Almost everything I’ve read on pilgrimage says that preparing for the pilgrimage is part of the journey. There have been times in my life, however, when I haven’t prepared, when what started out to be a vacation or just a trip became a doorway to another dimension.
For example, it’s April 1987, and my wife Mary Lee and I are in Washington, D.C. visiting her cousin Peggy and sightseeing. We turn a corner somewhere around the Lincoln Monument and find ourselves beside a black granite wall. In the midst of the noisy city, I’m suddenly in a cloister of quiet. Maybe twenty-five people are walking slowly along the wall in silence. Many reach out tentatively to touch the wall, or trace one of the names engraved in stone. Some are weeping. A tall man with a white beard stands to one side, his arms wrapped around himself, as if holding himself together. His face is like marble. He does not move the entire time I’m there.
Obeying some kind of call I don’t understand, I walk down the cobblestones in front of the wall to the book that tells me where to find the name of my high school classmate, Bobbie Boyd. By the time I identify him—Panel 27E-Line 98: Robert White Boyd. 1LT-02. Died October 13, 1967—I am overwhelmed by the almost 60,000 names of those who died in the Viet Nam War and by my sense of guilt over how hard I worked the year Bobbie was killed to parlay a congenital back deformity into a 1Y deferment. Placing my hand against the polished black stone, I feel the solidity of the wall between those of my generation who served in the military and those who didn’t.
Thirty years later, I’m still on the other side of that wall. When the guys in the men’s group I go to who served in Viet Nam talk of their experiences, I shrink in shame. I wonder how much of my continued back pain is due to guilt rather than deformed bones. Still, I know that those who served in Viet Nam suffer far more than I for being on their side of the wall. Some guys talk about returning to the US after serving their country and being yelled at, spit upon. Several talk about depression. More Viet Nam veterans have now died by their own hand than died in combat, the result, many people think, of the way our society shunned them. And in his book Tribe, Sebastian Junger points out that since Viet Nam, the problem for returning soldiers has become even worse because more and more people in our society don’t want to acknowledge the ruthlessness and aggression needed for combat.
A year and a half after visiting the Viet Nam Memorial, I found myself on the other side of another wall when my eighteen-year-old daughter Laurie died of cancer. I’ve written in earlier blogs about the isolating effects of grief. Certainly much of my isolation, especially my guilt, was self-imposed, but, as I’ve said before, even the most sociable parents find themselves isolated in their grief. Most people, at least most people I’ve come in contact with, don’t want to think about what it’s like to have a child die. Oh, they’re happy enough to read about parents who are raising money for scholarships in their child’s name or who are planting trees or building memorial gardens. They enjoy hearing stories of dying children cracking jokes or comforting their parents. Our society loves to hear of heroic struggles, determined resilience in the face of death. My experience has been that what society doesn’t want to hear about, any more than it wants to acknowledge the brutality of combat, are the sleepless nights, the irrational anger, the self-medicating, the tears, the shame. Even close colleagues and friends who are sympathetic at first can become impatient after a year or so. “Get over it,” I’ve been told. “Lighten up.”
My clearest memory of the wall between those who grieve and those who don’t comes from December 23, 2000. I know the date because it was the twelfth anniversary of my daughter Laurie’s death. That night I sat at a card table in the middle of the Maine Mall with Mary Lee, selling CDs to benefit the Jason Program, which provided pediatric hospice services for terminally ill children and their parents. Some of the artists on the album were performing in the circle where two of the main arteries of the mall come together. As the Christmas shoppers flowed by—teens in their oversized pants and undersized tank-tops, the guys in their baseball caps and leather jackets, the families, the occasional older folks looking tired and lost—they swerved, as if being jolted by an electric fence, when they saw the poster promoting the Jason Program, which featured the picture of a little girl (I can’t remember her name, but she had already died of cancer before the CD came out) in a bright red hat picking flowers. No matter where I placed the poster, it was as if there were a wall about five feet in diameter around her. Even people who bought CDs or made a donation to the Jason Program stayed away from the poster, as if the little girl’s cancer were a communicable disease.
I have no clue how to tear down these walls, either between society and the increasing number of soldiers returning from duty with PTSD, or between those who mourn and those who don’t. The only thing I do know is that Robert Frost was right when he wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Walls, it seems to me, are the result of our baser instincts—certainly mine, and probably society’s as well: guilt and shame, anger and envy, selfishness and fear—what psychologist Carl Jung called our “shadow side.” Jung advised his patients to recognize and acknowledge that we all have our shadow side and then work to overcome it. The Viet Nam Memorial was built in part to both acknowledge and tear down the walls between veterans and the country they felt they were fighting for. Organizations such as Compassionate Friends and Maine’s Center for Grieving Children (unfortunately, the Jason Program is no longer in existence) continue to work to raise awareness of how grief affects not just those who are suffering the loss of a loved one, but all of us.
I have to add that I, who usually avoid talking politics, can’t for the life of me see how building a wall around part of this country is going to do anything but give in to our shadow side and separate us even more than we already are. I spend enough time trying to climb over the walls we—and I’m as guilty as anyone else—have already erected. I don’t need another one, thank you very much.