When Absence Becomes Presence: A review of Baby, It’s You

reviewed by Caroline LeBlanc (poet, Army wife-and-veteran)

There’s a point where absence becomes presence.
Debra Kang Dean

As I was getting ready to write this review, one of my former poetry professors, whose husband died 10 years ago, posted a poem to honor the anniversary. The statement above came out of our exchange that followed. The contributors to Baby, It’s You: Messages from Deceased Heroes say similar things. “His signs clearly ask me to pay attention.” “I feel David is guiding these moments for me.” “I know Jason is with me, he is my love.” “It brought me comfort just like every other time he sends me a sign.” Finally, a Gold Star mother, who is considering starting a retreat center for veterans in honor of her son Killed In Action (KIA) by shrapnel, writes, “We are now in a place to feel the sweetness, and we hope to share that feeling with others.”

Baby, It’s You is a sharing of the heart’s loss and pain when a loved one dies, as well as the comfort, strength, and yes, sweetness of the spirit connections discovered after that death. The book is a compilation of lightly edited transcribed stories shared by people who lost loved ones in war or war related deaths. Mothers, wives, grandchildren, friends recount details of lives shared with loved ones while alive, and how their relationships evolved after their loved one left this physical plane. Whether you believe the dead can communicate with the living, or that such beliefs are the stuff of over-active imaginations, the accounts of human love and loss in Baby, It’s You will have you reaching for a tissue.

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Baby, It’s You is about thirty-one people who died, and how their loved ones continue to feel the lost person’s positive presence in their lives. All but one of those who died are men. The one young woman who died was a daughter estranged from her veteran father during life. Her father tells of the signs of reconciliation she sent him after her death.

All but three who reported contact with loved ones after death are women: twenty-one wives, four mothers, two girlfriends. The ranks of military personnel who died ranged from Private First Class to Lieutenant Colonel. One male reporter was in the British RAF. Two second hand reports, given by men, were about the experience of women they knew. Two other accounts were by adult grandchildren whose dead grandparents sent helpful signs during particularly difficult times.

Of the fourteen combat area deaths, twelve active duty men were KIA in our recent wars (one drowned in water after his vehicle rolled into a ditch, the rest died by either an IED or small arms fire), one man died in Vietnam, and one died of a medical condition while deployed in Afghanistan. One of those KIA was shot in an ambush by an Iraqi soldier he was training. His mother had to raise a real stink to get the government to tell her the truth. Two active duty deaths were stateside training accidents–the military is a dangerous professions. No one questions the heroism of these fallen troops.

It’s a different story for the five men who committed suicide after deployments, even though at least three of them had over twenty years of service and multiple deployments. Elizabeth, the wife of Master Sergeant Steven Monnin, had to live through the following experience of having her husband’s heroism dismissed because of how he died.

I attended a Snowball Express Fair before Christmas. The event was an annual trip for gold star children in Dallas, Texas. There was an older lady attending a quilt booth. It was a memory quilt, and I was looking for my husband’s name when she told me, “The quilt is for heroes and Steven doesn’t qualify because he died by suicide stateside.”
I cried almost instantly! I was shocked that she said that to my face! This is what widows face—the judgment, the criticism, and the journey of veterans in this work.

Seven military men died stateside. One died of natural causes. Three died in motor vehicle accidents. Two civilians died in the nine-eleven attacks on the twin towers, one a young fireman on his second fire. Jennifer, whose husband Spc. Jason Hunt was killed in the 2009 mass shooting at Fort Hood, describes her experience.

At the funeral, the President of the United States told me that I would be taken care of. However, later the Fort Hood shooting was ruled an Act of Violence, prohibiting benefits he would have received if he had died overseas.

Even without this kind of disregard, survivors who had looked forward to years with their loved ones, end up heartbroken with grief and loneliness. Many suffer crises of confidence when left to face childrearing and the other challenges of life alone. Lost loved ones become important. They often send signs to not only their immediate intimates, but also other family members, including children and some who never met them in life.

Signs, which can lumped into general categories, nonetheless have idiosyncratic twists which personalize their significance for each individual. The book’s introduction is McGill’s 2 part list poem. Part One is, “We met…” and lists the range of how people met, from bars to jobs, grade school to college, blind dates to adjacent cars at red lights. Part Two is, “We meet now…” and lists some of the particular experiences described in the book. Rather than repeat her selection, here’s a description of the range of signs in my own list poem.

Your appear before me, our children, people who never met you.
On their own, things come on: lights blink, broken intercoms buzz.
I smell you, your cologne, your sweaty clothes, favorite foods, that “Army smell.”
You pull wise guy tricks, like you did during life. You make noises, mess with the lights, the doors, all kinds of things. You stop when I tell you to knock it off.
You come to me in dreams—sleeping and waking. You came to me before or when you died. You come to me even now that you are dead.
I feel your touch on my skin, the pressure of your hand on my shoulder. I feel your hug, your kiss.
You send me signs in the wind, and on the wind.
You make the temperature change (you always did), but now it can get cold as well as hot.
You warn me, protect me from danger and dangerous people.
You call my name, tell me you’re OK, that you love me, that I’m strong enough to do this without you.
You show up in photos, leave strange patterns on pictures.
You send me signs: animals, clogs, heart shaped things, coins, bobby pins, ribbons, sea shells…rainbows.
You come to me in sound, music, our song, our songs, and when I hear it just when I need to, I know that Baby, It’s You.

Anyone who has loved someone with a dangerous job in the military or civilian world, even a dangerous hobby, knows what it is like to live wondering if he or she will survive that day’s threat—or adrenaline rush, depending on your point of view. When my husband deployed for Desert Storm, I was sure I saw him in a television news report—his head, really—as he was helping to carry someone a stretcher into the field hospital. I ended up so tied to the TV, so close to palpitations and panic attacks, that I had to swear off television entirely, and the news until he finally stopped volunteering for deployments years later. Others have told me of similar experiences. And who hasn’t wondered how, not if, son, daughter, husband, wife, father, mother will come back changed in body, mind, and soul.

The word hero is sometimes used glibly, but there is nothing glib about the sacrifices made by the men and women whose stories populate Baby, It’s You. May we all, when it is our time to lose a loved one, have the comfort and companionship of his or her presence from their beyond in our here and now—in every way that has meaning for us.

McGill, Maureen. Baby, It’s You. Ozark Mountain Publishing, 2015.

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Buy Baby, It’s You here

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About the reviewer:

Caroline_LeBlanc_3Caroline LeBlanc, MFA, MS, RN is a former Army Nurse, an Army wife & mother, and retired psychotherapist. As the Writer in Residence at the Museum of the American Military Family since 2012, she wrote the script for the museum’s Summer 2014 exhibit, Sacrifice & Service: The American Military Family. She co-produced & wrote the script for Telling, Albuquerque (part of the national Telling Project), a 9/11/2104 testimonial theatrical event where military veterans and family members perform their own stories.

Since relocating to Albuquerque in 2013, she has hosted a writing salon for women military veterans and family members. In 2011 Spalding University awarded her an MFA in Creative Writing. Her poems have been published in her 2010 chapbook, Smoky Ink and a Touch of Honeysuckle, as well as online and in a number of print journals. Her art work has also been included in a number of Apronistas Women’s Art Group shows in the Albuquerque area.

Your Chances Ain’t Good: Taylor Brown’s ‘Fallen Land’

He knew to fear a man who went hatless of his own volition.

There is no pleasure quite like reading a novel so thoroughly immersive that each time you pick it up, you forget what you were doing before, or what exactly you were headed toward. Or if you remember, you no longer care, because the world within the pages is so rich, so detailed, so particular in sense and dialogue and cadence that you just want to linger there.

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If Amazon sold this cover in tablecloth format, I would buy it. It’s that beautiful. But I would never let anyone eat on it.

That, for me, was Taylor brown’s debut novel, Fallen Land. It’s heavily resonant of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and with the occasional shocking (but less erratic) violence of Cormack McCarthy.  Yet it has the updated feel of having been penned by a younger writer, someone more open to the ways we might plumb history in order to reflect not just the savagery of the past but what is soulful, tender, worth keeping. It never bends toward the occasional soft-focus romance of Cold Mountain but doesn’t quite blaze off the deep end like McCarthy either. Fallen Land is its own book: lyrical, historical, devastating, humane.

The novel opens with young Irish immigrant Callum, who’s joined up as a scout for a dwindling group of Confederate Rangers led by a fierce, opportunistic Colonel. The Rangers are “like men elected to sainthood. Faces skull-gone, mouths hidden in the gnarled bush of their beards, showing only their teeth.”

They plunder and bounty hunt at the Colonel’s will, staving off their own starvation as the Civil War draws to a close and Sherman begins his March to the Sea. Within the very first pages of the novel, a plunder on a meager farmhouse leads the men to discover young Ava, her family entirely lost to the war, barely surviving alone in an empty house.

She spun on bare feet, kitchen knife clutched to chest, face silly-hard with courage, fear.

“Which side?” she asked him.

“Don’t matter which.”

Callum connects with her instantly, senses the danger she’s in. (Ava: “I’ll take my chances.” Callum: “They ain’t good.”) He saves her from rape, though he suffers a head wound in the process and ends up killing the man with ill intentions toward Ava.

But Callum’s chivalrous impulse can only go so far, and later, while he is still unconscious from his injury, she is raped by the Colonel himself.

Callum learns of this as he recovers (awakening in a patchwork coat Ava has sewn for him, with a big pocket stitched in for his gun–simple thoughtfulness, or maybe she’s suggesting something). So he steals the Colonel’s horse and leaves the group in disgust, going back to help her. When the Colonel is murdered by a trio of outlaws, his gang assumes Callum did it, and they pursue him and Ava–who is now convinced that she’s pregnant with the Colonel’s baby, she and Callum both resigned to the fact– as they try to reach Callum’s distant relatives in Georgia.

The Colonel’s old gang isn’t far off for a second as Callum and Ava make their attempt at an escape, and now the group is led by the fearsome Clayburn, the Colonel’s slave-hungter brother. Other marauders roam the Blue Ridge, too, and their desperation makes them dangerous. This all makes for good and easy reading as you wait to see if the likable young folks, Callum and Ava, can outwit and outride their pursuers as they pick their way across a South ruined by war.

Callum and Ava’s growing relationship is a pleasure to read, and their banter is witty and tender by turns. Riveting too is the cast of characters they meet across the scorched landscape, survivors and hangers-on who ring Homeric in scope. But there’s too much going against Callum and Ava, and they are smart enough to know it. When a fortune-teller reveals that “one of you is going to die,” they are heartbroken; you will be too. If the two of them are going to succeed, they’ll have to overcome even the obstacle of fate to get to Georgia, safety, and peace.

taylorbrown481-225x300

 Brown looks good for being 132 years old.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll be completely absorbed in this novel; you’ll get downright spoiled, and you won’t want to leave. You’ll want to keep seeing the fog drift through gulleys and hollers, hearing hoofbeats and the crack of a rifle ominous enough to get your heart pounding; smelling the burning campfires, the gunpowder, the faroff, terrifying scorch of Atlanta under General Sherman’s March to the Sea.You want good, old-fashioned, edge-of-your-seat storytelling? Here you go.

Brown, Taylor. Fallen Land: A Novel. St. Martin’s, 2016.

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Buy Fallen Land here

Visit Taylor Brown’s web site

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P.S! Today is the pub day for Fallen Land — January 12, 2016. It’s a big day for me ’cause it’s also my pub day! My novel The Longest Night hits bookstores today – Barnes & Noble, your local indie, wherever books are sold.

This is What it Means to Regret: Matthew Hefti’s ‘A hard and Heavy Thing’

Like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing is a novel written by a man up-against-time to one beloved person. AHAHT+Cover

In this case, that man is not a pastor in his seventies but a twenty-something war veteran named Levi Hartwig, home after a tour to Iraq that had tragic consequences for both himself and the intended recipient of his novel, his childhood-best-friend-turned-battle-buddy Nick.

Levi and Nick are opposites of a sort, but they go way back, and to these small-town Wisconsin boys that means everything. Nick’s the “good one,” or so Levi’s always thought. Levi’s nearly in awe of Nick’s patience, his spiritual inclination, his work ethic. He himself is sarcastic, a little drifting, darker of thought; he’s always aspired to Nick’s brand of goodness though he knows he’ll never get there. As for Nick, he benefits from Levi’s pragmatism, his reality checks, and the occasional punch in the face.

Levi joined the service in part because he could not imagine life without Nick in it. It’s quite a length to go to: the kid’s spent his young life hanging around, making wisecracks, smoking a bowl, and yet he is willing to join the Army, go to Basic Training, and ship out to Iraq to stay with his friend.

And, oh yeah — he’s always been in love with Nick’s girl.

Their last deployment to Iraq was disastrous. A flippant prank by Levi may have set into motion a string of events that ends with Nick badly burned and maimed in an IED blast. Nick thinks he owes his life to Levi, who pulls him from the wreckage; Levi knows, or thinks he knows, better. Both men are carrying a burden of guilt and indebtedness that could be eased if only they could really explain themselves to one another. Nick’s preoccupied with running the family business and trying to keep his marriage afloat, but Levi, unemployed and desperate, makes one breakneck, last-ditch effort to salvage his relationship with his friend and, through that, no less than his own life.

Hence, the novel that he’s writing Nick.

There is a poignancy and an urgency to the epistolary novel form that is hard to replicate in any other. It’s slightly voyeuristic, like reading something you find in someone else’s desk drawer. And yet, as Robinson does in Gilead, Hefti is able to take a small, intimate idea–a man’s desire to explain himself, to indelibly connect–and use it to explore large spiritual and philosophical themes.

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One thing Hefti does remarkably well is channel these themes through Levi’s young, working-class, twenty-something consciousness. I felt like I could see Levi clear as day: nervous, needy, thoughtful, witty, lazy, navel-gazing. He is, in a reductionist view, a slightly self-obsessed millennial not equipped to have the weight of the world thrown on his shoulders, but f*ck, it’s sitting there now, and what is he supposed to do? If only he can reach Nick the way he wants to, he seems to think, can there be any hope that he’ll be healed.

You’ll never let me go, will you? Giving me the space and freedom I want isn’t your idea of love, is it? You’d rather cut me deep on earth to spare me pain in hell, whereas I think hell is right here.

Nick would be perfectly willing to talk things through with Levi–he was made for that sort of thing, in fact–but Levi’s got another secret that’s keeping him from talking, and it involves the way he was discharged from the service. So when he does come home to Wisconsin and finds himself living in Nick’s basement, the burden of his stormy, turbulent psyche extends to Nick’s young wife Eris. She’s the very same attractive, damaged, intelligent woman who has been the object of Levi’s lifelong burning desire, but–always less decisive, less successful than Nick– he could never bring himself to express his real feelings for her.

Can Levi recover from his recent past without completely alienating himself from one or both of his only true friends? If he gets this novel he’s pouring out to Nick fast enough, can he escape with his life?

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He wished someone would have tried harder to talk him out of all this.

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All those young men…carried the world, and it was heavy, and they didn’t know what to do with it. Was this the rest? Was this the war? Things had already spun out of control and they weren’t always as black and white or right and wrong as Nick liked to think.

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All this is what it means to regret.

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Regret is the organizing theme of A Hard and Heavy Thing. Part of this regret is the wide-eyed awfulness of young people confronted with mortality. How wonderful to be young and free in America, right?, to not have to think of death; how horrible to be young and have to think of it every day:

He didn’t think about….how before he saw the bullet-hole in Bryan’s neck just south of Sperwan Ghar, he saw the shock in his eyes–the wide and vacant stare that accompanied the complete and immediate occlusion of his airway, which was born from shock and not pain. The shock was born from Bryan’s realization that things like this really did happen to you and not the other guy, and this is exactly what it feels like.

Nick, burned and disfigured and fumbling through a failing marriage, is the other guy. Levi, sleepless and sick with regret, is the other guy.

A tiny percentage of our young Americans are the other guy, and that’s our own hard and heavy thing.

Hefti, Matthew. A Hard and Heavy Thing. Tyrus Books, 2015.

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Buy A Hard and Heavy Thing here

Read more about Matthew Hefti here and  a review of the novel on Wrath-Bearing Tree

Funny or Die: No Man’s War by Angela Ricketts

Sometimes I forget how foreign military culture can seem until I start telling some story to family and friends. Suddenly one of them will hold up a hand and say, “Wait, wait, what? Back up!” and I’ll have to explain something that sounded, to civilian ears, sensational.

Even though Angie Ricketts is a fellow military wife, I read her memoir,  No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife, with the same sort of awed fascination. The infantry subculture is a highly particular one, honed over centuries of existence and strengthened by the bonds of soldiers and families who arguably sacrifice more than any other branch, so there was much that was fascinating and brand-new to me. My own family’s Navy life felt nearly sedate in comparison to the shockingly high op-tempo the Ricketts family and others in the infantry community endured through the last decade-plus of wartime.

 

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Ricketts was an Army “brat” before marrying her Army husband (an elopement on the eve of his deployment to Somalia), and perhaps because of that, she feels utterly comfortable criticizing the Army because you know she’s also proud of it, part of it, for better or worse. It’s sort of the idea that “I can talk crap about my own family, but you better not talk about my family!” that I think is familiar to most of us whose lives have been wedded to the military.

But most of us, alas, are not as funny as Angie Ricketts.

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While No Man’s War is a memoir, Ricketts has a novelist’s eye for character along with her muckraker’s compulsion to stir the pot. I laughed out loud at character after character, recognizing types I’d come across both within the military and without. There’s Tammy, a neighbor who once called 911 for an imagined bee sting and “is famous for the phrase, ‘Madam, you have impugned my integrity!,” said apparently in full earnestness. There’s Belinda, “full of shit and steam,” with “hair that’s been teased and processed long past its endurance.”

Ricketts herself serves as an engaging character, likable for the very honesty that sometimes gets her into hot water. In her role as a commander’s wife, she knows the code inside and out, knows exactly when she has to “dispense the Kool-Aid” (go through the motions) and when she can subvert them without getting in too much trouble. It’s refreshing. “I am constantly revved up for more banality,” she says  of a long deployment filled with endless FRG meetings and wives’ dinners. (Ruminate on that line awhile; it’s brilliant.)

We host a craft night to make elaborate care packages to send to Iraq. As I stand there contemplating evil thoughts of what I could put into that box, [my friend] Mira tells me she might fill her husband’s box with the piles and piles of shit from his beloved dog that she’s been left to clean up after.

At a Tragedy Assistance presentation, Ricketts watches the depressing images of folded flags and widows in black scroll across the video screen and thinks,

We’ve officially arrived at one of the many moments when I zone out and start imagining the most wildly inappropriate things that could happen. Maybe the chaplain could lift his leg and fart with a loud grunt. Maybe Regina Sweeney will scream the word fellatio! at the top of her lungs.

I couldn’t help but picture that, and my husband glanced up at my chuckling. “What?” he asked. (Oh, nothing!)

Here’s the thing: Given the pace of life Ricketts describes in No Man’s War, this all seems almost completely reasonable. Her husband’s eight deployments–half of them to Iraq and Afghanistan– are long stretches punctuated by his times at home and the births of their three children, which she raises in large part by herself. Raising three children would be a challenge for anyone without the immense added stress of eight deployments, but there you go. On top of that is her fear for his safety and, perhaps more pressingly, their marriage; he is commanding six hundred soldiers in Afghanistan and making life-or-death decisions for other people, some of which haunt the both of them later. She writes movingly of her empathy and horror upon hearing of the deaths of three Afghan children in a strike ordered by her husband. She is honest about the occasional Xanax in her purse, about the “black soul” she develops toward the end of a long and grueling deployment.

Of course one [civilian] counselor is present in the next stall when I break down and sob at a volume that frightens even me. No, don’t you dare hug me, lady. For reasons beyond the fact that you didn’t wash your hands. My soul just turned black two minutes ago, but how could I tell you that?

This is gutsy stuff from an officer’s wife, stuff that people need to hear and that we should be reading. A lot of it reminds me of stories in Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, except as memoir Ricketts has to pin it all on herself; there is no dodging the first-person pronouns on every page. There’s no comfy veil of fiction to hide behind and no freedom to make stuff up when you don’t have the answer.

I don’t know what required more bravery, living through 22 years as an army wife or writing about it, no-holds-barred. I do know that No Man’s War is a book I’ll be recommending, to people within the military and without, for a long time.

Ricketts, Angela. No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife. Counterpoint, 2014.

Buy No Man’s War here.

You can listen to her on NPR and read an excerpt here.