He waits a while, then just before he lets me go, he tells me, “Besides, if we remove Newbold from the project, that means someone else would have to be in country at length, and I expect that would be me.”
This possibility alarms me. I certainly don’t want him over there, much less for an extended period of time.
“You know, I probably didn’t tell you this, but I was truly terrified of your being overseas,” I confess.
“Overseas, or in the middle of a country in conflict?”
“Yeah. That one.”
“I know you worry about my safety, but you have to believe, I take as many precautions as I possibly can. And I’m surrounded by the best fighting force in the world.”
He sounds not one hundred percent sincere, perhaps almost playful, but I’m not going to question the efficacy of the troops now versus when he served. He still supports them, despite his experience.
“Oddly, I worry about that, but probably just as much as I worry about you when you spend a weekend chopping wood in the forest without me.”
The number of occasions that this happened were just a tiny percentage, such as when I would tend to an indoor task while he worked in the sun. Or when I fished and he sawed. I smile, thinking that’s how it all began.
I walk him back to his chair, sitting him so we’re nearly at eye level. He sits facing me, probably guessing this conversation is not over.
“What really worries me,” I take my time, letting the words ooze out, “and what we never discussed before your last trip is how this is impacting you internally.”
He spins his chair to one side so he’s no longer facing me, walking to the windows and looking out towards our rising mountains. He mulls my concerns and I wait as long as it takes for him to respond.
“You’re right. We didn’t talk about that.”
I sit on the edge of his chair keeping my distance to avoid being too clingy. “Should we?”
He exhales. I cannot tell if he wants to talk, or if he’s exasperated with me.
“We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but I do want to know if I’m being naïve and not acknowledging what’s going on with you.”
He stuffs his hands into his pockets, and of course, they don’t fit. He leans his head into the glass.
“You’re not naïve. You’re not wrong.”
“I was kind of hoping I’d be wrong. I don’t want the demons of your past intruding on our present.”
As for me, my past never goes away, but I’ve spent the past three years acknowledging it, and learning how to wield the tools that keep those memories in check. Granted, not entirely, but I use the examples of my strength to reflect and see how I have moved forward from where I was even less than half a decade ago.
I think about how much I’ve grown just since I met Daniel and I am in awe that he is so at ease so frequently, but I suspect he might be better at masking it than I am.
I can tell he’s thinking, likely considering not only what I said, but to what extent those demons are hiding in his baffles. This isn’t an easy answer, so I wait quietly as long as it takes for him to formulate his thoughts.
“They’re not demons. They’re more like a polite loan shark.” This was an unusual analogy, and I was obviously curious about what he meant. “I know I owe them a debt, but they’re not always knocking on my door and threatening me. They just appear from time to time, reminding me that the debt still exists and would I please consider making a payment towards the debt.”
Somehow that makes sense, except the part about owing.
“What do you think you owe?”
He finally turns away from the window and walks towards the desk chair. I climb onto the stool at the drawing table on which I’ve been leaning so we are now both seated facing each other.
“I’m not entirely sure ‘owe’ is the right word, but I think ‘debt’ is closer to what I mean.”
“Does this go back to the fact that you came home and others didn’t?” This topic did come up periodically in our shared therapy, and I would guess even more often in his private sessions.
He crosses his arms and breathes deeply. I am correct.
“You don’t owe anyone anything. You gave greatly, and I can certainly understand your being alive feels inequitable. But we’ve been here before. You know life isn’t always fair and what brings one hero home and takes another hero’s life isn’t a balance. It’s random and being grateful is the gift you share with me and with others in exchange for whatever caused you to be the one who came home.”
“Yeah.” He spins the chair so he’s now focusing on the mountains again. His arms remain crossed.
“It’s difficult for me, and I would be lying if I said I don’t think about what happened when I was still in uniform. But what really gnaws at me when I’m there,” I presume he means on this project, “is that we’re still there, as if what others sacrificed was a waste.”
I can understand why he would feel that. I try to respond, but I expect it sounds lame.
“This is going to sound trite, but you know their sacrifices were not a waste.”
He glances over, without turning the chair away. He knows that, too, I suspect.
“I suppose it feels like my work there isn’t over. The effort I made continues. Sure, it’s a different conflict, and a different experience, and a different country, but it’s still part of my present, and it’s still a debt I am paying.”
There’s the word ‘debt,’ again. “What do you think you owe?”
He walks over to me without standing, using the chair’s wheels as an extension of his legs. “I’m still not sure, but I do know that when I was there in March, I felt like I was making a contribution; making this experience different for myself and for others.”
I look at him trying to understand the concept. It’s my time to consider his words and roll them around in my head.
“Do you think you are finding that sense of closure you never had from Iraq?”
His eyes ignite as if I just set fire to his brain. “Yes.”
He leans in and puts his arms around me tight. He tugs at my hair, as if pulling my entire body inside him. He releases me, grabs my cheeks and pulls me in for a kiss. When he releases me, he’s almost smiling.
“That’s exactly what it feels like. I’ve been trying to figure out what it is that is pulling me back there, besides the sense of loyalty I have to the troops, and my firm, and this project, but that’s it.”
“You mean in addition to the never-ending commitment that you put into everything you do?”
“Yeah, there’s always that,” he lightly chuckles. “But it’s like I’m closing a loop.”
As I listened to him express himself, I realize his voice has gotten lighter. His words are filled with enthusiasm and perhaps even relief. I came into his office because I worry he was not giving his wellbeing a fair shake, but his new tone makes me wonder if he isn’t absolutely right about going.
“You sound focused. You sound ready to go.” I, however, am not ready for him to leave. He kisses my forehead.
“Maybe not ready, but definitely resigned to it. And for the right reasons.”
I take one of his hands in mine.
“I’m sorry I intruded during your work, but I just want to make sure you are really ready for this trip.” That really wasn’t true. I wanted to make sure we were both mentally prepared for him to go. Listening to him, though, at least makes me feel assured that he feels okay about it. I’ll just have to ride along on his coattails.
“I’m so glad you did. I’ve been dreading this trip, knowing that it was inevitable. I mean, I want to make an impact, but now I feel like there is a reason for me to be there.”
“Besides the fact that you don’t trust Newbold.”
He smiles. “Yeah, I still don’t trust him, but that’s not going to change no matter where I am.”
I stand up to leave. He gets to his feet, too, but only to return to the work I interrupted.
“And Nat,” I turn back around despite being almost to the door. “But I trust you implicitly. I know you’ll take good care of yourself and stay safe while I’m gone. And I absolutely promise to do the same.”
“You damn well better, Mr. McClure, because I am not finished loving you yet.”
That smile that he makes as I turn to leave is the one that makes me love him every single day.