Accepting Survival

I was speaking with someone today – we’ll call her Laura – about writing as a cathartic and healing experience. Laura was afflicted with ovarian cancer. I volunteered for a war. She didn’t ask for her affliction, but I did ask for mine. Nevertheless, we are both survivors.

Laura wrote a book about her successful struggle against cancer. She found the act of writing, getting it all out of her head and onto paper, an integral part of her healing process.

Although I have written, and continue to write, about my part in the Viet Nam War, its effect on me and others, and how I see it now, years later, I’m not sure how cathartic and healing writing about it has been for me. It’s been good to talk about it, and to write about it, that’s true. Catharsis, though, is a process, not an event, and for me the process continues.

Each time I write about the war, each time I return to the places where I lived and almost died – places where many others did die – my writing about it continues and the process of healing advances a bit more. But there’s no arrival point. There’s no final destination, at which you step off the train and find yourself in a new country; quiet and happy, untroubled by dreams and memories.

That place does not actually exist. Just as catharsis and healing are each a process, so is loss, and all those processes exist side by side, in a wavering dance that goes now forward, now back, then forward again.

Being in a war is like losing a child to a horrible disease. The difference is that you are the child. You can never fully recover from that kind of loss. You can help the pain diminish over time (or you can hold onto the pain and loss, as if that will make it all better). You can try to understand what happened. You can try to explain it to people who never had children or who never went to war. They will never fully understand, though, and neither will you.

At this point, forty-five years on, acceptance seems to be about the best I can hope for. Acceptance of what happened. Acceptance of what was done to me. Acceptance of what I did to others. To whatever degree that acceptance brings me some measure of peace, I am thankful. But the memories, the regrets, the sadness and the anger, and the adrenaline rush of missing death by inches or seconds, all that will always be with me. I will never be able to talk enough or write enough to lay it all to rest. That’s what I have to accept.

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