For Tim O’Brien, who struck without warning
I had to read the first chapter of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried this January, and it wasn’t even from his novel but from Alice LaPlante’s Method & Madness textbook for creative writing. It was an assignment, just another one I had to complete before Monday. On a Saturday afternoon, I laid down in my bed and read the words on the pages. I was entranced by the writing style, but several pages in, the words began to take a different shape behind my eyes. It was like when someone plays a cruel joke on you, yet as it continues to happen, you realize it isn’t a joke at all, just cruelty. The shapes came in the forms of the dead, in their names written on papers, prescription bottles, or spoken between paramedics and medical examiners in hushed tones.
I have a visual memory, but some things I can bury. As I read the first chapter of The Things They Carried, though, Tim O’Brien’s words uncovered what I did not want to remember. I relived my hands holding broken necks, cold jawlines, clammy skin, the scent of crimson blood and Clorox cleaning wipes, and all the chaos of being on scene of a traumatic arrest.
The next day, I went to work. I pulled Method & Madness out of my backpack and set it on the dining room table in a place I’d learned to associate as a surrogate home. I looked down at that book, my pencil bookmarking the beginning of that too-close-to-reality-tale, but I couldn’t bring myself to crack it open. I sat down. I listened to my paramedic, Faith, who I didn’t hardly know at the time, tell my other partner, Kevin, all about grief, PTSD, and death. She was a veteran; she’d killed people, saved them too. She was allowed to talk about these kinds of things. I sat behind her recliner, staring at the cover of Method & Madness, and thinking about how ironic life could be.
An hour later, I was driving the ambulance around the obscure roads of Orangeville, doing something we called “Road Review.” We started at the fire station, and we were destined to end there, too. Five minutes away, though, we got called to a gunshot wound. The address was only minutes from the fire station. Ironic, I thought, as I drove ten or twenty over the speed limit. Things came full circle, I would think later. Ted Lavender died in the Vietnam war, and this man, he used to fly the choppers that carried the dead out of the field. Full circle.
On scene, it was like being in a dream. I kept telling myself, “Look at his chest; look at the bullet hole.” But like a dream, things kept happening, getting in the way, and even though I was right in front of that body, I never actually saw the hole he put in his heart.
Minutes later, I was standing on the other side of the yellow caution tape. There were MFRs there too, people who I didn’t know. There was one I kept glancing at. He reminded me of Don, my old-regular partner, who I missed so much—we didn’t work the same shifts anymore. I guess this man was the fire chief. I stared at him and wished he were someone else. I wondered what Don was doing that Sunday afternoon. I wondered if he went to church or if he took naps at home. Thinking about this was less painful than looking beyond that yellow tape and wondering, How could he do it, his own heart? Did he leave a note?
Afterwards, Kevin and I were parked at Orangeville FD station. Faith was inside, touching base with the MFRs, who she knew outside of EMS. I was in the passenger seat, counting the dead bugs smearing the windshield with my eyes. Trying not to think, I suppose, but you can will yourself not to and still have all the thoughts in the world.
Kevin was telling me about the bullet hole. “It looked exactly like something out of Call of Duty.”
“Really?” I wasn’t much of a gamer. This was also when I realized I hadn’t actually seen the wound. I hadn’t seen his face either, though I had been inches from it, at one point. I wondered if I had suppressed the memory or if I had actually just not looked.
“How many dead bodies have you seen?” At the time, it seemed an appropriate thing to say. I’d known Kevin since Kindergarten, but I guess that had nothing to do with anything.
“Six or seven,” he said. I remember he was grinning. Not because this admission pleased him in some sadistic way, but because that’s what adrenaline and death and blood did to you sometimes. It made you smile through some of the worst situations. It was a mechanism for coping. I never questioned it.
“Six or seven?” I asked, somewhat incredulous. How didn’t he know the exact number? I could list mine off in chronological order, name by name.
After that day, it got worse, the remembering. And I would think about Ted Lavender and Jimmy Cross and Tim O’Brien and I would hate The Things They Carried for unlocking all the emotions I didn’t want to feel. Sunday night, I went back to my dorm at Kalamazoo College, and I pretended my biggest complaint was the cafeteria food. When I was alone in my room, I was never too far from a box of tissues. Oh, I cried more than enough for my lifetime. Why? I really couldn’t say. My best friend from high school used to talk about needing to “have a good cry.” As if she could feel the toxicity building up in her body, and the tears were her medicinal release. That never described me, but from January to March, that’s about all I felt like doing. I kept it to myself, drowning myself in chemistry calculations, composing desperate letters to colleagues in my head at night. Long story short, that was the Ted Lavender Effect.
It’s July now. I’m out of school and working the same, self-destructive hours. But I love my job. The other day, I saved a life. And the other week, I held one in my hands, hoping and wishing it wouldn’t slip away. That’s just how it goes, I guess. The day after that cardiac arrest, my body was sore from doing compressions on her chest. But I didn’t want to be reminded, so I went into the basement, picked up two, twenty pound dumbbells, and laid on the bench for an hour. Until my muscles were sore for different reasons.
Two days ago, I started reading The Things They Carried in its entirety. It still has adverse effects. It’s someone else’s tragedies, but the words, they mimic my memories. I will keep reading, though. I don’t want this book to beat me.