Doing Battle With Demons

Yesterday I sat for hours with a man who is dying and worried that God won't understand the things he did during World War II.

He has been having flash backs and episodes of panic so intense he seems unreachable.

As I sat beside him, holding his hand and listening, he took me with him through, I believe, every major battle fought during that war, with the exception of those fought in the Pacific Theater.

He was 18.

My eldest boy is 18 and I can't imagine him facing the horrors my patient had to withstand.

He was tapped to be in the 101st Airborne and placed in Intelligence and Reconnaissance. It seems this boy from North Carolina had a gift for spotting tanks and airplanes on aerial maps. He was also fluent in French and German- a by-product of his German heritage. His reward was to be the youngest of 76 men selected to parachute behind enemy lines, to record and scout out enemy activity, to lead men years older into battles that resulted, a lot of the time, in their death.

He was forced to do things that I know many soldiers have to do- but rarely tell upon their return to civilian life.

As I sat beside him, he was there again, the years melting away as he screamed out in flawless German, begging the unseen before him to put down their weapons.

My man is the sole survivor of the 76 men he went to war with and he tells me it will not be long before he joins his brothers. He is terrified that when he dies, their memories will die as well- they will vanish like the men who died in battle, and not be remembered or understood by anyone. He is worried that no one will believe what he is saying is true, that it could have really happened.

I ask him if he would like me to write down their stories.

Wrong move.

"No, those are my stories! Mine alone! No one can have them, do you hear me? No one! You must never tell what I am telling you!"

I soothe him, reassure him that his stories, his memories, are safe, locked away inside me in a place where I keep all the atrocities that my patients need to set free. I am the landfill for trauma so unfathomable sometimes I have to create conscious rituals to cleanse myself before I can return home to my family.

I pretend I have been in an operating theater, gowned, gloved and masked. When I leave, I am soaked in blood, but I strip off my gloves, throw away my gown and toss the mask in the trash on my way to the car.

I will not tell his stories. I want to, oh I really want to, because for every commercial glorifying the Marine Corps or the Army, there are the walking wounded who return, their lives unalterably changed and not for the better. They have been told to put the war out of their minds, not to speak of it to anyone.

My man obeyed the rules but at a terrible price.

We will spend whatever time he has left trying to cut the thick chains that hold him hostage. We will try to let go of these terrors so he can die without feeling so afraid and ashamed.

He is a brave and loving man, a father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather. He loves, no adores, his wife...and none of his family know what he is carrying.

He looked at me before I left, still holding my hand tightly in his own. "You know," he said, his eyes piercing through me. "I studied Psychology. I got to be a fairly good judge of human character and I have learned- there are those you can tell things to and those you know to avoid. I told you things today I have never told anyone."

I squeezed his hand, an unspoken promise for our future talks, and told him I would be back on Thursday.

I didn't want to run out of the nursing home yesterday. Days like yesterday are the reason why I haven't quit yet.


Teena said...

It's must be awful for that poor man to be feeling such things. I can't image the horror of being in the war :(

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately your patient is right. We are the last generation with parents who fought in WW II. It's not real to the current generation--only history and many of them don't seem interested in anything that takes longer than 10 seconds to absorb.

Billy The Blogging Poet said...

Your patient was one of 20 or so survivors of over 200 101st Pathfinders who jumped the night before D-day began in hopes of knocking out German weapons and communications before the main invasion began.

Most of them had never attempted a night jump even in training and most died before they hit the ground.

My uncle, JE (Elmo) Jones was with them as well. He too lived in Greensboro before he passed several years ago.