WHEN HEALING DOES OCCUR
NORTHAMPTON — Last month’s disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the mudslide that decimated Oso, Wash., brought sorrow and confusion. As quickly as the search for meaning set in, so too did the words “healing” and “closure.”
When retailed in the midst of crisis, these words strike me as uncaring, spoken by people who claim to know more than those grieving. The hope feels thin.
And yet sometimes healing does seem possible.
I first met Michael Erard several years ago after he hooked up with a veterans writing project hosted at the University of Massachusetts. A compact and gentle man at 72, Michael lives with his wife Jeanette in Belchertown.
Michael had been a Vietnam Special Forces medic in 1969-1970 and was trying to come to terms with memories that flooded back after so many years. In Vietnam, he had taken part in events and been to places where the word “horror” had lost its meaning. Thirty-five years later, the horror returned.
Michael had written about one experience and hoped to get help shaping it. The experience centered on his friend Ed, a big, friendly guy who had a serious girlfriend and wanted to be a boxer when he returned to “the world.” Ed caught a bullet in the thigh, not during combat, but during a stand-down in which the men were relaxing, drinking and horsing around.
Michael had done what he could to save Ed’s leg — worked furiously to staunch the wound and then got his friend on a chopper back to the hospital. Three days later he heard that Ed’s leg had been amputated.
Michael became enraged. Enraged beyond rage. Someone had ignored his best efforts to save his friend’s leg. It was as if all of the horror and fear and tension and inhumanity of his world came to roost in a single infuriating event. Someone was going to pay! He caught a helicopter ride back to the hospital and, with dried blood of the battlefield still clinging to his clothes and skin and with his M-16 in one hand and a .45 at his hip, he stormed into the hospital, a place where weapons were not allowed.
In the midst of his search for Ed, a female major barred his path. This nurse put her hand on his chest, got him to drop his weapons and gently but firmly talked him down. She explained that Ed had been shipped out and that it was either Ed’s leg or his life. Then, gently, she put Michael on a chopper back to his base.
Michael’s story didn’t make me weep, but inside I was writhing. I felt as if Michael had held out his heart and asked politely, “Can you fix it for me?” And of course I couldn’t: Life doesn’t work that way.
The story Michael wrote wasn’t the complete account of the blowback that had consumed him. The complete story was more nuanced. After he was discharged from the army in 1970, Michael almost immediately became a physician assistant — a role he pretty much maintained until he retired from Shriners Hospital for Children in Springfield in 2006.
But there had been no time to decompress after Vietnam — no time to assimilate the insanely cruel and sometimes insanely loving world to which he had belonged. He had transitioned from merciful angel on the battlefield to merciful angel as a civilian. It was only in retirement that the horrors hidden were unfurled.
Two weeks ago, Michael invited me to lunch. He offered up some scrambled eggs, pinkie-sized sausages, good toast, home-grown raspberries and orange juice. I brought brownies and grapes.
Over lunch, I asked him how he felt today about the incident that had brought us together in the first place.
I listened to Michael, my suspicions about platitudes invoking “healing” found no confirmation. Michael seemed to be at ease. He could call up the memories when he wanted. Sometimes they came back unbidden but they were part of an accepted scenery now. Vietnam was true — no doubt about it — but now he owned the truth and the truth did not own him.
We talked about what had made this healing possible and were left speechless — two old duffers surrendering to phrases like “time heals all wounds” or “it was the grace of God.” Both of us, I think, marveled that a healing had occurred when there were so many others — soldiers, wives, offspring and kin — for whom “healing” and “closure” were just uncaring words.
Does time heal all wounds? Is the grace of God for real? I honestly don’t know. I do know that “closure” in human events still strikes me as a delusion.
I can’t say for sure, but I can say what I came to believe over sausages and raspberries.
And my heart soared.
Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.