Monday, November 10, 2008

When You Come Home by Nora Eisenberg [Review]

"When You Come Home"
by Nora Eisenberg
Curbstone Press

I clearly remember the night Operation Desert Storm was begun by the United States because I still have the journal I'd been keeping for my son, who was then a newborn in a borrowed handcrafted wooden swinging cradle. My baby boy slept in the cradle while Bernard Shaw and John Holliman hunkered down in their Baghdad hotel room reporting the details for then cutting-edge CNN and it looked like fireworks over the besieged city of babies and old men and women already sick and starving from years of fruitless sanctions. It was a war for which we were being told, after years of hippie vs. hawk Vietnam argument, that we could finally win - and, at long last decisively so. What is winning? As a new mother, I wrote the question -along with all the words that were in my heart. I questioned our country's growing involvement in the region although I understood that we were defending an ally. I wondered, even then, if our growing dependence on foreign oil was leading our nation down a path of perpetual war. I wondered if my baby, sleeping peacefully in his bed, would someday be called to be a warrior for our national addiction.

A member of my family went to the desert for the first Gulf War. I recall the days of sending him cans of Chef Boyardee and books about Elvis and pictures from home. I especially recall the night he came home to our family. There's a scene I keep in my mind of balloons and embraces at the airport and my sense of peace, joy, and relief in knowing that he'd survived. It didn't matter to me at that moment that he may not have been emotionally whole, I just knew he was back in our arms. I remember going with him to a Catholic elementary school where he offered to allow children to ask him questions about Desert Storm. He's the kind of good-humored, loving, intelligent fellow who'd never want to burden you with horror stories, but I know, even though he doesn't talk a lot about those months in the desert, that he came home changed. How could you not be changed after war? You're lifted to hero status by some who think you deserve it and by those in the shadows who have an interest in keeping soldiers heroes so war can be seen as the fastest route to honor. You may not feel like a hero. You're given a parade and a promise of education so you can keep up with the Joneses while the Joneses become a class of working poor in a nation with a canyon-sized gap between the minute percentage of the richest and the rest of us. You see horrors that no human being ever sets out to desire to see and you're expected to blend in again when you get back. You become acutely aware of your fellow countrymen's short attention span when, on a chilling day, you suddenly realize with a great sense of disappointment that you've been forgotten. A VA hospital closes. Veterans' benefits are cut. A new war is begun. The VFW is often the only place for that certain connection - a refuge where you're still understood for who you are by those who've shared the experience of war.

Veteran's Day 2008 was a fitting time to have been reading "When You Come Home" by Nora Eisenberg. In her writing I see the uncanny ability to pull the everyday experience of the veteran and his/her family together with the inner strife in the inner-lives of the people who've been to war and back. Marine reservist Tony Bravo has come back from the Gulf War with the raw memory of it still fresh in his mind. He has a longing to teach a history of war although he's still confused as to how to approach the subject as each passing day brings up new remembrances of experiences in the war, many of them haunting. Tony, who's lost his own father in the Vietnam war, has fallen in love and wishes to start a new life with his childhood frend Lily, a sweet and creative girl who was orphaned by the ghosts of Vietnam and was raised by Tony's mother. Because Tony's mother Mimi, a midwife by profession, is also a Vietnam war widow, she has been an especially nurturing and empahetic force in Lily's life. The story wraps itself around the main characters and their best friends Homer, a Marine who's come back from Iraq with symptoms of what would eventually be known as Gulf War syndrome and Nancy - Homer's wife - who learns she's expecting their first child shortly after his return from the war. Lily's engagement to Tony and the coming of Nancy and Homer's baby remain in focus throughout the story as the mysterious symptoms related to Guf War syndrome begin to manifest themselves in Homer. The fear and confusion set in as Tony, Lily, and Nancy watch Homer's condition deteriorate and come to understand in a most disheartening way that, whether or not those who worked in Veteran and government afairs were aware of the causes of the mysterious disease, that there was an unwillingness on their part to listen and to claim responsibility, and too often seeming to willfully deny reponsibility for all consequences involving their putting the soldiers in the place where there was the potential for dangerous exposure to poisons, whether it was from oil fires, chemicals like DEET; or from germs, gases, depleted uranium from U.S. weapons, required vaccines that weren't FDA-approved, or broken masks and suits that didn't protect as they were meant to protect.

Homer's symptoms worsen. Nancy's child is born with unexpected health problems that can reasonably be tied to Homer's mysterious illnesses. The tension increases between Tony, who's increasingly worried that he'll soon come down with his fellow soldiers' common symptoms and discouraged because his History course cirriculum, based upon his own experience and knowledge of war, has been rejected by those who don't want that knowledge to be spread too far... and Lily, always the hopeful, committed, and determined champion of the man Tony has become. Their love story isn't an easy or idyllic one. Fairy tales and most romance stories don't involve spending 24 hours of your day watching over a loved one who's been spewing vomit, sweating, and mumbling irrationally while you have no clue what's wrong with them and while no one in your own government seems to want to support you or your loved one with a system of healthcare that has its philosophic basis in the core practice of listening - really listening - to the concerns of the veteran. Nora Eisenberg has made her story all too real, piercing your heart with an image of life for people who return from war different...broken..whether by physical illness, emotional illness, or both.

Lily refuses to let her dreams die - as much of a flight of child-like fancy as they seem sometimes. Although she's never had the opportunity for a first-class education, she's got an uncanny natural ability to see things for exactly what they are. For instance, she thinks of the implications of the Vietnam-era term "MIA" while reflecting upon her own childhood and her father who returned from Vietnam lost and haunted by many memories. He was eventually taken from a very young Lily by the ghosts of war that led to his own physical deterioration. The term that Lily assigns to her father is "MAA" - missing AFTER action; much like her friend Homer and, in many ways, even her fiance Tony...and so many other veterans of the war.

An old friend from the Gulf War enters the story near the end and, to Tony's surprise, is wheelchair-bound and extremely sick from Gulf War syndrome. His friend, angry and confused about his own fate and the death of a mutual brother-in-arms who has succumbed from the same disease, says, "Operation Desert Posion. that's what we should call the whole fucking war."

Ms. Eisenberg's book speaks about a war that the United States supposedly won, hands-down, in no time. I'd always felt that it was supposed to erase the memory of the U.S. in Vietnam from our nation's collective mind. It was as if to say, "Look at us. We're war-winners once again." Yet, here we are today, bogged down in a war and an occupation in Iraq. We keep hearing about victory while no one has been able to produce a credible vision of victory in their ever-changing rhetoric about a one-day glorious exit strategy from Iraq that never materializes. The book causes me to ask if the current war in Iraq is really a new war and whether or not, as we look back on the history of the first Gulf War, we'd won anything at all? For all the veterans who suffered and continue to suffer from Gulf War Syndrome, I'd imagine you'd be hard-pressed to find one who believes their country treated them like the winners they were framed to be. It's too hard to worry about the winning when your life and your family's life is torn apart.

If everyone reflected as realistically as Nora Eisenberg upon war and the men and women who fight those wars, we would all look at war differently. I urge you to read this book. The story's as relevant to all of us, to our veterans who deserve our best care, and to our politics today as it was in the 1960s and the 1990s.