I met my husband Terry the year following his return from his second tour in Vietnam. He had transferred from the graduate psychology program to the graduate school of social work where I was studying. Our second year in school, he and I were in field placement together in the legal clinic program of the law school. At the time I would have said I got to know him during that year. I now recognize I got to know the part of himself he thought was presentable.
My memories of Terry during that time are twofold and are opposite in nature. I would often see him in the center of a crowd, keeping the group in stitches. He could be very funny. But a third person, Janet, shared our small office in the legal clinic. This young woman had gone through a pilot program where they allowed college grads to do an intense summer of study and then join the second year of social work training. Quite rigid in her thinking, she tended to see single solutions, and sometimes quite extreme ideas to tackle problems. I often felt like “The Peacemaker,” trying to maintain some equilibrium in the space we shared.
In one particular episode, she had an elderly client assigned to her who was about to be evicted from her apartment because she had 27 cats she was unwilling to give up. Our classmate’s recommendation was to euthanize the cats. Terry was livid. Understandably, he was concerned that Janet was not a good candidate for social work for a lot of reasons, to include a profound lack of empathy. But it seemed to me at the time that his reaction was over the top. It is only in retrospect that I grasp what the killing of anything triggered for him emotionally.
Fifteen years after graduation, Terry and I went on to marry, in the wake of our individual divorces. But it was fourteen years after that, as our country went to war with Afghanistan and Iraq, that I gained some understanding of the depth of angst he carried after his experiences in Vietnam. His PTSD symptoms began to erupt at that time, with a sleep disturbance that has never entirely resolved.
Up until the Vietnam War Memorial was built, Terry kept a running mental videotape of the men under his leadership who died, where they died, what were the circumstances. In my work as a therapist, I ended up with some men in counseling after tours in Iraq. One in particular shared how troubled he was that he found himself looking at people and imagining what they would look like dead. We never know all that people carry within. Sometimes we don’t even recognize all we carry within ourselves. How important, how necessary, it is for us to offer compassion to those we encounter, as well as to ourselves.
May we be bearers of hope, the “wait staff” of Hope’s Café for each other and all those we encounter. Shalom, Kate
Hope’s Café Bonus: As Atticus Finch said in To Kill A Mockingbird: “First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”