So Veterans Day was this week. My boyfriend of 3+ years (and roommate) is an Air Force veteran who is very involved in the Veteran community. He volunteers with several non-profits to help veterans, and is a big part of the Veteran community. He is very open and knowledgeable about the struggles of the invisible wounds that our military face when they return to civilian life. He has taught me a lot.
My late husband Don was also an Air Force veteran. He served during war time – Desert Storm. When we were married, he talked of his time in the Air Force with pride, but he only shared happy memories and lighthearted tales. He didnt really talk about the “war” part, and on the surface, he didnt seem to be haunted by his time there or things that Im sure he witnessed and was part of. But looking back, he rarely spoke much at all about his years in the Air Force, and it was more than a decade of his life. He was also the type of man/person who coped with things through a lot of silence. He was a quiet man, and whenever he had a traumatic day at work as a paramedic, he would come home and either strum his guitar alone in the other room for a couple hours, or put on a Yankees game or a tennis match and quietly focus on it. Sometimes he would tell me about his awful day later on, and other times he wouldnt. As for his time in the Air Force, I never really asked a lot of questions. If he offered information, I listened. I loved his stories. But, really, though he was very proud of his time in the Air Force, he seemed to not want to focus on it much, or talk about it much, for whatever reason. And where my partner Nick is very involved in the Veteran community, Don was not involved at all. He never seemed interested in any of that.
Now, all these years later, here I am, living with and in love with another Veteran, whose reaction to his experience in the military could not be any more different than Don’s was. On top of that, we have been watching the series “This Is Us” together, from the first season on, as a lead-in to the new season that just started 2 weeks ago. I am a huge fan of the show, and I wanted Nick to see it also, because there are so many issues it deals with in addition to my widowhood, that HE would relate to. Veteran issues. PTSD. Addictions. Veteran suicide. Dealing with the complications of the V.A., and life after serving. Right now we have come upon a plotline that deals with all of these issues, and has the main widow character Rebecca looking back and asking herself how much she REALLY knew about her late husband, who was a Vietnam veteran, and , like Don, didnt really open up to her much at all about his experience during that time. On the show, he tells her that he didnt want to bring that ugliness into their beautiful life.
So, the combination of it being Veterans Day, Dons birthday being last week on November 6th, and re-watching “This Is Us” with my veteran boyfriend – it has brought up a lot of complicated emotions for me. Questions that Im asking myself. There was a scene on the show where the widow Rebecca , who is now repartnered, is talking with her partner about all of the things she just found out about her husband Jack’s past, and she is now haunted by the idea of “Why didnt I ask him more questions? Should I have pushed it more? Why didnt I? How much was he haunted? How much did it affect him on a daily basis? In our marriage?” And now these are the same types of question I am left with. Why didnt I ask him more about his time in the military? Why didnt I listen when he DID tell me stories? Why cant I remember much of what he did tell me? Did things that happened to him over there contribute to his sudden heart attack and death? Did he have higher stress levels than he let on, or was he really as calm and at peace as he always seemed? Was playing the guitar for hours at a time , alone, more about getting rid of the demons for him? My heart hurts with the reality that I cannot ever know the answers to these questions, and that I dont know anyone that served with him to maybe pick their brain some about it.
On the TV series, the character of Jack has a sadness about him. He has this inner sadness that is subtle, but always there. Don had that. It was this layer that sort of lived there, and lots of people told me (his friends and family members) that his life WAS kind of sad , and that meeting and loving me was the best thing that ever happened to him, and that they had never seen him happier, ever. That makes me feel so good, but also it makes me sad that he had so much sadness and unfairness in his life. A father who nnever showed any interest in having him as a son or knowing him at all (Don was the product of a one-night stand affair), a mother who was controlling and manipulative, and who he literally had to run away from as an adult in order to keep his sanity, a traumatic childhood filled with abuse, and whatever he went through during his time serving our country. When he spoke of his dad or mom or the abuse his sisters went through, he would tear up. HIs love for animals came because his own father didnt want him, so he always felt a huge love from animals. “They never leave you”, he would say. “My cat Isabelle would never abandon me. She just wants to be loved and love me back.” When I think about my husband dying so young, and having a short life that wasnt always easy or happy, it makes me angry. Im angry that he was robbed of time, and Im upset that life treated him so poorly. He deserved so much more than what life dished out. We had each other, but it was way too short. Our joy was cut off right in the middle, and now Im left with a thousand unanswered questions that tear at my heartstrings, and that will probably never have answers.
What is a person supposed to do with all of that?
I dont know the answer to that one either. But today, as I write this, it all sits heavy on my heart, and it hurts, and I wonder if this is a little bit what he felt like, or what it feels like in general, to have so much “stuff” built up inside your heart, and to carry it all around so quietly.