Mary E. Rogers
DID I STAY TOO LONG?
I always described Rich as a child trapped in an adult body. He was always full of fun and he was the one that could be found in the sand box or playing badminton with the kids. Everyone saw him as that happy-go-lucky guy. That was in the daylight hours, when he could hide the memories in his mind very well.
I told a friend of mine that I would like to be married to an adult for just one day. His response to me was, “If he ever changes, you may wish you had him back!” Years later those words still ring in my ears. Yes I do wish I had him back, I have wished that since 1990 when he had a stroke.
I met Rich when he was dating my sister, Cathy. He was in the Army then. He was stationed at Fort Story, Virginia. He fit into our family very well. Especially since my dad soon discovered that he had went to school with Rich’s dad, in their small town of Orbisonia, Pa.
Rich was a dare devil back then. He had a Javelin that he drove at 120 mph, at times. An elderly woman that went with my sister and him one time, called him “that crazy Vietnam Vet. He had already done one tour over there. He seemed to have no fear at that time. He was always tempting fate and drinking more alcohol than anyone should; especially when he drove after he did it.
My sister didn’t go with him too long until she decided that wasn’t for her. She moved to North Carolina without really saying goodbye to him. I’m not sure why she chose to do it that way, maybe she thought it was the only way she could end it.
Rich was already a part of our family, so I began to write to him when he returned to Vietnam for the second time. I sent him care packages and wrote to him every day.
When he came home from Nam he came to see me. I think we knew long before that there was chemistry between us. Although I had my concerns after being married before, to a mean alcoholic, somehow I could see past the bad behavior into the heart of a good man. I also believe that my dad already had quite a bond with this young man.
Rich was stationed at Fort Eustis and we continued to date. I even went with him when he went back to his base there. He had his own house off of base.
Rich made the decision to return to Nam. Looking back I still ask myself, why? Was it because our love was too great? Was it because I was pregnant with Rich Jr.? Was it because he didn’t want to love us too much just in case something happened to us? The same thing that happened to anyone he got close to in Nam. I’ll never know, I didn’t ask. That was the beginning of the “I didn’t ask.”
My divorce wasn’t final from my first husband and so we didn’t get married before he went back. Rich returned to Nam and I returned to the letters and the care packages. On a personal note: Rich took three pair of my underwear back with him. YEAH! They were pretty – kind of like bloomers. Any of you that have been pregnant knows that the sexy undergarments no longer fit. The first picture I got of him was lying on a cot with his rifle across his chest and my underwear hanging on the wall. The writing on the back of the photo said, “Standing guard over my property. The next photo of him was with a dog that he had “adopted” and named Mary.
The letters were strained to say the least. He didn’t believe he would make it home. He thought that he had tempted fate one too many times. He poured out his love to me in those letters. I wish I still had them to read again. When he came home he destroyed all the letters, all the documents, anything that was connected to Nam or the Army. I remember him writing across his records, FTA, before he destroyed them. I ask him what that meant and he told me, while he was shredding them to pieces.
I gave birth to Rich Jr. alone. Rich called me from Nam, relayed through ham radio operators down south. That was how he found out that his son was born. I told him he weighed 6lb 10 oz. He only heard the ten and thought I had a ten pound baby. The Red Cross brought him home for us to get married.
I knew immediately there was something different about this man. He was beside me and yet he was a million miles away. He still had that happy go lucky laughter at times but there were many minutes of silence and absence, even though he was here.
I learned very quickly about nightmares. In the middle of the night he jumped out of bed and started running and screaming. Then he could wake himself up and it didn’t last long. I thought it was a temporary reaction and he would be okay.
As the years went on the nightmares got worse, more violent. We never discussed the problem with anyone else. Since Rich would have nothing to do with the Army, or even anyone that he knew from the Army, I was the only one left to deal with it. Somehow we even shielded our kids from the “horror of the night.”
There were other symptoms, but they went unnoticed by anyone. Maybe people just thought it was his character. If he needed something from the store he went directly to where it was, got it and left. In church he always set in the back pew, right near the door. He always had to be right near the door. In his mind I believe that even the church wasn’t safe from being bombed.
He still had some of his destructive behavior. When we would go camping he would throw gasoline on the fire just to hear the boom. Sometimes he stood dangerously close. Still tempting fate but now not worrying about death. He had seen enough of it that it had no meaning to him. I remember crying when my Uncle died and he said, “What are you bawling over a dead stiff for?”
Death meant absolutely nothing to him. Maybe it did. Maybe it meant escaping the hell that was in his mind.
As the nightmares increased in intensity, I learned to fear for my own life. A slight movement from him brought me awake. Sometimes the first movement was too fast for me to move. I would awaken with his hands on my throat, and wondering if this was the time I was going to die. In his half awake, half asleep hell, I was the enemy that he needed to kill before I killed him. Somehow he always got himself completely awake before the unspeakable happened. Always he was so sorry and so sad that it had happened again. Still we never told anyone.
Over the years Rich had many jobs. If someone said something to him that made him angry, he left. He said he took enough shit in the Army and he wasn’t taking it again. He always found another job but we still ended up struggling many times.
We also moved numerous times over the 25 years we were married. As soon as we got a little too close to the neighbors it was time to move on. We did have a few friends over those years. Looking back that surprises me that he even allowed himself to get close to anyone.
Rich had an especially close friend that he worked with. He had diabetes and Rich often looked out for him on the job when he was having health problems. Rich moved on to another job and our friendship kind of continued but we didn’t visit much anymore. Rich was driving trucks and he was out on the road when Larry died. I didn’t tell him until he got home, and Larry was already buried. Death meant nothing to him, so it wouldn’t matter. Or so I thought. Rich was totally broken when he found out that Larry had died. The tears flowed and the grief was evident, this death mattered. For some reason it was the only one that ever mattered. He never reacted that way to death again.
Rich was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes in 1984. He had been hospitalized for pneumonia and his blood sugar was through the roof. He didn’t listen. He ate whatever he wanted. I told him one time that he was going to die; the doctor told him he was going to die. His answer was, “So what?” I told him that some people don’t die, some people live and not in the best shape. I told him that if something happened to him, guess who would have to take care of him, I would. There was no reply.
In 1990, while the kids and I were at kid connection, a yearly function in our county, Rich had a stroke. I’m not sure if he had it before we left or while we were gone. When I called up the steps to tell him goodbye he just mumbled. He had worked 21 days straight and I just thought he was tired. He was going to work in the garden that day. While I was gone our Amish neighbors came to use the phone. Rich was sitting half in and half out of the bathroom in his underwear; they thought he was drunk and left him there. Rich hadn’t drunk since shortly after we were married. I told him he could have the alcohol or he could have me, but he couldn’t have both. He chose me.
Rich had always told me that if something happened to him I wasn’t allowed to call the ambulance or take him to the hospital. I had previously come out of the store to find him sitting in the car unable to move his arm and he wouldn’t go then or tell the doctor.
The night before, I was out in the yard playing ball with the kids. He was sitting on the porch. He looked really bad and seemed to be a million miles away. I went and sit beside him. I told him he was working too hard, killing himself. He said, “So what?” Again he said, “If anything happens to me, don’t call anyone.” He made me promise him that I wouldn’t.
So when I came home, my oldest daughter was there. We talked for quite a while and then I asked where her dad was. I thought he was in the garden. She said, “No, he is lying in on the floor in his underwear.” That threw up a red flag right away. Rich was not in the habit of dressing that way in front of his children.
I walked into the living room and Rich was lying on the floor, with his legs under the sofa. I pulled him back and asked him if he was okay. He responded something unintelligible and I then noticed that he was incontinent. I knew something was wrong and I started to call the ambulance. Then my promise to him came back to me and I hung up the phone. I called Rich Jr. at work and he came right away.
He walked in the house and took one look at him and called the ambulance. We spent days not knowing if he would live. Finally he came out of his coma. His speech was still garbled but he seemed to improve some. I didn’t know the extent of the damage until we visited a psychologist and I realized he didn’t even know his name or know me.
We found out that his carotid arteries were blocked. We were to go to Hershey Medical Center to see what they could tell us. They told us that there was extensive blockage. They said that if they did the surgery to open them he could die. If he didn’t die he could have a heart attack or a stroke and be worse than he was then. They told us that he wouldn’t live six weeks without the surgery. We decided to take those six weeks and say our goodbyes.
Those six weeks turned into six years. Six years of watching him exist. He could no longer wipe himself; his three boys were Ned, Ted, and Ed. Only our daughter, who was not his blood, but that he chose to be his daughter, did he remember. He knew me as the person who took care of him on a daily basis. He could feed himself and he could still hold a cigarette. He could say “I want.” but then it was a guessing game to find out what he wanted. He could curse plain. That is proof to me that it doesn’t take a whole lot of brain to talk like that.
My son who called the ambulance soon became a fully fledged alcoholic. He has had numerous accidents and DUIs. He just recently had an accident and broke his neck. He is not paralyzed and he will be okay but will most likely spend a year in a State Correctional Facility. He wasn’t drinking that morning but his blood alcohol content was still extremely high from the night before, and he had no driver’s license. He was not raised around a drinking father. That stopped early in our married life. Did he drink because of his regret of going against his father’s wishes and calling that ambulance, only to watch him exist for 6 years?
Two more sons watched Rich take grand mal seizures one after the other. They got to the place where it meant nothing to them. They would call me and go back to watching cartoons. I wondered then what would happen to all that they hid in their mind. The doctor told me that I shouldn’t be caring for him at home. He told me it would take me years to get my kids straightened up from it. I thought love could cure all ills. I thought I was super woman and that I could do both successfully. That doctor knew what he was talking about.
I held onto my faith for 6 months. They told me any improvement would come within 6 months. When that time period was up, I gave up. I gave up on God. I said I would rather believe there was no God than one that didn’t care. Sometimes when one of the older kids would stay with him, I went out and drank. My son had already started to drink so it didn’t matter and maybe for one night I could forget. I drove home sometimes and didn’t remember driving home. Yet, always I was up in the morning with my kids and cared for them.
I am very proud of the mother that I am and always have been. I have always loved my kids and they love me. I probably loved a little too much and let them be too dependent on me. My drinking faze was short lived. I just switched into robot mode and did what I had to do. I did many things in the name of survival that I am not proud of, but survive I did! I remember after Rich died, driving home one day and looking up at the mountains and saying, “God, when did the sky turn blue and the earth turn green again.” I remember the tears flowing like a river when I realized that I had shut myself off from feeling to survive. I didn’t feel love or hate, happiness or sadness, or anything. To feel would have made me weak and I would not have survived.
I look back and I wonder why I didn’t have any nightmares while Rich was living. He still had them occasionally even after his stroke. He was in a hospital bed so I was no longer beside him. He couldn’t remember us, but he could still remember Nam. I am convinced that only Heaven can wipe away the hell of War.
After Rich died, my nightmares began. In my nightmares Rich was still there, choking me, still trying to silence the enemy that lived inside him. Sometimes I just dealt with them. Sometimes I fought sleep so I wouldn’t have nightmares. Sometimes I would go for long periods free of nightmares. Right now I am sleeping one to two hours a night, because the nightmares have returned with a vengeance. After many nights of nightmares, I try not to sleep so I don’t have to deal with them. In my half-awake, half-asleep time I cannot convince myself that Rich is not still here trying to kill me. Am I nuts? If I am it surely must help!
Should I have called the ambulance myself that day and maybe my son would not be an alcoholic? Should I have put Rich in a nursing home so my other sons wouldn’t have seen their father’s seizures? Should I have left long before the stroke so that I wouldn’t be having those nightmares now? I don’t know. I only know if I had it to do over, I would do it all again. They say Libra’s refuse to give up. Maybe it is the Libra in me that won’t fail someone else, even if I fail myself.
I have found my Creator again. I know that he was there all the time. I was praying answers, not prayers. I don’t know all the whys and why-nots; I only know that now I see though a glass darkly, but someday face to face, I will know it all.
I was never in Nam, I’ve never seen combat, I was never in the service, and I never went to war. I only saw the aftermath. I read a story by Robert Clark, titled, “I WAS THERE LAST NIGHT.” It is about someone asking him if he ever thought about Nam and he thought, “How do you stop thinking about it? Every day for the last twenty-four years, I wake up with it, and go to bed with it. But he said, “Yea I think about it, I can’t quit thinking about it. I never will.” Today when someone asks him, “When were you in Vietnam?” He answers, “I was there last night.” Well Mr. Clark, I was there too, not fighting the war but the hell that lived in the aftermath of memories, memories that I cannot erase anymore than your memories of War. Only Heaven can wipe away the hell of War, I’m waiting.
Did I stay too long? Maybe, but I loved him in spite of it all. As my friend in Alaska says, “They are doing the best they can.” Rich did the best he could.
But DID I STAY TOO LONG? You tell me. I stood and held his hand, listened to him say my name that I hadn’t heard in 6 years, listened to him take that last breath and kissed him goodbye. No, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.
When you guys, my heroes, go back to Vietnam in your sleep tonight, I will be there in the aftermath. Look for me. Maybe we can keep each other company on these sleepless nights.
©Copyright circa 2006 by Mary E. Rogers