I wrote this paper in the fall of 2004 for a Short Stories class. I really struggled with this assignment. I had yet to reconnect with who I was. This was a particularly painful period for me and it shows in the writing. Warning: This is some very visceral and raw writing. If you are easily disturbed, please read when you are in the right frame of mind!!
The metallic tang of blood clouded the pavement like a thick fog. Rising bile is swallowed down as eyes are drawn inextricably to the red-black blood pooling under the wounded and dying. Glistening wetly in the moonlight it slowly flows in tiny rivulets away from them to collect in the dust on the sides of the road. An old man groans weakly reaching out for help, skeletal fingers arched in what can only be excruciating pain. His right leg is bent at an unnatural angle from the middle of the thigh down, held together by the smallest strips of skin. Hunks of muscle and chips of bone float in the blood squirting from his femoral artery. Strands of muscle twitch feebly contracting and relaxing, making the wounded leg pulse with a life of its own. Hands reach out to stuff a bandage in the wound and to apply pressure until the medic can get there to clamp the artery.
The medics relieved me and I looked wearily down at my hands and uniform. Bile rises up once more…I think I hear the choppers coming.
Bothered by memories I can’t shake, it has been hard to find something that I can write about. Everything I think about causes my mind to return to those horrible memories. Ever since we received this assignment, I have been searching in the archives of the KU library for some literary criticism that would spark my interest and divert my mind from less pleasant thoughts. After days of looking, I became ever more frustrated with the tired, old, boring criticisms available in the library. It was at this point that I decided to look online via other channels than the library mainframe. After two days of searching websites, I found the official Updike webpage. The website is a veritable gold mine of reader commentary written by the average, everyday people who have read his works. I had finally found something that I could relate to and delved deeper into the website. I found a very touching story that has changed my view of Updike’s writings. For the sake of expediency, I chose one reader commentary that really hit home with me. The commentary was written by Christopher R. Brochon.
I had the dreams again last night. Afraid to go to sleep, I decided to occupy my mind by reading and rereading the commentary by Brochon. I found myself compelled to go back and read A&P (Fiction: A Pocket Anthology, 3rd Ed. R. S. Gwynn. Penguin; New York, 2002 ed. pp. 297-303) all over again. It still seemed superficial and trite. I began to become frustrated that I couldn’t see what resonated so heavily with Brochon. I returned to the website and read his commentary again. This time, a few things jumped out at me and I concentrated on those things that Brochon had written. Here is what he wrote:
“My father died when I was nine and I closed myself off to most of my family as I tried to understand why he had been taken away from me. I began to question everything that I was raised to believe in, as I charged up the proverbial ladder of guilt to place the guilt in Gods lap. During the year of my life for 9 to about 18, I fully trusted only one man; Dick. He was a very close friend of my fathers, and he was the most intellectual person that I have ever known. It was he who, during those most troubled times I turned to for answers that made sense…Among the many works of classic literature and philosophy that I read during that time only of the few fiction authors was John Updike. The first book of his that I read was Couples. I was enamored by how on target he was about all things. The way people spoke. The way they tried to hide from commitment, not just to others but to themselves. But mostly I could always find a character that I could relate to, be it a book, or a short story.”
I think that these lines portray the deep, emotional impact that Updike had on Brochon. Concerned that I still couldn’t see what Brochon did in Updike’s writings, I took a break for a few days to let my brain cool down. I hoped that taking a step back would help provide me with a new perspective on what I had already read multiple times.
The old man has finally been stabilized enough to transport. The medevac grabs his feet. Hands dark with blood and grime reach out and slide underneath the old man’s shoulders.
The right hand is suddenly warm and wet, enveloped in the pulsing of a weak heart beat. Reflexively, the hand jerks back
Eyes jerk away from the old man to the hand. With a quick jerk, the bits of muscle and viscera clinging to the hand fly to the pavement with a wet splat.
Jerking awake, I scramble from my sweaty sheets. Sobbing, I run to the bathroom and scrub my hands under hot water until the blood is gone and that horrible metallic smell dissipates from my memory…
I think I have finally come to realize what has blocked me from gaining insight from Updike’s story: fear of making a personal connection with the characters in the story. Ever since I got home from Iraq, I have felt disconnected from everything and everyone in my life. After all that I had been through, I had cut myself off from the emotions that allow me to relate to others personally and truly experience the wonders of living. Determined, I read the story again replacing scenes depicted in the story with experiences from my own life. The story began to take on a whole new meaning for me.
Yesterday was cathartic and exhausting. I discovered many things in Updike’s story and I now understand why his writing resonated so profoundly with Brochon. I had forgotten how good it felt to feel that way. I remembered the first time I stood up for something that I believed in. Looking back, making that stand had an exceptional effect on how I acted from that point on. I had come to the conclusion that standing up for what I believed in had to be conscientiously pursued. I could not stand by as a spectator anymore and watch the world pass me by. It truly galvanized my will and determination. Every time I stood up for something I believed in, I felt liberated. I began to look around me and explore every source of knowledge that I could get my hands on to better understand what I believe and what ideals I represent.
For the longest time, I had been so caught up in all of the horrible memories of what happened to me in Iraq that I had completely forgotten how to live, how to feel. I had lost my identity in Iraq. I came back an empty husk of the man I was before. Needless to say, this scared me witless. How could I have been so blind? How could I have let myself forget everything that makes life worth living? Brochon lost his father and lost sight of himself for nine years. I do not want that to happen to me. I do not want the next few years of my life to be bereft of meaning. I am making myself this promise: Every day, I will remind myself that I am a part of the here and now. I will not forget what I have been through, but I will not lose sight of who I am or where I am going ever again.
Thank you, John Updike. Thank you for helping me see past the black and white photograph. I can see the simple, yet beautiful brush strokes of life that surround me every minute of every day for the first time in well over a year. I had forgotten how wonderful life can be.
As I continue my life with PTSD, I will share my challenges and discoveries on this blog.