Saturday, May 29, 2010

In Memorium of Body and Soul

Memorial Day always makes me think of my grandfather who served during World War II. He had stories about the war that were curious, funny, sad, shocking, mysterious, and telling of the human condition. My sense of war comes in large part from the man, many tales he wove from his Lazy-Boy as I sat on the couch.

He had lived a full life: raising a family, running a business, raising orchids and making bonsai trees, kibitzing with everyone he met. But the defining time of his life had been World War II, during which he had been a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, jumping behind the enemy lines before D-Day. As a teenager, I would mow my grandparents lawn and then sit with him for hours listening to old Yiddish jokes, arguing politics, and hearing the war stories. He always made sure that I knew that it was the convicts, colorful criminals with off-color pasts, let out of jail so they could serve in this unit that brought him home alive. And though it remained unsaid, it was always clear that in some indirect way I owed my existence to these people I was very lucky not to have had to associate with. Big Boy Buchanon, Jimmy D, the whole cast of them led to stories that might have been left on the editing room floor after shooting the Dirty Dozen. They were exciting, they were funny, they were poignant. Those were Pop Pop's stories and I heard them all countless times.

I was very fortunate that he and my grandmother lived only minutes from Johns Hopkins, where I was finishing my dissertation, so I could be close by. His last couple of weeks were clearly his last couple of weeks, so that I and the family as a whole could be with him. In the end, it was the cigars, not the Nazis, that finally got him.

But one thing about my grandfather's death that will haunt me until mine, was the way the war would not let him go. Even though he was surrounded by the people he loved most in the world, the war commanded his soul with an frightening ferocity. We all sat with him up in his bedroom; but in his last two days he drifted back to Europe and north Africa during the war. Sometimes it was hallucinatory, other times he knew he was in his bedroom, but he couldn't pull his mind off of the war. I saw in my grandfather's face something I had never seen before, it was beyond fear, it was true horror. And he would not talk about it. I tried for two days, hoping that describing it would exorcise it from his spirit. His agony was not from the disease of his body, but something in his mind. It was so painful to see my beloved Pop Pop in this anguish that I gladly would have taken the burden. But he would not speak. He would not dare expose me to whatever it was. His last act on Earth would be to protect his loved ones from his deepest demons the way he had protected the country decades before.

I will never know the particulars of it, but I know full well what it was. It was post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. With the advances in medical technology and so many returning from Iraq with grave injuries that would have killed them in wars past, we are all too easily turned to the body in thinking about permanent disfiguration. The loss of limbs or paralysis will be this generation's version of the homeless Viet Nam vet muttering to himself. But it is the psychic injury that will linger. Some will not recover from it, others will go on to be able to lives lives that seem normal and productive from the outside. But the effects of war on the mind will linger dormant. But they will be there.

And not for soldiers only. Indeed everyone who lives in the affected area will themselves be touched in a way that will never allow for life to be completely normal. We have entire nations now full of children whose brains have been altered by exposure to what we are capable of doing to one another.

So, on Memorial Day, when we think of those who have sacrificed their lives, we think not only of those who never came home, but also those who did, forced to leave part of their soul behind.