The summer before my grandmother died at the age of ninety-four, I returned to my hometown to visit her and other relatives, to touch the past and remind myself how it created a foundation for the future. As we talked about my grandfather, she seemed glad I remembered him with loving fondness, even though she divorced him after a series of events that left her needing more. “You got the best of him,” she said. “I’ve often thought so.”
Perhaps I did. Most of the time, I saw him at his best, the good times when he was smiling. He loved me. I remember the way he would grin down at me when he took me around the neighborhood where they lived, making stops at the dry cleaners below their apartment where he worked as a presser, the drug store on the corner, the bus barns, the grocery store and say, “I’ve got the kid today.” He meant it to sound like he was complaining but no one bought it. His smile gave the truth away. He taught me to pitch horse shoes and he was the best I’ve ever seen. He made a ringer almost every time through sheer skill. Sometimes he rolled up his shirt sleeves and filled my grandmother’s deep double sink in the kitchen full of water so we could play “boats” with several plastic toys he’d found somewhere.
On Christmas, he and my other grandfather took turns helping me open gifts and using their pocket knives to cut the tight ribbons everyone seemed to wrap around each present. He possessed a fine, dry wit and he used it with skill. He loved to joke and he knew everyone or so it seemed to me.
But he had served in the US Army, in the Pacific Theater during World War II. He was on an island called Leyte in the Philippine Islands. Unlike many of the soldiers who served in that war, he wasn’t a kid – he was in his early thirties and enlisted by choice. The younger soldiers nicknamed him “Pop” and he did his damnest to look out for them. In a strange coincidence, I called my other grandfather by the same nickname. He saw plenty of action and for the remainder of his life, shrapnel would work its way out of deep in his body without warning. It could be painful but he endured it. When he talked about the war, like a lot of men who lived through hell, he said little but what he did, painted a terrible and vivid picture.
He and my grandmother wrote to each other during the war. She was a young widow and they never met until he came home. In what always seemed like a very romantic story, an event that almost insured they would wed, when he got back, he arrived at her house in the middle of the night. Rather than wake her up, he slept on the porch and she found him there when she came outside to bring in the milk.
But he knew a darkness no one could touch. Most of the time, he remained sober but sometimes, when the terrible memories bombarded him or something triggered what we now call PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), he drank hard. When he was drunk, he changed and became almost another person. The genial man I loved so much would become a ravaged monster or so it seemed to an impressionable child. Then, he would talk about some of the things that happened in the Philippines or relive them. He also suffered from nightmares and once woke my grandmother with his hands around her throat shouting, “Die, you Jap, die.” He stopped when he awakened and was heartsick about it. She forgave him but she didn’t forget.
He tried to curb his drinking problem, one he hadn’t possessed before the war. Once, he checked into the veterans’ hospital at Wadsworth, Kansas, a huge, sprawling place dating back to the 1880’s. We visited him there and one memory stands out in my mind, stark and tragic.
We walked along a long corridor with many windows. Sunlight danced on the tiles ahead of me. Men lined those hallways, many of them in wheelchairs, missing limbs or other parts. Before we advanced, he told our family not to engage any of them in conversation and to not pick up anything the men might drop. As the bitter veterans cat-called our group, one tossed down a package of cigarettes. Forewarned, we walked around it.
As a little girl, dressed in a frilly dress, skipping along, I had always been loved by the elders. My grandparents adored me; so did the huge cast of our extended family. But on that day, some of the men made remarks about and to me. I never forgot. On that day, my grandfather was not like them but Lord help us, he could be.
I seldom saw him at his worst. The adults shielded me from that and I’m sure he was glad that they did. I was still very young when my grandmother went into the hospital for what should have been a routine operation. The surgeon botched it and she almost died. Her condition became critical and they didn’t offer much hope. During the same time, my great-grandmother, her mother, suffered a fatal stroke after some relatives told them how ill my grandmother had become.
Unable to deal with the possible loss of his wife, my grandfather went home and got very drunk. And he didn’t return to the hospital for a few days, not until he sobered up but for my grandmother, it was the final straw. She decided life was too short to live the way they had for so long and chose to divorce. Caught in the middle hurt me – I loved them both.
PTSD wasn’t even a diagnosis at the time. I’ve often thought if it had been better understood and my grandfather could have received the kind of help and helping he needed, things might have been different. When my grandmother asked my mom to let him stay with us for awhile, she refused. I wish she had. And now you know why I care about PTSD and why I sometimes write about it.
By the time he died in 1974, my grandmother had remarried to a man I never could consider a grandpa in my heart. My grandfather is buried with a veteran’s marker in a cemetery in the small town of Fillmore, Missouri. He was born and raised near there. He lies among a lot of other family members in that fat farmland, rich country where corn, soybeans, and other crops grow fine.
So PTSD shadowed my life. I could list other family members and friends who also were affected by it but won’t because I’ve rambled on long enough. I have written about many things, personal and often private, but this is one of the most difficult pieces I’ve written in a long time.
And it’s meant as an introduction as to why some of my characters suffer from PTSD. Right now, my story Will’s Way is available to download free on Amazon.com. It will be through April 4. For each download, I am donating one dollar to a very worthy project called Broken Soldiers Ranch Project. It’s a place where veterans with PTSD can go to heal and to be understood but not judged. Look it up.
Next Tuesday, my novel Devlin’s Grace will be out from Evernight Publishing. You may or may not have read an earlier publication of a first version from another publisher but this is enhanced, well-edited, and a poignant love story. The hero, Devlin, also suffers from PTSD.
Here are the links for the free download of Will’s Way:
When Marine Will Nichols returned from Afghanistan with some serious scars, he retreated from almost everything and everyone. His late night radio talk show is the one place no one can judge him by his appearance but he lives lonely. One of his regular callers, however, Samantha Callahan, manages to catch both his fancy and affection. No matter how he feels, though, he refuses to meet her because he fears she’ll reject him. But stubborn Samantha doesn’t give up easily and cares enough to take a chance because where there’s Will, there’s a way.
And here is the blurb for the upcoming Devlin’s Grace as well:
When Iraq war veteran Devlin rides his motorcycle into Gracie’s life, he’s everything she’s not, wild, wicked, and more than a little crazy. Opposites attract because good girl, college student Gracie wants more of this bad boy. She invades his personal space, takes liberties no other woman has dared, and although he struggles with PTSD, she sticks by her man. He teaches her to live a little more and she helps him battle his demons. If there’s any chance the shattered combat veteran can find his way back, Devlin’s Grace can help him find it.
Here’s an excerpt from the novel, out April 8th, where ever eBooks are bought and sold:
. “If you want to see the scars, you can see them all,” Dev said, voice harsh and hoarse.
He revealed a torso dappled with terrible raised welts, both back and belly. These scars were worse than the others. Raised red ropes twined like vines over his flesh, fused and almost melted. The agony Dev endured was beyond anything she could imagine and Gracie’s eyes brimmed with tears. They spilled over, down her cheeks with silent hurt. One glance at his face, set hard and as stoic as a statue intensified her empathy. She laid her right hand on his back, his scarred flesh beneath her touch and with her left she touched the center of his chest.
Beneath her hand his heartbeat thumped, rapid but steady. His eyes locked with hers and in them Gracie glimpsed flickers of his personal hell. Confusion showed up, too, along with regret and maybe shame.
Whatever she did or said now would be pivotal, she sensed. Based on her actions he’d either leave and be gone from her forever, something she didn’t want, or a new beginning would emerge, delicate and fragile. If she took time to think, she’d be lost so Gracie mined deep into her woman’s soul. When words came, she spoke them, her voice soft and yet as constant as the evening stars. “Oh, Dev, it must’ve hurt so much.”
“I don’t want your pity,” he said, a snarl transforming his face into something wolfish, alien. “Don’t feel sorry for me, babe. I don’t need charity and I sure as hell don’t need you to tell me some dumb ass feel good bunch of shit. So quit crying over me. Maybe it makes you feel better, but it makes me mad.”
“It isn’t pity,” Gracie told him. “I admire you. It takes a lot of courage to overcome hurts like this. I hurt for you, but I don’t feel sorry for you. I hate you had to go through such pain, but I’m crying because I care.”
His hard face softened a little. “Why?”
In this raw moment, she could give him nothing but honesty. “I don’t know, but I do.”
Then Gracie leaned forward and bent just enough to touch her lips to one of the ugliest lesions, the worst of the scars. He shuddered as she kissed his chest and when she lifted her tear streaked face, Devlin grasped her arms. He held her in place and kissed her back, full on the mouth, without remorse or mercy. Gracie gasped with surprise. His lips burned hers as if she kissed a devil fresh from the pit, but she liked it. Her body answered his call and her arms moved to circle his neck as she gave him back the kiss.