For five days, Michael and his comrades went without food because the resupply helicopters could not land. They spent it in the company of three corpses -- comrades who had been killed earlier. When the resupply helicopters did arrive, they brought no food and they didn't pick up the corpses. They brought ammunition and the radio was alive with complaints from headquarters: Why weren't these men advancing on the next objective? It was just one crazed obscenity among many that Michael witnessed and endured as a Special Forces medic in the war that was Vietnam.
Michael is a clean, compact, patient-faced man who sat at the other end of my couch yesterday and retailed his stories with the diffident evenness of a man who knows the helicopters of relief and release are not coming, that any relief supplies are up to him.The raging sorrows of the past are alive within him, perhaps, but only he can lay them to rest. He said that his wife had nudged him with the suggestion that after he got out of the army and went to work as a physician's assistant, he had worked for 30 years helping others. He is retired now and there is time to do what had been given no time in the past -- assess and digest and weep for the Michael who had once been so badly savaged. He helped others. Could he likewise help himself?
Michael and I had hooked up via a veterans' writing project that had been featured in a local newspaper. I had emailed the director that, although I wasn't much for meetings, I would be willing to help anyone who wanted to write about their past experiences. He put me in touch with Michael. Yesterday was our first face-to-face meeting. We spent our time amicably, sizing each other up. At the end of the meeting over coffee and cake, I suggested he go home and see how he felt about the meeting ... and then perhaps, if it seemed like a good match, we could get into the writing itself. Who knows what will come of it? It takes some doing, letting down the guards posted outside an interned past. We'll see.
But one of the things that struck me about our get-together was this: Superficially, the dynamics of the situation were roughly that I had offered to 'help' Michael with his writing because I laid claim to knowing something about writing. Which I do. Superficially, I was going to 'help' him with his writing in ways that, perhaps, he had helped his patients over 30 years. Superficially, Michael might, if it weren't too spooky, accede to my views and skills ... I would be, in one sense, the leader.
But beneath the surface, at least for me, was a haunting whisper of utter equality. I too had been prone to 'helping' others, making a habit of lending a hand which may in fact have been helpful but also neglected the zones of horror and despair in my own life. In some real sense, I was not leading Michael and Michael was not leading me. We were walking together in a realm of Claymore mines, a kill zone, a place where it would have been desperately nice not to walk ... and yet now there was not avoiding it. No more 'helping,' no more 'leading' ... just walking because there was no escape. This was not a realm in which horrors were compared or contrasted. Naturally, I would not match my aching past with the experience of going without food, living with corpses or trying, sometimes in vain, to save lives. But horror is a many-faceted jewel and it glistens for one and all ... equally. And in the land of horror, all move forward because there is no way not to move forward ... and there is no way back.
Looking into the mirror, it has to be asked: What are things like when the 'helping' is set aside? What is it like when, with as much courage and dignity as possible, we simply move forward together, caring for ourselves and in so doing, caring for each other? Really helping as distinct from 'helping?'
I think it was the Dalai Lama who issued a line I have always liked: "It can't be helped." I find it a beacon for living a life without pretense. And that one small observation links seamlessly to the card my then-young son gave me once, all misspelled and mangled and yet bright as Excalibur: "Happy birthday papa. We luv etchuther."