It is so cold that the snow, devoid of any moisture, crunches under my boots like dry sand. I am seven years back from my second tour in Afghanistan, and yet the sensation still reminds me of my time in the Registan Desert. Parts of Afghanistan are, if not verdant, at least arable. But most of my time there was spent in the dry places, and I remember there was an area in Kandahar Province that had sand that made a zipping sound when you walked on it. Walking on that sand I remembered when I was a kid my mom brought me and my brothers up from Boston to Singing Beach on the north shore, so named because the sand whistled under your feet as you walked on it. Childhood memories were welcome far from home fighting in a foreign land. But now walking in the park to go sledding with my six-year-old daughter Carly and our rescue mutt Daisy, this memory of the desert sand is not welcome. You see, I know there’s a tripwire in that sand, and if I’m not careful and step on it, the explosion might blast me back to the desert, to my days as a combat medic; might airlift my brain right out of this peaceful, quiet park to the dust and squalor of Kandahar.
Despite the frigid air, child, dog and dad are all desperate to get outside. It’s Christmas break during a global pandemic and there hasn’t been school in person for months. The cold has been breaking records, and our kids have been going stir crazy, housebound for days, not to mention Daisy, who uncharacteristically chewed up one of my wife Lucia’s shoes. Yesterday was a snowstorm, today clear but colder, with the type of bluebird skies you’d see almost every day in Afghanistan, bright with blinding sunshine. Our older son David has the virus, and although he isn’t terribly sick, the worry that his symptoms may worsen and that he might infect the rest of us, has been all consuming. The rest of us are in quarantine. I’ve been home from my job as a paramedic, a mixed blessing, as I’ve seen too much death these past months and need a break. On the other hand, I’m not built to be stuck inside and my anxiety is building. So, we bundle up, put on our masks, and grab a sled from the garage.
The park is all but empty this early in the morning on such a cold day. We take our masks off, stuff them in our pockets and make our way down through the woods following well-trodden paths. The dog is ecstatic, bolting off in random arcs that always cut back to us, letting her nose hang low to nip at the powder. The bright sun hits the snow that clings to the uppermost boughs of the tall pines, warming it and causing the branches to bend enough that the snow lets go and falls in sparkling showers. Carly wants to stop and look at the “snow faeries” floating down around us.
“C’mon, let’s keep going,” I say.
“But Daddy, look!” she says spinning around to see it all.
Her excitement overrides my restlessness, and I remind myself that this is good, this is what I’ve been taught by the VA therapist, to slow down, be in the present, tune in to my surroundings. As I watch the glittering snow, I’m reminded of a trick one of the guys in my squad taught me. Luke was from Wyoming and grew up hunting. He told me when searching for mule deer in the short-grass prairie near his home, he learned to soften his focus and observe the entire landscape all at once. In doing so his vision would pick up movement that otherwise might go unseen if he had focused on just one point in front of him. He would use that technique on the battlefield as well, picking up the glint of a rifle in the distance. I try it now, and as pine bough after pine bough near and far release their snow in puffs of crystals that light up when they enter a shaft of morning sunlight slanting at an angle through the trees then darken again, for a moment the anxiety that has been my constant companion abates. We stand not speaking for a while. Then Carly laughs and starts chasing the dog. My mind returns to Luke and the last time I saw him, lying on the ground bleeding out into the dirt.
This is what my mind always does. It isn’t content to allow me to simply be in the present, to enjoy a peaceful moment in the woods with my daughter. It hijacks these moments when it sees an opening, a cruel opportunist, and transports me to a bloody roadside ditch or the rubble of a destroyed village. I’ve begun to wonder if these thoughts will ever stop, or if I’ll always have to fear my own mind like a foot soldier fears a sniper. And I wonder if the choice I made to enlist as a Navy Corpsman was a mistake. It wasn’t preordained that I’d go into the military. No, it was a decision born in snow and fire, baptized by blood and whiskey, and confirmed by Saint Paul himself.
When I was seventeen and a senior in high school, I straddled two social worlds — the kids who were going to college and the kids who were going into the military. My parents hadn’t gone to college, but I wasn’t the child of a veteran either, like some of my friends, and I didn’t know which direction to go in.
One night I was drinking beers in the woods around a bonfire. By senior year of high school, most of our peers had moved on to house parties on a typical weekend night, but for a group of us that felt like misfits, we preferred to be outside. It was the night after Thanksgiving and all the guys that were a year or two ahead of us and had left town were back, stopping by our bonfire next to the train tracks mostly for nostalgia and only staying for a beer or two before moving on. It was mostly guys, standing around in the freezing cold, a light snow falling on the already accumulated snow on the ground, flattened down by our work boots. Those of us who were still in high school were being regaled with tales of college debauchery as we drained cans of Bud Light and threw the empties into the flames. One guy, Paul Garza, was back from Fort Sam Houston and had just finished training to be a Navy Corpsman, the group that serves as combat medics to the Marines. I remembered him as kind of a wild kid all through school, long hair, always high, and quick to fight. Now his hair was a tight crew cut and he had a different vibe, a kind of self-assurance verging on benevolence about him.
As he was telling me about his experience in sweltering Texas, we could hear an argument heating up between Freddy Hurd, who was a linebacker on the varsity football team and Tim Dean, a small, wiry kid who had gone on to neither college nor the military. He was a townie in the sense that he never left town and probably never would, but also in that he worked for the town’s Department of Public Works, and you’d see him around in the bright yellow DPW trucks landscaping a traffic island or emptying out trash barrels at a playground. He was a natural athlete, yet never played varsity sports, and attended just enough classes to get his diploma. Tim threw the first punch, landing on Freddy’s cheek, but Freddy’s counter broke Tim’s nose with a loud pop. He went down, blood streaming out of his now crooked nose staining the ash-flecked dirty snow red. Freddy’s friends stopped him from jumping on top of Tim, who they then hoisted up by his arms and shoved in the direction of the train tracks where he walked off alone, swearing at them into the darkness.
Fights left me feeling nervous and excited. A fight supercharged the energy around the bonfire — we drank harder, laughed louder, ribbed each other more mercilessly, and the line between fun and another fight got precariously thinner.
Freddy’s adrenaline dumped and he sat on a log next to the fire taking swigs off a fifth of Jack Daniels we passed around. A few moments later I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Tim was sneaking back through the dark woods carrying a branch in his hands like a baseball bat. In the firelight, with his wild eyes and bloody face, he looked like a baseball player from the apocalypse. Tim may have never played varsity baseball, but he sure knew how to swing a bat and aimed the branch at the back of Freddy’s head. Freddy was knocked unconscious and pitched forward into the fire. We all sat there stunned, as Tim hightailed it down the tracks, all save for Paul, who jumped up and hauled Freddy’s large frame out of the fire and started to scoop snow onto his burns and ripped off part of his shirt to stanch the bleeding from his head. After a moment, I went to Paul’s side and helped him move Freddy away from the fire and the embers that kept popping and shooting out from the flames like miniature incandescent missiles, burning holes in our jackets.
Freddy came to and his friends helped him out of the woods to the hospital. For the few of us that were left, Paul commanded our attention effortlessly. He never had to bum another cigarette – there was always one being offered. He never had to ask for another beer — when he’d launch an empty into the fire, another would be lobbed at his waiting hands. With a world-weary voice he described the role of a combat medic as “cleaning up after the Devil is done with his work.” Something about those words sealed it for me. Drunk, impressionable, rudderless, and looking for a sign, I decided right there I wanted to be a combat medic. I wanted to move through the world with the confidence that Paul seemed to possess. To inspire that kind of respect. It was only years later that it dawned on me that Paul hadn’t even seen combat yet. That this poise hadn’t yet been truly tested. That for him, like me, this was the first time he’d ever smelled burning flesh.
Carly nearly knocks me over, laughing and chasing the dog. It’s a thrill for her to be outside after spending so much time indoors doing Zoom reading classes and virtual gym classes. I take a few deep breaths and we continue our walk. We reach the field where the sledding run comes down one of the hills that ring the park. When we were kids, we called that run Bloody Mary, the local legend being a girl named Mary sledded into a tree at the bottom, cracked her head open and bled to death. More likely it was named not by the kids for poor dead Mary, but by the parents who were only too happy to send their kids out into the snow for a couple of hours so they could enjoy Bloody Marys in their absence. The run is sledded out already from late yesterday afternoon, rutted with rocks and roots poking through the snow, so we go rogue and find lines through the white pines and oaks where the snow is still untouched. I get Carly set up in the sled, but the runs through the trees aren’t straight enough for me to let her go alone, so I get in, scooch my butt all the way to the back, pull her up close to me and put my arms around her. We push off and start our run. The lines I choose are just risky enough to send pangs of parental nervousness through me. Several times I have to steer hard to avoid slamming into a tree trunk and I can’t help but think how angry Lucia would be if I injured her little girl. She’d be upset with me in the best of times. But with Covid, going to the hospital, the very place where one goes to be taken care of, to be healed, feels dangerous and the incongruity of this is unsettling.
Early in the pandemic we were awoken one night to Carly coughing, a loud, barking sound that sounded like a seal begging for fish. The sound alone instilled panic in us before we even got out of bed. She had a temperature of 103 degrees, cried ceaselessly and inconsolably, and none of us slept for the rest of the night. My wife took her to the hospital alone the next morning — only one parent was allowed. The hospital staff came out to the parking lot with HAZMAT suits on and wheeled our daughter into a room with a massive, loud, newly installed air transfer system. She said the doctor’s eyes looked terrified through her face shield. They wouldn’t test her — they didn’t have enough for children, who were considered low risk — and simply sent her home. After the fifth day of fever, refusing to eat or drink, dehydration, labored breathing, no sleep, and fearing that our other child would get it, Carly finally started to improve. My wife does not want to go back to the hospital with her daughter anytime soon. And for me? Well, this is when the insomnia started. Something about the fear in the doctor’s eyes… Something about my daughter being so vulnerable in the very place she is supposed to be safest… The most imaginative CIA interrogator at Guantanamo Bay would have a tough time inventing a torture more effective than chronic insomnia at utterly breaking a man down and it had a snowball effect on the anxiety I was already experiencing.
Before seeing Carly so sick, before the word Covid had ever been uttered, the increasing number of sick and dying people I saw in my work had me and my ambulance crew freaked out. Then the apocalyptic news from Italy, the NBA game I was watching canceled, the empty skies… it was all so surreal. But Carly’s bout with the virus flipped some switch in my autonomic nervous system — I could feel fear hum in my body like I’d swallowed a hornet nest. I’d lost too many friends. I couldn’t lose my daughter.
To make things more complicated, I felt ashamed of my fear. It felt acceptable to feel fear going into battle. Even the most hardened soldier will not deny that this fear is justified. Yet I felt weak for fearing something that was invisible. In Afghanistan I’d have bullets hitting the ground beside me, throwing up dirt in my face while I tried to put a tourniquet on a comrade who had a leg blown off. But I never let fear stop me from doing my job. So how was it that now merely walking into a supermarket could make my heart race and feel claustrophobic? Perhaps there was some comfort in being able to see the danger of battle and being able to retreat to relative safety. However, with Covid the danger, although invisible, is omnipresent — the very air itself is dangerous. But what is the same between Covid and bullets is that they both want to get inside me, and they both want to kill me if they can.
Despite the violence I experienced in Afghanistan, I never experienced any psychological difficulty. And although returning home and transitioning to civilian life was difficult, I quickly entered a training program to become a civilian paramedic and the intensity of that experience didn’t allow any room for rumination. But after landing a full-time paramedic job and spending hours at base waiting for a call to come in, the unwanted thoughts started to come. My wife convinced me to try to get some help, which came in the form of therapy and a prescription for an anti-depressant. But I had a reaction to the meds. You know those commercials that warn one of the side effects is suicidal ideation? Yeah, that’s real. It fucks with your head when you take medicine that’s supposed to help alleviate your depression and suddenly, you’re fantasizing about oblivion. It’s not that I wanted oblivion, but I couldn’t bear how I felt. That’s when I realized there is a difference between wanting to die and not wanting to be alive. Lucia found me sitting in the basement holding one of my pistols and coaxed me to put it down and took me back upstairs. The next day my brother came over to take my guns to store at his house and my wife threw all the old meds away — the oxycodone from when she had ACL surgery, the morphine from when I broke my clavicle — so that I wouldn’t try to overdose on them. I knew then I needed to do whatever it took to stop being at war with my mind. What helped most was meditation. I never knew what to say in therapy, and hated the side effects of the meds, but meditation was something I’d done as a kid studying karate and it felt like a return to a part of myself that I’d forgotten. In particular, one technique really helped me. When I started to go to a bad place, there was a routine I could call on — focusing on the senses to bring me into the moment. I was taught to focus on each sense one at a time and describe in my head one thing I see, one thing I hear, one thing I smell, and one thing I feel.
Lucia decided to teach this to Carly, a game to play with her daddy if he seemed angry or sad.
“What do we do when daddy goes to that bad place, baby girl? That’s right, you hold his hand and tell him to take a deep breath. Then you ask him to tell you what he sees in front of him. Whatever it is, tell him to describe it. Make sure he describes everything in detail, okay sweetie?”
“I Spy, the PTSD version,” I say, and Lucia laughs wryly, but the sad look on her face and gentle touch on the shoulder she gives me make me regret the attempt at humor.
Despite my trepidation we take run after run to the delight of my daughter. The dog is excited too, running ahead and beside the sled, barking and inexplicably nipping at me only to look slightly abashed when I tell her no and she comes to her senses. As we finish a run and sit laughing in the sled in the flat field, Daisy suddenly stops and looks toward the pond, on high alert. From a short distance away, we hear shrieks and cries.
“What is that daddy?”
As I stand up straining to see what it could be, my heart starts to beat fast, and adrenaline begins coursing through my veins. I move forward so that Carly is behind me. The shrieks continue and it is hard to know if they are human or animal. For years my job was to run towards the screams. Now I want to run the other way, but Daisy bolts through the snow towards the commotion. I grab Carly’s hand, and leaving the sleds behind, we chase after her.
The screeching continues and as we get closer to the source, we hear a shriek, see a blur of brown fur falling, then hear a loud thud as something heavy hits the ground. I call Daisy. She comes running back and I throw her on leash. We round a bend in the path to see two concussed raccoons lying next to each other on the snowy ground bleeding. Blood mats their brown fur, stains the snow around them and is splattered on the oak tree they have just fallen from. They lay stunned for a moment, and then one slowly gets up, waddles to the tree, and starts climbing groggily back up. A moment later the other one follows. They look like two drunks that stepped outside of a dive bar to brawl in an alley making their way back inside. I half expect them to hug it out and offer to buy the other a beer. The one higher up comes to a branch about twenty-five feet up and sits on it to rest, hugging the tree with its front paws, its hind paws dangling over the branch. The second raccoon sees this and does the same on a lower branch. They both sit there.
I think to myself, What could possibly be the evolutionary advantage of fighting in a tree where the risk of falling and dying is so high? This thought is the sniper in my mind. He’s lining up in his crosshairs any equanimity I may have found while sledding with Carly. What is the evolutionary advantage of killing each other in a desert when the whole world is burning around us? The sniper’s finger pulls the trigger. What kind of world will Carly inherit from us bloody raccoons clawing at each other in trees? The sniper’s bullet slams into my amygdala, sends serotonin splatter all over the snow as a severed vessel spurts out cortisol. Broken raccoons, scratching and clawing and exhaling viral weapons into each other’s bloodied mouths… I realize my thoughts are running out of control and shake my head to bring my mind back. Carly looks up at me, senses I’m struggling, and hugs my leg.
“Daddy, are you ok? Should we leave now?”
“I’m okay sweetie,” I lie.
“Do you want to do the see, smell, hear thing?”
“No, it’s okay, honey. I’m fine.”
Her touch and her voice help, but my anxiety is already too far gone. I’m not going to be able to reel it back in.
She wants to stay to see what the raccoons will do next. I want nothing more than to leave, to go home, not because it will be better, but because I can’t stand how I feel here, so at least it’s a change. Some folks walk by and ask what we are looking at. A big black lab goes to the bottom of the tree and starts barking and the raccoons rouse themselves and start to climb again, eventually climbing out of sight amongst the branches. I use this as an excuse to grab the sleds and go home.
The next morning dawns cold and blue again. David’s fever lifted in the night, and with it some of the tension that filled our house like its own fever. Carly and I take Daisy out for her morning walk in the park. Carly wants to pass by the place where the raccoons fell. The blood splatters are still there, the redness brightened by a night of freezing temperatures. My nerves are considerably calmer as we survey the aftermath, trying to determine how high they had fallen from, where exactly they had landed, where they may have gone…
“Daddy, look. Can you take a picture of that for me with your phone?” Carly asks.
“Sure, honey, of what?” I reply.
“Look, there,” she says pointing. “It’s shaped like a heart!”
Clinging to a small branch is a globule of bright red, frozen, congealed, raccoon blood. It is vaguely heart shaped. But it is also heart shaped. Like an actual heart. The freezing air overnight created complicated textures, cracks and striations on the globule that almost looks like veins crisscrossing the surface of a diminutive organ. I’m reminded of the exposed organs I used to see after an IED explosion. I start to feel my heartbeat thud again, and my breath quickening… But a moment later a gloved hand takes mine and gives it a tug. I turn and my daughter is smiling up at me. This time she doesn’t wait for me to give her permission.
“Tell me one thing you hear, Daddy,” she says.
I take a deep breath and reply, “I hear the wind.”
“Remember, you have to be specific,” she says.
“Okay, I hear the wind blowing through the bare branches of the trees.”
I am amazed at the presence of mind of my six-year-old. When I was six, I was scared to talk to my father when there was any emotion involved. It was okay to talk to him when he was calm, sober, and in a good mood. When his cheeks were red and his words slurred, his emotions grew with his drunkenness, and I was as likely to get a smack on the back of the head as my hair tussled.
“Good. Tell me something you smell?”
“Trees. Pine trees. The piney smell of pine trees.”
She giggles. “What do you see?”
My gaze returns to the globule of raccoon blood. “Raccoon blood.”
“I see frozen, congealed raccoon blood, clinging to a twig…” My head swims a bit and I close my eyes to steady myself. She tugs my hand and looks up at me.
“…in the shape of a heart. Now say the whole thing.”
I turn and look at Carly and think about the heart that she sees and the heart that I see, and I want her to never see the heart that I see. Yet I know I can’t stop her from seeing that heart someday. I pray it’s not an actual heart, but if not, it will be something else. War will rip something apart and expose to the air, the sun, and the sand something sacred, something meant to stay safely cocooned and cradled and force her to bear witness to its desecration. Plague will attack something she holds precious in its crib in the night and dare her to ever leave it alone, to ever sleep again. I turn back to the globule. There’s a beauty to it, the variations of red, the delicate striations, the gentle curve where blood meets wood. It will be gone soon. Ice will melt. Blood will meld back into the earth. I pull out my phone, take a picture of it, then pick Carly up. Her weight is reassuring. I look her in the eyes, my head now steady.
“Say it, Daddy.”
“I see frozen, congealed raccoon blood, clinging to a twig, in the shape of a heart.”
The author would like to thank fellow Arlington High School alumnus and Afghanistan war veteran Col. John “Buss” Barranco, USMC for the invaluable insights he provided in the course of writing this story.
Image: Retirement by Mark Bonica, licensed under CC 2.0.