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Unwed Mothers and the Vietnam War

Vietnam Vet at the Wall

“Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.”

Raw is the only way I can describe how I felt watching Ken Burn’s PBS documentary on the Vietnam War.

What happens when you let the pain in? What happens when you let the truth in? What happens when you don’t?

Until now, the only emotional thread left to my memories of the horrors and turbulence of those times was fishing for my “wedding ring” in the back of the dresser drawer in the unwed mothers home. We were told to wear our rings whenever we went into the outside world and tell anyone who might ask that our husband was in Vietnam – as if anyone was fooled. So many of us wore those rings.

Of course, I remember watching the fighting and horror on the nightly news, and the protests – my own and the nation’s - to the images each night so vivid we could almost imagine our own souls and bodies being torn apart along with those young men of our own generation. But so many years later, there was no longer an emotional charge to those memories. Or, so I thought.

No one I knew well fought in the Vietnam War. Either they were fortunate enough not to have their number come up, or they were able to get a deferment, or they escaped to Canada. When my boyfriend of two years told me we weren’t in any position to keep the baby, his rejection went even deeper, because our marriage with a baby on the way would have meant an automatic deferment from fighting. And still we didn’t marry, though we’d always planned to.

“There’s somethin’ happenin’ here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.”

My son was twenty-two months old, and I was lying in the college infirmary bed as sick as I’d ever been, delirious from fever and hallucinating. At least at the time I thought I was hallucinating. Images lit up in my mind like from the flash bulb of a Brownie Hawkeye camera or, now I can see, like fire from the bombs falling around our soldiers. Something was very wrong in my son’s life. In my delirium I knew it. It was Thanksgiving weekend, my second Thanksgiving without him. Sixteen more to go before I could begin searching for him.

“In restless dreams I walk alone … Silence like a cancer grows.”

I went on with my life. But as happy as I was with an exciting career in advertising and then raising two sons, chunks of memory increasingly were missing, as I struggled to pretend I was as normal as everyone else, in order to feel I was again a part of society, when no one I knew had a clue about the nightmare I’d lived through. What choice did I have? But I was growing further and further away from some essential part of myself. Hundreds of thousands of us walked alone and in shock back into a world without our babies and tried our best to pretend we weren’t mothers, such an essential truth about ourselves unable to be expressed.

On his eighteenth birthday, I began the search for my son, and in a huge way a search for myself as well. That’s when I thought about the Vietnam War again. The pioneers of the Adoption Reform Movement had likened our experience and our coping after to the PTSD Vietnam War veterans had experienced. So much began to make sense: intrusive thoughts, nightmares, unresolved grief from no one witnessing our loss. Feelings of sorrow, anger, desolation and numbness would come out of nowhere.

Then there was the call, and the Vietnam War again. After a year of searching, I found my son. Though I hadn’t planned it that way, I spoke with his adoptive mother first, and it worked out for the best. No one else could have filled me in on his life in such detail as she had. Before she told me the tragedies Jack had been through the first two years of his life, she reassured me he’d grown up to be a fine young man. But she had gotten Jack when he was eight months old, after the first adoption failed. Though she’d been expecting a newborn, she was grateful that Jack came to them at that age, and felt he was meant to be theirs, since her husband was able to enjoy him before he died in Vietnam in a great battle, when Jack was eighteen months old. I was freezing cold and numb as I listened to all that my son had been through.

A few days later, while waiting for the promised package of pictures, I flashed back to being so sick in the college infirmary and realized I hadn’t been hallucinating, that something terrible had happened with my son, or at least with his adoptive mother, whose grief must have been overwhelming.

When the package finally arrived, one of the photos was of her husband holding Jack and looking so happy. I felt numb as I stared at it. Right away, I made copies of many of the photos they generously sent and mailed them to my family. My Dad’s response to the photo of Jack with his adoptive father was, “Seeing how happy that man was makes everything all right.” What? Really? I couldn’t even respond.

“When my eyes were stabbed by a flash of neon light

that split the night

and touched the sound of silence.”

I remember watching Oliver Stone’s movie Born On the Fourth of July, starring Tom Cruise and based on the true story of Vietnam Vet Ron Kovic, that came out a few years later. Ron had come home, after witnessing the horrors of war, and his mother was berating him for not being the son she’d always known. All the forced pretending I’d done over the years that I was okay, despite the horror I’d lived through, was laid bare. What was being asked of me, of all of us all those years? What had we asked of ourselves?

A few years ago, I’d lent a copy of the NBC produced movie, The Other Mother, based on my memoir, to a friend who owns an antique clock and watch repair shop here in the Village in New York City. A homeless Vietnam vet he knew had wondered into the shop when the movie was playing, and I happened to stop by just as the movie finished. The vet was crying. “I can relate to everything you went through,” he wept. “You had the nuns and we had a sergeant. We lost our identities just like you. We dealt with horrors that no one would understand, or even try to, and so have never been able to fit back into the world again.” Suddenly, I was deeply connected to a man I most likely would have passed by on the street and not even given spare change to.

Maybe Time shouldn’t heal all wounds. As I watched Ken Burn’s documentary, I starkly faced the pain of those times and became again that young woman I was then. The music especially swept me back there, the lyrics taking on new meaning. At the same time, I found myself retrieving parts of myself that had been shattered in those turbulent sixties. Now, after watching the documentary, I could hold two truths equally. A stranger had held my son as his own, his name now etched on the Vietnam Wall Memorial, while my empty arms ached. And I could be happy for his precious moments with my son, and still so sad for all I lost.

“And the people bowed and prayed to the neon God they made …”

What happens when we, both as individuals and as part of a collective consciousness, don’t allow ourselves to feel the depth of our pain? Now, journalists aren’t permitted to show the flag draped coffins of the soldiers from our many wars since Vietnam, and we let them get away with it. How can we change things when we aren’t allowed to face reality? Our pain reveals our truth. Now, mothers buy the Kool-Aid when they believe that their own flesh and blood is better off without them, and we’re headed down the road inevitably to the Handmaid’s Tale, if we aren’t there already.

“… and no one dared disturb

the sound of silence.”

We can’t be the generation that woke everyone up and then fell asleep ourselves like the rest.

Note: Lyrics from The Sound of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel and Something’s Happening Here by Buffalo Springfield.

I’d love to hear how your lives intertwined with the Vietnam War.

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