After Andrew told me about his wife's recent death, I felt my shoulders sag. He was still holding my hands, more for his sake than mine, this time. We stayed like that for a long time. He needed the touch. We were silent.
When I felt it was okay to speak I said, "Dang," while shaking my head. Then I asked if he had family.
How did timing play a role in this scene?
Over a year
"I haven't talked intelligently to anyone for over a year. My wife, my soul mate, has been very ill for several years. The last two years I have done nothing but take care of her. Exactly what I wanted to do. She was unable to carry on much conversation this last year."
He took a deep breath.
"She passed away eight weeks ago."
Have you been the recipient of such raw sharing from a "stranger?"
Across the table
Andrew reached across the table and took my hands again, eyeing me to take in my reaction. "You are a real gift to me today. Your asking me to eat lunch with you is not a coincidence."
I saw the rims of his eyes redden, become watery.
What do you think Andrew is going to tell me?
Andrew turned back to the table. "I hope I haven't offended you by telling you all this about myself," he said.
I raised my eyebrows.
"I can tell you are an intelligent, sensitive, well-educated woman," he added.
I felt my face blush. "Thank you," I said.
He continued, "I'm honored you told me these things about your life. And, it's not often that I can talk about my story with someone who 'gets it'."
Do you think Andrew is going to tell me more?
"I think my dad was wounded emotionally by his war experiences, " I continued. "He was so young. In fact, the youngest Marine aviator in WW II. He, like your dad, could become violent. And he drank heavily on and off."
Andrew and I let these new coincidences rest between us. I pushed my drink cup around in a circle. Andrew looked out the window.
What was I doing pushing my drink cup around?
Another tough one
"Sounds familiar," I said. "Only my mother was not weak. She was the other colonel in the house. A tough one. She should have never had four kids. Her heart wasn't in it. She especially resented me--the only girl and the oldest and the apple of my dad's eye. She was easier on my brothers."
Did/do you have unequal treatment of female and male children in your family?
Tough and weak
"My dad was a tough one. Gone a lot of the time, an alcoholic, a violent man," Andrew said. "I was the oldest and expected to take care of my mother and two sisters. Mom drank her fair share, too. She was weak, distant, helpless. I couldn't wait to get out of the house." Andrew's eyes were fixed on mine.
Can you imagine Andrew's home life as a child?
We sipped our drinks then looked up at each other.
I spoke first. "My father, the Marine Colonel, was devastated. You know the Marine Corps espirit de corps thing. Dad kept wondering out loud "why Henry and not me." He had been shot down three times as a pilot in the Pacific during WW II.
Do you have any WW II heroes in your family?
Andrew replied. "I was gung ho, too. Until I got there and saw the truth. The US government was lying to us. Then I became gung ho in only one way..........to get my men the hell out of there, home to their wives, mothers, kids."
When did you learn truths about the War?
I spoke. "Henry was so gung ho about the War. He was sure he could make a difference. I've wondered how the War might have affected him if he had lived to return home."
Do you personally have a story about someone deeply affected by the Viet Nam War? Are you willing to share it?
Andrew took my hands again. "As if Henry's death wasn't enough for a newly-married, very young woman to handle. His parents' behavior was horrible toward you." He looked down, then back up. "I am so sorry." When he saw my eyes were dry, he slid his hands away.
Why do you think my eyes are dry at this point?
Resuming the Story
Happy New Year to you and welcome back to the story of me and Andrew over a spontaneous lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken. You may recall that the last event I posted was when he cleared the lunch table contents between us and took my hands in his. I had just told him about my young husband Henry's death in Viet Nam in 1968.
That's where I'll start.
After I recovered from Andrew's kind, tender holding of my hands as I wept, I said, "And maybe even worse. Henry's parents turned against me over an insurance policy. They were so angry I thought they might harm me. That's when my own PTSD began, fearing they might blow my brains out. I was not far off the mark when I learned his father was an alcoholic and owned an arsenal of guns.
Has fear ever gripped you to the point of illness? I hope not.
With the clear space between us Andrew slowly reached across the table and took my hands in his.
That's when the tears came.
• • •
Can you picture this scene in a KFC with two strangers deeply connecting across a table?
After my story Andrew did something unusual. He began pushing our lunch plates, used napkins and plastic ware aside, creating a clear space between us across the table.
• • •
What do you think is going to happen?
When I told Andrew about the Viet Cong woman and our similar reactions to our husbands' deaths I did not cry. I had relived my own scene so many times that I think I numbed myself to its horror in order to go on.
"I became that Viet Cong woman when I saw her collapse in front of me on the television screen. Nothing separated us but a stupid war. Women. Wives. Now widows."
Andrew closed his eyes. His expression remained solemn, even prayerful. I felt his compassion across the table.
• • •
Was I really numb?
Viet Cong Woman
I continued to tell my story. "What got me in the 1968 segment of the documentary was a Viet Cong woman discovering a dead man's body, presumably her husband's. She fell to her knees, doubled over and began rocking and wailing."
I stopped to look out the window again, then spoke. "I did the same thing when I saw the tall Marine Lt. holding a yellow sheet of paper in his hand in the doorway of my summer workplace. He began reading it, but I didn't hear a word he said above my own wailing. I was slumped over, rocking back and forth crying out 'no, no, no.' "
But it was true.
• • •
Can you see why I identified with this woman?
I pushed my fried chicken around on my plate, leaned over and took a few sips of my fountain drink, then spoke.
"I knew the 1968 episode of Ken Burns' documentary was going to be tough. But I've wanted to know more about what Henry faced during his short time in combat. I wanted to see the terrain, the conditions. But something quite remarkable happened to me during that episode."
Andrew cocked his head.
• • •
Any guesses what might have transpired for me during that Ken Burns 1968 episode?
The silence between us lengthened. Were Andrew and I thinking the same thing?
Then I dared speak. "Do you think you may have carried Henry's body off the Hill?"
I shuddered imagining the scene.
• • •
How is this story affecting you?
Two Days Later
Andrew told me he was in Cam Lo, 25 miles from Khe Sanh at a firebase on the DMZ. "I was watching 16-inch shells from the USS New Jersey fly though the air on their way to visit the enemy. But in July of 1968 I was riding in helicopters with supplies and soldiers headed for the hills as well as evacuating injured and KIAs."
I struggled to take in a breath. "Henry was in Cam Lo at that very time before he was helicoptered to the Hill. Two days after his arrival he was killed by Viet Cong along with a group of his men attempting to get water from a spring."
Andrew hung his head. I looked out toward the parking lot through the large window by our booth.
• • •
"I watched every one of the Ken Burns Viet Nam episodes. The war within the war was only touched on in one episode," I said.
I sat up straight, looked Andrew in the eye and took a deep breath. "My first husband was killed in Viet Nam. July 5, 1968, Khe Sanh, Hill 689. Henry Ledford, a 2nd Lt. in the Marines."
Andrew's eyes narrowed and focused on mine. "I'm so sorry."
• • •
Do you know anyone who lost someone in Viet Nam?
"Did you watch the Ken Burns 'Viet Nam' series?" I said.
"Only a little of it. I didn't want to re-live those scenes. I've spent enough of my life trying to forget them."
• • •
Did you watch the Ken Burns "Viet Nam" documentary series? Why? Why not?
Shifted in His Seat
"Yeah, three wars," Andrew said. "War against the Viet Cong and against North Viet Nam." He became quiet for a few seconds, shifted in his seat. "And the unspoken war within our own ranks that reflected the Civil Rights movement and anti-war sentiment back in the States."
I stared at him. Cocked my head, wanting to know more about the third war.
• • •
Did you know about the war within the war?
Andrew began his story. "There were three wars going on in Viet Nam."
I raised my eyebrows.
• • •
Any thoughts about three wars going on in Viet Nam in 1968?
"You seem different. Very present, a good listener," Andrew told me.
"Thank you. I think allowing a person to be heard may be one of the greatest gifts we can give each other. I hope to do that."
• • •
Do you agree with me about the gift of allowing folks to truly be heard?
Do You Mind?
I kept quiet about my own Viet Nam story. Andrew seemed to want to tell me more of his.
"I've never been moved to tell anyone this story before, except fellow Viet Nam vets. Do you mind if I make an observation about you?" he said.
"No," I answered, wondering where this was going.
• • •
What on earth is Andrew going to observe? We've just met.
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Award Finalist in the "Health: Alternative Medicine" category of the 2017 Best Book Awards