January 8th, 2017
“It’s a damn shame when you can’t even trust your own woman. My wife, she didn’t want me no more. She started foolin’ round with other men. Then I was foolin’ round with other women. That’s a fast way to break up a home…well, it weren’t much of home by then no how.”
Daniel and I were in the break room of the psych. ward of the VA hospital. We sat across from each other at a table that is a graveyard for old magazines. Daniel was nibbling at some popcorn that we had brought for the patients at the VA. Daniel spilled more than he ate. Daniel talked. I listened.
Daniel is an old black man. Well, he’s my age, so you can decide if that qualifies him as being old. He sat across from me in his green pajamas. He had grey flecks in his hair, and the reddest eyes I have ever seen. He looked tired, and he rambled on about his life. He was born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi. He served in the Army at Erlangen, West Germany during the mid-seventies. He was divorced, and he was at VA because of some sort of drug abuse. Daniel spoke for a long time about his struggles and misfortunes. He was bitter, but he was also oddly clear minded about how his own actions contributed to his problems. He took some responsibility for his life.
He said, “I had plans. Shit. Didn’t none of them turn out.”
I like going to the VA psych. ward. I go there most Tuesday evenings with a small group of people from the American Legion Post #18. We bring snacks to the people staying there. Sometimes we play cards with them. Sometimes we just sit with them and talk. I usually sit and talk. Every week is different. The VA cycles these guys through quickly. It’s rare to meet the same person there two weeks in a row. The patients spend a few days in the ward, get patched up, and then they go elsewhere.
One reason that I like going to the ward is that there is no pretense. Nobody has anything left to prove. Everybody is equal in their pajamas, bathrobe, and no-slip socks. If there is a pecking order, I have not detected it. Maybe the patients don’t have time to create a hierarchy, or maybe they just don’t function well enough to do so. In any case, there is no rank and there are no titles.
The vets usually talk to me, and they are remarkably open. A few people are reclusive and I respect their wish to be alone. The ones who converse with me generally are totally upfront about why they are in the ward. It’s not rare to have a guy say to me, “I was drinking way too much”, or “Yeah, I am hooked on Percocets.” One guy spent the better part of an hour explaining to me how the doctors were tweaking his meds so that he could deal with the voices inside his head. They tell me these things so matter-of-factly, as if they were telling me, “The wall is white.” These vets have nothing to hide any more. I have found more honesty in the psych. ward than I have ever found anywhere else.
None of these guys are there because they want to be there. They are there because they had plans and “none of them turn out”. They are in the strange position of being in control of nothing and responsible for nothing. Somebody else cares for their needs and somebody else makes their decisions. Suddenly, they don’t have to do anything. Suddenly, they have the chance to just be. I don’t know, but that has to be oddly liberating; like when Paul McCartney sang on Abbey Road, “Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go…”. How hard it is to just be. All these patients are on a mandatory Zen retreat. They live in the moment because they have no other options.
The veterans can be very compassionate. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. They all wear their suffering openly like medals on uniforms. I often tell the vets about my time in the Army, and sometimes I tell them about the struggles that Hans, our oldest son, has had since he came back from the war in Iraq. The vets listen to me closely. Some of them have to leave because the topic cuts too close to their own experiences. I feel badly about that, and I try to apologize to them. They don’t blame me. Some try to comfort me when tell them about my concerns with Hans. More than one has said to me, “It will be all right, Frank. Your boy will be okay.” When they say something like that, they mean it with all their heart. Because they know. They really do know.
There is a movie called “The King of Hearts”. It is a black comedy about World War I. The story is about a French village that is about to be blown up by the Germans. The citizens of the village flee their homes, and the patients in an insane asylum escape and take up the roles of the villagers. The movie ends with the inmates of the asylum returning to their facility because the people fighting the war are too crazy for them.
I think about that movie when I go to the VA.