Last Trip to Bethesda
Tim handled the treatments well with no apparent side effects. His energy was better each month. Wesley went with him for the second visit, in late February.
“How was it, with Wes?” I asked him.
He smiled happily, an inner glow making his face radiant.
“Couldn’t have been better,” he said. “We played chess in our hotel room every single night. I beat him five out of seven.”
“He probably just felt sorry for you, let you win,” I said, grinning. Wes had a heart of gold, and we all knew it.
“No! I made him promise! It was fair and square!”
He stopped and considered for a moment. “Okay, maybe it was four out of seven. I still won!”
Wes knew how to make him happy.
“And we had some good talks,” Tim said. “He may have finally come to his senses and left preaching for teaching, but he still has that compassion and wisdom in his quiet, unintrusive way. Doesn’t feel like preaching, feels like comfort, the things he says.”
I knew about that. I’d always wondered how he could maintain that equilibrium in the face of difficult problems in his own life. He had adopted Henry James’ advice , “Be kind, be kind, be kind.” No matter what.
Irene and the girls went along for the third visit, and made it a family vacation. They toured Civil War sites first, then went to Washington D.C. to see historical sites and the cherry blossoms—peak bloom was mid-April, but when the family was there in late March, the blossoms were already open, already extravagant drifts of pink and white around the monuments.
The fourth and last visit to Bethesda was all mine. We got there early so we’d have a few days to enjoy the peak of the cherry blossoms before Tim’s treatments began. Spring was well under way, and April showers alternated with sunshine. The cherry blossoms were just past their peak and ready to drop, the tiny copper-colored leaves beginning to change to a deep healthy green.
We fell into a schedule of spending the day at the NIH Clinical Center, lunch in an NIH cafeteria, back to the hotel for a nap, and dinner in a local restaurant.
Tim had gained weight through the Bethesda months, even improved his posture. He no longer appeared to hunch forward to protect some painful place. His limp was gone. His back was military straight. He looked taller.
Over lunch we decided to spend our first afternoon sightseeing. Tim wanted to see Arlington National Cemetery. Fine with me, if he wanted to walk all over hell to see a place full of dead people. It was already a warm day. We both changed clothes, me in a white sleeveless summer dress and white walking shoes, Tim’s red socks and sneakers oddly Northwest-looking with his khaki shorts and YMRA T-shirt. He’d had the T-shirt made so he could read it when he looked in the mirror. The 234th Army Band was a source of pride to him, but he didn’t always take it seriously.
We took the Red Line train to Metro Center, then the Blue Line to Arlington.
Endless rows of simple white headstones. Space shuttle Challenger memorial, with the images of the seven dead astronauts. We walked slowly along the paths, cemetery quiet. Tim was on some kind of mission, but he was silent, so I was too. I began to feel the weight of the accumulated grief of this place, the heaviness of death and loss.
John F. Kennedy’s grave, the eternal flame with a border of black soot on the stone. Robert Kennedy, his simple white cross.
More rows of white headstones. We wandered. Tim consulted the map from the Visitor’s Center and pointed down a path to a huge block of white marble and a crowd of tourists. Still silent, we walked to the monolith.
I recognized it from pictures. The Tomb of the Unknown. A uniformed sentinel stood guard with a rifle; the sun flashed blinding glints from the tip of his fixed bayonet. He made a precise ninety degree turn and marched with measured steps down a long, narrow black mat. No, not a march, more of a glide. The tip of his bayonet traced a steady smooth procession, no bobbing up and down. The sentinel couldn’t have been more than twenty-one years old. Barely old enough to shave.
We stood at the edge of the crowd and watched the guard. His uniform was perfectly pristine, without a fold, wrinkle, or a trace of lint. His walk ended with a crisp turn to face the tomb for half a minute, then another turn, a brisk movement to place his rifle on the shoulder nearest to the visitors. Another pause, then the glide back down the black mat. The cadence seemed precisely timed, a little faster than one per second. Metal heel plates on his shoes made a loud click as they came to a halt.
At that moment a uniformed Army commander strode into the plaza and announced the Changing of the Guard. Another guard in impeccable uniform stepped out of a small shelter across from us and unlocked the bolt of his rifle. The commander approached the Tomb and slowly brought his hand up for a salute.
Tim in his baggy khaki shorts and red socks slipping down into his sneakers snapped to attention, his fingers in a rigid, flawless salute.
The new guard approached the commander, who inspected his weapon with white gloves. The two then marched to the center of the black mat and all three men saluted the Tomb.
“Pass on your orders,” the commander said.
“Post and orders, remain as directed,” the duty guard replied.
“Orders acknowledged,” answered the new guard. He stepped into position at the center of the black mat.
The precise choreography and reverence of the sentinels, the way they carried themselves, the white marble tomb surrounded by a sea of crosses overlooking the slow-moving Potomac, Tim’s grim-faced salute, was a somber experience. I knew I’d never forget it.
Tim held his salute through the entire ceremony without a flicker. I sneaked sideways looks at him. I had only seen Tim in military mode with the Army Band, but those occasions were most often for show or for entertainment. I hadn’t seen him do his monthly training, drills, firing range practice, all of that. I could see by the downturn of his mouth that this was very serious business to him. I looked around. Maybe I should be saluting? Hand on my heart? This was all new to me, this military stuff. Most of the tourists simply watched in respectful silence. Only three or four men saluted.
Tim held his salute until the commander and the first sentinel left and the new sentinel began his own walk, twenty-one paces, turn and pause for twenty-one seconds, turn and pace twenty-one steps, and then repeat. I could see the formula now. Twenty-one, the number of a twenty-one gun salute, the highest honor the military can give. Only the click of his steel heels broke the silence.
Tim had very little to say after the ceremony.
“Where to next?” I said.
He unfolded his visitor’s map, turned it a quarter turn, and said, “Looks like we can get to the Vietnam memorial by walking across the ArlingtonMemorialBridge.” He pointed. “That way.”
It was a relief to leave the pacing young sentinel, the fixed bayonet, the white grave markers, the eternal flame, and pass between sturdy columns onto the wide sidewalk of the bridge. Nothing like the whitewater of Northwest rivers, the Potomac was downright sluggish.
The bridge inclined slightly upward to the center point. My feet were getting tired, but Tim’s pace was about the same as the sentinel’s: ninety steps per minute, according to the brochure. His head was thrust forward, his back straight. He was marching. Once again I had the feeling he was on a mission. I had to skip every few steps just to keep up.
Halfway across the bridge I sagged against the low railing.
“Hey, Tim, at ease, fall out, I need a break,” I said. “You’re the one who’s supposed to be frail, what’s with you, anyway? I can’t even keep up.”
His face was still as grim as the Commander’s at the Tomb.
He stopped marching and leaned against the railing with me.
“Fall out, huh,” he said. “Where’d you get that?”
I turned to watch the slow brown river pass under the bridge. “What was that little booth thing those guards came out of, anyway? It looked like one of those college stunts where they cram a lot of guys into a phone booth. Do they just stay in there until it’s their turn to be on guard duty?”
“No, stupido, that was just the entrance to their underground quarters where they get their uniforms ready.”
“How’d you know that?” I said.
We leaned in silence until I was ready to walk again. Tim eased up so I could keep pace with him. The rest of the bridge was gently downhill. We circled to the right of the Lincoln Memorial, past the Reflecting Pool, and walked down a paved path until we saw, across a lawn, the low black profile of the Wall sunk into a depression in the ground. We joined the slow line of visitors, passed the statue of three G.I.’s in jungle gear. Once again the weight of grief and loss settled over me like a heavy wet cloud as we descended into the Memorial. The high expanse of polished black granite, flowers and notes propped against the base, reflected the line of visitors like a mirror. Tim left the line and stood at a distance from the wall, then slowly moved up close. He touched a name, smoothed his hand over it, patted it. Stooped to read a note attached to a leather-bound Bible. I watched, unwilling to go deeper into the miasma of sorrow, unwilling to go deeper into my own angry, wrenching memories of that terrible war.
Finally Tim stood up and reached into the pocket of his shorts, took out a folded piece of paper and held it for a moment, then laid it gently in the shallow trench at the base of the wall.
Trudging up out of the Memorial, I asked only, “Where next?”
Tim pointed. Facing the V of the wall was another sculpture.
“I’ve been wanting to see this one,” he said. “It’s new. The Vietnam Women’s Memorial.”
I’d heard of it, the tribute to the service of women in Vietnam. We came up close and walked around the monument. One uniformed nurse cradled a wounded, perhaps dying, soldier across her lap. I wondered—was the resemblance to La Pieta deliberate? Another nurse knelt behind them next to a pile of sandbags, her eyes closed, perhaps in prayer. A third stood, one hand on the Pieta nurse’s shoulder, the cords of her neck stretched and straining, scanning the sky for a helicopter. I fixated on their mouths. The soldier’s mouth was slightly open, slack, unconscious. The Pieta nurse gazed into the soldier’s face, her mouth tender and anxious, her hand on his heart. The kneeling woman’s mouth was anguished, with large fatigue bags under her eyes. And the nurse looking for a rescue helicopter, her mouth was open, and drawn down in despair.
The miasma of desolation I had held off all day caught up with me, and I had to sit down. I collapsed onto a bench behind the statue. Tim stood looking at the limp soldier sprawled across the lap of the tender nurse. He reached into the pocket of his shorts, drew out another folded note, and tucked it under the fingers of the Pieta nurse, where her hand rested on the soldier’s heart. Then he came and sat next to me. I took in a long breath, pulled myself together.
“Tim,” I said, “I thought you were a pacifist. All those antiwar marches, joining the National Guard.”
“I am a pacifist.”
“Then why…at the Tomb…that salute…it was all so…military.”
He slid down to his tailbone and stretched his legs.
“I joined the Guard rather than be a conscientious objector, because I felt a duty to my country. But I couldn’t do the killing part.”
I remembered how he would brush an earwig out the door so he wouldn’t have to kill it.
“I asked for the Army Band, and they needed a trumpet player.”
He waved toward the black granite wall across the grass, then brought his eyes back to the limp soldier.
“These guys…they had to do the killing part, and the dying part, too.” He turned away, eyes moist. “I owe them. Big time.”
My brother, whom I had always simply seen as a pacifist, was also a patriot. He was both. Pacifist and patriot. It seemed an odd combination. I had always assumed he joined the Guard to get out of serving in Vietnam, as so many young men had done. Though, maybe that, too. It was complicated. He joined from a patriotic need to serve his country. And he felt guilty for not being in combat.
Sometimes I wondered if I knew him at all.
People walked past the memorial, stopped to look, moved on. A white-haired woman wearing shorts and a shoulder strap carryall knelt and laid her hand on the soldier’s heart, over the Pieta nurse’s hand. She saw the note, pulled it out, and read it. Held it a long time. Folded it back up and returned it to its place under the sculpted fingers. She stood up with difficulty and walked slowly away, her eyes on the ground.
“What’s in the note?” I said.
He got up and took the folded paper out from under the nurse’s fingers.
“I found it in a collection of poems. Visions of War, Dreams of Peace. It was written by a woman vet named Dusty.” He unfolded the note, smoothed it on his leg, and passed it over to me. The poem was copied out in his chicken-scratch scrawl:
There is nothing more intimate
than sharing someone's dying with them.
It is more intimate than sex,
it is more intimate than childbirth,
and once you do it,
you can never be ordinary again.
“I brought it…for them,” he said.
That was his mission. The women. The men in the Tomb. The men on the Wall. For a moment I was unable to speak.
Tim’s fingers tapped a trumpet rhythm on his thigh. He murmured to himself, “Nothing more intimate.”
I wanted to unpack this somehow—understand why he chose this particular poem. I took a deep breath in, let it out slow.
“I guess you know about that, that intimacy,” I said. “You shared Dad’s dying with him.”
“Did I? I’m not sure. Maybe I didn’t, not completely.”
“But you couldn’t have shared it completely, or you’d be dead, too.”
He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and propped his chin on the backs of his fists. His eyes were on the limp soldier. He didn’t respond, so I went on.
“The poem says you can never be ordinary again, meaning you’d be unordinary…and alive. As you are.”
“I guess I do feel pretty unordinary. But I’m not sure where to go with that, what to do about it.”
He took the note from my hands. “After sharing someone’s dying, does the person have an obligation to take their unordinariness back into the rest of their life, somehow?” he said.
He folded the paper carefully on its original crease lines. “Like the nurses did?” he said. “They were traumatized forever. Is that enough, just to be traumatized and haunted?”
Like he had been. Traumatized and haunted, walking the floor, nights.
I tried to give him another way to see it. “Or maybe not haunted but just holding the memories, how they never forget the ones who died in their arms.”
I was talking to myself, here. Something was happening between us. Either I was sharing his recovery, or sharing his dying. And I knew I would never be ordinary again, either way.
This intimate experience we were having, I knew I had an obligation to hold it forever. To live unordinary with the memory, however it turned out.
Tim stood up with the folded note. “You never forget the ones who don’t die in your arms, either. The ones who just disappear and don’t come back.”
He was talking about Dad.
He tucked the note back under the nurse’s wrist where it touched the soldier’s chest.
For his last treatment he was euphoric, bouncy, the Tim I remembered, excited and irreverent.
Chloe brought him his usual large O.J. before she removed the needles from his arms, and reminded him to stay on the bed and rest for awhile before moving around. Nurses and researchers crowded into the treatment room for a sendoff, calling Tim their poster boy. The patient in the second bed, still hooked up to her needles, smiled with a wan kind of enjoyment, perhaps hope, perhaps anticipating her own sendoff. She had the kind of post-chemo hair I had come to recognize, short, patchy-thin, curly. Brown, like Tim’s, but lighter. Tim’s hair had come in so much darker than before that it was nearly as black as Dad’s.
Tim leaned back on the high, narrow bed in the center of a circle of his fans, sucking in so much happy energy he seemed to plump up before my eyes. Lydia came in carrying a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Tim set the box on his lap and opened it. “Hey,” he said. “President Clinton’s favorite!”
He offered me a doughnut. I shook my head, distracted, my eyes on Lydia.
“Judy, you’re too serious,” he said. “You’ve got to learn how to defy gravity.”
He had already turned away to entertain the nurses. “Knock, knock.”
I pulled Lydia over by the door while Tim laughed and ate doughnuts and drank his O.J.
“Lydia, be straight with me. I need the stats.”
“How many people who go through this kind of treatment actually are cured?”
Her eyes switched to Tim on the bed, Krispy Kremes on his lap, telling jokes for the nurses.
She was going to balk, I could feel it coming, see it in her tight, close-in yellow aura.
“Can’t really say,” she said. “We’ve never used this particular protocol before, so we don’t have stats yet.”
“In general, then,” I said. “For all the experimental melanoma groups you’ve worked with.”
I knew she knew the stats. She was the one who compiled them into papers for medical journals and conferences. I had read some of her reports.
She brought her eyes back to me. I waited, holding her gaze.
“Okay,” she said. Her shoulders dropped. “They’re not good.”
“How not good?”
“It can extend a patient’s life, sometimes improve their quality of life,” she said. “But long-term survival?”
“Maybe one in ten. For two years. Longer than that…it’s rare.”
She looked back at Tim, his Krispy Kremes on his lap. President Clinton’s favorite.
One in ten. Okay, maybe one in a hundred. Or a thousand. That was still one. If one person could survive, anybody could. It was possible. One in a thousand was good enough odds. We only needed one.
Resolve and fear ebbed and flowed inside me.
Tim’s voice got louder.
“Okay, guys, now I need one last thing from you,” Tim said. “A promise.”
Laughter, nods, agreement.
“If this bugger comes back, what are you going to do for me?”
Lydia stepped to the bed and gave him a hug. “For you, Tim, we’ll always have another experimental treatment.”
Chloe followed with her own hug. “But you’re not going to need it, are you Tim?”
His eyes met mine over the top of her head.
“I’m not going to need it,” he said.