Glancing through my bookshelves I noticed a book entitled, The Things They Carried. This is a book about GIs who served in Vietnam and in which the author captures the spirit of the nation by the artifacts the soldiers carried into battle.
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To fix the remembrances we most value we carry or keep our favorite things. In my case, I value a 100-watt burnt out light bulb more than anything else I can think of. I will explain in a moment.
In the mid-sixties, as both Mary Patricia and I were pursuing our separate careers, we had to juggle our time to hold our marriage together and to spend quality time with our first-born daughter. As a budding concert pianist, Mary Patricia's schedule was filled with auditions, recitals, and long practice hours. To pay bills I took a break from school and got a job. We needed help-desperately.
One good day, it occurred to me that my mother-in-law -a widow for many years- who lived all by herself in a big house in Boston, perhaps should move in to live with us here in Manhattan.
"With Jim now in the Marines," I said to Mary Patricia, "she must be lonely."
"Mom misses Jim a lot." With a melancholy voice Mary Patricia went on, "I must admit she favored my brother. Sometimes I felt like I was a glass pane-that she'd look through me. But not with Jim-oh, no. Her gaze would always linger on him."
"You're imagining things," I would say to soother her. "Moms love their children equally."
Mary Patricia agreed to talk to her mom. And to our relief, Portia welcome the idea and soon she moved in with us. For fourteen precious years Portia enriched and sweetened our lives, for in my long years of existence besides my wife I haven't met anyone as noble and kind-hearted as my mother-in-law.
Endowed with an eye for colors and patterns, in her mild manner, she would suggest that I change ties, that a particular jacket or shoes were more appropriate. Never for a single day or moment did I have to worry about loose buttons, frayed cuffs, or soiled or spotted garments. Portia inspected and maintained my personal attire, just as she had with her husband's (a distinguished and famed Boston attorney).
While the war in Vietnam was raging and seemed distant to many, in our household it was a daily threat. Jim --Mary Patricia's brother, Portia's son-- was in the thick of the war. An occasional letter from Jim would relieve Portia's anxiety. But the specter of doom filled her days.
Having lost my student deferment, I had no choice but to accept a commission as a second lieutenant in the US Army. After advanced training in Fort Benning, Georgia, and Fort Lawton in Oklahoma, I soon received my orders and shipped out to Vietnam.
I came back from the war, but Jim never did.
Yet Portia never begrudged her loss. She accepted Jim's fate and his memory became a constant source of pride, for Jim had fallen with the gallantry of a true American hero in the battle for Khe Sanh. And many were the posthumous citations and medals that the Marines awarded him.
With my nerves shattered and suffering from hallucinations and nightmares, for a couple of years, Mary Patricia and Portia nursed me back to life. Like a divine angel of mercy Portia ministered to my shredded soul and body. My return to civilian life wasn't easy, and had it not been for Portia, God knows what dark impulses would have seized my feeble reason.
When I got well and started working again, Portia once again looked after me with motherly love, respect, and sweetness. It seemed to me that she waited for the hours of the day to pass so that when I came home from work, she could greet me with a cup of hot tea and cookies.
At times I felt bad for Mary Patricia, for Portia's attentions to her were not as expressive. Having grown up during the Great Depression, Portia was thrifty and not given to frivolous spending. Many a time, as I saw Portia use her 100-watt burnt out light bulb to mend my socks, I would ask Mary Patricia: "Wouldn't it be more economical if I buy new socks? In today's economy no one mends socks anymore."
"She did that for that dad. Let her be," Mary Patricia would reply.
Then one ill-starred day an incident happened that was the harbinger of bad things to come.
Hot tea and cookies on the table by my side, I watched the 6 PM news. In the next instant, Portia walks in with another tray with cookies and hot tea. An awkward moment it was, for I was just as confused as she was. Realizing her duplicate action, tears came to her eyes. Portia retreated to the kitchen carrying the tray, and I never gave it another thought until other little things started to become obvious that something was amiss.
Faced with the unmistakable facts that Portia wasn't well mentally, we took her to a specialist. The diagnosis was 'dementia caused by Alzheimer's loss of memory.'
Portia became adamant and wanted to return to Boston to live in her own house again. But she no longer owned that house, for she had sold it when she moved in with us. And since her illness was progressing at a rapid pace, we had no choice but to install her in a facility that specialized in Alzheimer's patients.
Many a weekend we would drive out to visit with her. And our visits seemed to cheer her up. But the decease advanced with unremitting force, and one day we got word that she had been taken to the hospital. We rushed there.
"Jim, Oh-Jim!" Portia exclaimed when she saw me, her eyes wide with motherly love. "You're back!"
Taken aback for one second, my initial reaction was to correct her, I'm not Jim-I'm Marc, I wanted to say. Still surprised, I turned to Mary Patricia to take a clue from her, but she wasn't about to help since her eyes were filled with tears. So I leaned over and hugged Portia and then kissed her withered and lined faced.
"That Army major said you were killed... I knew it was a mistake. Oh, Jim-my son!"
Though this scene happened more than thirty years ago, I can still feel the lump in my throat occluding my air way, slowly descending to my stomach where it hit me with physical pain as when the wind is knocked out of you. Not having the heart to burst Portia's bubble of happiness, I simply said,
"Mom," as I kissed her face once again.
Her eyes lids fluttered and she seemed to drift into sleep. But in the next instant she focused on Mary Patricia and addressed her: "Why are you crying my dear? Jim never brought a girl home before. He must be serious--he's a good boy. What's your name, dear?"
As if fatigued by a strenuous task, Portia drifted into sleep, or so it seemed. Moments later, the senior resident doctor leading a retinue of interns came into the room. After looking at Portia's chart he said, "...we're all billionaires and millionaires; the brain holds more than 100 billion neurons, but a few million will burn out affecting not only our senses, but also our memory banks."
Although the doctor kept his voice low as he went on with his ambulatory lecture to the interns, we could hear parts of it: "In advanced cases...no current cure...God's mercy."
Suddenly Portia opened her eyes, and seeing the group of doctors, said: "Doctor, Jim's back! My son is back from the war...I'm so happy--and now I can go...yes?"
Confused and bewildered by what Portia was saying, I looked at the doctor who seemed to be decoding her words. Beaming like a child with new shoes, Portia looked at me,
"Jim, remember those verses your dad used to recite and--I could never remember to save my soul? They just came to me, just now. Listen!" Clearly, I heard her say:
The quality of mercy is not strained
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath
Later that day, Mary Patricia told me that the doctor called and informed her that Portia had passed away in her sleep.
Benumbed with grief, my mind filled with impossible-to-bear-sadness, all I could think of was Portia's 100-watt burnt light bulb. Thirty years later I wonder whether the "things we carry" in our hearts and minds are more substantial than the objects we carry in our daily lives.
The writing techniques I use in this article are all explained in Mary Duffy's writing manual--an indispensable guide: