Some conversations linger after the person who whispered urgently in your ear, clasped your hand until your fingers hurt, has departed, eyes downcast, their pain hidden once again from the world.
A week or so ago a woman approached me at a crowded event. Like a heat-seeking missile, she parted the crowd and came directly to me.
“I read your book.”
I nodded. No reason to ask which book. My Life with a Wounded Warrior is given to veterans and their spouses at the local VetCenter here in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I’d seen that desperate look before.
Her hand gripped at my arm as though she were stranded on a cliff, clutching at a frayed rope. This being, of course, pretty much her exact situation.
I patted her hand, pried her fingers from my arm.
She leaned in, breath hot on my ear. “I can’t do it anymore. His PTSD is ruining my life. I was happy before I met him. Had friends and a good job I enjoyed.”
“I understand.” I slipped my arm through hers and led her to a corner of the room away from the crowd.
“He won’t leave the house.” She turned, glared at the room behind us. “Except if there’s other veterans around. I beg him to go out and he doesn’t listen. But one of those. . .” Her chin swept toward the small clusters of men clumped together in islands throughout the room. “One of them calls and he’s Mr. Johnny on the spot. Rushes out to be there for a buddy.”
Her words tumbled one on top the other.
“Does yours wake up at night screaming? I didn’t know any of this when I married him, you know? I mean, I knew he’d been in that war over there, but I didn’t know. . .I didn’t know it would be like. . .like this.”
I hugged her against me and she relaxed for a split second, then stiffened, pulled away.
“What am I supposed to do? How do you stay with yours?” She nodded toward toward my husband, Jack. “Why do you stay?”
And there it was. What my dad used to call the sixty-four thousand dollar question.
Why do I stay?
Because in fact post-traumatic stress is contagious, living with a combat veteran struggling with the psychological effects of war is exhausting, and yes, there are days and nights when my dreams and plans are consumed by his needs.
At low-points I fear I stay because Jack and I are a near perfect fit of neurosis. His past and mine colliding and binding in a glue of co-dependence. I suspect that, even on our best days, there is some element of that unhealthy click in our relationship. I’ve been working for twenty-five years to peel that adhesive from our marriage, to find a healthier, more productive model.
I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives to teach us what we need to learn. Well, Jack has sure as hell taught me about myself, about scars earned in childhood and ways to work through painful lessons.
But that’s not why I stay.
Vets say, “If you weren’t in country, I can’t explain it, and if you were, there’s no need to explain it.”
The same is true for those of us married to combat veterans. We know what we do often looks like stupidity to others. We admit that our lives sometimes feel like we’re walking inside one of those bouncy castles. Just when we think we’ve got the balance between enabling and support correct, the ground rolls under out feet. In the end we each decide for ourselves whether we can stay or whether we must leave.
So, why do I stay when, in many ways, my life would be simpler, maybe even happier, if I left?
After all the joys and all the pain, Jack still sweeps me off my feet with his courage. I am still in awe of the bravery it takes to get through every single day after having seen what he’s seen, done what he’s done.
The sages tell us that our broken parts make us stronger. There are those who walk among us so shattered that light streams through their souls. If we insist in pouring water into these vessels, we may spend our lives cleaning up messes, falling on slick ground. But if we can see the filigree of pain for what it is and accept that while these vessels may not be great for carrying water, they are astoundingly strong and beautiful sources of light to pierce our own darkness, then we may be able to live joyfully, gratefully with them.
Pretty words maybe, but come on, pragmatically, why I do I stay?
I stay because he is my husband, and while I am sometimes frustrated beyond my ability to cope, I still, after all these years, respect and admire and honor his courage. Not his courage in combat, though, in a faraway jungle he acted in a manner that is deemed brave by those who hand out medals and paper honors. No, the courage that impresses me and keeps me proud to be his wife is that which allows him to live every day with the results of traumatic brain injury and the psychological effects of war.
So, in the end I suppose I must fall back, once again on a truth stolen from Vietnam vets. “If you’re not married to a combat veteran, I cannot explain to you why I stay. If you are, there’s no need to explain it.”
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