Let me start out by talking a little bit about what my response may be to the killing of an enemy. O’Brien spends about 1.5 pages of The Things They Carried describing what this man he killed looked like lying dead on the path. The sheer amount of detail he provides is quite stunning and frightening. If I were in that situation and looking at who I just killed I would probably need to memorize those details, but not want to. I think I’ll describe that feeling more in the second half of this post, but either way, it would be the kind of thing that sticks with me forever. O’Brien goes on to mention how his comrades said joke-like things as they passed, things that made the death seem more like a game. O’Brien wouldn’t have it, he kept asking them to stop, but they wouldn’t. To O’Brien, he had just killed a fellow human being, something that as humans we’re naturally resistant to and need conditioning to even possibly do. But to his comrades, he had simply killed another enemy soldier, one more “victory point”, like in a video game, earned and not a fellow human soul being snuffed out. In the same situation, I would definitely feel the way O’Brien did and not treat killing as a game. I’d hate anyone who treats the snuffing out of human souls as a game, because it certainly is not. O’Brien also very visibly feels terrible after committing such an act. Others can think they know how he feels, and they say this to him, but they really can’t know. I would assume that if I were O’Brien I’d feel just as terrible, and would hold out hope that everyone else who end up in a similar situation would too. O’Brien cannot stop looking at the man he killed, this ties in with my first point, and for all the same reasons, I wouldn’t be able to stop looking at the person I kill either. Finally, O’Brien refuses to talk to anyone about his feelings towards the kill. I’m pretty sure that I would feel the same way.
For this second part of this post I’m supposed to consider how I might respond to and live with a situation in which I lose someone close to me to death. However, given my experiences this past year the question I’ll be answering is how I responded to and have been living with such a situation. Given the death (that I was physically present for) of my great-grandmother this past April I truly have lived through a similar situation and am still tied within the aftermaths of that situation (in fact just this week have there been certain things that vividly reminded me of the reality of it). After knowing, and even living with for a short period of time, my great-grandmother (her house, and Vienna/ Austria more broadly, were/ are a second home for me) her death was a solid stab to my heart. Being there holding her hand during her last minutes probably helped to lessen the blow, and certainly made the entire event much more real, but I still had an insane stomach ache-like feeling for hours after her death. Another key fact is that I very vividly remember every single little detail of that day, from the moment I woke up to the moment I fell asleep, and I doubt that those details will ever get fainter. I vividly remember the walk my dad and I took that morning; the things we did at her house that early afternoon; the moment that the hospice nurse who was with us called me downstairs to be with my great-grandmother as she died; my run down those stairs and the feelings I had then and for hours to come; the Skype call my dad made shortly after to my grandmother (his mother) informing her; my Skype call to my mom and those single three words: “Oma just died” (Oma is Grandmother in German, it is what we all called her); the various Skype calls with other family the rest of the day (until 2 am VIE time the next morning); and many other details. You can’t be so close to such a situation without everything all your senses record being kept in your permanent memory. To tie this to O’Brien’s book, I would say that Norman Bowker insisted on telling his father because he needed some way to get his feelings out. This and other writings as well as different conversations with people over time are the exact same thing for me in response to the happenings of that day in April. Ever since April, and her funeral in May, there have been things here and there that evoke the vivid emotional memories of that experience, and make me internally relive parts of it. The actual act of being one of the final things my great-grandmother ever felt in this existence was the most important, but also naturally hardest, thing that I’ve ever done in my life. It still is, and I feel will be for a while still, one of the softest spots emotionally for my entire family. Anything that reminds me of those times, or makes me feel like I’m reliving pieces of them, have made me feel like I’m crying behind my eyes. Also, in the spirit of O’Brien explaining how to tell true war stories, the idea expanded a bit, all of what I just wrote is true. I didn’t, and wouldn’t dare, make up a syllable of it.