Thursday, May 26, 2022

After Great Pain -- Healing through Literature


Life's Enigma, the Depths of Grief

      I don’t need to describe “great pain”, since each of us has experienced it, some worse than others, and some more constantly throughout their lives.

     For me, there were the deaths of close relatives, over the years, many sick, in the hospital, and suffering a terminal illness, from alcoholism to cancer to a life well lived.

     Then there is violent death, which can come suddenly, out of nowhere, like a frigid north wind, the kind experienced in a car accident, a street fight or in combat, not unlike the recent shooting on Tuesday in Uvalde, Texas, a horrific tragedy, beyond comprehension.

     Most of us felt it, and we weren’t even there, yet we suffered the pain, of course, to different degrees. What about those who were there, or are a parent, relative, or friend of those killed? How do they cope, when they want to die themselves, when they don’t think they can make it through the next five-minutes, let alone the next day, and when their legs can barely hold them up? That kind of pain, a crippling pain. "Take me, Lord," kind of pain.

     After “great pain”, life will never be the same. Can we even heal from that type of pain? Like a physical cut eventually forms a scab then a scar, do we form psychic scabs and scars? They say it takes time, months, years to heal, or for the pain to lessen, and for the consoling memories to form. The hard part is believing healing will, one day, come, a harsh transformation, a new beginning, and a new person.

     The key word in the military was “kill,” in an institution designed to teach killing. In the military, one hears the word a lot, “Kill the Jerry, Jap, Viet Cong, Gook, Hajji! Follow orders or you’ll be killed,” etc. etc. You’re a kid, 18-19, and you try to understand this idea of killing, of death. You know it can happen, but it isn’t real, until it is.

     For me, it happened on our first operation, not far from our base camp, Phan Rang, Vietnam. It was a quiet night. Then it started with a single shot and all hell broke loose, everyone firing into the darkness, excitement, war.

     The next morning, they laid his body out to wait for an evacuation chopper. He was lying on his back, face up, a plastic green poncho covering him, only his boots protruding, jungle boots, like mine, like the rest of us, only the soles visible, thick, black, muddy treads. We pretended he wasn’t there. I didn’t know him, this kid, this soldier, but it felt like I did.

     I’d glance over at his corpse. I remember thinking, at the time, his parents and friends have no idea he’s not coming home, that he’s lying there dead, in the dirt, just his boots showing. They’re going about their lives, and their child is dead. In that instant, it became real, no longer a romantic war movie in my head. I could die, end up like him, under a plastic poncho, and nobody back home would know, so I went about my work, mechanically, filling sandbags, cleaning my weapon, mindless tasks, whatever it took to keep busy, to numb my mind. There was no debriefing, no therapy, no Dr. Phil or Oprah. Then came the reason. He was killed by his friend.

     The prior night, they’d been on the outpost, about twenty-five yards away from the rest of the artillery battery, pulling security, considered good duty for the infantry. The kid woke up, stepped out of his hootch quietly, without bothering to tell his friend he needed to urinate. His friend never heard him leave. When the kid returned, he stepped out of the dark, his friend turned, and shot him. The revelation was as shocking as the death. It made no sense. I can’t describe the mixed emotions. The paradox, I didn’t know him, yet I did. He was me, and I was him.

     Understand, a round from an M-16 (today an AR 15) was designed to tumble when it hits the human body at a velocity two to three times faster than a regular rifle. When it hits, it makes a normal entry wound. Then, the tumbling begins, and it disintegrates and tears everything in its path, nerves, organs, bones, and flesh. There’s little chance of survival. The M-16 terrified the enemy. The damage was one reason they kept the kid’s body hidden. The exit wound tore out his back. (What chance did second and third graders have?)

     Of course, during my tour, it got worse, right up to the last day, and the death of close friends, guys I slept with, each night, side by side, spending nearly all our time together. I knew about their families, their girlfriends, wives, whims, and desires. Fortunately, I hadn’t been there and didn’t see it. I had left the field earlier in the day, back to the rear area to catch a flight to base camp and home. That night, they were overrun.

     The next morning, there was commotion everywhere, choppers flying in the dead and wounded. A friend urged me to go and with him to the infirmary to meet the wounded and the dead. I couldn’t, even if they were alive. I could hardly move. I can’t say I had a broken heart. I can’t say what I had. I’d just turned 20. What was I supposed to do? I guess I slipped into some kind of mental state, not quite shock, or maybe it was, and I didn’t even know it. A jeep pulled up in front of me, a trailer filled with dead enemy bodies. I saw the results of an assault rifle, up close. The image remains.

     And here it is again, 2022, on television, except this time its nineteen children, Chicanitos and Chicanitas, and their teachers, Uvalde, TX, 75% Mexican, close to home, close to my heart, and coming off the heels of the Buffalo killings, friends and neighbors going to the store for groceries, a different kind of war? It brings it all back, not just for me, but for all of us. We’ve all experienced tragedies and trauma.

     When this happens, I mean the pain, the lead in the pit of the stomach, a slight nausea, fear, anxiety, and Emily Dickinson comes to me. A female hermit, a New Englander, and a transcendentalist poet, no connection to a Mexican from suburban Los Angeles, the year 1972, when I first studied her, and still, today, listen to her. She’s made a home in my psyche, and I turn to her, if not for comfort, at least for some understanding of life’s incomprehensibility.

     When tragedy strikes, the pain a branding iron, a storm raging in the brain, and nothing makes sense. Even if there are reasons, the reasons, themselves, are irrational. According to Dickinson, healing is a difficult process, a rough road, and a long journey, if one survives it.

     Her words and images say: we suffer the pain “He” suffered, "He," the crucified Christ, whether the real or a mythological Christ, our nerves like rockets firing, until the shock, the stage of nothingness, a “Wooden way,” disassociation from everything, from life itself, and then the turning point, the climax, descending to a quartz contentment, no more feeling than a stone, and if we survived, “outlived the hour of lead,” we rise, like someone freezing in the snow, first experiencing the “chill”, the “stupor”, a certain numbness, and, finally, the outcome, the denouement, the “letting go,” the liberation, and the forging of a new person. The challenge is to survive.

Emily Dickinson

After great pain, a formal feeling comes-

The nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs-

The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,

And yesterday, or centuries before?


The Feet mechanical, go round-

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought-

A Wooden way

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone-


This is the hour of Lead-

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow-

First-Chill-then Stupor-then letting go.”

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