I almost could not use this photo. It spoke so clearly to the questions I didn’t ask.
When The Scattering of Stones first came out, I got a phone call from an old friend offering congratulations. After some pretense at small talk—not my specialty—I asked him how he was. This was not small talk, not with this man. Joe (not his real name) is a Vietnam vet. He is also a victim of our indiscriminant use of Agent Orange. He managed a supply depot in Vietnam and handled the chemical everyday.
So I asked him how his heart was doing. Agent Orange, the verified culprit in his heart battles, has earned him regular disability checks. After numerous operations, too many for me to hold on my plate, he assured me he was doing “pretty well.”
Then I asked him about his throat cancer, not officially Agent Orange related. With his permanently graveled voiced, he told me that, while the disease dragged him down, things were going “pretty well.”
Joe, as you have likely perceived, is a stoic man, not one for self-pity wallows. But he had more to say. Talk turned to the cancer center where he was receiving treatment, and the intensive interview they required for admission.
They weren’t the usual questions, Joe informed me, “They were hard.”
They asked him about Vietnam. Not just the surface stuff—everything. What he did, where he went, who he met, how he felt. They wanted details. So he wrote, and a closeted world opened wide. The memories he captured were more than recollections. They documented a time that changed who he was, and retrieving them, writing them down, helped. Someone asked. And he answered. But what if no one asks?
Between my high school boy crush and the man I wisely married, two men stand out. The first was the love of my life. Yes, it sounds trite, but he is, and ever will be, exactly that. Dopamine and serotonin flowed through my veins and I was deeply (foolishly) in love.
We met soon after he returned from Vietnam. He was a medic there. I don’t recall how I know this. I don’t think I asked. I don’t know where he served; I don’t know for how long; I don’t know what happened while he was there. I never asked him. I almost asked. I considered it, briefly.
We had driven to San Francisco to visit a friend from his time in Vietnam. They stayed up late talking. and, when he crawled into his sleeping bag next to me, I tried to get close. “Not tonight,” he said. I could feel his angst. It was palpable. But “not tonight” seemed to me like “don’t ask.” So I never did.
Now, let me get honest. Looking back, I realize that for all my love of him, it was really about me. I was twenty-one, and, like Joe, the soldier battling Agent Orange, said—the questions were hard.
I was looking for fairytales. I wanted to be loved. What I didn’t get, what eluded me, was that love (not the dopamine-high version of it) comes of understanding. And to understand, you need to ask. I regret never asking. I regret never asking him many things. It kills me to realize that I burned for love of him but never really knew him. So how can I call that love?
Anyway, I said there were two men. The second came of my imperfect, broken attempt to rid my heart of the first. Leaving the first, which I somehow construed as being left, tore me apart. I was an emotional basket case pretending to be free. The second man was my maybe.
He had also recently returned from Vietnam. An artist, talented beyond measure, he showed me his sketches from overseas. They were heart-wrenching depictions. Personal. One lives forever inside me—a young Vietnamese girl, only her face, looking up with haunted eyes. It was a perfect time to talk about his time there. I let it slip away.
Recently, I reconnected. I hinted that I’d love to have coffee some time, but fell back into some old silliness and never explained why. Besides, how do you explain that you want to ask hard questions—by e-mail? And why? To close a chapter in MY life? To finish something left undone? To do it right?
Admittedly, my questions might have been (and might now be) sidestepped, evaded, or rejected as too intimate. I might have been told “not now.” I may be the wrong person to even ask. Someone with more courage—a friend, a loved one, a practitioner at a cancer center—may have posed the questions and they might have answered. I hope so. Their stories are important.
Near the end of Scattering the heroine says,
“…for the things I did not do, out of fear or ignorance or both, for all those lost opportunities, I do hope time forgives me.”
Those words didn’t come out of nowhere. So…
Tell me about the time you served. Where did you go? What did you do? What was it like? How did you feel? And how did it change you? (Not “Did it change you?” It changed you. So, how?)
I’m finally asking, now, and I’m sorry I waited.
Photo acknowledgement: Twentieth Century “Angel of Mercy” — D. R. Howe (Glencoe, MN) treats the wounds of Private First Class D. A. Crum (New Brighton, PA), “H” Company, 2nd Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, during Operation Hue City. National Archives #532484 Marine Corp photo [wikimedia.org]