Driving Mr. Jack

jack's chevy.
Jack’s first car was a ’47 Chevy. At sixteen, he’d work all week at the creosote plant, cash his paycheck on Friday, load the car with friends who were still attending Americus High School, and they’d head for Panama City. Get back at dawn-thirty Monday morning, just in time for his buddies to get back to classes and him to get to work.
After Vietnam, when he was driving 100 miles each day, back and forth between work and home and Sacramento State, he had a conversion van. As I understand it, a lot of adventures took place in the back of that van. He had a Porsche when we started dating twenty-five years ago. He drove another conversion van on a stumbling-four-breakdown trip the length of Mexico pulling a thirty-five foot trailer with me in the captain chair beside him and a wrinkled Sharpei dog on his lap. Traded the van for a Dodge Ram when we came back to the states. Traded the Ram for a 4×4 a year later, and, at that vehicles first oil change, traded the 4×4 for a Diesel four wheeler.
Two years ago, against my ranting protests, he nearly ended the marriage when he bought a blood red Lexus. Eighteen months later, he swapped the Lexus for an Audi convertible which he bombed around town in all winter with the heated seats cranked up to cook and the icy wind blowing through his white hair.

Jack and Audi 11
The man has a history with cars is what I’m telling you here.
This week, after yet another near miss, he accepted that he could no longer drive.
PTSD, TBI, some other neurological problem the docs haven’t yet found? Whatever the cause, he was consistently pulling out in front of cars, crossing into the oncoming traffic, and weaving between lanes. And true to form, he stepped up, gave me the keys, had the courage to say, “Behind the wheel of a vehicle I am a danger to myself and others.”
Big change for both Jack and for me. I teased him that he could get me a chauffeur’s hat for my birthday.
Jack attends four support groups a week, a weekly evening meeting of Soldier on Service Dogs, has at least two VA appointments every week, and meets with other vets and good friends for a few more meetings and gatherings. I work full-time as a writer and speaker. Have commitments and contracts to fulfill.
We inquired at the VA about shuttle buses or help with transportation.
“Well, honey,” I was told, “that’s why they say for better or worse.”
So, we made a plan, Jack and I. I cut back on a few things. He cut back on a meeting or two.
Yesterday, I took him into town in the morning and dropped him off at the VA for his support group. He called a few hours later, about an hour before our agreed upon pickup time and said, “Come get me.” He sounded tired. I immediately worried that he’d fallen again.
He hung up.
I was in the middle of one of those chores where I had four screens up on my computer and was jumping back and forth between them, juggling the info in my slow brain. It took less than a minute for me to close out the computer and head into town. At the VetCenter, I found him talking to his guys, big smile.
“Hey there,” he greeted me. “It’ll be another half hour before I’m ready. Something came up since I called you.”
Jack and I had a little discussion. Yes, we did.
Turns out I will not be needing that new cap after all.
He is to think of me, not as his personal chauffeur, but as a friendly, busy, shuttle bus driver.
Sometimes he will have to wait for the bus and, like all good shuttle services, the bus will not wait more than five minutes for him before pulling away.
I learned that when Jack calls and says he’s ready to be picked up, it’s okay for me to say, “I’m right in the middle of something that’s going to take me an hour to replicate if I walk away. I’ll be there in a half hour.”
There’s a learning curve with change. Thank God, Jack and are familiar with making mistakes together, feeling our way along life’s twists and turns. Hell, I might even get another book out of this newest adventure. Driving Mr. Jack.
What do you think?

Aha moment

soldier

When Mutual of Omaha sent me an email inviting me to participate in their Aha Moment, I knew exactly which moment I wanted to share.
But sharing that moment in a thirty-second commercial? Holy smoke, you all know me. I have no problem exposing my emotional vulnerabilities but it takes longer than thirty seconds for me to say good morning, let alone draw back the curtain verbally to reveal an epiphany.
Still, I put on my makeup, combed my hair and trotted down to Mutual of Omaha’s cute little Airstream trailer set up on the Fayetteville town square. Now, I do a bit of speaking in front of large groups and I’ve long ago gotten over any stage fright in front of crowds. But this was a whole new experience.
The technicians, a friendly young woman and man recorded my information and brought me inside the Airstream. Told to take a seat in a tiny, curtained alcove surrounded by equipment, I perched my butt on a narrow stool and wished I’d lost those twenty pounds I keep promising myself to lose.
“Just relax,” the lovely young woman said.
Two giant lights came on, and the temperature instantly leaped twenty degrees. My carefully applied makeup began to run in little flesh-toned rivulets. I blinked my eyes. Swallowed. Reminded myself that squinting would intensify those two gigantic vertical wrinkles between my eyes.
“Tell me your story.” A gentle voice said from between the two blinding lights.
Well, here’s the thing.
When I do public speaking, I count on, feed upon, desperately need eye contact from individuals in the audience. Inside this tiny trailer, I was looking into blinding lights. It felt a bit like talking to God. I took a deep breath and remembered the power of the experience I wanted to share. Sank into the strength of the individual man, and the incredible men in general, who gifted me with that moment.
And then I started to talk.
Jack and I were at the VA for one of his appointments. Married to a Vietnam vet, a Marine who stepped on a landmine just outside Danang in ’65, I spend a good bit of time at one VA facility or another. My Life with a Wounded Warrior, my latest book at that time, had just been released and was being used by the local VetCenter to help combat vets in our area of the world.
I was tired and hungry and at that point in a day of VA doctor’s appointments when I felt as though I’d been there forever and there was no hope of ever leaving. Seriously, there comes a point at the VA when I can actually hear Rod Serling’s voice in my head.
A very large man made eye contact with me from down the hall and his eyes immediately crinkled at the corners. Long, salt-and-pepper beard, hair tied in a leather thong at the back of his thick neck, black leather jacket with a small skull on one side and a 1st CAV patch on the other – this grinning man strode directly to me. It was crowded in that VA hallway, but folks got the hell out of his way. He never slowed, came directly to me and wrapped me in a hug.
“You wrote that book.” His breath warmed my neck.
“I did.”
“Thank you. Thank you for writing it and thank you for accepting and understanding us.”
He gave me one more breath-stealing squeeze and then turned and walked away.
I’ve written a lot of books. God willing, I’ll tell more stories and entertain more people as the years go by. But that day, standing in that crowded VA corridor, I understood that in writing that particular book, in exposing my own vulnerability– the pain and joy and challenges and rewards of living with a combat veteran with PTSD – I helped to heal both myself and others.
That was my Aha Moment.
Please click here and watch the video. I’m the one with the purple streak in her hair. Vote, of course vote every day from now until October 10th so that this thirty seconds can air on national TV and people will pause for just that brief moment and think about how we might all do a better job as individuals to welcome our warriors back home, to accept and love and understand them for the remarkable men and women they are.
Think too about how we all spend so much of our lives trying to look good to others, when really, it’s sharing our flaws, our imperfections and struggles that help best to heal ourselves and others.
I think that friendly young man and woman from Mutual of Omaha did a fine job of squeezing all that into thirty seconds, don’t you?

How Was Your Day?

my-pictures0162.jpg

Last month Jack spent a month on the other side of the country visiting with people he loves. I had hoped to keep in touch with him through texting, as we both now have phones far smarter than either of us. Unfortunately, he was visiting one of those dead zones where the only cell phone service is provided by the local drug dealer laundering his money through legitimate business.
But even without texting service my husband did call each evening. Those conversations, each and every one of them, consisted of Jack reciting a list of what he’d done that day. I would then ask if he was enjoying himself, if he’d had a chance to talk about this or that, how he was feeling. . . you know the drill. These queries he answered with one word. Fine. Good. Sure.
Never once did he ask how my day had gone, what I was doing, or what my plans for the next day were. He did always inquire about the dog.
So, about a week into these one-sided conversations, I began to get a little pissy. Yes, pissy is a word, ask the wife of any combat veteran. So I came up with three options for how to deal with this. You may think of others.
1. Say nothing and let my anger smolder into rage at Jack and turn inward while I sink into depression. This solution is an old time favorite.
2. Realize that with his post-traumatic stress, TBI, mild dementia, diabetes, and chronic pain he simply could not focus on anything outside his line of sight right then. It was taking every ounce of strength he had to make a trip he probably should not have made alone to begin with.
3. Tell him up front, “Hey, I miss you and I’d like to tell you how my day went. Are you up for that?”
This violates the ancient code of “If you really loved me you’d be able to read my mind and KNOW what I want without me having to TELL you.”
Still, it seemed the most likely to get me what I wanted.
I went with my old favorite, anger and self-pity for fifteen minutes or so, and then decided on a combination shot. Bounced understanding off the side to hit speaking-up-for- what-I-want to sink the three ball into the side pocket.
I also, and this is an important part of the process for me, made sure to spend plenty of time with friends who do not have PTSD, people who enjoy my company and whose company I enjoy in the carefree manner of non-spouses.
This incident came back to me this week because during the time that Jack was gone I made this Aha Moment in the Mutual of Omaha traveling Airstream. Part of the interview that was cut showed me saying that I wrote My Life with a Wounded Warrior at the worst time in my twenty-five years of marriage. I revealed that Jack read every story/essay as I wrote them but it wasn’t until he read the published book that he cried and hugged me and said, “You really DO love me.”
Really? Twenty-five years. Traveling all the hell over the world together, often accompanied by large service dogs. Living in foreign lands. Scuba diving side by side every day for five years. Frequenting VA hospitals and emergency rooms. Really? All this and it’s not until he sees it in black and white in a published book that he realizes I love him?
Well, yeah. Because while he’d charge into the enemy with guns blazing and a wide grin, emotional intimacy scares the holy crap out of him. Yes, it took seeing the words in black- and-white because survivor guilt seeks daily to rob him of joy. Yes, it took a public declaration of my love and frustrations for him to accept that at least one person in the world knew him for who he was and found him lovable.
Subtlety is not Jack’s strong point.
Which is why last month when he called on the sixth evening from California, I asked him to call me the next day in the morning when he was fresh and rested. It’s why the next morning I told him all about my feeling of seeing myself in the Aha Moment. How I was shocked at the difference between how young I feel on the inside and how old, so very old, I look on the outside. I rambled on about my vanity and listed all the things about the interview that made me cringe.
When I ran out of steam, Jack said simply, “Huh, so what are you doing today?”
Which made me laugh and reminded me to call a friend to go for a walk in the woods and then to lunch at a barbeque place where we could pig-out on greasy food and talk about every single mundane thing that popped into our heads.

Frost Bite to Buddha Trees

snow from Smashing Magazine

-21 degrees today in NW Arkansas.  That takes into account the wind chill, but still, that’s far colder than the proverbial witch’s tit. I am not amused.  I am, more and more, envisioning a small apartment in Chiang Mia.  One in a complex with a pool and a garden in which I won’t slip on ice and break my hip. Perhaps you recall me mentioning before that I am cold intolerant.

chiang mai pool

I try to be a good sport about the weather.  I do.  When the temperature was 17,  I was game for putting the top down on Jack’s convertible, cranking up the heated seats and roaring around town like a couple of horribly misplaced, and obviously mentally-challenged, striped-assed apes. But -25?  Are you freaking kidding me?

At -25, I begin the search for warmth.  It’s always been a puzzlement to me that people live in places like Fargo.  My grandpa, a native Brockmueller of North Dakota told me that frozen state was a good place to be from.  He ran away to the lumber camps of the Oregon coast when he was twelve.  Maybe my need to roam didn’t originate with Jack’s PTSD at all.  Maybe, I come by it natural.  Maybe the reason I refuse to stay anyplace where the temperature dips below freezing for longer than a couple nights a year, is genetic, passed down by Grandpa Fritz.

At sixty-three the inclination to seek warmer climes, like so many other proclivities, is a knife-knot of influences and choices, past regrets and joys.  What is clear is that Jack is happy with this need of mine to avoid frostbite.  As I’ve mentioned before, our old 150 pound dog – the dog that acted as Jack’s service dog for almost ten years and may well have saved his life on more than one occasion – that dog turned 12 last month. That’s the equivalent of 99 years-old for a dog his size.  When we lose our big boy, Jack will need a distraction from the grief that, if history is an predictor, will bring back every other loss he’s lived through.

Chesty

I’m not going to catalog these loses.  If you’re a combat veteran, you understand.  If you’re not, you might consider buying a copy of the anthology Proud to Be:Writing by American Warriors.  Check out my essay Boogie with Chesty or simply open the book at random and fall into the experience.  Hell, buy a copy of My Life with a Wounded Warrior or Clueless Gringos in Paradise.  Any of those books will make you laugh and cry and understand what it’s like to be a combat veteran.

When our loyal dog dies, the arrangements for wintering in Thailand might well be a fine and good distraction for both Jack and for me.  Besides, I miss Asia and if I have to endure another winter of these temperatures I may well eat myself into such a state that, if I ever do get back to Chiang Mai, I’ll be unable to climb the 106 steps to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthrep. 

chiang-mai-doi-suthrep-stairs-2

Already I have to force my mind to Buddha trees and flowering gardens instead of dwelling on mac and cheese and chocolate fudge cake.

Think warm thoughts.  Now there’s a great cognitive therapy goal.

Honest Love

Pam's front cover 2

September 1st My Life with a Wounded Warrior will be released out into the world, available with the click of a button at the great Amazon supermarket of books.  Now’s a good time to answer the question I have heard at least once a week since beginning this blog.

“What does Jack think about you sharing your personal lives with strangers and friends alike?  Putting the struggles and frustrations and joys of life with his PTSD right out there, for everyone to see?”

When I started this blog, this written exploration into my marriage, I had reached the point where, for better or worse, things had to change, or they had to end.  Now, because I’m as wonderfully flawed as anyone on this good earth, my assumption was that the changing was going to be done by Jack. Right?  He’s the guy with the raging PTSD.  Come on!  Of course, he’s the one who needed to change.

But a funny thing happened on my journey, the actual writing of My Life with a Wounded Warrior.

Gut-wrenching-bleed-all-over-the-page honesty very often left me remembering the love, the joy, the shared laughter that had once been the base of our marriage.  So, what started out as a kind of internet gripe session about the challenges of living with PTSD, quickly became a love song.  I did not mean for that to happen. 

My original goal for starting this blog was to give hope and understanding to other women who love men wounded emotionally by war.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  That’s the label for what our warriors experience. 

Of course, it’s not a disorder at all.  PTSD is the natural reaction to going to war.  The body shuts down, concentrates on survival, and there is so much adrenaline flowing that the survival instinct becomes embedded in the brains and chemistry and bodies of the men and women who enter into battle.  Besides, like Jack, these veterans have seen and experienced images and events that we civilians can’t, in our worst nightmares, comprehend.

So, my goal in writing the book, in writing this blog, was to, through utter honesty, share my experiences with Jack and his PTSD in the hope of helping other women to better understand their warriors. 

And, judging by the comments, that connection with other wives of veterans did absolutely occur.  Which brings me great joy. But something completely unexpected happened also.

My arrangement with Jack is that he read every blog post before it’s published.  Over time, through week after week of posts, for the first time in our twenty-five years together, Jack began to comprehend that I know who he is.  He came to understand that I accept him.   He, finally, GOT that I love HIM, not the man he wants to be, not the man I sometimes wish he was, but HIM.

And, here’s the kicker, I finally GOT it, too.  Accepted that right here, day-to-day, with this big, stubborn, complicated, old Marine is where I need to be.  Where I choose to be. 

I love him.  It’s really, after all these words, as simple as that.

Jaws

shark-sam-7

This week that toothy shark spiraled up from the black, sunless depths and took a good-sized chunk out of my ass.  This week I remember why I have such a difficult time floating in the good moments of my marriage.  This week, I’m tempted to exhale and sink into the dreamless release of surrender.  This week, I’ve lost my sense of humor.

Jack has begun his journey through this year’s Vietnam Anniversary dates.  He’s doing his best, using his good-mental-health-tools to fight against it.  But he’s increasingly negative, his mind filled with conspiracy theories and the same old paranoia and distrust of the government he’s battled since crawling ashore at Red Beach near Danang.  He’s a little more irritable, talks about selling the house, is becoming increasingly obsessed with buying a couch or a rug or a car. 

We’re less than a week into the season and already I’m desperate to break the cycle.  I have a clear, visceral memory of why, in our younger days, I’d agree to anything to stop the downward spiral.  Slip on backpacks and travel around Asia.  Done that.  Move to Mexico and become scuba instructors?  Been there.  Sell everything and move to Panama?  Bought the T-shirt.   

Because you see the very worst thing about this time of year is that my husband hates me.  He really does.  Because, I’m the mirror.  Oh, I’m not saying he doesn’t love me.  But, right now, he mostly hates me.  And, here’s the very hardest part, after all these years, I hate him too.  The mirror of marriage is, after all, double-sided.

I’m bone tired of dealing with his PTSD.  Sick unto death of the financial messes, and the negativity and the physical pain and psychic wounds.  And, he’s just as tired of dealing with a wife he can never please, who has suddenly, after twenty-five years, decided she wants more in life than being his cheerleader. Right now, today, the two of us cannot say two words to each to each other without starting a fight.

So, how are we going to get through the next six months?

The same way we always do. 

Stack minutes into hours, and hours into days, and days into weeks into months until we look at each again and remember why we’re together. 

Recite what I call the marriage prayer.  “Lord help me in my unbelief.”

And, if all else fails, we’ll sell everything and fly to Thailand, or Tasmania, or Timbuktu.

But, guaranteed, come December 14th, the anniversary of the day Jack stepped on the landmine, the day he left Vietnam, we’ll still be right here, glaring or gazing, either way, we’ll be side-by-freaking-side.