Chapter no 33

The Women

Light. Blinding. Where am I?

I lift my head to look around; it feels heavy. Someone else’s head on my neck. Maybe I’m paralyzed. Someone says a word—detox—in a long, drawn-out kind of way. And then something about meds …

I hear noises that make no sense. I can’t sort them out, isolate them, recognize them.

Bees buzzing. Boots on the ground. Humping in the boonies? No.

I am not in ’Nam. Where am I? Screaming.

Is that my voice?



It’s too hard to think. My head is pounding. I close my eyes. Whatever’s out there, I don’t want to see.





“Frankie. Frankie McGrath, can you hear me?”

Frankie heard her name and tried to answer, but her mouth seemed to be stuffed with cotton and she still had a blinding headache.


It took forever to open her eyes. Lifting her head was next: All she could see were her own hands. Red marks circled her wrists.

He came into focus slowly. Standing sideways, defying gravity.

Maybe her head was tilted to one side. She was blind in one eye. No. Her hair fell across her face, obscuring her vision. She raised her hand slowly, felt the tremor in it, pushed the hair back from her face.

He stood in front of her.


She felt a rush of shame, and then a burst of relief.

“I’m going to get you out of here as soon as I can, okay?”

Frankie couldn’t make her voice rise above a whisper. Thank you was too much. She got out, “Thaaaa.”

He laid his hand on hers.

She looked down, wished she could feel his touch.



Frankie was having a heart attack. She became aware of the pain all at once, a blinding bolt of it in her chest.

She sat up, breathing hard.

A headache pounded behind her eyes. Tiny white stars danced across her field of sight.

The chest pain turned into a dull, thudding beat in her chest. She was sweating, trembling.

Where was she?

Dorm room, was her first thought.

Single bed, low to the ground, cheap blanket and sheets. A dresser with three drawers. No mirror. A closet.

She swung her legs around, saw her bare, skinny legs and the borrowed socks on her feet.


Had they drugged her? She felt sluggish.

She got up and immediately felt dizzy, nauseated. She counted to ten and it passed.

What was she wearing? Cutoff shorts, socks, and an oversized tie-dyed T-shirt. Whose?

She walked to the door, half expecting it to be locked.

Psych ward.

That was where she was. She remembered now: the ocean, the ambulance ride, her father crying. She opened the door. Beyond it lay a hallway that looked like the elementary school she’d gone to: flyers on the wall, linoleum floor, windows that let in so much sunlight she blinked. Construction-paper turkeys and pilgrims decorated the walls.

Moving cautiously forward, she trailed her fingers along the top of the fake wood wainscoting, just for balance. The headache was bad and getting worse.

She passed what looked like a classroom, in which people sat in a circle, talking. “That was rock-bottom,” one of them said.

“Frances McGrath?”

She looked up, saw a young woman coming toward her. A man walked past them, muttering to himself.

“Go back to your room, Cletus,” the woman said.

The woman was beautiful, with doe-like eyes and a waterfall of brown hair. She wore a faded prairie-style dress that fell to her ankles, and brown suede Birkenstocks. Six or seven wooden bead bracelets encircled her fine wrist.

“I’m Jill Landis, one of the counselors here. I run group.” She took Frankie by the hand, led her down the hall, past a series of closed doors and a reception area that boasted a banner that read TODAY IS THE DAY!

“The director has been waiting for you. How do you feel?” “Headache,” Frankie said. “Weak.”

“Of course.” She stopped, got Frankie two aspirin and a glass of water.

Frankie forgot to say thank you, just took the aspirin and swallowed them with water.

Jill stopped at a closed door, squeezed Frankie’s hand. “I’ll schedule you for group at two. A rap session helps more than you’d think. Especially for vets.”

“Group? Rap? I don’t want—”

“It’s just talking, Frankie. And it’s mandatory.” She knocked on the door.

“Come in.”

Jill opened the door. “See ya, Frankie.”

Frankie moved forward, one foot in front of the other. She was in her stockinged feet. Where were her shoes?

The door clicked shut behind her. “Hey, Frankie.”

She looked up just in time to see Henry open his arms for a hug. He wrapped her in an embrace that was as stunning as it was familiar.

She looked up. “You saved me.”

He tucked her hair back behind one ear. “Not yet. And it won’t be easy.” He let her go. “Do you remember what happened?”

“Some of it,” she said softly. The terrible images were there, waiting for her: running into the ocean, hoping to disappear, freezing, her teeth chattering … her dad pulling her off the surfboard, carrying her … an ambulance, her screaming, crying, being restrained …

She looked around his office. A window overlooked a park of some kind, a grassy area filled with picnic tables. Beneath the window was a cheap wooden credenza laden with framed pictures and a potted jade plant.

“Where am I?”

“Inpatient therapeutic drug and alcohol treatment facility. At the medical center. It opened about six months ago, remember? I run the place and see patients two days a week. I won’t be your primary therapist, for obvious reasons, but I wanted to ease you into therapy.”

“What obvious reasons?” “I loved you.”

“Past tense. Yeah.” She looked away, unable to meet his gaze, remembered that she’d been in a psych ward for a suicide attempt. Suicide. She couldn’t process that terrible word. “How did you get me out?”

“Your mom called me. She signed you up here for eight weeks. To start.”

“Wow. Mom facing the problem head-on. That’s new.” Frankie pressed two fingertips to her throbbing temple.

“Your headache, by the way, it’s withdrawal. You may experience other symptoms: anxiety, chest pains, sweats, tremors. Also, your cognitive

abilities may have been impaired for a while now.”

“No shit.” Frankie sighed. Withdrawal. “So, in addition to everything else, I’m officially a drug addict and an alcoholic. Yay.”

“The yellow pills you’ve been taking? Diazepam. More commonly called Valium, but I’m sure you know that. The Rolling Stones called them ‘Mother’s Little Helpers.’” He went to his desk, pulled out a magazine, opened it to an advertisement with the headline NOW SHE CAN COPE, which showed a woman in an apron, smiling broadly as she vacuumed. “Docs have been prescribing them like candy to women for years.”

“Did I lose my nursing license?”

“You will. At least for a while, but that’s not your biggest concern right now.” He took her by the hand, led her to an antique fainting couch. “Sit.”

She looked at it, and a bit of her old self rose up, made her laugh. “You’re kidding.”

“I’m a shrink,” he said, smiling back. “It’ll make you comfortable talking.”

“I don’t know if I want to be comfortable talking.”

“Haven’t you been uncomfortable and not talking for a long time?” “I have a headache. No fair outthinking me.”

She sat down, remained upright. Her hands were shaking. “Do you have a cigarette? I don’t think I can stand you exploring the murky depths of my soul without some aid.”

He found her a cigarette, a lighter, and pulled over a standing ashtray, then positioned his chair next to her.

Frankie stood up. She was afraid, agitated. She walked over to the credenza, studied the photographs displayed. Henry’s life in images. It made her realize that she hadn’t taken a picture in years. She picked up a framed photograph of him and a woman with long graying brown hair and round rose-colored glasses.

“That’s Natalie,” he said. “We’re engaged. She loves me.” Had he meant to put the slightest emphasis on she?

Frankie felt both happiness for him and a sliver of pain for herself. Would she be sitting here, head pounding from withdrawal, if she’d married him?

Henry smiled. “She’s an elementary school teacher and poet. But we’ll talk about me later. Right now I want you to get better, Frankie. My

colleague Dr. Alden specializes in Vietnam veterans. We’re seeing too many addicted military personnel, especially after coming home from the war.”

She drifted back toward him, sat down on the ridiculous couch. “No one gives a shit about the women.” Frankie lit the cigarette, drew smoke into her lungs, and exhaled.

“Why do you say that?”

“I went to the VA for help. Twice. They brushed me off, told me to run along, that I wasn’t a real vet, I guess.”

“Why did you go to the VA for help?”

Frankie frowned. “I don’t know. I just…” “Just what?” Henry asked gently.

She felt his scrutiny. This was no idle question. He was asking a question Frankie had barely asked herself. She had never answered it aloud, not to anyone. She didn’t really want to answer it now.

But she was in trouble here, disintegrating, losing pieces of herself. She needed to reach out to someone with her truth. “Well. It’s been a rough patch. I almost killed a man because I drove drunk. Then there’s the baby, the miscarriage … Rye coming back, lying to me. Our affair. And now I’ll lose my nursing license. There’s nothing of me left.”

“That’s all the middle, Frankie. You’ve had trouble sleeping for years, trouble with nightmares. You used to scream in your sleep,” he said. “Before the baby, the miscarriage … before Rye.”

Frankie nodded.

“What about surges of irrational anger? Irritation? Anxiety?” Frankie couldn’t look at him.

“Vietnam,” he said. “That’s why you went to the VA. You know Vietnam is the beginning of it all. Do you have memories that are more than memories, that feel like you’re there again?”

“You mean, like…”

“Like a flashback in a film.”

Frankie was stunned. She’d assumed it happened only to her, that she was crazy. “How do you know that?”

“The Fourth of July party, remember?” She couldn’t answer.

“It’s called post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a bit controversial, they haven’t added it to the APA manual yet, but we’re seeing similar symptoms

in your fellow vets. What you’re experiencing is a familiar response to trauma.”

“I didn’t see combat.”

“Frankie, you were a surgical nurse in the Central Highlands.” She nodded.

“And you think you didn’t see combat?”

“My … Rye … was a POW. Tortured. Kept in the dark for years. He’s fine.”

Henry leaned forward. “War trauma isn’t a competitive sport. Nor is it one-size-fits-all. The POWs are a particular group, as well. They came home to a different world than you did. They were treated like the World War II veterans. Like heroes. It’s hard to underscore too much the impact of that on one’s psyche.”

Frankie thought about all the yellow ribbons on the tree branches in 1973. They hadn’t been there when she came home. Hell, they’d had parades for the returning POWs. None of them had been spat on or flipped off or called a baby killer or a warmonger.

“And they were pilots, for the most part, so their war experience was different than the soldiers or Marines on the ground. In captivity, they banded together, held rank, communicated in secret, all of which strengthened their commitment to each other. We don’t really understand PTSD yet, but we know it’s highly personal. What about your friends, fellow nurses?”

“We don’t really talk about it.”

“The war no one wants to remember.” “Yeah.”

“I talked to Barb this week,” he said. “She told me about the fighting around Pleiku.” He leaned toward her. “Nothing you feel is wrong or abnormal. It doesn’t matter what your friends did or didn’t experience. You’re allowed to be uniquely affected by your wartime experience. Especially you, someone who was idealistic enough to volunteer. You have nothing to be ashamed of, Frankie.”


It hit Frankie hard, that word. She had let herself become ashamed; maybe it had started when she’d been spat on in the airport, or when her mother asked her not to talk about the war, or maybe as news of the

atrocities began coming out. Almost every civilian she’d met since coming home, including her own family, had subtly or overtly given her the message that what she’d done in Vietnam was shameful. She’d been a part of something bad. She’d tried not to believe it; but maybe she had. She’d gone to war a patriot and come home a pariah. “How do I get back to who I was?”

“There’s no going back, Frankie. You have to find a way to go forward, become the new you. Fighting for who you were at twenty-one is a losing game. If that’s what you’ve been trying for, no wonder you’re struggling. The naive, idealistic girl who volunteered for war is gone. In a very real way, she died over there.”

Frankie stared down at her hands. Died over there. The words resonated keenly. Hurt. She realized just now, sitting here, that she’d known that, felt it. Grieved for the innocence she’d lost in Vietnam.

“Now take my hand,” he said, pulling her to her feet. “I’m going to introduce you to Dr. Alden.”



Dr. Alden was a quiet, pale man with a thin neck and creased forehead and kind eyes. He gave off a Mr. Magoo vibe that was oddly comforting.

In his office, which featured dozens of inspirational photographs, he’d gotten her settled in a comfortable chair and begun to ask her questions. She’d wanted to talk about Rye, her heartbreak, her shame and anger, but Dr. Alden had a different idea.

“Memories,” he’d said. “Vietnam. Let’s start there.”

At first it had been difficult to tell her story out loud, but once she said, I remember the first time I saw a traumatic amputation … the floodgates opened and her memories poured out. She realized the power they’d gained by being withheld.

In session after session, day after day, she exposed herself and her past, opening up her deepest wounds. She talked about the baby who’d died in her arms suffering from napalm burns, the expectants who’d died on sawhorses set in bloody mud, about the young men barely out of their teens who’d clung to her hand, about red alerts, and operations on the Quonset floor by flashlight during a mortar attack, about Mai, the little girl she still

sometimes dreamed about. She talked about the terrible suffering of the Vietnamese people. The dark memories gradually gave way to others, also repressed until they’d been nearly forgotten. Like the way the soldiers had cared for each other. So many had refused treatment until a brother-in-arms was seen. They tried to hold each other together, literally, when horrific wounds had torn their insides out.

By the end of the first week, which was a rigidly scheduled combination of group and individual therapy, Frankie was emotionally drained. Dr. Alden had given her a journal to write down her feelings, and she’d started, slowly, writing about her shame at being here and how much she hated Rye and herself. By the end of the week, she was filling several pages a day.

On her third Saturday here, visitors’ day, she drifted up one hallway and down another, too tense to talk with her fellow patients, too jittery to stop for long, smoking cigarettes one after another, trying to ignore the headache pounding behind her eyes.

Now she was at the vending machine, buying another Coke (her latest addiction), when her name blared through the speakers: “Visitor for Frankie McGrath.”

Unsure whether she was ready to see anyone, she headed down to the visitors’ area, a room near the entrance. It was painted a pretty, calming shade of blue and had pictures of rainbows and oceans and waterfalls on the walls. A corner table held children’s toys and boxes of puzzles. A tea- colored poster of “Desiderata” gave advice for living: GO PLACIDLY AMID THE


She sat down in one of the empty chairs, tapping her foot on the floor. Her headache had dimmed but was still there; her mouth was dry. Sweat dampened her skin.

No doubt her parents were walking toward her now, feeling uncomfortable in a place like this. What would they say to her? If they’d been ashamed of her military service, what would they say about addiction? About driving drunk? Losing her nursing license? About all of her failures? What would she say to them?

Barb came around the corner, looking nervous. When she saw Frankie, she surged forward, yanked her into a hug. “You scared the shit out of me.”

Barb held Frankie’s hand, led her outside to a grassy area full of chairs and picnic tables, where families sat clustered together, talking.

Frankie sat down at a picnic table.

Barb sat down across from her. “What the hell, Frankie?” “Rye,” she said simply.

Barb looked confused. “Rye?”

“He … came to see me one night, and … no, that’s not the start. I saw him at the beach with his family … it feels like a lifetime ago. I followed him. Like a crazy woman. Then he came to the house and…”

“And you believed him again?” She leaned forward. “You?” “I thought he loved me.”

“I could kill that son of a bitch.”

“Yeah, I thought that, too. I hated him—and myself—so much, it … destroyed me. That’s all I can say. When I first got here, I dreamed of confronting him. I thought I needed to hear, I lied and I’m sorry. But I don’t. I know what he did and I know what I did. None of it is pretty, but he isn’t the problem. My doctor and group are helping me understand that. I should have talked about things a long time ago, I should have told you…” Frankie drew in a steadying breath and looked at her friend. Her whole body felt shaky, fragile. Vulnerable. “I should have told you that I was struggling with memories of ’Nam, been honest, but you seemed so damn okay. I thought it was all me, that I was weak or broken.”

“You think because I don’t say anything about ’Nam that I don’t think about it?” she said.

“How would I know? We almost never talked about it.” She paused, took a deep breath, heard Dr. Alden’s even voice saying, Just begin, Frankie. Talk. “I don’t know why I can’t let some things go, why I keep remembering when others can forget.”

“I remember, too,” Barb said. “I still sometimes have nightmares…” “You do?”

Barb nodded. “Red alerts … napalm. There was this one night at the Thirty-Sixth. A kid from my hometown…”

Frankie held on to her best friend’s hand and listened to her stories, her pain, which was like her own. They talked for hours, until night fell slowly around them; the stars came out. Frankie had never known before that words could heal, at least be the beginning of healing.

“You were a damn rock star in the OR,” Barb said at last. “You know that, right? Men came home because of you, Frankie.”

Frankie drew in a breath, exhaled. “I do.” “So, what’s next for you?”

“It’s one day at a time,” Frankie said. Truthfully, she wasn’t ready to think about her future yet, had no idea if she could believe in the idea of truly healing. She wasn’t okay, wasn’t even within striking distance of it, and that was something she would never lie about again.


I will be, she thought. She could feel strength growing in her, gathering like sunlight in the distance, beginning to warm her. If she stayed the course, worked the steps, believed in herself, she could heal, be a better version of herself.

Someday, she thought.

You'll Also Like