How Was Your Day?

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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.

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The Spirituality of War

“Many will argue that there is nothing remotely spiritual in combat. Consider this. Mystical or religious experiences have four common components: constant awareness of one’s own inevitable death, total focus on the present moment, the valuing of other people’s lives above one’s own, and being part of a larger religious community such as the Sangha, ummah, or church. All four of these exist in combat. The big difference is that the mystic sees heaven and the warrior sees hell. Whether combat is the dark side of the same vision, or only something equivalent in intensity, I simply don’t know. I do know that at age fifteen I had a mystical experience that scared the hell out of me and both it and combat put me into a different relationship with ordinary life and eternity.”
–-Karl Marlantes, What It Is Like To Go To War.

Carry Me Home
There you have a longish quote from a brilliant writer and noble warrior.
I worry that in trying to demystify post-traumatic stress – separate the mythology of the media from the actual effects of the trauma of war – not enough attention is paid to the tremendous power possessed by combat veterans. It’s this power that draws me to these guys. They’ve walked point in a spiritual zone the rest of us glimpse only occasionally, as when a too bright sun breaks momentarily through thick fog.
If Marlantes is correct, and I believe he is dead on, the spiritual nature of the experience of war helps explain the intense brotherhood these men possess. It has been my privilege to witness the power of this brotherhood first hand and I’m here to tell you it raises the hairs on the back of my neck and touches a place deep inside usually reserved for mystics and monks. It’s the reason these guys NEVER leave a man behind.
Which is why I was surprised by the immediate and intense reaction to the release of Bowe Burgdahl. Especially as I have heard many Vietnam combat vets tell of their own feelings of wanting to walk away, of feeling that they should not have been there, that nothing was being accomplished but bloody awful killing. I was surprised because I layered the present situation with my own personal history and I am a child of the sixties. I was surprised because I did not at first see the complexity of emotions the release of Burgdahl would free in other combat veterans.
Burgdahl abandoned his brother warriors, and in the church of combat, that is the unforgivable sin. It’s the reason for survival guilt. It’s why combat vets struggle to allow joy into their lives even fifty years after they’ve returned to us.
Personally, I’m happy Burgdahl has come home, but then I am not one of those consecrated by the fires of war.

Old Dogs and Banyan Trees

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We’ve been living in one place for going on four years now.  Both Jack and I have found our niche here in Northwest Arkansas. Made some wonderful friends.  Found activities we enjoy, causes to work for, favorite places to be during each of the area’s distinct four seasons.

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That’s scary.

Because, historically, the moment we settle-in, form relationships, and get comfortable, Jack gets antsy, sticks a For Sale sign on the house or palapa or RV, and off we go in search of the next adventure.

Did I mention that key symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress are fear of intimacy and the need for an adrenaline rush?

Well, now you know.

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Usually about three years into living somewhere, Jack begins to make tight bonds with other veterans.  Within a year after that, we pack up and leave. About three moves ago, an odd thing happened.   

I began to anticipate this flight. 

The moment Jack began to make friends, I began looking for a way to forestall the move.  This was followed by the realization that nothing was going to prevent Jack from doing whatever damn thing he decided to do.  My reaction was to begin to look around for the next place to live.  This provided me the illusion of having some control over my life, while allowing Jack the illusion that his wife was now an adventure seeker.

Except at some point the illusion became reality.  Or maybe not.  Wasn’t it St. Paul who said, “I do not understand what I do.  What I want to do, I do not.  What I wish to do avoid, I do.” 

My point is, I have no idea why, but I now crave adventure, hate routine, and love to immerse myself in exotic locations.

Plus, and this is a huge factor, Chesty, Jack’s old service dog, is coming to the end of his life and both Jack and I know our sadness over losing him will be long and hard.  Besides, it’s freaking cold in NW Arkansas right now and the only thing I hate worse than being bored is being cold. 

Still, I refuse to leave the life we’ve built here in the Ozarks.  Over the years, I’ve left far too many friends.  I have a good life here.  I’m dug in.

But, I think I’ve found a way to have the best of all worlds.

I’ve done the ciphering and, with a little scrimping, we can fly to Thailand and live four months a year in Chiang Mai.  That would be the winter months when, here in Arkansas, falling and breaking a hip on black ice is a reoccurring danger.  In fact, the cost-of-living is so much lower in Chiang Mai that saving for the very expensive airfare will only be an issue the first year, this year, while we are slipping on ice and paying U.S. prices for food and fun.  

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Does this all sound like the ravings of a crazy woman to you? 

Well then, I’m right on track.

Of course, we’re not going anywhere as long as Chesty is with us.  No amount of tropical warmth or ancient Asian peace or exotic locales is better than waking each morning to see the old boy’s wrinkly face looking up at me from his baby mattress bed.

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Still, it does help some to know that, when we do lose him, I’ll be able to sit under a banyan tree and meditate on the love of a good and loyal dog and that of a fine and complicated man.  I believe I’ll do a little contemplating on the teaching of St. Paul.

Honest Love

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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.

Hold on to Your Ass.

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I’ve been thinking lately about the rewards of being married to a man who has survived battle and fought his way through the trauma of returning to civilian life.  I’m not sure all combat vets are stubborn, but Jack is.  I suspect if he wasn’t, he’d have died when he stepped on the land mine in ’64.  Jack is loud and claims his place in the world.  I have vet friends who are just the opposite – quiet and stoic and self-contained.  I’m pretty sure both responses come from the understanding that not much in the world really makes all that much difference once you’ve seen the worst and the best of what man is capable. 

“It don’t mean nothin’.”  Jack says.

So, as the wife of a man who’s struggled with PTSD for fifty years, a man with the beginnings of dementia and the after effects of a stroke, I am often frustrated with Jack’s emotional numbing and his obsessive behavior and his paranoia and his depression. I cuss and moan and complain.  That’s not a secret to anyone who follows this blog.

But I also remain in awe of Jack’s ability to grab life by the balls and demand to be recognized.   Two years ago a stroke robbed him of strength in his hands, his left hand in particular, and slurred his speech. The VA said he wasn’t a kid anymore, he should age more gracefully and accept his limitation.  

That response pissed Jack right the fuck off.     

He bought an acoustic guitar and enrolled in a music class at the university.  Walked right into a college classroom, just a few weeks after the stroke, and demanded a place with those kids.  Day after day for a full semester, he struggled to position his numb hand on the neck of the guitar and keep the pick between his fingers.  He’s Jack, so he made inappropriate remarks to the college girls and pushed his way into the blooming love lives of the kids.   And, he gained almost full use of his hands and had a lot of fun in the class, too.

He also bought a karaoke machine.  At the time, I was convinced he did this just to see if he really could drive me completely insane.  And I’m still not convinced that may not have been part of his motivation, but singing country and western songs (very, very, oh god so badly) four hours a day, improved the hell out of his speech.  The next semester he took an acting class and the elocution helped his speech even more.  The memorization of his lines jump-started his memory.

The other day a friend asked me, “If a young woman came to you and said they’d fallen in love with a combat veteran, what advice would you give them?”

I’ve thought about that for a while and here’s what I’ve come up with:

“Hold on to your ass.  If you survive you’re going to be stronger, braver, and closer to God then you’d have been married to anyone else.  You’re in for a wild, wonderful, painful, heart-wrenching, and unbelievably joyous ride.”

Freedom Dog

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My Life with a Wounded Warrior, a collection of expanded essays from this blog, is due to be released in a few weeks.  A Special Author’s Edition of Clueless Gringos in Paradise, the humorous account of moving to Panama with two enormous service dogs, will be available at just about the same time.  That’s a big deal.  Too me, anyway.  Two books out within a day or two of each other.  Yippee Skippy, awesome possum, and hot damn, as they say in Arkansas.  Or, as they say where I come from, damn fucking straight.

Kim Pennell at Pen-L Publishing came up with the concept of donating a portion of the sale of each book to a Veterans Organization.  I loved the idea.  Let out a little squeal of joy when I read her email suggesting it. 

I’ve spent some time the last few days looking around for a worthy veteran’s group. 

But, before I tell you about that, here’s what you need to know about me.  I’ve never, ever, been in a position to donate money to. . .well. . .to any cause.  I married at eighteen.  My husband received his draft notice on our wedding day (I didn’t have time to wear the new off him before he was in basic).   My first son was born on my twenty-first birthday.  Two more boys followed in joyous succession.  Then, I was a divorced mom trying to decide which son got new Payless tennis shoes and which two boys had to go another month with rubber bands around the toes of their old ones. 

Then I married Jack, and while Jack gives generously to individuals, he does not give to groups or organizations.  Not ever.

So, I was pretty damn excited about the idea of donating my own money to a cause of my choosing.  I knew immediately I wanted to help unite veterans with PTSD service dogs.  That much was a no brainer.  Chesty saved Jack’s life.  That’s not hyperbole.  Chesty, beautiful PTSD service dog that he is, saved Jack’s life. 

There are several good groups out there training dogs to assist vets with their PTSD.  I investigated a few.  Sat dead-still in front of the computer with a giant grin on my face when I found Freedom Dogs. 

I’m still working out all the details, but I’m trying to arrange things so Freedom Dogs receives about $3 on each copy of My Life with a Wounded Warrior, and $1 for each copy of Clueless Gringos in Paradise.   I’ll keep you posted on the details, but, for right now, please, join me in my joy of being able to give a little something to a cause that is dear to me. 

Having my own money and being able to give that money to a wonderful cause, now that’s freedom.