Twenty-One Anniversaries or New Year, Same Me
3Jan15: Journal Entry
I went to bed last night at midnight and woke up at 3pm with the light on his side of the bed still on. He was still up. He had told me two days ago; he was going in training mode. Like when he competed. First of the year, to bed early, up with me, go to gym and look to play golf on warmer days.
It was 3am and he was still up. I should have caught a clue then, but I was half asleep. It was not until this am, around 9 that he got up to use the bathroom. Greeted me, in the office where I was working on bills, and told me he felt “heavy”. “Just wanted you to know” he said when I got up to follow him to the bedroom.
“Depression is heavy”.
Just a couple of days ago he was telling me how happy was…in December! Now, he was close to tears.
“Can’t get away from January” he says, (then continues), “I’ve been thinking about how it could have been different, what we did back then. We could have let them go by, they were just walking through the jungle, they didn’t know we were here. Now, when I think about it, it was nothing short of murder.
I was quiet. In all the years we have been together, he has said the “m” word twice. This was number two. I knew better than to say anything just yet.
“My personality will hurt you”: Journal entry 2/1/98.
In the first couple of years of our marriage, he explained his depression began in January and lasted through June. He’d been in counseling by that time almost five years. He’d recognized a pattern. It had been why he tried to talk me out of relationship. We were spending time regularly after that first dinner when we ended up at the staff club. I can see now, I may have been a distraction of sorts in those first few anniversary months, but when he realized how attached I was, how attached he was becoming, he had warned me.
Naturally, I didn’t listen. But, I did notice changes, some subtle, some not so subtle in his demeanor.
He seemed to struggle after the holidays. In those early years of our marriage, I didn’t understand why. I love the holidays. The decorations, the celebrations, and traditions. All I knew was what he would reveal in conversations or in an apology to an outburst. He had anniversaries in January, February and April. Two were documented incidences. February was the patrol that took out twelve enemy soldiers and he received a “Letter of Continuance” chronicling that event. It that hangs on a wall in our hallway. April was when he was wounded. He has a Purple Heart pinned to an old denim boonie cap that is surrounded by a couple of dozen Judo competition pins.
Five months before the first incident my husband had turned eighteen years old. He hadn’t graduated with his high school class. He had a severe learning disability. A sheltered black teenager who had been to Idaho with Job Corps was isolated in a room of his own after he beat the crap out of some kid trying to prey on his innocence. His uncle had warned him before he left Oxford, North Carolina for the first time in his life. Chester had been prepared when lights went out.
After Job Corps he enlisted into the Marines. In bootcamp Chester shot “expert” for all his training but tested “sharpshooter”. He was later assigned to First Recon, Delta Company. He would refer to the incident in January when he was first “in country”, but it had been a recollection, told in a wry, humorous fashion. I never sensed the undercurrent.
“Comedy is a sad truth.” A friend of his once said.
31March01 Journal entry of Chester’s recollection.
“The first time I saw bodies were those I had shot myself. I volunteered for a mission my first week in Vietnam and went out on patrol. When the helicopter brought us back, the Colonel grabbed me before I could even clear the blades and said to me,
“Where did you come from?”
“From the chopper, Sir” I answered.
“I know you came off the chopper, Private! Where did you come from?” the Colonel screamed as he dragged me out from under the rotating blades.
“Off the chopper, Sir!”
“God damnit, I know you came off the damn chopper! Where the hell did you come from and how did you get on my patrol?”
Colonel knew all his men. He didn’t know me. He knew he had no black Marines in his squad. What I didn’t know and what my Sergeant didn’t realize until Colonel told him, was I had not been through any training. When Colonel asked LT (Lieutenant) how long I had been there, he told him eight days. Eight days. When you first arrived at your outpost, you are supposed to have two weeks training on reconnaissance, booby traps, poisonous snakes and survival tactics. “LT” was looking for volunteers and one of my buddies from bootcamp was there and was going, so I volunteered. Five kills on my first mission. From that point on, no one messed with me. They knew who I was and what I had done.”
When I looked through my journals and notes, kept over the years of our marriage, my entries; some detailed, some one line unfinished thoughts brought memories back in sharp relief. With the recollections came the emotional undercurrents. His quieting of spirit. Not necessarily a turning away, but a turning inward. Our conversations became topic specific and abbreviated. His attention span or tolerance to hear me complain about Megan or work or a home related issue would lessen during these months. He was preoccupied and to my alarm, when we would get into the car together or with Megan, he’d forget where we were going. I learned to quell the distress and knee jerk reaction to help him as he took a moment, engine idling, to find it in his memory and then recall how to get there. Was it the medication causing a pause in his cognitive process? Was it a conscious reaction, an aversion to even going out, when he would rather stay home, where he felt safe? His patience seemed thinner than usual, with friends, with strangers, and with me. I would over-compensate and make things worse trying to make them better. He would see my hurt, but it didn’t move him. He wasn’t “all in” in the beginning. I do give him credit for trying, but the memory of isolation was real for me as well. He had support every week at his group session. No one I knew was dealing with what I had at home.
It was also in January, that his insomnia increased. The late to bed, late to rise, would be a four-hour shift sleep of sorts. He had described it as his “four hours on, four hours off routine”, as when “on-watch”. His grooming changed. No shaving. The hair on his head, the silver pronounced in the black growth, revealing what he grudgingly called his “T-top”. The hair defined him with its aging pattern. The beard and mustache with more silver than not, also. His eyes dulled, especially if he took his medication. The sharp wit, easy smile, and lively light that captured every woman we knew, except maybe my mom, ebbed and flowed, as his will was overcome by the memories of those months in 1970.
“It’s not the attack that causes the problem, it’s the response…” Journal entry 6 March 01.
Twenty-one Christmas holidays. Twenty-one anniversary months. The New Year is supposed to be a time for reflection of the year before and a consideration of the year ahead. What goals were set; what goals were reached. What is your intention for the new year? What affirmations will you make to guide you through the next twelve months? What platform are you going to stand on for the new year? What is driving you? Or are you merely continuing from last year into this one, with no objective?
Chester once told me the consensus of those who served in Vietnam was that they were not meant to survive the war. He knew he had been one of McNamara’s one-hundred thousand[i] poor and under educated men from the farm, from the intercity, white and of color, drafted, trained, and sent to war. Sent to die. Expendable. Unessential. Acceptable loss.
Twenty-one Christmas holidays. Twenty-one anniversaries months.
January 2019 ready or not! We’d survived another health scare that year before. Another reminder not to take anything for granted. It was in part why I made the decision to retire and gave my boss two months’ notice before the holidays. Chester was up to his neck with Judo, but I knew I wanted quality time, if not quantity time with him. My parents were aging quickly it seemed. Almost, as when you blink and your kids are graduating high school, that kind of quickly. We also were dismayed after the holiday visit; my dad’s health issues were more complex. My daughter Alicia was going through an ugly domestic violence issue and my energy and concentration was with her and “the grands”.
It seemed Chester had very little time to withdraw. Veteran group meets, three judo classes a week and a tournament mid-month, kept him engaged. He seemed scattered, and distressed if I asked him about preparation for his tournament trip. But, he managed, and I welcomed the separation. Work was coming to an end for me and I was checking daily on my eldest child. Emotions were high and he and I had a falling out over something stupid one evening that I showed up at the Judo dojo. I went home in a huff, feelings hurt, preparing my argument for when he arrived.
I recall now when I got out of the car and into the house I’d been confronted with the sight of the stack of Christmas totes I had finished packing that weekend before. It brought me up short.
January. The evidence was right there in my dining room waiting for Chester to take them out to the shed. It’s January. Too cold to venture out of the house unless it was to class or group. He hadn’t been sleeping. He was short with me. We’d been short with each other just hours before at the dojo.
Fucking anniversaries, I remember thinking.
Later that evening he shared what had happened earlier in the day at group.
16 Jan 19 Journal Entry of Chester’s recollection.
“Group was tough,” Chester began, kneeling and resting his arms on the chair between us.
“Last week was one of the guys’ anniversaries. This week was mine,” he said. “It was the first time I ever saw dead people. Over forty years and I can still see those bodies. What’s been bothering me about remembering, is that we weren’t supposed to engage. Recon only. We were shaped in an “L” and I was at the short end.” He stood up, haltingly, favoring his hip and gesturing with his hands.
“They were walking past the rest of the guys and toward me, where I was, at the short end. They would have kept going past us, but the guy down here, “he gestured to the beginning of the long end of the “L” “He began shooting. Then we were all shooting.” He looked away from me, toward the fireplace, his gaze on the other side of a memory. "We didn’t have to kill those people."
That night our "good-nights" were solemn, he hugged me hard. I lay in bed knowing that sleep would not come any time soon. I prayed for us and for those in our lives who depend on us. I prayed for the sixty-eight-year-old in the next room to find it in his heart to forgive the nineteen-year-old standing in his camouflages in the “L” formation for what he didn’t know then. I prayed for peace for both their souls.
[i] Project 100,000 (also McNamara's 100,000) Wikipedia