This evening my mom’s family gathered at a local funeral home, one that our family has used over the years. A Rosary service is being held, as is customary. Tomorrow will be the final service. The last time I was there was for my grandmother’s funeral. Same funeral home, same church, same resting place, the family’s cemetery. I find a certain amount of comfort knowing this.
After decades of being away, I was able to go back home to Texas with my parents four years ago and saw my mom’s family, including my Tio. He and my Tia were still on the same 13 acre property located in the outskirts of town. Wild flowers were everywhere, dressing up the pasture and capturing me. I was driving my parent’s car and had to watch out for the ruts in the dirt road while I delighted in the color surrounding us.
As we ate the breakfast that my Tia and my cousins prepared and I tried the chili pequin salsa she had made from the little peppers that grow wild on the property, we reminisced about the last times I had been there. They recalled when my mom and I traveled from San Diego, just us girls. There was a barbecue that weekend at my Tio’s house. As the men grilled the meat and the my mom and her sisters visited and helped my Tia with the side dishes, my cousins and I took turns riding my uncle’s horse. I somehow, managed to mount with enough momentum to end up on the ground. Somewhere I have a picture. A grainy Polaroid someone took just as I was getting to my feet, laughing in my surprise. To this day when we get together, my cousin reminds me…”‘Member when you fell off that horse?”
These memories take the heaviness from my heart. Thank you, Tio.
How we became a prison family.
My Vet met me in the driveway to walk me over and make introductions. I could see the members of his group gathered around the patio where their host was busy barbecuing. Some were standing, others, those with the bad hips and knees, sat at the patio tables. They were all talking quietly, more often than not raising their voices for those of the group who had hearing aids. I knew a few of them, but I was meeting the majority of them for the first time. As I shook their hands and was introduced to their wives, each one of them teased or joked about me being married to “the Gunny”. Even the wives recognized my Vet when I mentioned his name. “The Gunny” was one of the “movers and shakers” of this particular band of brothers and one sister.
As I made my way around the patio, I realized that these veterans of a particular age, knew my husband far more profoundly and intimately than I. One man in particular I was there to meet. He was the guest of honor. He was the reason these veterans ventured out of their routine and comfort zone to gather on their usual group meeting day, outside the familiar confines of the clinic room where they met every week for the last twelve years. They were gathered on that patio to do the unexpected, say farewell to their veteran counselor.
I didn’t know their stories. The veterans don’t talk outside the group about each other. But he knew not only each of their stories, but their fears and dreams, their pride and their sorrows. He was not just their counselor, he was their friend, their consigliere, one of them who slowly helped each of them learn not just to help themselves, but to help one another.
Over these years I had seen the transition in my Vet. I watched him hurt when it was easier for him to be “blank”. I watched him grieve for his mother who had been dead for forty-six years because it had never been “safe” to open the lid to that jar of pain. I sat silently as tears streamed down both our faces as he let himself feel pain for the families of those he had taken. I stood by one solitary dismal night as he raged against the memory of his 19 year-old self, who killed with purpose and efficiency and finally could weep tears of forgiveness for that same country farm boy. I lay next to him as he prayed in the early morning hours for wisdom and understanding of the incomprehensible. I listened with trepidation as he spoke without filter to a young veteran close to our family, helping this young man off the edge and choose life over certain death as he wrestled with his decision to seek medical help but was stigmatized by his command because of it.
As these veterans gathered to say goodbye to a man who was so much more than their group counselor, our host remarked that without him and the group members he wouldn’t have “all this” spreading his arms out to encompass the pasture with the horse and donkey, the patio and home, the garage open to the expanse outside, and most important, the wife who stood by him. We all nodded our heads in understanding. “… But for the grace of God, go I…”
After I said my goodbyes and made ready to travel back to my office, I took a couple of pictures of the driveway past the pasture and clearing where the house was located. The trees grew such that they created a canopy over the road and for a moment I remembered my Vet’s description of the jungles of Vietnam. The lush green density that barely allowed sunlight to filter through, and I realized this band of brothers and one sister had come a long, long way with the help of their families, each other and their counselor. This had not just been “farewell”, this had been “thank-you”.
“PTSD is a thief. It steals your job, it steals your sleep, it steals your family, it still is your identity, it’s steals your life”.
This is what my Vet told a young Marine who suffered a breakdown and hospitalization. This is the fight. Fighting the “thief”. I have observed my husband struggle with this thief for 17 years. I didn’t know what PTSD was. I didn’t know what depression was. I’d heard about them and even read a little about them. What I know now is that love and understanding are key in living with this fight, but counseling, a support group of veterans, as well as family, and your vet’s will to live his best life is what gets him back.
My vet could not have navigated to this point without at some point deciding whether he wanted to stay where life was comfortable in a “bunker” …or in the world with the rest of us.
Mr. Tibbs is an eight month old tuxedo cat we adopted a month ago. Transition is a mild word for what we are going through, but I am probably exaggerating. We were used to unassuming “Sister”, our sweet, demur, but singularly unsocial, 11-year old resident cat. Mr. Tibbs is anything but unassuming. First of all, he weighs 14lbs. He just turned eight months. We think he has rabbit in him, in fact I am sure of it…clumsy rabbit, that is. Only one broken dish so far, but plenty of leveled pictures, books and memorabilia. I have cleared the tops of surfaces in hopes to preserve my collectables, and may adopt a more minimalist décor for a while.
His agile, destructive gymnastics reminds us how far removed we are from having a young cat. He’s grown on us, with his plaintive meow, (much like a toddler who wants attention) and his new behavior of covering his food before he walks away from it, something we were not familiar with, but is part of, I read, their instinctual innate behavior. Translation: more mess.
Speaking of mess. There was a few days in the first two weeks, I thought we would exercise our option and return him to the pet store. The wet bathroom rug is what almost did us (my Marine) in. Cat box crisis. We had never gone through it before now. We managed overcome the “outside the box” issue with an new, improved oversize cat box that I have aptly named the “USS Mess”. Whew!
Sister, tolerates him to a point. His early morning feedings we are still working on. I cleared off the left side of my desk because he knocked the phone and TV box off my desk onto the window sill, so he could better see “out there”. However, he has recently moved to the right side of my desk to nap.
Week five and we are settling into a peaceful co-existence…much like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess and Isobel Crawley.