A World Apart
I think I knew, at that moment, I would never love, or laugh again, or enjoy a cool breeze or sunset at the ocean villa. I would never have a baby of my own, or fall in love, not even have a husband. For weeks, I remained, sullen on my bunk, not eating, or caring, not working, until the CO finally gave in, and cut orders sending me home with a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. I didn’t care: I wasn’t a person anymore.
As the motors of the airplane grew louder and carried me home across the Pacific, thirty years to the present, I kept reliving a dream-like scene over and over in my mind, it’s message subtle, deepening, engraving, its mark on my heart. In my mind, I saw the small procession of mourners, as they followed a small child’s casket, covered with an American flag, bathed with multi-colored flowers from the countryside of Vietnam. It sat on top of a small flatbed with wooden wheels, drawn by the yoked oxen from the field. I was there too, observing, unrecognized, a stranger among the people. From somewhere in the distance, a bell rang out, a salute, a walking tempo for the procession, which stopped to listen to the harmonic eulogy. Suddenly, appearing from the crowd, a young woman, clothed in black, her face covered with a transparent veil, asked to no one in particular: “For Whom Does this Bell Ring?” and, without warning, a faceless figure touches me on my shoulder, ever so lightly, and replies: “It tolls for thee, Maggie&ldots;it tolls for thee.”
Morning colors of sunrise appeared on the horizon, heralding a new day of light blues, crimson reds and faded pinks. While tiny stars still adorned their beauty, high tide threw waves of blue and white crashing to shore, breaking the silence of the earlier calm and serenity of the coast. The old kerosene light flickered to and fro on the windows of the widow’s peak, bringing me to reality, having dreamt of my days in Vietnam. I had been happiest as a child, here, in this old villa, filled with history and interesting things. Although my grandfather died while I was in Nam, the happiness he gave me, with fishing memories from this coastal refuge, lured me to end my life, as it had it’s root in the beginning. It is indeed fitting that I should return to the place where some glimpse of happiness had not deserted me.
Over the years the memories of my tour in Viet Nam did not dim with age, but remained an immortal sin, unforgiving and eternal. As the years passed, my homecoming to a despising nation only reinforced my beliefs about myself, for I despised me too, and of course, they were right to call me a ‘baby killer,’ even in their ignorance of how significant that specific title was for me. They didn’t know how right they were. It was time to stop the pain and accept my penance, if there was to be any salvation at all.
Raising the pistol, I quickly removed the safety lock and carefully pointed the barrel toward my temple. The cool steel against my head seemed reassuring, and I felt a little surprised that this was going to be easier than I thought it would be. But for the mirror of my deed, I might have pulled the trigger and ended my pain, but from the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of my desperate reflection in the window, and felt compelled to turn. It was then that the crumpled pieces of parchment caught my attention, only slightly visible, unobtrusively tucked between the old faded barn-boards of the walls. I heard a small and gentle voice within me say “Wait! Wait!.”
Oddly drawn to the ill-placed and carefully hidden parchments, I placed the gun on the wicker table near the lamp, and carefully pulled the wooden planks away from the wall, retrieving the stained and yellowed letters. One in particular caught my attention, and raising the light slightly, I began to read the last letter of Captain Gordon Albright to his wife, Sarah. It read:
My beloved wife,
News has reached me that you have been taken gravely ill and are in great need of my help. Upon receiving this news, I have given instructions that we should sail, and having good winds, you should see me on the horizon in a few weeks.
My dear and loving, Sarah, I regret the circumstances which have kept us apart, these last few months, and long to see your gentle face. Whatever illness has overtaken you, take great care, and resolve to live for my sake, for God does not require death of thee. Thou art my stonghold and my life, my dear Sarah. Be of strong spirits, and fear not, kind spirit, for know always that my love and thoughts are with thee.
Hear me, dear one, that our time apart has not been in vain, for I have seen many wondrous miracles in distant lands – the ungodly deeds of men who fear not the Almighty hand of the Living God. But, in you, I have found the forgiving grace of God, and shall haste my return to your side, and that of my children. Be brave, beloved, and look for my sails in the horizon. May God be with you, and watch over thee until my return.
I remain your dearest husband,
I sat quietly for a moment, hands holding the aged parchment, pondering the words of Sarah’s husband, and the gentle and loving reassurance that he gave to his dying wife.
As the soft light of morning appeared across the waves, and cast shadows of morning on the glass, I saw a figure of a small woman. Shawl pulled tightly about her frail shoulders, blushed by fever, she was standing in front of the widow’s walk windows, desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of her husband’s returning sails. I watched, still bound, as she stood there, silently for a moment, her back toward me, contemplating, then she turned to me and smiling, pointed toward the horizon. I looked in the direction of the apparition’s outstretched arm, and from the far distance, the white sails of a ship came into view, a clipper, just ever so slightly visible, across the waters. A longing smile lingered on the figure’s face as she turned to me, and, placing her long and slender hand on my shoulder, I heard her say the words: “God’s forgiving grace does not require death of thee, for your time apart has not been in vain.”
She turned once more toward the ship, this time a single teardrop appeared on her cheek, as she pointed, one last time, to the advancing sails growing larger now across the horizon. Sarah wanted to live, and for the first time since my return from Nam, nearly thirty years ago, I realized that I, too, wanted to live.
It was then that the figure of the dying Sarah left me, never again to embrace the loving arms of her husband. I sat quietly for awhile; holding Gordon’s letter in my hand, shaking a little, as I fully accepted the feeling of peace which filled my spirit. Sarah’s words of: “God’s forgiving grace”, kept passing through my mind, as a final acceptance materialized. As a Registered Nurse in Vietnam, I did what I had to do, and for that deed, God did not require my death, but offered me a never-ending hope that there is, after wall, some goodness in us all.
As I watched the sails of the ship turn toward Rockport, a new day, full of hope, filled my soul. Picking up the gun, I passed through the main dining-hall, as I had done the morning before, through the spider-webs, and dusty hall. I had not thought of my leaving the villa, but my steps, out of the entranceway, felt lighter and full of joy. I placed the pistol in the middle of the large dining table, and carefully covered it with Gordon Albright’s letter to his wife. “Thank you, Sarah,” I whispered to the old room, with its memories of life and near tragedy. “You gave me my life, and I will never forget you.”
Turning, I once again saw the familiar figure of Sarah Albright, standing tall and proud near the large picture window. This time, with grace of dignity and acceptance, she smiled, nodded quickly to the door, and disappeared into the morning light. I walked to the old pine door and pulled it open, I was filled with a wondrous new understanding of my past, and what my life could mean for the future, having left my guilt behind. I had never forgiven myself for being human, for feeling the pain, which all of us have inside when life is taken without purpose, and without meaning. Sarah, in her pain and longing, made me realize that it is in tragedy that we continue to hope, and find the will to go on. Bravely stepping across the threshold of the villa and into the sunlight, I felt the warm and cleansing rays of joy once again on my face.
Then, closing the door to my past, and finally to my time apart from myself, I took the first steps into God’s forgiving grace.