-Honoring a family member lost in WWII
14, 1945. 1900 hours
It has been twelve hours since I was notified of my next assignment. The alert came in the form that the rest of them always have: lying gently at the bottom of a manilla folder, just under the reports of patients past. So, I flipped through my folder as I always have, reminding myself of each and every one of my failures: “Jonathan Baker: DECEASED, Alexander Kimsal: DECEASED, Jacob Bergen: DECEASED.” The list goes on, for thirteen more names to be exact. Names these are, just names. At least that’s all they were until this morning. Before then, I had never taken the opportunity to learn who any of these men were, where they came from, or what they left behind. In the interest of time, I had always skipped over the dense “Bio” section at the bottom of my briefs, simply reading the information necessary to perform my procedures. But I had also never been notified of an assignment more than two hours in advance. Today I had time. I wish that wasn’t the case. I now not only know my next patient like the back of my hand, but have also now been introduced to the sixteen people who I failed to save. They deserved to live, all of them. They were good people. It’s hard to look at their smiling pictures and imagine them as I last saw them, as the closest thing I can remember to those smiles is the minute flicker of hope that every wounded soldier once brought to the table. However, that hope always flutters away, residing wherever lost dreams settle down. But maybe I can catch that hope this time; Maybe I can let it grow into something real.
May 14, 1945. 2345 hours
He lies face up, glossy eyes staring blankly past my gaze and into the artificial light that illuminates the makeshift operating table in front of me. He does not know it, but I fear it will double as his deathbed. His eyes whisper hope but his mouth screams mercy; I think to myself he is too young to go. The sweat on his gently toned muscles glistens like the three thousand miles of sea ahead of us, and even in facing the overwhelming probability of death he remains confident. His gasps of breath translate roughly to “I am proud to be an American; God bless America.” It reminds me of the day I was drafted, standing six feet tall with two feet planted firmly into the ground. They said I was stable, but I guess their definition of stable was wobbly.
My hand descends. Knife cuts flesh like the memories of past soldiers tear through my mind. I always tried to save them, but at least they were numb when they died. Now there is no more morphine. His gruesome cries ring throughout the metal halls of the ship. I stare down at my hands, which are coated in a shining layer of blood the color of freedom as they attempt to give this man the gift of life. His heart is racing, my mind is numb: Calm but unsteady. Each tremor through his body another wave crashing into my bow. But as I make my final stitch his eyes meet mine. He says nothing, but I know what he is asking: “How can you do this?” The answer is I can’t. Every stitch piercing wounded bodies removes one from the fine balance within my mind. But I have just two weeks left on tour, God help me, I’m going insane.
May 18, 1945. 2230 hours
I was promoted from Brigade Surgeon to Battalion Surgeon today. As a result I have been taken off of direct medical care; Now all I can do is give orders. My commanding officer cited my ability to see the world through “rose tinted glasses” as a primary reason. I’m glad it still looks that way. Because to me I am not not sure if that beautifully disturbing tint is truly rose colored. I spent one hour this morning staring at the painful monotony of the cabin ceiling. That is when I first noticed the reddish tint. But one look at my hands told me that this was no tint; This was a stain. The wrinkles of my palms were filled with a dried and crumbling coating of reddish brown blood. I guess unlike my hands the ceiling had been washed.
It took me a few minutes, but I eventually realized that I was the artist behind this piece: The ceiling my canvas: my hands my brush. My paint supply lies in the room above me. He is still alive, ghostly white, and on low supply I suppose. But the steady drip on my ceiling tells me he is not on empty yet. It also makes sure that he constantly occupies my mind. “Drip… Drip… Drip.” I have no clock, but this works just as well as one. Every second or so, “Drip… Drip… Drip.” I’ve become very fond of this noise. It is just about the sturdiest component of my life. I find it comforting to have something I can always rely on. However, I am afraid even this will be gone soon.
May 22, 1945. 0317 hours
The dripping has stopped. My paint supply is empty, my canvas completely colored. He still lies above me, ghostly white, eyes staring blankly upwards, but now no longer alive. Those who enter his presence will quickly understand some of his life. His wallet will tell them he had one child. A small picture encapsulated his son’s energy and charm, as well as the boy’s uncanny resemblance to his father. The boy, roughly six in age, held a full sized football in his delicate hands. Those who see the picture will be able to tell that he never let go of that ball. His father must have given it to him before he left, leaving a promise to teach him how to throw it when he returned. The child believed him.
The silver band on the man’s left ring finger will remind those who find his body of what they fear most: losing those they love. Or more accurately, the ones they love losing them. It will remind them that his wife was now alone. She won’t know for days, maybe weeks. She may even write him over that time, hoping for a response, waiting day after day by the door for the mailman to bring any sign of her husband. Until one day, a Navy representative will knock on her door and bring that sign in a box of his belongings.
The making of his bed will let visitors know that he died in pain. The bed was no longer a neatly made resting place. It was scratched, sliced, and stained in every possible way by teeth, nails, and blood. No longer did the white bed sheets cover up the frame. Now stripes of reddish brown and metallic glistening emerged from what was previously the matte black paint job of the bed’s inner framework. Just below lay a pile of broken finger nails, floating in the lake of lukewarm blood and tears that engulfed the bed’s legs. No longer did the lone pillow support his head. It was now soaked in blood and saliva, having served as a suppressor for the past seven days. It did a poor job. His screams often pierced through the floor and into my cabin, radiating through my bones and resonating in my ears. They rarely stopped. If the dripping of blood onto my ceiling counted seconds then the screams counted minutes. Never before have I been so distraught when a clock stopped ticking.
May 25, 1945. 0403 hours
I wonder what his last thoughts were. I wonder if he thought that I killed him. I wonder if his death report will say “Cause of Death: Me.” I wonder if his family knows. I wonder if my family would care. I wonder what it’s like.
The East Hampton Star: Obituaries
May 29, 1945.
At 9:30 this morning Navy Surgeon Bob Mclaughlin (24) was found dead in his home by his mother, Marge Mclaughlin. She found him slumped over his desk with a 500 mg syringe and a near empty 1000 mg glass bottle of morphine, a narcotic used to treat severe pain. An autopsy reported that Mclaughlin had nearly two and a half times the fatal dosage of Morphine in his system. Mclaughlin returned home from nearly two years of service in the South Pacific just yesterday afternoon. When asked to comment on her son’s death, Mrs. Mclaughlin remarked, “The boy who walked through my doors last night was no longer my son. I don’t know how to describe it. My son would never commit suicide. This is a casualty of war.” Mclaughlin will be buried in East Hampton at 10:00 tomorrow morning.