Penny Rock (nee Trelstad), Vietnam: 1967 - 1968I SANG YOU TO DEATH
One of the most beautiful moments of love and living, was born in a place of hatred and dying.
Davey came to me in a body profoundly wounded and wracked with fever from systemic infection. It was clear from the moment I first examined him that he would not survive. What I didn’t realize at that moment, was the magnitude of impact he would have on my life.
I was an Army Nurse in Vietnam during the most significant escalation of the war, and the turning point known as the Tet Offensive. It was during another offensive, in late 1967, prior to Tet, that I met Davey, who was to become my most valued teacher about life.
I worked in the Intensive Care and Recovery units, one large room affectionately known as the Hell Hole. In war, the job of a medical professional is to get patients stabilized as quickly as possible so they can be sent elsewhere for further treatment and a better chance to recover. We also needed to send patients away fast because the beds filled faster than they could be emptied. Demand far exceeded supply.
We saw the worst of the worst in our wards, and not all of them could be quickly evacuated. Davey was one of those. So, while we had just a few weeks together, it was longer than the usual patient stay. I can only assume he had a lot to teach me, so he lived a little longer.
Davey was so clear and determined about each aspect of his remaining life up to and including the moments before, during, and after his death. He loved all arts, and especially loved Broadway show tunes. Two of his favorites were “If I Loved You” and “I’ll Be Seeing You”… in that order. When he learned I was a singer, he was overjoyed and requested that I sing both songs to him whenever I left the ward at the end of my shift. As he drew closer to death, he claimed a former grip on life. Nothing escaped his scrutiny. One night, with the intensity only a fever can produce, he grabbed my hand and said he had something important to ask of me. I leaned down closer so I could hear him better, and he made these requests. He certainly understood the war would go on, regardless of what was happening to him, but if at all possible he wanted me to: send a final letter to his parents which he would dictate to me; be with him when he died; sing his songs to him while he was dying; prepare his body after death; and place him in his body bag. He had so little time left and had taught me so much, how could I possibly refuse?
I carried out his requests to the letter. It seemed like it took forever. In fact, it took only minutes. The entire experience with him was so intense it seemed seared in my soul. While singing to him, it occurred to me I was singing him to death. Not just a lullaby to ease him into sleep… but to death. My voice was to be the last thing he heard.
I wrote this poem a few days after his death with the thought, hope, and belief it would keep his memory alive.
I SANG YOU TO DEATH
I sang you to death tonight
and ended with your favorite songs,
“If I Loved You” – and I do, and
“I’ll Be Seeing You” – which I will someday.
You looked so peaceful Davey
when I closed your eyes.
So young and fresh and ready for life.
The sounds of war don’t disturb you now.
The distant rumble and the shaking of the
ground are of no concern anymore.
I promised you I would be with you
the rest of your young life –
a promise much too easy to keep.
You said you wanted to know the truth.
But, I don’t know if I was right to tell you.
I mailed your last letters home this morning
just like you asked. I included the pictures
you carried so they couldn’t be lost.
Your family will know how thoughtful you were
and how much you loved them and cared about them.
Their memories of you will be touched
by your final thoughts for them.
Where did you get your gentle spirit Davey?
Will you leave some kindness behind for
those of us who might not have enough to
give to those who need it?
You knew your fatigue was different this time.
But, still the question in your eyes as you
held out your hand to me made my heart ache
so much I thought I couldn’t breathe.
When I climbed into your bed and held you
in my arms, and held your hand, you seemed
so light, like a baby in my lap.
My voice wasn’t steady and my tears were
splashing on your face but, you didn’t seem
to mind. Maybe because you were safe
for one last time.
Did you see your mother when you looked
up into my face? What was your last thought?
I want you to travel safe and quiet
to your next life. I want you to know I’ll
always remember you and how you let me be
with you at the end.
Your final smile touched my heart and you
stayed with me until the very last note.
You wanted your songs and I was privileged
to give them to you.
Thank you for letting me sing you to your final sleep.
And, remember Davey, I’ll be seeing you.
©Copyright 1968 by Penny Rock (nee Trelstad)