by Marye Smith
I met Kate in the summer of 1963. She was from a small town in Virginia, an only child, and full of life. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. Being a military brat and traveling most of my life, I had seen many pretty girls during my 23 years, but Kate was breath-taking, she was the girl of my dreams. Not only was she graced with outer beauty, but her inner beauty resonated whenever she entered a room. She loved life and life loved her. I married her the very next summer.
I was about to fulfill my second tour of military duty, and Kate was about to go off to college, we decided we no longer wanted to be without each other, so we got married. We had a quiet wedding, but our reception consisted of family members, several friends, and some well-wishers. We spent five days together then I was off to keep my commitment to my country. As you might have guessed, Kate did not go off to college. Instead, she went back home to Virginia to live with her parents until arrangements could be made for her to join me.
By the spring of 1965, Kate and our new son Chad joined me. Not far from my post, we lived in a small apartment. We were together and happy and nothing could ever come between what we had together. I was the love of her life, and she and our son were the loves of my life. Needless to say, that scene was short-lived as I began to advance in rank. At first, Kate did not seem to mind, but then it began to escalate from coming home late to not coming home until the weekend. I did not want Kate to see that I was under pressure, so I tried to hide it from her. In my quest to shelter Kate, Chad, and little Lacy – yes, we had a second child now, a beautiful little girl–from seeing the pressure, I was under, I could not see that Kate too was under pressure. She could see that when I got home on weekends, I could not handle the family problems she had encountered during the week, so she said nothing and simply ministered to my needs leaving me to recuperate for the upcoming week.
My father was a retired Captain in the United States Army but had died the year before I met Kate. Military life seemed to come easy for him. My mother seemed to have adjusted quite easily as well, but then her family had also been military. Therefore, I was used to the wife learning to adjust. Kate was not adjusting and to be honest neither was I. Sometimes I wonder if my life had been pre-determined by my father.
I gave every waking moment to improving my unit and being the best that I could be. I cannot remember ever having a dream outside of the military. I wanted to build a reputation as a military man as my father had done for most of his life. The only time I felt in control was with my men. My platoon was the best, and no one could deny it. I had finally become my father.
Soon after, we had gotten word that my platoon was to ship out to Vietnam. We were both afraid and excited. After only a few weeks in Vietnam, I find myself sitting in a hole as I pulled out paper and pen to write Kate. The next thing I knew I was in a nearby hospital. When I finally came to myself, I could not feel my legs. I began to scream to the doctor standing over me, “Where are my legs?” He replied that my legs had to be amputated to save my life. I wanted to die!
When I returned home, Kate met a scarred stranger filled with bitterness and hatred for anything that resembled life. Immediately, I began to degrade and belittled her and while in the act, I demanded that she remain in the room until I had finished my cruel speech. Regardless to how much I yelled, degraded, and belittled her, she cried, but she did not move until I gave her permission. Every morning I called to her like I always did since I returned home, voice filled with bitterness, anger, and self-pity, “Kate, are you going to bring my coffee any time today? It’s not like I can get up and get it myself, you know.” Like a maid serving her master, she came with coffee in hand, not knowing what to expect once she got into the room. Most mornings I would say the coffee was too hot or not hot enough, and often I would throw the cup against the door sometimes spilling it on her. If it was just right, I simply tasted it and acted as if she was not in the room at all.
The children seemed to adjust very well to not having me as an active part of their lives. For the most part, they were either with my mother or Kate’s parents who lived about four hours from where we were living at the time. My mother had been Kate’s saving grace because at least she had my mother to talk to about our situation. My mother tried talking to me, but I only reminded her of how she never stood up to Dad, and I was not about to have her poke her nose in mine and Kate’s affairs. I know I hurt her, but I was hurting myself, and I did not know any other way but lashing out because of my fear, anger, and hopelessness.
Kate always loved life. She could always find something positive in everything. She was the one who always saw the glass half-full instead of half empty. Now she was tired; I could see it in her eyes, in her voice, and even in the way she walked though she never complained. Where once her eyes sparkled with a zest for life, now all I could see was hurt. Her voice was, for the most part, filled with fear that whatever she said I might go berserk and throw things at her, or simply not responds to her for days on in. Often, I thought of how I missed the sexy way she used to sway from side to side when she walked and the way she tossed her hair when she was trying to make up her mind. I was so caught up in how life had dealt me a lemon that I could not bring myself to tell her that I missed the woman with whom I had fallen in love. I slowly, but surely squeezed every inch of womanhood out of her. She cut her hair so she could save money and time getting her hair done because I would not allow her to go from the house for more than an hour at a time. She barely had time to take a bath, let alone put on makeup! Then one Saturday morning what was escalating came to full circle.
I had had a rough night. My conscience had whipped me blue and black. I began to remember what it was like to hold Kate in my arms, the smell of her hair, feel her touch and to recall the softness of her voice whenever she called my name. I longed for that again. I missed it. I needed it, and I knew Kate needed it. Our children needed the father that was never there for them. After all of the abuse –to Kate, my mom, the children–and even to myself, finally, I felt I was ready to change–if Kate and the children would have me. I called to Kate like I always did every morning when I felt she had not come to check on me soon enough. “Kate!” I wanted to tell her how much I love her, but Kate did not come in my room with coffee in hand as she had done for weeks. I called to her again. “Kate!” As I began to call a third time I heard a sound that I will never forget as long as I live. “Bang!” It was the sound of a gunshot coming from the living room. I heard a thump. It was my Kate. I had driven her to take the very thing she loved most–life! Did she not remember how much I still loved her? Did she not know that I was sorry each time I yelled at her or belittle her because of my condition and selfishness? How could she know, or even remember– I was no longer the man who said he would always love and protect her. Instead, I was a “scarred stranger” she did not even know.