Journey Into Wholeness
I’ve kept a notebook about memorable encounters with patients and their families ever since I started working as a music therapist. I thought I’d need it one day to process and understand what happened and to learn from each encounter. This is why I can share their stories with you now.
There is one person I didn’t write down.
I couldn’t write, because it was so shocking it took time to revisit the event. I knew I’d remember every detail without writing down a single word.
After finishing a hospice internship in North Carolina, I began working at hospice in Ohio. It provided care for 500 patients at inpatient units, homes, and nursing homes in the area. My primary job was to see patients at the inpatients units.
One summer afternoon in 2004 I was visiting patients at one of our units, when a new patient arrived. I decided to stop by and introduce myself to him. The chart said he was 78 years old with terminal liver cancer.
Ron was sitting in a recliner, looking out the window. Birds were gathering around the feeder – small brown birds and a cardinal. As I introduced myself to him, he looked at me with his large brown eyes. He was skinny, wearing a blue and black flannel shirt that looked two sizes too large and baggy jeans. His face had no fat– with his jaw and cheekbones sticking out, his eyes looked unusually big.
I asked if he’d like to listen to music. He said, “Yes, I like any kind of music,” in a gentle voice.
Since I had my Irish harp that day, I played several pieces on the harp. He continued to look at the birds while I played. It seemed his mind was somewhere else.
“How are you feeling today?” I asked.
“Do you like birds?”
“Yes, they’re pretty,” said Ron with a faint smile.
Then he became quiet again. He was a man of few words, but it seemed there was more than that to his silence. He didn’t seem to mind my presence, but I sensed that he didn’t really want to talk.
“Should I continue to play more?”
I played a few more pieces while he listened, still looking outside. When I finished and put my harp on my lap, he turned to me and said,
“A long time ago I met a Chinese woman. It was during the war. She was very kind to me. Are you Chinese also?”
“No, I’m Japanese.”
Suddenly, his face froze with shock. He held his breath in, and his whole body tightened.
“I killed Japanese soldiers.”
He looked at me with bewildering eyes as if he was seeing a dead man.
“They were young. I was young… I think about their families.”
He burst into tears and began breathing fast. His frail body shook violently in the pink reclining chair.
I was shocked. I held onto my harp tightly.
“I’m so sorry…….”
He tried not to cry out, but he couldn’t help it.
I was thinking about what to do. Should I say something? If so, what? Should I hold his hand or give him some tissues?
A conversation with my internship supervisor, Jim, came to mind at that moment.
“Some of the patients you’ll meet here are those who fought in World War II or lost their loved ones in the war. I don’t know how they’ll react to you when they learn you’re Japanese. What do you think about that?”
I was stunned, because the war seemed to me something that had happened a long time ago. Perhaps it’s possible that someone would get angry with me based on my nationality, I thought. But Ron’s response was different from anything I had imagined.
As Ron continued to cry, I recalled another event. My other supervisor during the internship was a chaplain named Jane. She said, “Our actions or words, however well-intentioned, can stop someone from crying.” Mothers console babies with soothing voices and touches so as to stop them from crying. But that’s not what we do here. “Our job is to create a safe space where patients can cry,” she said.
I realized that’s what Ron needed.
His body was tight from head to toe, as if he had held onto the pain in every part of his body for all these years. The sound of his cry echoed through the hallway. Outside the window the cardinal was gone. The pond in the garden reflected the white cloud. Time seemed frozen.
I don’t know how much time had passed when he finally stopped crying. He was still looking down and wiping away his tears with his sleeves. I asked if I could play some music before I left. He nodded.
I played simple, predictable pieces to help keep us both grounded. As I began, he put his head back and closed his eyes. I continued to play until his breathing became regular and his body became less tense. I don’t remember for how long, and as I played, time lost meaning in that small room. When I finished, he opened his eyes and said softly, “Thank you.” I told him the same.
Later, I contacted his home care nurse who said Ron had been diagnosed with liver cancer after a long-term struggle with alcoholism. He had married three times, and had one son, but the two were estranged. His wife told the nurse that he had fought in the Battle of Saipan, but that was all she knew.
I wanted to talk to Ron again and learn about what happened to him during and after the war, but I never got the chance. A few days after the session he left hospice and returned home. I never saw him again after that, and he died a few weeks later at home.
Ron’s response was shocking and unexpected because it was very different from the way American society often portrays WWII veterans.
World War II is called a ‘just war’ or ‘good war’ in America. It’s often described as the best fighting war in the nation’s history. Americans are proud of WWII because they fought for what they valued most: ‘Democratic Ideals.’ The returning soldiers were greeted as heroes by the rejoicing crowd and soon established a new life. At least, that’s how the story gets told.
By contrast, there is a war that’s considered a ‘bad war’ – The Vietnam War. Shocking images of battle were reported through television and newspapers, and many people opposed the war. The soldiers returned home to a country torn by disbelief and anger.
After the Vietnam War, many veterans experienced trauma, substance abuse, and isolation. US society gradually became aware of the problem, and in 1980 the American Psychiatric Association added “Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)” to Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
But even then PTSD was considered to be unique to Vietnam veterans. Since it was a ‘bad war,’ they had difficulty adjusting to a normal life afterward. Those who fought a ‘good war’ adjusted to life smoothly and moved on with their lives. This is what the general public believed for a long time about the ‘Greatest Generation’ that fought in WWII.
But such a narrative didn’t fit with Ron. After the war, he suffered from alcoholism and struggled with his relationships with his family. As he confessed to me during the session, he suffered from an enormous sense of guilt. After meeting him, I began to question the myths surrounding WWII vets, and I wasn’t the only one.
Two years after meeting Ron, the movie “Flags of Our Fathers” was released. It followed the story behind the iconic image, “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima.”
Flag on Iwo Jima / Colorized by Marina Amaral
Despite the heroic image, three of the six men in the photo later died in Iwo Jima, as the fight continued. Three survivors returned home as heroes and became celebrities. One of the survivors died young from alcoholism; another didn’t get his desired job and ended up as a janitor. The third man was able to build a successful life, but he suffered from the flashback of the war at the end of his life. The film shows us that the truth of war is far more complicated than the myth we’d like to believe.
In 2009, the historian Thomas Childers published a book called “Soldier from the War Returning.” He wrote that between 1945 and 1947 the US divorce rate reached a historic high: the highest in the world. Even among Americans, US veterans’ divorce rate was twice as high as that of civilians. In reality, many veterans struggled to return to a normal life. It was difficult for them to find work or even maintain relationships with their spouses and children.
Childers also noted that during World War II there were about 1.3 million soldiers who had psychological problems. Two years after the war ended, half of the beds in VA were filled with patients who suffered from so called ‘invisible wounds.’ Many of them suffered from what we now know to be the symptoms of PTSD, such as depression, recurring nightmares, guilt, explosive anger, anxiety, and so on. And many drank to forget their pain, which often led to alcoholism.
There was no such thing as a ‘good war’ for the soldiers who fought it. Ron was not the only one who lived with the pain and the nightmare of war.
Next→ “Song of Father“
Soldier from the war returning, Thomas Childers, 2009, New York
Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
Click here to see the Japanese version.