily choose martyrdom to promote the cause of peace, i.e., will choose their own deaths rather than inflict death on another.

Many, if not most persons, however, feel no need whatsoever to make a similar choice. Those who choose to serve in the military take up a different calling, therefore: they choose to serve the “many” such persons, if necessary, unto death so that the innocent will not have to be forced into martyrdom–or, perhaps better put, will not have to be slaughtered.

Every veteran knows that and can look another veteran in the eye and know that the other veteran knows that as well.

And so today is November 11. Because of this blog, however, because of the men and women I have been privileged to serve, this year I remembered Veterans’ Day early, on November 4, three days after November 1, All Saints Day.

We in the Mennonite tradition are more of the “Low Church” ilk, meaning that we have, through our history, tended not to take much notice of such “High Church” occasions  as Advent, Lent, Epiphany, etc. At our Indianapolis congregation, however, we have for several years now chosen the Sunday after All Saints Day to remember those in our congregation and in our lives who have, in the words of the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, joined our “great . . . cloud of witnesses.”

In recent years we have done so in a visually striking way: at the front of the sanctuary, on a table before the pulpit, small, flat votive candles are floated in glass bowls filled with water. Initially, as a member of our pastoral staff reads off the names of all members of the congregation who have died during our church’s nearly sixty years of existence, another staff member lights a candle as each name is read. Afterwards, we in the congregation are invited to come forward as we would like to light a candle for those whom we remember and whom we honor.

This year, as the members of the congregation came up front, the rest of us sang a song from the Taizé Community of France with the words, “Within our darkest night, You kindle the fire that never dies away,” a simple melody accompanied by organ, a solo flute, and a solo violin, the congregation and the instruments performing a canon of sorts again and again until all had lit their candles.

As I sat there, four names came to my mind: Danny, TJ, Mike, and Donald, the names of the best friends of four of the men I’ve had the honor to serve. All four men died in front of the men whom I’ve come to know. All four of the men I’ve come to know pause at the mention of these names, no matter how often, no matter when.

I walked up to the table and took the long, fireplace match from the women who had been standing in front of me. The match had burned down about a third of the way, still quite afire, ready. I lowered the flame down to one of the white votives floating in the water. It bobbed ever so slightly, requiring that I hold the match steadily, right at the tip of the wick, to await the few seconds until the flame recreated itself, fire one more time symbolizing lives engulfed, spirits rekindled, light continued.

For a moment I stood there, match now burned nearly halfway down, still alighted, nonetheless, both flames, match’s and candle’s, reflecting in the water below.

I lifted the match near my lips and blew. The carbon remains fell into the water, not scattering, merely floating, remnants, reminders that none of these four men ever reached his twenty-second birthday.

It was time to go back to my seat. Others were awaiting their turn. Death waits for no one.

Tonight I see that floating candle in my mind. Yet on this Veterans’ Day I also recall that life waits for no one as well. The dead float in our souls not simply to be remembered, but even more to be revived, reborn, remade. Life goes on for each of the men whom I continue to serve. Danny’s buddy struggles to keep his emotions under control long enough to feel a future. TJ’s buddy is coming closer every day to accepting that he must take time to grieve so that he will find the time to rebuild. Mike’s buddy is taking that time even as we speak. And Donald’s buddy finally got his old job back.

Thankfully, though death and life do not, hope waits for us all.

If we only dare hope that it will.

To Danny, TJ, Mike, Donald, and now well over two thousand men and women from OEF/OIF/OND, I say “thank you.” To my Uncle Raymond and those who died in Europe and the South Pacific over half a century ago, I say “thank you.” To the best buddy of Danny’s father and those who died with him in Southeast Asia now almost a half century ago, I say “thank you.”

And to all of you who survive, “thank you.” No matter whether one agrees with the wisdom of violence, we all agree to its existence, and on this day that was supposed to have marked the end of the “War to End All Wars,” I thank those who wish to find meaning in protection, even protection unto death. War may or may not ever be justified, ever be wise. War is never a good. Yet its end has not come, nor, sadly, will it.

Thank you to all those who have been and are still willing to live faithfully in light of that.

Adieu, A Dieu

It’s good to be back.

While my two-month delay has had a lot to do with the demands of my new job, I have to be honest: the real reason says far more about the challenges of farewells than it does about the challenges of paperwork.

About three weeks before Memorial Day, I made the decision to cross the therapist’s Rubicon, to go, like Caesar, where I had been told I was not to go, fully aware that my crossing, like his, would be an irrevocable one, an act, even, of rebellion.

I comfort myself now by revealing that my Julian meeting was at least not going to be a secret one: I had discussed it with my wife beforehand, given that I could not guarantee her that I would be home any time before 10:00 AM on that Monday before my second daughter’s high school graduation open house.

My wife had been fine with my going, nonetheless, especially given that my young adult children would most likely not even have been humanoid by that hour anyway, so she had figured that she most likely would still be nursing her Keurig-brewed Starbucks at said hour, channel-surfing in a desperate attempt to find something worth watching on TV after her having bid the day’s farewell to Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning.

Now true, I had told no one at the VA about the proposed meeting, but so it goes . . .

“You going to be free on Memorial Day—early, I mean, like 7:30 or so?” I asked the young veteran on that fateful, “the die is cast” day, both of us seated quite comfortably in my office.

It was an honest question, after all. I knew that he too had had a big event planned for the same day as my daughter’s, so I hadn’t been sure that the woman in his life would be as flexible as she in mine had been.

Brides can be funny about wedding days, after all.

“Why do you ask?” he replied, in a manner both comfortable, yet somewhat guarded, that hallmark of so many of our interactions.

“Well, you know,” I stammered, “in a matter of a few weeks, I won’t be your doctor any more, and you won’t be my patient, or at least officially you won’t be my patient—although some people do say ‘once a patient, always a patient,’ and I guess they have a point, if you think about it, but then—“

“Doc,” he said, his smile a familiar one, his roll of the eyes one that had once been a recurring response to a well-loved battle buddy of his, one still so missed by us both. “Just spit it out, why don’t you?”

I had to smile myself. Step in water. Cross. Step out of water. March.

“I was thinking,” I went on. “Last year on Memorial Day, I went to Crown Point Cemetery and placed a flag at the grave of a patient’s father, and . . . well, this year I was thinking of doing that at Porthos’ grave, you know?”

The young veteran’s smile slowly melted, first into the quizzical and then, dare I say, into the hesitant. Yet he didn’t say a word.

“So I was wondering,” I faltered on, “whether you would have the time or whether you would like to meet me there, at the cemetery, you know. We could . . . get a bit to eat afterwards, maybe. You know? If you’d like, of course. Only . . . if you’d like.”

Thirty years I’ve been a psychiatrist, with well over twenty more years behind me practicing the art of basic communication in the English tongue. One would think I could have come up with something better than that, but there you have it.

Thankfully, a rhetorical critic, Athos, the last Musketeer, is not.

“Of course, Doc,” he whispered, smile back in full force. “I’d love to.”

Apparently my children were not the only ones planning on sleeping in that Monday. I suppose every bride needs her beauty rest.

I bought the flag at the Canteen at the VA about a week before the Holiday, one of those tchotchkes that you always see people waving along the side of the road whenever the President is passing by in his motorcade from the airport to a convention center stage that looks the same in Seattle as it does in Poughkeepsie. I left said flag in the back seat of my Volkswagen, truthfully just so that I wouldn’t forget it and leave it at the hospital, yet also gambling that the sun would be merciful on it for the week’s wait, especially given that the chemical fibers of the flag’s “cloth” (ha-ha) would probably be strong enough to melt the sun itself before the latter would have the audacity to attempt to melt the former.

Monday morning, Memorial Day celebrated, finally came, and at the crack of dawn (i.e., 6:30 AM, same thing at my house on a three-day weekend) I headed south of Indianapolis, not even sure if the gates of my municipal cemetery destination would be unlocked at that time.

At 7:15, aided by the absence on the road of all drivers who had been smart enough to stay in bed that morning, I arrived to find the gates wide open.

It had been almost a good two months since I’d been there that first time. Yet without hesitation I recognized the winding road, visualized the tree by the veterans’ memorial, recalled the casket suspended over its final destination. Within minutes, destination found, I eased the car to a stop, turned off the engine, and just sat there, looking.

As if on cue, my cell phone rang.

“Sorry, Doc,” whispered the voice at the other end, in a tone familiar to anyone who has experienced that profoundest of parental joys, i.e., the waking up of teenagers on the first school day after Christmas vacation. “I overslept.”

No surprise, of course. By his report he’d never been the morning-type, even long before War had made sure that the dawning of a new day would never again spot him a feel-good freebie.

“No problem,” I replied. I remembered a mom-and-pop joint I’d passed by on the way into town. “Is it any good?” I asked. “We could eat before we head over.”

I swear I heard the smile over the phone. “Porthos and I ate there all the time,” he answered.

“See you when you get there,” was all I replied.

OK, so now: think Indiana. Now think of every diner that you’ve ever seen on TV where the show’s protagonists meet for coffee in the morning and where the waitress then walks up and reminds them that it’s Wednesday, so there’s still some peach cobbler left over from the day before, if they want some.

You’re there.

He arrived only about five minutes after I had, barely enough time for my downing two swigs of a coffee that, though not exactly flavorful, was not pitiful either, thank God. As he sat down, his whole demeanor, his whole “him” hit me again, full force. I could only imagine him in my mind’s eye, in some back-street club in Nashville, maybe, clad in a plain T-shirt and a pair of jeans, sitting by himself on a stool on the front stage, a couple of lights highlighting his each side, looking down at his guitar, strumming, quietly singing his soul as the patrons look on, their Miller Lites from the tap half-drunk, joining him in musical reveries of what had been, what might have been, what might still be hoped for.

“You gotta try the fried biscuits,” he said in an excited voice that I just as easily could also have imagined his having used with me had such a dream suddenly turned into a reality, after his having taken a break after the first set, probably, followed then by something akin to “Pretty good crowd tonight, Doc, you think?”

“The ones with the apple butter?” the real me asked. Yes, I’d seen them on the menu, I admit it.

“Porthos loved ’em. He’d practically swallow them whole.”

So of course I got them. Athos settled on biscuits and sausage gravy. What else for a Southern boy, right?

Porthos had known whereof he’d swallowed, it turned out. Lord, that place was so quintessential, I suspect they have one of the original patents on the whole breakfast menu.

We talked, not exactly buddy-talk, but certainly not doctor-patient “dialogue,” either. He was so excited to be getting married, so dyed-in-the-wool jittery. I talked some of my upcoming move, as I recall, as well as something of my daughter’s graduation, I’m sure, or of my son’s looking forward to his new school in Nashville, my wife’s looking forward to our downsizing, perhaps. Honestly I can’t quite remember. We needed only one java refill apiece, though, not that there hadn’t been time for more. I suspect neither of us had at that moment the stomach for more, literally and, yes, figuratively.

“Want to head over?” I finally asked.

For a few seconds he just looked at me, his face not exactly frozen, yet not exactly responsive either. He then looked down at his empty coffee cup, the only distraction available before him, the plate of gobbled-up biscuits long having been cleared away with a rapidity worthy of any waitress named Flo this side of the Mississippi.

“No,” he whispered, only then to bring his eyes back to mine. “But yes.”

As always, an honest man.

When we arrived at the graveside, we were still the lone living among the dearly departed, given the hour, most likely, but perhaps for other reasons as well, who knows. I got out first, shut my door, looked back at him in the car behind me. He was sitting behind the wheel, staring toward the grave. A few seconds later, jolted apparently by some slap across the face of his soul, given the sudden, quasi-violent shake of his head, he looked up at me, smiled (or at least tried to), and got out himself.

The headstone had not yet been placed at the grave, but the latter had certainly not been unattended: some flowers, a small wreath, tributes not having been lavished on any other soldiers’ remains in the entire area.

“His folks?” I asked Athos as soon as we’d reached the spot.

“I suspect so,” he answered.

“You come here any?” I continued, rolling the balsa wood flagpole in my fingers back and forth, back and forth.

He was gazing down toward the flowers and the settling earth before them. He’s a couple inches taller than I am, far more angular in appearance. Given that I was having literally to look up to him, his face somewhat silhouetted by the rising sun, for a moment he struck me as a young Lincoln, believe it or not, far more handsome, most definitely, yet just as burdened, just as sad.

“Every once in a while,” he finally said.

I turned my own gaze downward with him. After a few more moments of silence, I knelt down and inserted the flag into the ground, right next to the flowers. Down on my haunches, I was, for a few seconds at least, aware only of the man whose remains were below me, the man who only months earlier had so proudly assured me that he would get his prescription from the VA pharmacy on that day that he’d left his ID at home (an absolute no-no, of course), the man who’d then sashayed his way back into my office a half-hour later, dangling a sack of medications from his raised right hand, practically purring to me that “she thought I was cute, Doc, I told you. They taught us how to do that in Special Forces training, told you, told you.”

God, I miss him.

As I stood up, I heard a chuckle behind me. I turned to find Athos still staring downward, but smiling to beat the band.

“He’d have been so tickled that you did this, Doc,” he whispered, pausing only a few seconds before looking up at me, the tear trickling down his cheek, I suspect mine mirroring his.

The smile could only last so long.

“I miss him so much,” was all he could then say, clearly lest the single tear be joined by compatriots far too many, far too insistent.

It was only as we embraced right then, however, that our truth, his and mine, was spoken.

“I’m going to miss you so much, too,” he whispered into my ear, for a few moments hugging me even harder, only then to release me, to push himself back, to look down at the ground, to swallow, to look back up at me and then, without pause, to look back down again, his hands inserted into his pockets, his feet shifting, side, to side, to side.

“You know we’re going to stay in touch, don’t you, right?” I said after my own pause. I then moved a few steps toward him, took his face, and pulled it up slightly, bringing us one more time to that spot so familiar, so comfortable, so distressing to us both: eye to eye. “I won’t be able to do anything about the VA or anything like that, no medications, the whole bit. But . . . we’ll still talk. Just like always. Promise.”

I don’t think I’ll ever forget the gaze he gave back to me at that moment, the gaze of a man half my age, yet one who had lain by the coffin of Aramis in the belly of an airplane for hours on end, one who had taken Porthos’ folded flag from the hands of the highest-ranking officer of Indiana’s National Guard, only to pass it on to his buddy’s uncle with a solemn salute, the one who had buried his father, his sister. The last one standing.

He was reminding me that he could not afford to forget what I was trying so hard not to acknowledge: that separations matter, that Skype and FaceTime can only save us so much, that “still, just like always” is never either.

“Roger that, Doc” he whispered.

The good soldier, protecting his “superior” to the end.

I’m happy to report that he and I have indeed stayed in touch since my move. But, yes, it’s not just like always.

My last day at the Indianapolis VA was Friday, June 28, 2013. At 0400h (yes, that’s right) on July 1, 2013, my wife and I took my younger two children to the Indianapolis Airport to board a plane to Phoenix, Arizona, where they attended the national convention for the Mennonite Church USA. Only about an hour later, I drove my ridiculously-packed-up, blue Volkswagen away from my father’s house, where we’d been camping out since the sale of our home, after twenty-two years heading out of town one last time, now toward Nashville, Tennessee, toward a very different hospital than the VA, a very different life.

Yet I-65 South toward Louisville, with Nashville beyond, leads past a spot not too far away from a cemetery I’d visited just a month before. I thought of taking a brief detour. Yet I had a meeting to make in about four hours and then, after that, it was to be off to another meeting at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, forty-five minutes northwest of Nashville. No rest for the wicked. Or the weary.

So I drove on by. And remembered.

______________________________

It has been ten days since I penned those last words. I’m still as clueless as to how to wrap up this essay as I was then.

We all so wish we could tidy up our lives’ endings, slap on some aphoristic wisdom and then mosey on down the road to another venue, another opening of another show.

Yet how do I do that, how do I tidily say “goodbye” to young men and women who have known so up-close-and-personally, often time after time after time, those most untidy of Life’s endings? How dare I even think that a nice thought at seventy miles per hour, followed by a sentence fragment penned three months later, could be enough to say to a Musketeer and his battle buddies, both literal and figurative, adieu, let alone claim to say à Dieu, Godspeed.

As I sit in the quiet of my brand-new, far-smaller condo, I almost literally experience faces pass before me, faces of those who have cried who have raged, who have laughed. Unlike the faces of the dead, these do not haunt me, thankfully. They do remind me, though, how much Life matters, how quickly it can change, for good or no, how long it lingers even after it has allegedly moved on.

And so I listen on.

Adieu, mes amis. À Dieu.

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