Blue Holidays: A Season for Emotion

The holidays are coming. Supermarkets are stocking up on turkeys and hams. Towers of candy wrapped in silver and gold are springing up in stores. Evergreens will soon scent the air with pine, and bell-ringing Salvation Army Santa Clauses will pierce our ears with reminders to be generous and give to the poor. Sights, sounds and smells can trigger happy memories – along with sadness and anxiety. I asked friends if they could describe some of these emotions. A sense of loss was number one – loss of family members, good friends, traditions, and “place” for those who live far from home. Some described certain people who were beacons for celebrating and enjoying a holiday; people who were the life of the party. (I remember my younger brother’s enthusiasm for decorating the house and the Christmas tree – even though we used to argue about it!) One friend described her husband (now deceased) as loving Christmas so much that the tree kept getting bigger every year and they finally had to buy a bigger house. Since he died, it’s been difficult for her to get into the Christmas spirit. A young mother said that, since her husband’s death in the Iraq war, her sadness intensifies at Christmas because it reminds her that her children were too young when he died to remember him during his favorite holiday. Some people expressed an overwhelming feeling of expectation, that holidays require being social and happy, buying the right gifts, accepting invitations, being as good as the media tells us we have to be, and accomplishing all of this in a short period of […]

The Healing Journey of Grief

At a recent meeting with a book club discussing my memoir, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, one reader asked me if it is difficult today for me to look at pictures of my husband who was killed in Vietnam in 1969. It’s a great question because it brought back my memory of the many years during which it was difficult to look at anything that reminded me of him and our happiness. I remember putting out of sight anything that triggered my grief and the pain in my heart, even the book plates that he had placed in all our books, with an image of the little mermaid statue in Copenhagen, on which he wrote, “Dave and Ruth” was too much for me. I covered them up with the same bookplate, leaving the line where our names had been written blank. And yet, today, I have written and published an entire book about him, our relationship, his death and the serendipitous meeting of his comrades who have regaled me with stories about him. In the process of writing I’ve looked at many photographs of him, many supplied by the guys who were with him in Vietnam. I see this young, handsome guy who I was deeply in love with, who I still feel the same love for, but I can look at him and not feel shaken. Is this the effects of time, age, natural healing? Does the heart grow scar tissue? I’m not sure. In my memoir I wrote about learning from my mother’s example of putting things away after a death. When my youngest brother died at home after years of […]

A Friend in Need: Memories of War

The following is an excerpt from the memoir: Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War.   There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs.    Dwight David Eisenhower   It’s late April 2011, and already broiling hot at the entrance to the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center in Columbus, Georgia. This outing is part of the planned program of events during my fourth reunion with the guys of Alpha Company. Once again, we’re part of a motley crew of former GIs who served in the 22nd US Army Infantry Division in various wars, a few spouses, and me, the only Vietnam War widow in the group. In spite of the fact that we are here among about two hundred veterans of all ages, our section of the bus – those connected in some way to Dave’s Company back in 1969 – behaves like a merry band of war buddies, joking and teasing, ribbing each other about things that happened long ago in the region of Tay Ninh.  Now they include me in their repartee, as if I had been there, too. Our bus driver, Ike, a thin, talkative man, lightens the atmosphere further when he chimes in over the loud speaker in his melodious Georgia drawl throughout the two-hour bus ride from Atlanta with quips like: “Whatever you folks do back there behind me, don’t wake me up while I’m drivin’ “ How amazing to be on a road trip with these guys who were with Dave forty-two years ago in the jungles of Vietnam. Each time I’m with these men at a reunion I’m flooded with the feeling that Dave is present among us, that he is smiling at me from somewhere in the room.     Joe, […]

Veteran’s Writing Project: The stories that must be told

I am honored to have an excerpt from my memoir published this month in O-Dark-Thirty, the magazine of the Veteran’s Writing Project. Here is a description of the project written by the editors: “O-Dark-Thirty is the journal for the Veterans Writing Project.   Our editors curate the works submitted to this site. We have two sections. The Report is our hub. It’s where the vast majority of our work will be based.We chose the title The Report because of this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. In our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, we have seen with our own eyes, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. The Review is our quarterly journal. It will be a little tighter, more closely edited. It might have themes. It is our plan to present the finest literary writing we can find. One of the tenets upon which we built the Veterans Writing Project is the idea that every veteran has a story. This site is where those stories get told. Sure, there are other places to hear or read the stories: around the bar, on a road trip, in some other journal. But like the man says, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” This is our journal. It was conceived by and designed for, is run by, features work written by, and provides voice to members of the military community.” My story, What the Dog Understood, describes a […]

Giving Thanks: Healing and Resiliency after War

Those to whom I give thanks today. As much as we might feel alone in the aftermath of tragic life events, there are many surrounding who have open hearts.   The veterans of Alpha Company of the 2/22 Infantry Division found me by posting their words of tribute and thanks to my husband, Capt. David R. Crocker, Jr., on the virtual Vietnam Memorial wall. My reunions with them since 2006 have provided a consistent strengthening of my spirit with their stories, communications, love and support. Without them I would not have had the courage to visit the  Memorial Wall at a reunion in Washington, DC in 2008. Without them I would never have heard the stories of what a great leader Dave was until his death in Vietnam in 1969. To those people who wonder if there is a benefit to being in contact with old comrades, please don’t hesitate. Take the chance. It may feel uncomfortable, even painful, to imagine meeting people from that difficult time which many have tried to forget, but what you will find is joy; pure joy. Living through the experience of war, losing friends in front of your eyes, needs to be shared. Find your old friends from far away and embrace them. They want to provide support and comfort. Visit www.vietnamtripledeuce.org and www.22ndinfantry.org to get started and reconnect. The members of the Gold Star Wives (GSW) have battled since their formation in 1947, with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, to assure that spouses […]

Reunion: Circle of Remembrance

Dave (wearing headphones) and members of Alpha Company. My face was bathed in the scent of a potpourri of aftershave lotions by the time I had been kissed by the last guy in line in front of me. This was not a typical reunion with old friends or classmates. I hadn’t known any of these men until this moment. As they hugged me and planted friendly kisses on my cheeks, they gave brief introductions: “I’m Joe. I carried the code book for the Captain.” “I’m Phil. I was his track driver. I don’t know why I wasn’t driving for him that day.” “I’m Dick. I was one of his platoon leaders. So glad you’re here. Dave was the best CO ever.” “I’m Lon. He was my hero.” “There are so many stories we have to tell you,” they say. “He was the best of the best.” They said they had known about me in ‘68-‘69 even if I didn’t know them. My husband, Army Captain David R. Crocker, Jr., carried a picture of me in his pocket in Vietnam, and at some point he had taken it out and shown some of them; perhaps some quiet moment when they sat around eating “beanie-weinees” or “ham and lima beans” from a pack of c-rations, or playing Blackjack back at base camp. For an infantry company in the area of Chu Chi province, there wasn’t much down time.  In April, 1969, one month before Dave was killed with four […]

Grandparent’s Day and 9/11: A story of resilience

Most of us associate the month of September with the tragedy that occurred on 9/11/01. We don’t think of Grandparent’s day which traditionally arrives on the first Sunday after Labor Day.  Seldom do we consider these two events side-by-side in relationship with each other. For my friend Paula Clifford Scott, September 11, 2011, was especially cruel and poignant because, not only was it Grandparent’s Day, by chance, but it marked the 10th anniversary of the death of her only daughter and granddaughter. On 9/11/01, Juliana Valentine McCourt, age four, and her mother, Ruth Clifford McCourt, departed from Boston on American Airlines flight 11 headed for a vacation in California. Ruth’s best friend, Paige Farrelly Hackel (Godmother to Juliana) was on the second plane, United flight 175. The dream trip for mother, daughter and Godmother included the Deepak Chopra Center for Well-being and Disneyland.  Before departing for the airport, Juliana explained to Grandma Paula how she had decided which of her favorite stuffed animals would accompany her on the plane. “Bunny Rabbit can stay with you, Gramma,” she said, “he’ll take care of you while I’m gone.” Eight children between the ages of two and eleven died in the three planes lost on 9/11.  How do grandparents survive with just the memory of the tiny hands and fresh faces of their grandchildren and the knowledge that they themselves are still here, alive?  Knowing that the unspoken order of life and death – who should depart this earth before the other – has been so tragically turned upside down.  Deep sadness, rage, disbelief, guilt, even becoming physically debilitated […]

Finding words: grief and trauma in memoir

How many times have you heard, in the aftermath of a traumatic event, people who say, “I just can’t talk about it right now.” Most of us know this experience of feeling lost for words, as if the “right words” have not been invented to pinpoint the feelings. Yet,  memoirs about traumatic life experience abound these days and it raises the question of when – how soon after? – and how – what will be the structure? – of writing about the death of a parent, spouse, or sibling, or an experience with addiction, domestic violence, war, or any number of experiences that traumatize by their swiftness, or repetition over time. My feeling is that, first, the body tells us when we’re ready to write. For some, the impulse to jot down notes or keep a journal emerges during the process of psychotherapy following a life-changing experience. Others say that they began with a fictional account, a short story or novel, and then realized they needed  to tell a true story.   Whatever the starting point, it’s important to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that, while writing may help in the healing process, it takes time and reflection to be ready to heal. Some people wait a long time – decades – to begin writing. Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir, describes one example. She says, “Tove Ditlevsen’s Early Spring …was first published some forty years after some of the events it describes and demonstrates an extraordinary insight into childhood – one that clearly required many years of reflection before it could be written.”  I began writing about my husband’s death in Vietnam […]

Grief and Mercy

Two of my friends have suffered unbearable losses in recent months. Gina, age 60, married less than five years to a wonderful man, lost him to a swift moving cancer. “It’s so unfair,” she said. “His mother died at 104. I thought I might have another thirty years together with him.”  A younger friend, Mary, was six months pregnant with her first child when, on a regular pre-natal checkup, there was suddenly no fetal heartbeat. “I did everything right, ” Mary said. “No alcohol, no smoking, good nutrition. How could this happen to me? How could my baby die inside me?” Both of these women are trying to bear the consequences of love; the bewilderment at whom they are suddenly without.  How can I comfort them? There are no words that can approach such loss that lodges in the breast and stomach and feels like a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon. Or are there words? Searching my own heart and experience I remember a line from Siddartha in which Herman Hesse says. “everything returns.” When I read those words after my husband’s death in Vietnam in 1969 they felt like a key to a locked door; a map to navigate the unlit rooms of my dark sorrow even though their true meaning was a mystery to me. What does it really mean to chant ‘everything returns” over and over when it’s painfully obvious that the object of our love cannot return? Perhaps they are words of compassion and mercy for oneself. In his book describing the process of grief, Unattended Sorrow, Stephen Levine says, “…we must …cultivate mercy for ourselves, which will gradually expand into compassion for other sentient beings … Without mercy… we abandon those most painful memories within us to […]