He was in his 30s, strikingly handsome with the short-cropped hair of a soldier. This was Ukraine, and it was at war with Russia. He was now part of that war, a war the rest of the world has forgotten or no longer cares about, even as its’ young men continued to fight and die in the horror that is the front-line. His unit’s chaplain asked me to see him because he recently returned, after many months, from the front. Every year he brings “his boys,” still healing from physical and emotional wounds, to see me. Having been in war myself, I could at least listen with empathy and be a source of support and encouragement.
The hatred for Russia is palpable. With Ukraine’s history under the previous USSR’s hegemony, it is understandable. Yet, this hatred is deeper, more pervasive, even soul-piercing. The death of each soldier feeds it, grows it, fuels it. 18-year-old males have mandatory service for 3 years and eventually go to the front lines, as with this soldier. He had served with bravery and distinction even though he was not a combat soldier. He was the director of music for his unit! The front lines, though, were fluid, and there was no “safe” place. Repeatedly he found himself nearly surrounded by Russian soldiers. He began to carry a “big gun” because he said, “If you are captured by the Russians, you never return.” I sat, shocked.
He spoke calmly of his experiences – a severe concussion from an artillery shell explosion, repeated shrapnel wounds, and three fellow soldiers killed next to him as they attempted to extricate themselves to a safer place. I found no evidence of obvious emotional trauma. I decided to ask how he was adjusting back home with his family. His eyes welled with tears. He said the only reason he was alive was his family. His wife and two young daughters were always in his thoughts and prayers. He had determined to survive for them at all costs.
Listening to his stories, looking into his eyes, I began to see my father as I will always remember him – big and strong, the Airborne Ranger Infantry officer he was. He, too, had experienced combat, losing many men, some close friends. Yet twice he returned home from that war seemingly untouched by it all. Memories began to surface from a place deep inside me. It was then I remembered. My father had died exactly one year ago to the day. I had been with him for those last two weeks, the memory still painful.
The tears came. I thought of my sons, now grown. Had I been there for them? How much of their lives had I missed during the years of medical school, residency, service in the Army, and the First Gulf War, building a practice, all the busyness that is life? The refrain from Harry Chapin’s song “Cats in the Cradle” came to mind:
And the Cat’s in the Cradle and the Silver Spoon, Little Boy Blue and the Man in the Moon
When you coming home, Dad?
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, son, you know we’ll have a good time then …
These words became a compass for my life. Despite missing much of my early years due to war and other assignments, when my father was home, he was present in every way. My fondest memories are throwing the baseball with him. I promised myself I would never let those haunting words come true in my life. I would do as my father did. I would be present.
I looked at him, this “ghost of my father” sitting before me, and said, “Go home, hold your wife, tell her you love her. Go home to your girls and tell them they are beautiful, they are smart, they are important,” those touching and empowering words from the movie, Help. He nodded, tears tracing his face. He reached to his right shoulder, removed his unit’s combat patch, earned at great cost and sacrifice, gave it to me, and left. My interpreter and I were speechless. She, too, was crying.
I needed to be alone – to process, to grieve? I found comfort walking the dirt roads of the picturesque village of Ostap’je, a light snow falling, dusting the newly plowed fields soon to bring forth new life.
Guard yourselves against wishing time away in the busyness of your lives, in the search for something more or better. Time is precious; time is now; cherish it. It will pass, too fast, and with it the memories into that deep place within. What you do is hard. I understand. I care. Thank you for caring as well.
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