“‘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.

 

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

Guilt, Smiles, and In-Between

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

Living the Past’s Futures

Listen to the Podcast of Today’s Blog

 

Today is about a video clip. I first saw it courtesy of the Task & Purpose website, in an article entitled “Vargas and Best of Article 15 Talk Survivor’s Guilt, Loss.” It is also available on a Facebook page.

I strongly urge you to check it out.

“Article 15” is shorthand for major disciplinary action taken against an active-duty, United States service member, a reference to a particular section of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). It also, though, is the name of an online clothing store, veteran-run, specializing in military-related apparel that appears meant to be, shall we say, worn in-your-face and with-a-smile.

See for yourself. You won’t forget it any time soon, I promise.

Just as you won’t forget the Facebook film.

Mr. Vargas and Mr. Best are closely associated with both.

Having now worked for several years with combat vets, I have, admittedly, often guffawed at the outrageous tall-tales and snappy one-liners that some young (and not-so-young) service members have shot my way, even if the more civilianly-correct part of me (forget politically-correct, for we’re not even in the general vicinity) might have advised said service members to be, let’s say, circumspect in how widely they might advertise their particular brand of humor.

Yet with every irreverence comes also a corresponding reverence: for decisions made under pressure, for risks taken, for lives gained, for lives lost.

Mr. Vargas and Mr. Best, the makers of T-shirts with such logos as “Keep Calm and Freedom On,” have also put together the short film. “Live for Those Who Can’t,” a memorial to US Army Staff Sergeant Richard Barrazo and Sergeant Dale Behm, both of whom were killed in Ramadi, Iraq on March 18, 2006.

I suspect both SSG Barrazo and SGT Behm would have loved the T-shirt. They also loved the men under their command. Some of those men are alive today precisely because the two of them are not. Vargas and Best have sworn not only never to forget them. They have sworn never to stop living in honor of them.

It takes bravery to laugh after War, really laugh, not just with rage-filled laughter, but with irony-filled, foible-filled laughter. Many service members whom I’ve served have come to me fearing that to laugh again would be to betray. “How can the world smile after the Sergeant is gone?” they wonder

How can it? Vargas and Best make that clear: in the same way the world smiled when Sergeant was around, sometimes with bravado, sometimes with subtlety, always with an edge that only a service member can truly appreciate.

You had what it took to laugh before death. Even after it, you still have what it takes to laugh again, perhaps now with a different edge, true, but nevertheless an edge that can be nothing more than just a buckle in the carpet, one you might trip over for a good sight gag, not an edge that you fall over, never to rise again.

Both Vargas and Best have sworn never to forget. Both have sworn to live in remembrance.

I suspect that both have sworn to laugh in remembrance as well.

I suspect both the Sergeants would have been pleased. And owned a couple shirts as well.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

Bravely Speaking Out

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

Silent Guilt No More

Today’s story is a more difficult one. When we talk of the “hope of recovery,” we are, of course, talking about recovery from something, and that something is often painful beyond words. The Royal Marine who bravely opened up his heart and mind to the British tabloid, The Mirror, certainly does have hope for further recovery, but as he struggles to reel words back into his pain, he reminds us all of the complications that War brings, even to those whom we would all call “heroic.”  The article is “War Hero Is Left Suicidal and Depressed Due to ‘Guilt’ Over Military Cross Recognition.”

Interesting how the headline writer at The Mirror felt compelled to add quotation marks around the word hero, as if somehow, what, to comfort the rest of us that we know what real heroism and undeserved guilt really are? Perhaps, perhaps not.

For Corporal Richard Withers of the Corps of Royal Marines, in Her Majesty’s Naval Service, however, guilt is guilt, potentially deadly, whether or not undeserved.

Yes, you and I can see and say what a brave man Corporal Withers is, based not only on his willingness to man his post and charge through heavy Taliban fire in 2007, but perhaps just as much on his willingness, even while still on active duty, to reveal to the British nation—and thereby the world—that he struggles daily with thoughts of unworthiness and suicide, constantly recalling all the men who did not survive, wondering over and over what he might have done differently to have permitted one, two, all of them their own chances to live life after War.

Yes, “survivor guilt” is the technical name for this “condition.” Yet there is nothing technical or clinical about his suffering. Even the Military Cross, awarded by Her Majesty for “an act or acts of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land to all members, of any rank in Our Armed Forces” can only do so much to allay the burden that all of us must eventually bear and that those touched by War must bear with a vengeance: grief over the loss of those we dearly love.

Together, Cpl. Withers and The Mirror are reminding all of us that “heroism” and “suffering” are not mutually exclusive terms. And they are also reminding us that neither are “heroism” and “journeying toward recovery.”  The good Corporal himself acknowledges that, in fact, by his finally being able to speak openly about his suffering with providers associated with the Royal Navy, with the world, with himself, he is finding that words have a “heroism” of their own, words spoken to connect, not to distance, words spoken to re-ignite a fire for missions and connections that are still worth looking for, striving for, living for.

You have what it takes, Corporal Withers. For your service, both in times of War and now in times of bravely living life afterwards, thank you.

Keep going, sir. For the men you loved. For your son, Harley. For yourself. For us all.

Until tomorrow, be well,

Doc

As Times Goes By

As I walked through the outpatient waiting area, I passed one of the young guys in the civilian program, I thought, communing with his smart phone. Upon reaching the nurses’ station, though, I realized my error, walked back, and for a few moments stared at the soldier unobserved, at his stocking cap with the chic, mirrored sunglasses perched thereon, sunset orange, at his technicolor tennis shoes facing no visual competition from the all-gray track suit that most likely cost a fraction of the shoes’ price, from Target, likely.

Texting completed, he looked up and smiled. “Hey!”

“Good holidays?” I asked.

Shifting to a frown that spoke volumes, “We need to talk,” he said.

Marital tensions, again. Similar ones had brought him to me only weeks ago with a near-suicide story worthy of the name. Today, though, he was only angry, willing to keep trying, but only for so much longer.

In the ensuing weeks, you see, he’d begun to forgive himself for imagined errors and real deaths. No longer was he feeling unworthy of happiness because he’d happened to have decent-enough numbers in War’s lottery.

“I’m not a bad man,” he said to me. “I deserve better.”

Music to my ears, my young friend, to my ears.

Amicus Optimus

“Diamonds Will Safeguard the Next Generation of US Soldiers,” Mashable announced on my Facebook page, assuring me, as only the “top resource” of “digital culture” can, that (at least for now) we may have the “upper hand” in the battle over our soldiers’ bodies. The subtitle said it all: “Looks like diamonds aren’t only a girl’s best friend anymore.”

I hope so.

“He was my best friend,” the soldier told me today through his tears, he who had nearly sacrificed his own life to save his buddy’s, only to find himself too late, yet right on time for the grenade that should have killed him as well.

But didn’t.

“I hear their cries, Doc,” he whispered to me, “his, the other guys’. I should have gone down with them. It’s not right, Doc, not right.”

Will War no longer penetrate soldiers now, sixty years after Marilyn cooed her way through that bevy of tuxedo-clad charmers, or will otherwise gentle men (and women) prefer not blondes, but rather one more chance, please, God, to get to him, to her in time?

I keep scrolling down my Facebook page and can only pray that Hope is more than a gem in the Smithsonian or a barrier for bullets, that hope will whisper a soldier comfort tonight in the voice of his best friend.

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.

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