In my hometown, the less there is to discuss, the more impassioned the discussions. This is true at gas stations, in school parking lots, in hair salons, in every place where people huddle and clot except the Veteran’s Administration Hospital.
At the V.A. Hospital, words are held in reserve, marshaled for unknown future action.
We visit the vets to honor them. We pronounce each name aloud as if part of a liturgy. We sing songs, play piano pieces, and attend to geographic details in their personal histories. We intend to offer hope, although the vessel which bears hope is usually nothing more gilded than a story, a vignette from outside the handsome red colonial brick walls.
When we arrive, the administrator’s smile chloroforms us.
“There will be two separate holiday performances for two separate groups of vets,” she drones.
I try to speak, joke— I didn’t realize the demand for carols was so high.
“No, it’s not a logistical issue.” The administrator assures me they have all the space they need. The bad joke rolls like a penny across the glossed floor.
The caroling needs to be divided because the recent vets refuse to share a room with the Vietnam and Korea vets. That is all she can tell me. Words are held in reserve, held back like reserve troops, not wasted on minor explanations. I imagine a massive aluminum tank bubbling with abandoned verbs, the gradual condensation of past tense.
Since our visit is divided according to wars, I begin to mark off each carol as a particular battle. Each song one breath closer to victory. There are no losses in our vocal battles because we have nothing to lose whereas they have already lost the things they hoped not to lose. Independence sounds abstract but aches like a concrete pillar pinning a foot in place.
My son performs a piece he composed especially for the vets. The piece is named “V.A. Vets’ Carol”.
A ward asks if he can’t play “Carol of the Bells” instead, since most vets prefer familiar, popular tunes to personal ones. There is so little we can offer these men and women that does not feel intrusive or privileged.
Be polite, I remind the kids between carols.
It is unclear whether I am referring to the sudden jumping jacks or the burgeoning impulse, the ongoing spontaneous impoliteness, that burning flame of childhood that runs and bumps and jumps and finds occasional release in a string of why why why whys. I worry their actions might be misinterpreted.
Neuroscience studies have shown social anxiety to be an entombment within first person— an inability to adequately hear or see other human beings. Jokingly, a researcher said the cure for this anxiety-induced lack of empathy might be as simple as good manners. The researcher was kidding but the truth isn’t funny.
The truth is a web of over-taut nerves which threaten to snap. I fear that my words will cause harm; that my nouns will turn against me; that my children will sell me to the hospital administrators. Selling information, after all, is as natural to them as withholding has become to me.
I don’t remember being innocent enough that my words caused unintentional hurt. My empathy deficit widens to include my children alongside the silent, smiling veterans.
Thank you for….—and I’m not sure how to finish after making eye contact and realizing the man cannot see me. He is blind. I am a voice drifting through the room to thank him for his service and this phrase suddenly feels vulgar and ominous. I am a conventional arrangement of meaningless platitudes floating past. I am a hallucination. Mostly, I am so very very sorry.
Ten feet away, my son chatters about heirloom seeds with an elderly female in a wheelchair, her silver hair bobbed into a sleek helmet. She is beautiful. She is resilient tomato stalks pummeled by southern rain. She is still standing— despite the wheelchair.
The heart stutters, bats its wings against a closed window, when I overhear the words protest and pacifist coming from Max’s lips.
It is over. The moment has arrived. I will be unmasked as the traitor who carried cardboard signs with the words Not In My Name painted in black tempera. Every eye in the room will turn to erase me.
A nurse will speak firmly when she asks me to leave.
The firmness in her voice will be thick and unyielding as a druid oak root.
Veterans will rise from their chairs and raise their fists in anger and fury.
I shoo the hummingbird in my heart away, tell it to settle down. Slurp soda water. But the drum in my head leaves me deaf.
The vet who resembles Ursula K. LeGuin motions to me, “Come here”. Here it comes. Finally. My son flaps his hands and continues speaking.
I smile, my name is Alina.
The surface of the heart is silent but the not in my name by now marches to its own underground drumbeat. As it always has. As it will continue.
“Your son says you’ve had a rough year,” she says hoarsely, a soft grin easing the corner of her lips upwards, a genuine expression of a school teacher’s retired sympathy. She is not what I expected. A fellow-veteran of American female-ness. A rebel, I imagine, to have served in the military so long ago—back before females were officially acknowledged.
“WWII,” she explains. “I was telling your son about flying old aircraft. He said you were a feminist.”
Did she use the f-word? What is familiar for us— a word still forbidden.
She isn’t going to confront me. Her name is Margot. She’s happy to make my acquaintance. She believes we have something in common.
I don’t know if she got the whole story.
“I told her about your tinnitus, mom.” Max leans against my arm, confident, the ghost of Howard Zinn between us.
Margot nods, her squint resembling the fruit in a bowl of cereal. “I’ve had tinnitus since my thirties. Other mothers didn’t understand. It made me feel lonely. And different.”
Does it ever go away? I want to pretend I didn’t ask. To erase my silly question and the silly flower-skirted face of me.
Margot shakes her head. “Tinnitus lasts longer than most marriages these days. It’s a very faithful friend.”
We have tinnitus in common. But the other mothers could never understand—they weren’t vets were they?
Mar-got. I tender her name like a tiny mollusk still attached at the center, a fragile mystery I can’t bear to break.
“They weren’t vets…” That smile again. Only now do I notice her hand trembling. The expression on her face, nonplussed, says they’d been trembling all along.
“Are you a vet?” She asks in earnest. Her face is a tapestry, a splendid map, and I am only just now beginning to read it.
“No, I’m not a veteran. I’ve never experienced war. Or combat.” I fight so many colors of shame.
Margot’s face lights up. “Oh, you’re a veteran, alright. Your son says you homeschool. And that you have tinnitus. And that you’ve brought that kids with you. To protests.”
The moment has arrived— brighter, more blinding than I could have imagined.
My son had told Margot about my involvement in the Fellowship of Reconciliation. About the protests against war. And Margot is still smiling without a hint of anything hidden below the surface. Looking at me as if she’s not afraid to read the whole story.
Her eyes honor me.
The honor of her eyes is relentless.
She honors me with her eyes until the word changes colors and honor becomes a word that has everything to do with seeing one another outside our social anxieties and comfortable scripts. On this trembling, quake-prone ground, a child’s earnest impulse is the true one. Looking back, I can’t see anything else.