“‘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.

Semper Silouan

I got out of Nashville quite late this past Monday, so I was heading into a long trip up I-65. It turned out not too badly, though, all said and done. Eastside Indianapolis should probably be farther than four-ish hours away from Northside Nashville, but the weather was great, the truckers were anything but reserved in their speed, and I was listening to interesting ideas about trauma and the brain (spare me what you’re thinking), so the destination was achieved with minimal consternation: my first time back to Indy since the move this summer, a quick one, in and out, for a conference at which I presented on Wednesday. I’d planned on keeping a low profile, hoping to catch up on dictations (thanks to the miracle of Citrix and an iPad) in quiet, quiet, quiet.

Silouan had other plans, however. Not so much as to the low profile. More as to the quiet.

Great name, Silouan.  Check it out on the Fount of All Knowledge, i.e., Wikipedia. Apparently it’s the Russian version for Silvanus, Latin for Silas, the companion of Saint Paul (as in “old time religion” and “good enough for Paul and Silas, good enough for me,” remember?) Middle English is Selwyn. Greek is Σιλουανος,  Silouanos.

My nerdiness embarrasses my children to no end.

Silouan Green is a Marine’s Marine. Think Jethro Gibbs on NCIS, raise him up a couple of inches, replace the graying brunette with closely-cropped sandy-brown—more spare on the top, granted, but certainly no worse for the wear, trust me. He strode onto the main stage of the conference as if he were just checking on the house before heading out to the lake, blue dress shirt, open-collared, slate-gray khaki’s, flat front (what else? why waste the cloth?) His voice didn’t command attention, just claimed it.

Our Marine’s Marine grew up in small-city Indiana before heading to college down here in my new neighborhood, Vanderbilt. Math major, officer candidate school, top graduate. Getting the picture?

So what else to do other than to become a Marine pilot?

In case you’re wondering, it’s no walk in the park to become a Marine pilot.

That he did, though, très à la Gibbs, with fervor and (I have no doubt) aplomb. Fly, he did as well. Until the day his plane’s engine caught fire on take-off.  And he and his fellow pilot were ejected from the aircraft. And his fellow pilot didn’t make it. And he sort of did.

To say that Silouan mesmerizes as he tells his story of trauma and recovery is to be unfair both to him and to Mesmer. In no way does he resort to the cheap parlor tricks of some reformed huckster, lulling listeners into an emotional trance with the prosody of his voice, the alliteration of his words, luring their souls onto the stage, syllable by syllable, only then to slap them to attention with an emotional zinger, a climax leading to a denouement of the audience’s tearful adoration of the bravery of this “suffering soul” who has overcome nevertheless, whether by the grace of God or the force of Will (or both).

Hardly.

Instead Silouan let me sit in my chair, body and soul, and brought himself to me. His energy, his candor, his roughness, his softness, his him: with each anecdote, each exhortation, all of it filled the room, never demanding I join it, always inviting me to. Here was a man whose military career had meant so much to him, he’d spent nine months sleeping with a loaded gun to his head, each night granting himself the option of allowing the Corps the luxury of not having to pursue his (forced) medical retirement any further. Here was a man who, through grace and through love, finally decided to give Life another chance instead.

When I got back home to Nashville, I could describe him to colleagues in only one way: an utterly disarming mixture of unabashed cockiness and true humility.

So why write of him, you ask?

First, I’m more than willing to offer him free advertising. If you’re looking for a veteran who’s suffered not only the loss of a friend, of his health, of his career, but even more the loss of his very identity, a veteran who has re-found and reformulated that identity in spite of an exhausted body and soul that had been doing what they could to thwart him, a veteran who is willing to speak to anyone who will listen about despair and hope in a way that will never leave you the same—check out www.silouan.com. Get him to come speak. Advertise well. Prepare to walk away different from how you arrived. Period.

He has also put together an excellent study guide to help traumatized individuals to re-find- and reformulate their very own identities, www.theladderupp.com.  I’m planning on using it with every soldier who comes to our facility.

Even more, though, I write of him to honor his pain, to honor his continuing recovery, and to remind everyone—veteran, family member, friend, mental health professional, human—that Life can bring down even the unabashedly cocky, the competent beyond your wildest dreams, the golden boys and girls who will do what you could never hope to do better than you could have ever dreamed of doing it and that Life is nonetheless still willing to give them a humble second chance. Or three.

If Life will do that for them, it’ll do it for all of us.

Semper fidelis, the Marine’s motto, “always faithful.” Silouan is certainly that. But like most of his fellow Marines, soldiers, and the men and women of the Navy, the Air Force, and the Coast Guard, it doesn’t stop there. Semper paratus, so says the Coast Guard, “always ready”: that, too. Semper fortis, “always strong”? As much as any person can be on any given day, sure. Semper humilis, “always humble”? What if we think of the humble as those who are not so much lowly as they are grounded, down-to-earth, unafraid to look up and acknowledge something, some ones, Someone higher?

So let’s just make it easier on ourselves, shall we? Semper Silouan. Enough said.

To Err Is Human, To Forgive Is Gary Cooper

I’m not sure that even now he fully understands the impact of his presence, this soldier, notwithstanding our having discussed it several times. Of average height and very strong build, he, to be fair, would not necessarily stand out on an Army base filled with men of such description, if all you were to do were to view him in a still pose, standing or sitting.

It’s how he moves.

I’ll never forget first seeing him walk, sit down, lean forward, fold his hands, bend his head downward. He was not the first burdened soldier I’d met, not by a long shot. Yet there was something so measured about him, so willing to accept the load, no matter how heavy. It was as if Atlas had volunteered to Zeus to bear the weight of the heavens so that no one else would be so encumbered, no hint of martyrdom anywhere, simply duty and faithfulness.

Unfortunately for him, though, he had taken on weight that had been unfairly farmed out to the innocent, whether by the questionable decisions of superiors or by Life. As a veteran of four Middle East deployments, he had had more than his share of opportunities to do that.

Only then to return home and to discover that Life does not cease to provide such opportunities once you’ve hopped a plane back stateside.

More pertinent to this tale, moreover: true to form, to his character, he was even willing to bear such a weight for me.

It was probably our second, maybe third time speaking together. Already, in just those short encounters, I had come so to admire him, even as I had also come to feel so much sadness at his recurring assumption that if someone was going to have to take the “hit” for Life’s cruelties, it might as well be him.

The conversation that day took an innocent enough turn, in retrospect, a discussion of possible future options, as I recall, tossed out as one scenario among many.

I said what I said.

He didn’t respond as he could have. As I babbled on, he simply nodded his head in that most soldierly of manner, the ever-ready “Roger that, sir,” I’m sure, right there on his lips.

It was I who had to stop in mid-sentence, smacked in the psychic face by the import of the words I had just spoken to him.

You see, I had just “tossed out” an option that would have been impossible precisely because of something that had happened to him, something about which he had felt the greatest of blame, even though there had been none for him “realistically” to take on. For a moment, I had acted as if what had most rent his heart had never happened at all. I might as well have been talking to Atlas about that oversized beach ball on his shoulders.

This was not the first time this had happened to me, of course, although fortunately a mistake of this gravity is a rare one. Once I realized my mistake, I think I must have just sat there open-mouthed, wide-eyed, the whole bit. All I can remember is his face, a single swallow, a deep breath with his mouth closed, in and out, no change in countenance whatsoever, followed by that look of being willing to take the hit one more time and then to listen attentively to whatever my next words might have been.

“Oh, my God, I’m so sorry,” was all I could utter. I then spoke my mistake out loud.

“That’s all right,” he whispered, although the quick catch in his voice revealed that it had been anything but.

“No, it’s not,” I shot back, quite aware of my need to allow him, even urge him to put blame where blame was due. “You deserve better than your doctor even momentarily forgetting what I forgot.”

His discomfort was crescendoing. “Really, sir, it’s OK. I forget things all the time. No big deal, really.”

This was a hard decision point for me. On the one hand, I needn’t—and what’s more, shouldn’t—keep harping on something that a soldier has no desire to rehash. He or she has the right to request that we just let it go, already.

Yet somehow I knew that this was not one of those times.

For a few frantic microseconds, I dove inward, trying to interrogate every neuron I possibly could: “Why did I do that?”  Only one thought, more image than language, came to me: I was already experiencing him as the strong, good, fulfilled man that he could and can be.  I was, in other words, already experiencing him as having moved forward.

“You know,” I finally said. “I have no clue as to whether this will make things better or worse, but I do want you to know: I think at that moment I was experiencing you as the strong man you are, even though I realize that you’re feeling anything but that. Even though I know full well that you are struggling, I still think of you, feel you as the man who I know you want to become.”

For a few seconds, he stared at me, still not angry, but less anxious as well. He then looked down and even, for an instant, smiled, more out of recognition than out of anything approaching levity.

“You know, one of the other soldiers told me that exact thing, just yesterday, that I’m exactly the kind of guy he sees himself wanting to become. It . . . it helped.”

I leaned forward.

“You appear to be having no problem forgiving me for my blunder, am I right?”

He looked back at me. “Absolutely.”

“Then, maybe,” I replied, “could you see how all the rest of us, whether alive or not, would have no problem forgiving you—if in fact there were actually something to forgive? The hardest person on you is you.”

He dropped his head back down. “It’s always been that way.”

“Do you see, then,” I went on, “how because of what just happened, we proved together at least one instance of something that you’ve doubted much of your life: that words can make a difference, that trying to work something out is more than half the answer to whatever it is that comes between two people? All your life you’ve felt that words really don’t make a difference, so just soldier on. Sure, you’ve been to War four times: so you know that’s very often the case, the only case. But it’s not always the case, especially between two people who are trying to understand each other. Good intentions may not always lead to good results, but sometimes they’re all we have—and they really are at least better than silence.”

It took only him only a few seconds to look back at me with both that same “what do you know” smile and the words that I’d been expecting all along: “Roger that, sir. Roger that.”

Gary Cooper was certainly a complex man in real life, but on the silver screen he came to stand for all men of few words, yet of deep feeling. I’m not so sure that the sheriff in High Noon was ultimately that interested in forgiveness, truthfully. So I’m glad his counterpart in my life turned out to be more amenable to the notion.

The soldier has worked hard to understand himself, to give himself over to what cannot be changed, to begin to change what can. He’d have always been the type to live the Serenity Prayer more than say it, truth be told, though I’m sure he’d not be against it. Wise men, young ones included, are willing to give even the standardized a shot.

He’s still frustrated, no doubt of that, sad as well. But together we discovered that words can make at least the beginning of a difference when said sincerely by two persons trying to make Life better. The old analysts always said that there is no such thing as a “mistake.” It’s never random when we disappoint one another. I’m afraid they’re probably right.

Thank goodness that in spite of that, my Sergeant Cooper was willing to give voice to at a least a few more words than “yup,” “nope,” and “can’t rightly say.”

I am indeed most fortunate.

 

JD/rjsd

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,893 other followers

%d bloggers like this: