Epilogue: The Wall, 1998
Yes, I made it to Winslow. That, and all that followed, is another story.
After a few years, I more or less settled down, CJ and I got married, and I eventually got certified to teach school.
For some years, I went about my life as if none of the things I’ve related here ever happened.
But there were some problems. I had a hard time staying in one place, in one job, in one relationship, for very long. I seemed happy, but I struggled with feelings of guilt, shame, disgust, hatred, anger. I struggled with depression, and this increased as time went on.
My life fell apart and I put it back together — several times. I lived in six different states, and I always seemed on the verge of getting it together… or losing it completely.
Just life in the late 20th Century, I rationalized. My inclinations toward Buddhist teachings had never really coalesced into anything like a real practice, and I had nothing approaching true peace and serenity in my life. I was given to periods of morose depression and prone to outbursts that hurt those around me.
In 1986, my father died. We had never really talked about the Vietnam years, or my whole problem with the Air Force, the war, and the psychological burdens it had laid on me. We had never really talked about my resentments and anger, and though we were close, and he knew that I loved him, there was that wall between us that never got breached.
His death – leaving all that inside me, a scar that couldn’t heal – drove me deeper into the depression and anger cycle, and I became – what? I became a problem.
It was something I really never talked to anyone about, especially the role of the war in all of it.
I had started, at last, real meditation and took lay ordination with the Atlanta Soto Zen Center. It was helping. And I had begun therapy with a wonderful therapist who began to take me deeper into my depths than I had known possible.
Then I met Laura Palmer – the same Laura Palmer I mentioned in the opening piece “What was it about.” Laura was a producer for Ted Koppel’s Nightline, and became friends with my dear friend and Zen buddy Claire Hicks when Claire was featured on the show in a story about her role as the first doctor in southeast Georgia to treat AIDS patients.
Laura had been a correspondent during the war in Vietnam, and wrote the wonderful book Shrapnel in the Heart (SITH), which is about the things left as little memorials at the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C., and the stories of the people who leave them.
I had read the book, sobbing through story after story. It was one of the things that helped me to realize more and more that I had a huge mass of pain connected with the war experiences and my father’s death – an unacknowledged emotional tumor – and that led me to seek therapy. Susan, my therapist, told me that I needed to revisit my buried feelings about the war, that I needed to work on opening up to all that. But I didn’t know how.
I was working on it on the cushion, as they say in Zen circles, but I didn’t really know then what it takes to really get down into the heart of the anger and resentment, the bitterness and hardness.
Three days after Susan told me that I needed to dig down through the layers guarding those war experiences, Laura asked me if I wanted to go to the Wall.
I suppose she knew that I was a vet and had read her book, but we had not discussed it at all. I’m quite sure she didn’t know what Susan had said to me about digging down. But somehow, in that way that we are all connected, she knew.
One day, as we were walking back and forth carrying things into a room to set up a display for my wife, and thus passing each other repeatedly, she unexpectedly stopped me and offered to accompany me to the Wall. I was so surprised I didn’t even ask why or anything, I just said yes, I’d love to, I need to.
I realized immediately that this was the opportunity I needed to go down through all those layers, to face the memories, the guilt, the anger, the sadness – all the feelings at the heart of my malaise. This was an opportunity to begin the healing.
I could have gone to the Wall on my own, and had had several chances, but I avoided it. I was always afraid. Laura’s offer was made in a deep understanding of all that, in an understanding that she could help me deal with these feelings and make it possible for me to do this.
Laura obviously was a very busy woman, but she arranged to meet me in D.C. She came down from New York City and I took the train up from Atlanta, and one warm Monday morning in July, we walked from the train station to Constitution Gardens. As a black line emerged from the grass, I felt the anxiety growing. Time slowed. My breathing changed and my heart pounded.
As we rounded the corner and began the descent into that granite-lined gash, the pressure increased. When the Wall reached head high, I almost broke, but Laura took my hand and her silent presence gave me the strength to go on. We walked silently to the vertex.
I couldn’t tear my eyes from the names. I could feel their presence, all those soldiers, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters… By the time we walked up the East wall and then back down to the center again, the weight of all those names was like a huge burden bearing down on my shoulders, pressing my feet into the stone walkway.
Standing there in the vertex, staring at the mass of granite, the thousands of lives lost staring back at me, I felt for a while like I would never be able to walk back up the slope. Somehow, though, with Laura to support me, I was able to slowly move on up the West wall again. As it began to recede, the weight lessened with each step. By the time we reached the top again, I was light-headed and felt a tremendous energy rushing though me.
We sat on a bench. I breathed. Laura patted my hand. Looking back at the Wall, I was struck by the beauty and wonder of the continuous stream of people walking through.
I remembered another continuous stream of people, those in the San Francisco International airport the day I returned to “the world.” Those insanely, obscenely oblivious people streaming by in their business suts and briefcases, careless of what was at that very minute going on in Vietnam. When it hit me, that day in 1972, that people had been streaming through that airport in the same oblivious way every day while I was in Southeast Asia, I had wanted to run screaming out into the crowd, grabbing people and telling them of what I had seen, what I had been doing for the past year.
But as I watched the people at the Wall, a healing began: I felt such joy that people were actually here, actually confronting this Wall and confronting the reality of Vietnam it represents. “Praise the Lord!” I shouted, uncharacteristically. I began to talk to Laura, to cry and laugh, to pour out the pain and anger and joy.
Over and over throughout the day, I marveled at the wonder of at last being surrounded by people talking about the War.
The silence had always been the hardest part. Whenever I began to talk about it or write about it, the thought always stopped me: “Nobody wants to hear about it.”
So now, at the Wall that day, each time I heard snatches of conversation between visitors, between parents and children, I exulted again in what a great gift this Wall is, and a healing space opened up in me.
I saw one large Dad down on his knees, arm around a tiny girl, pointing at the Wall and speaking earnestly – so gently! – to her, and I wanted to hug them.
And then we went to the Lincoln Memorial. First the statue, then the inaugural, and then Laura led me to the other side, the Gettysburg Address.
“This always blows me away,” she said. I read. By the time I reached “…we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…,” tears were running down my face. “A new birth of freedom…” and my heart made its first feeble surges toward love of country and faith in Democratic ideals since well before the War.
As I wandered back and forth in front of Lincoln’s earnest gaze, I wrote in my journal: The anger and hatred begin to recede in the presence of so much to love.
Back at the Wall, I realized I was okay with it. In fact I was feeling really good! We looked up some names from SITH and Laura shared with me some of her experiences with their families. Everything there seemed so beautiful to me.
I knew I didn’t want to leave, but Laura had to go back to the City. I hated to see her go, her presence was so wonderful, her understanding so perfect, but I felt strong now, and I knew I could stay on my own. Laura was my spirit guide, and truly, as several of the people from the SITH family had said, the best person to go to the Wall with.
I stayed on another six hours after she left, looking up names that I knew, just walking up and down, watching the visitors, listening to their conversations… closer to being at peace than I could remember.
Those nine hours at the Wall changed something in me. I have spent many hours since in therapy, in meditation, in conversation digging down through my feelings about it all, until finally I am able to think about it, talk about it, even write this book about it – without being torn apart by the pain and anger over it all.
In my therapy sessions, I found a huge ball of pain, a huge hot molten metal ball, that with Susan’s help I was able to let ascend up through and out of my body, relieving me of the deep angst that had long tortured my soul. I have dug down through those layers, and now I can be with those memories and those feelings without lashing out, breaking down, or shutting down. And I’m okay.
In my daily life, my family and friends have been loving and understanding with me thorough the depression and anger that occasionally flare up, and in the past few years, I have learned to anticipate and avoid most of those problems.
There are holes in my heart that will never mend, but I have learned ways to express the pain that don’t cause pain for all those around me, I have learned ways of being that open me up to the good things and give me strength to work on the problems – my own and the world’s.
It is the sincerest hope of my heart that by sharing my experiences, we all will understand a little better the hidden damage that war does to everyone, and that we will listen to Lincoln’s words, that all that dying and all that suffering shall not have been in vain.
=John F. Eden