Escalating protests against the conflict in Vietnam entered our living room each evening on the nightly news in the mid 1960’s. Young people, only a few years older than me, carried signs, shouted profanities and burned draft cards. I was old enough to feel the outrage but too young to fully understand the hatred behind the hostility. Fifteen years later I married a man that had unsuccessfully evaded the draft – despite multiple attempts – and been forced to participate in the most hotly protested war in history. He had quietly returned to the U.S. No one talked about serving in Vietnam. There were protests – not parades; vile condemnation – not thanks for his service. Another wife waited for his return, greeted with the demons and addictions that accompanied him home. He was sleeping on a friends couch, waiting for time to elapse for an uncontested divorce, when we met. He rarely spoke of his experiences in the army, but nighttime thrashing and shouts in his sleep were enough to paint a picture. He eventually took a cocktail of medications to reduce anxiety and help him sleep. He also added his own elixir to the mix.
Ron and I had been married for 25 years. An amazing length of time considering wagers had been placed on how long our marriage would last at the reception. Also an amazing length of time considering the roller coaster ride of his alcohol abuse we had shared. My one foot seemed permanently out the door, ready to bolt. When things headed down hill, my other foot joined it, but our two children kept me from closing the door behind me. When I really asked myself why I stayed, the bottom line was actually not the children. It was the fact that despite the pain indirectly inflicted on others due to his need to dull his own suffering, he didn’t have a mean bone in his body. I had grown up with meanness and was familiar with that other kind of pain.
Thirty years after that quiet return home Ron received an email containing an invitation to a reunion for the company he had served with. He was hesitant to attend, but also drawn to reunite with the men he had known so briefly, yet whose lives had depended on each other. He was gone for a few days. We talked twice, briefly. His subdued voice told me how tough it was, but he was reluctant to say more. He remained quiet and aloof on his return home. Questions were answered with a shrug, if at all. He left the house in the daylight and returned in the darkness of early morning. He missed work, slept all day and then got up and left again. No amount of talking, reasoning or threatening could cut through the fog that surrounded him. I couldn’t sleep, cried on and on, begged, yelled, and finally had no choice but to admit that I could not help him through this.
The whispering, sometime rumbling, fears that accompanied me into any uncharted territory were deeply rooted in habit. My ax of inborn stubbornness could fell them temporarily, but they always grew back. Now, a new one sprouted in the shadows – fear that no hope remained for my marriage. In the past, hope had tugged my feet forward and my heart past hurt. But left with the choice of sinking into the quicksand with the man I had tried to rescue for 25 years, or fleeing the swamp, I reluctantly chose to leave. The door closed tightly behind both of my feet.
I moved into our small camp on the Mohawk River, my escape when stress at home became more than I could bear. This time it was not a temporary visit. I closed all the windows and curtains, didn’t want the neighbors privy to my pathetic state. Sobs rose as I collapsed onto the bed. Years, maybe a whole lifetime, of heartbreak tore from my chest. I forced my mouth to stay open, didn’t care about the drooling mess that accompanied sounds I usually denied release, sounds that had only vibrated in my heart and my soul. The urge to run for a drink or food to help swallow them down, back to the safety of silence, threatened to overwhelm me. But I wanted to be free of the heaviness that had held me down for so long. I wanted to dump the beliefs I had willingly accepted: that my worth was dependent on my ability to ‘fix’ someone else’s pain, and that love needed to be earned. Hours passed, and finally, even the ability to whimper succumbed to sleep.
Sometime before dawn I woke. Stiff aching muscles resisted as I sat up. Dry lips and swollen eyes stared back at me in the small mirror above the bathroom sink. Who is that? Oh, it’s me, alone, broken. I held a warm cloth to my face, felt the crust of agony soften just a little, made some tea and stepped out onto the small wobbly deck. The indigo sky sparkled with starlight. The long open lawn sloped down to the blackness of the river. The trees on the far shore stood faintly outlined in the predawn glow. The realization that I would move into this day, and those that followed, alone, crept in with the light. The stars began to fade, along with the image of what I had come to know as my life. I watched the sun rise, hoping hope would rise with it. It didn’t. How could a new day dawn, the same as it had millions of times before, when my days would never dawn the same again? I felt lost in my own river of thoughts, struggling to stay afloat, waiting to sink. I had never learned to swim, had been a forest dweller with no nearby body of water. Maybe that was where I was supposed to head now, back to the woods, into the shadows, with no path to guide me. I sensed the menace that hid in those woods, waiting for me, easy prey. The bears that had stalked me in my dreams were alive, and hungry.
To be continued…