by Elaine Little
The weeping woman enclosed her in an awkward embrace. After a respectable amount of time, she dropped the hug and turned her attention to her purse. An oversized yellow envelope peeked out. This is for you,” she said as she backed away slowly.
There was a lot of this going on, almost as if there had actually been a death. But her husband, Eddie, was alive, still hanging in there, doing amazingly well under the circumstances. He had even been promoted to Sergeant following his traumatic injury. Doctors were generous in their assessments of his “milestones.”
Milestones? When he turned over, blinked, started on solids? God, she guessed everyone was a critic. She with her gloomy cynicism aimed at the hospital cheerleading squad. And they with their judgment, probably wondering why she didn’t sit by his bed all day, every day, and when she did why she didn’t put down the magazine, turn off the TV or quit playing with her phone when they entered the room. She had at first, but not lately. The problem was she didn’t know what to do with her hands, her mind, her body. It didn’t matter. Things kept moving anyway.
She had no right to think this way. She should be focusing on Eddie, washing his face with care and love, or at least with duty, instead of waiting for the nurses to do it. If there was a grade for this, she’d get an F.
* * *
She lay straining on the weight bench, her back sticky with perspiration. She must be doing something right to be sweating so much as she raised and lowered the bar to her chest, concentrating on finishing her repetitions. A guy was staring at her. He probably wanted to use this piece of equipment next. She hoped he wouldn’t offer to correct her form. So many impatient people eager to get to the next repetition, to break the weight loss plateau, to lower their BMI, to increase their musculature. It was a race to the beach.
“Excuse me; can I use this after you?”
Why was he rushing her?
* * *
Her counselor asked nicely about her workout routine, cocking her head a little when she said she went twice daily for two hours apiece. But then she smiled and remarked it was great she’d found such a healthy way to work through her grief because even though she still had Eddie, she needed to grieve the man he’d been, and learn to appreciate (didn’t say love) the man who lay before her today. Okay.
* * *
“Miss, mind if I show you something?”
The bar quivered in her hands as she lowered it, obviously with not enough arm extension, or the wrong grip or something.
Despite his self-entitled expertise, he was a good spotter. But halfway through, his interest waned, because apparently she wasn’t so appealing upon closer inspection. She wasn’t playing the game, never giggling appreciatively. Striving to be the attentive student, trying to do everything correctly and failing, and then stressing about it, and again no giggling.
He straightened up and said, “Well, I guess you’ve got it.” Then he loomed over her as she caught her breath.
* * *
What kind of a person would bail under these circumstances? On the other hand, her presence was deceiving. Mentally she was checked out. Didn’t this prove she and Eddie had been rash and impulsive and impatient, unsuited for a lifelong commitment?
She heard what was said and what was implied. Two tiers of conversations going at once–I know you feel burdened and it’s hard for you to show it and it’s okay for you to cry. But not okay for you to want out and certainly not okay for you to express such thoughts out loud. But even if Eddie couldn’t put it into words, he’d surely sense her reluctance, her hesitance, her absence. Or maybe not, but how would she know? Hold it together, you are brave, vanquish your doubts, you can’t trust your feelings at this moment in time.
Do not express these emotions in public and especially not in front of Eddie. Cry alone and exercise! Punch things, I mean at the gym, and run, run, run. Load up on those endorphins. It’s incredible how much better you’ll feel and look. And then you won’t be depending on chemicals—but of course if you do need something we can talk. Talking is key. Let it out. Don’t bottle things up.
They were right. She did want to talk. But often people seemed all too eager to fill every conversational gap between them with worn-out words.
Amazing, I want you to focus on that word, for a minute. A minute? What am I saying? I want you to focus on that word for the rest of your life. Because
what you’ve given and sacrificed for your country is truly amazing and admirable and great. So get used to hearing that word used to describe you! Because you are an inspiration! We will never forget you or your husband. You will want for nothing. And if you ever do, and I don’t see how this could happen, but in that unlikely circumstance, gently remind us and we will step right up.
People gave her things and proper, considered advice. But advice had been needed long before. She would have needed it even if Eddie were whole. Because things weren’t great, and his absences were frequent. There had been a gradual pulling apart following the initial overwhelming compulsion to join and to meld. A sense of urgency unearned by two nineteen-year-olds whose affections would have run their course in a less heated environment. The push to get married and preserve that moment of pure and lasting love forever.
Throughout their abbreviated courtship and truncated honeymoon, and during the run-up to each of Eddie’s deployments, they had grimly joked about the life insurance policy and promised to heed the warnings about this difficult path they had chosen. She hated to admit it, but there were even times during her marriage when she had entertained a few fleeting thoughts about the possibility of Eddie dying, which made her feel guilty, and saddened, but also seemed oddly romantic. She pictured herself telling the tale of her tragic past to a handsome and sympathetic boyfriend in some distant imaginary future.
In her defense, she only thought like this when things were bad between them. Like when either one of them had forgotten to email or call. Or when Care Packages were late or were lacking.
You forgot my birthday. Who can think of your birthday at a time like this? I’m sorry I’ll make it up to you. We’ll take a trip together when we get back. We’ll work these things out. Our love is strong. Don’t give up on me. Don’t take so seriously the things I say when I’m stressed. I needed to blow off some steam. You don’t understand? Well fine then! I don’t know anybody here and I can’t find a job. Well at least nobody is shooting at you and there are no IEDs on the road to the commissary. Thanks for listening. Thanks for understanding.
At what age did one learn to accept these things and deal with them gracefully? She didn’t know. But not at 21, that was for damn sure. She was a wife, irrevocably yoked to a man who would probably always remain at this level of capability. A wife of 21, facing a life sentence of however long Eddie managed to make it. And he might make it a very, very long time.
She longed for a less fraught role. Could she just be the nurse? The interested friend? She’d be over frequently and promised to leave the magazines at home, the TV off and her phone on silent in her purse. She would concentrate and be there for Eddie. She promised!
She recalled an inspirational speaker at the deployment sendoff addressing the soldiers and their families. He told them they were rock stars. Rock stars . . . and she had thought okay, so now that they were rock stars, what could possibly be better than that?
The soldiers at the crest of the wave of importance and gratitude, sweated in the hot sun while soaring music played. Later they grabbed ice cold bottles of water as they formed a receiving line to shake the hands of the local dignitaries who had come to pay their respects to their country, the departing heroes and their families. And as the soldiers clasped hands with them, they politely exchanged pleasantries. Thank you sir, thank you ma’am, thank you sir. Thank you.
Elaine Little spent 26 years in the Army as a broadcast journalist, interrogator and Russian linguist, and deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Bosnia and Afghanistan. She now works for the government and is writing a novel. Her essays and short stories have appeared in many online journals and print publications.