by Thomas Laaser
The first time you try to commit suicide, and fail, you are left hollow and empty. By the third time, it’s comical. You laugh. You laugh ironically. You laugh out of pain. You’re full of conflicting reactions and emotions. The failure becomes a joke. Your life becomes an amusing victory. Laughter is the language of the soul. And by that point, after that much pain, after exhausting all forms of communication, it’s the soul that’s begging to talk.
I laugh in the van on the way to the hospital. My platoon sergeant, lanky and sinewy, sits behind the wheel. “Hang in there, man. I know it’s been rough, but we’ll get you there,” he says in his South Carolina drawl. He understands pain. Add up all of his deployments and you’d have six solid years spent fighting. Six years watching friends die. Six years a world away while his children grew. Six years of not really being alive. So when he says this to me, I laugh, my head pressed against the window, its coldness biting my ear.
The emergency room has a special spot for people like me. Just down the hall, second door on the right. Can’t miss it. The heavy door with the lock that makes a loud click. The room with the thick walls and the thick guard who looks like he’s been doing this for too long and just wants to step outside and feel the sunshine. They park the drunks, druggies, and manics here until they calm down enough for processing. Many sober up and go home or go to jail the next morning. Some stay here until it’s proven that their behavior was fueled by a substance or an event. Once the substance has burned out of their system they sit up, have some banal conversation with the nurse and go on their happy way. Very few are invited to stay. The ones who sober up and continue to burn. The ones who just quietly sob. The ones who just keep laughing, souls screaming out against those thick walks and the locked door.
Charlie the social worker makes his rounds. Dumpy, balding, cross eyed. I fucking hate his guts. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure he’s a great guy. But when you’re sitting on the cold hard slab they call a bed, your eyes straining under those humming florescent lights and your soul still shuttering from its most recent brush with oblivion, you’re not feeling too generous. “You’re a classic psychopath,” he said to me once. “You’ll tell anyone what they want to hear, and you’re good at talking.” A smug smile slid across his face. I just laughed.
They sit me in a wheelchair and load me onto the elevator. Some people go home to the sunshine. I go to the third floor. They wheel me down a hallway to an enormous door with such a complicated locking mechanism that it makes no sound. They roll me into the intake room, and by this point, I know what to do. Dog tags, boots, wallet, underwear, pants, shirt, top and patrol cap, all in one big box. I sign a paper, and the box is put in a secure closet. In place of my fatigues, I now wear a dazzlingly bright blue scrub set with blue socks and a blue ID bracelet, all in stark contrast to the hospital staff. We are marked. If seen outside that door, panic, run. Call the guy dreaming of sunshine.
Four hours prior I had been sitting on a metal folding chair under the humming lights of a different sealed room. I was my unit’s armorer, in charge of all of our weapons – five million dollars’ worth of death-making equipment, cataloged and lovingly maintained in a ten-by-ten concrete cube with a ten-inch-thick vault door to which few knew the access code. I’d spent my days here after coming home from Afghanistan. Cleaning weapons and checking equipment meticulously with nothing more than the humming light and myself. The door was never completely closed, though. I always left it open a crack. A sliver of sunshine piercing across the floor.
The M4 5.56 mm carbine is a lightweight, gas-operated, air-cooled, magazine-fed, selective-rate, shoulder-fired weapon with a collapsible stock. That is the information the Army had us memorize as soldiers; they believed it was important. What they do not have you memorize is this: if you stick the muzzle end of an M4 into your mouth, you will taste a mixture of rust, metal, and, if properly maintained, a little CLP lubricant. I happened to have one hundred and eight M4s in my arms room. I was also in charge of ten rounds of 5.56 mm bullets, in case of an emergency. I had loaded all ten rounds into the magazine and charged the weapon, sending one round into the chamber, ready to go. Why I needed to have the other nine in there I don’t know. But it felt like the proper thing to do. You’d think I’d have thought of my children, or wife, or my life in general. All I thought was, “This tastes like fucking rust.” Then my sight went black and I felt an immense pain. The metal chair crushed into my ribs and my head smacked the concrete floor. The rifle clattered to the ground next to me, unable to complete its duty. My eyes cleared enough to see my friend, wild-eyed, staring down at me in utter shock, as if the rifle had fired, and the bullet had hit him.
Now, walking down the hospital hallway, I greet Gary, an old airborne soldier who works as a hospital aide. “Back again trooper?” he asks. “Yeah,” I say. “Needed a vacation.” And I laugh.
With its stale air, humming lights, and the aroma of disinfectant, the psychiatric ward exudes gloom. Not exactly the proper atmosphere to help people cope with the realities of life. The coffee is decaf, which makes your head hurt (although rumor has it that Rudy slips in a little caffeinated coffee on Sundays). The meals are alright, but you have to eat everything with a fucking spoon. I always wondered why only a spoon, and why, after every meal, you have to line up and present your spoon to a nurse, who stands behind scratched glass, before placing it in a bin. I wondered why, until a guy named Jules showed us. On day three of that particular visit for me, the wing was locked down for an hour after Jules used a spoon to sever an artery. I sat in my room and listened to Jules laugh the whole time. A deep, hearty laugh that in any other context would make you think he’d just heard the best joke of his life. Maybe he had.
Jules’ type was standard in the ward. If standard can be used to describe such a group. Being the closest hospital to a military installation, it was no surprise that my cohort usually contained a few fellow soldiers. We didn’t mix more than we had to. By and large, ironically, we were the most well-mannered and contained patients. Many soldiers were there due to deep, deep wounds that didn’t make you manic or violent like some people. Our wounds sunk in with a pain so bad it rarely comes out, if but a chuckle. We’d stare out the window as various therapists discussed how to express emotions, productive communication skills went over rules, or just tried to talk.
We live in search of meaning. It’s not presented to us, and it’s not easy or simple to find. But we all want it, and we want it defined and contained and wrapped in a little box and put on a shelf that we can look at and open any time we want. So we search. We get jobs and families and bank accounts and cars and wear little rubber bracelets. We type #prayfor online and always add a dollar to our order when the cashier asks if we’d like to donate today. We seek for it everywhere. Some say they have it and press their foreheads to the floor. Some seek it far away, in devastated areas, healing the sick and diseased. I just walk around nowadays. I walk down streets and into woods. I walk by the ocean and through hallways. I walk with my thoughts and my soul. I seek meaning in the way the wind blows through the trees. The way the ocean seems to steal the sand little by little. I walk with my sons, their hands in each of mine, as we cross a street. I focus on their hands. The way they feel, the size and touch. I seek my meaning there, in them. Stride rite shoes velcroed over their colorful socks. Pants always just a little too short since they grow so quickly. These little versions of me, bursting out in every which way into the world. Growing and living faster than I can contain them. They walk with an airy bounce that makes our hands bobble up and down. I laugh. “Daddy, what’s so funny?” The littlest one asks. “I’m just happy.” I say, and he laughs too. Children have their meaning, you hear it in the way they laugh. You feel it in the hand that bobbles. They walk into this world full of life, bursting. It’s us who take it from them. Sometimes slowly, sometimes fast. But always we contain. Adults walk without a bounce.
“What about your children?” the psychiatrist asks. He’s met with me every day during my stay, gauging when to sign the discharge papers.
“Yeah?” I say.
“You want to live for them, don’t you?”
“Who wants this as a father? I’m better dead than alive for them.” Life felt fragile to me then, the most basic and holy things within me seeming to slip away.
“I know you care. We’re going to get you there,” he said with professional concern, a tone I don’t much care for.
When my youngest son has a nightmare or thinks he hears a noise in his room, he runs to me. His little mop top is all I can see over the edge of my mattress. He throws up his fluffy blanket and begins to tumble into it, hopping unsuccessfully onto the bed. I grab him, and press him to me. He tells me what he saw, what scared him. The scary monster was chasing him, he says. His messy hair lays across my chest. He falls back asleep and sprawls. His little blanket is much too short for him as he wriggles and expands across me. I laugh. His fears pushed aside, he goes back to being uncontained – even in sleep.
“Maybe it’s your children who have something to teach you,” the psychiatrist says, only in a less professional tone, one I find comforting.