It wasn’t his fault, really. His mind and morality were just collateral damage.
When he stepped outside and took that first breath of air of the weekend, away from the clamor of reality, the burden slid quietly off his shoulders. By the time the tent was staked and the gear unpacked, he was present in a way he never was at home.
But most of him was still missing.
“Where are you?” she often wondered. “Where do you go?”
Inside his mind. Back to Afghanistan. Back to that IED strike, that moment, then that other IED strike — the weight of his fellow soldier as he pulled him from the burning truck, his life gone, and a 30 minute attempt to revive him long after all hope was lost. The smell of the burning Stryker tires, the sound of popping bullets, the hardened looks on the faces around him as others tried to move through the terror of war.
He had been home for five years, at least in body. Five years.
But homecoming itself was a myth — he never actually came home. He looked like he was home. He smelled like he was home. But his mind and soul and presence with it were still gone.
When they spent time outside she could catch a glimpse of him — stolen moments when he would touch her hand and she would feel him there, finally there with her. She would blink, and it would be over. His smiling exterior was still there. But the real him, the one she married, was missing again.
It broke her, too. Because as she tried to heal him over the years, to will him home, she lost herself. The lines on her face told a part of the story — her broken heart told the other half. She could not pick up the pieces of her shattered life, of her shattered husband, of her confused little ones. She could not carry them all alone. She was breaking under the pressure. She felt like she was drowning.
The outside gave her peace, too.
The more time they spent outside, the more frequently she saw him all there and the more of herself she found independent of him. And so they went out more and more. They camped, they hiked, they climbed. And while they did it, they found a life worth living both with each other and without each other. They would never be the same as they were before they lost themselves to war, but they dreamed they could be better.
What was it about the trees and the rain and the breeze and the water and the mountains? Why did it move and heal in a way that therapy and prayer and 12 step programs alone could not?
Isn’t that just the thing about moving on from war? There is no right way. There is no full and ready answer. There is no prescription that will help everyone. But there is always the Almighty’s creation waiting to be tested.
The outdoors gave them hope. The trees and the wind nodded in support of their dreams of more, better, fuller, happier life.
Who are they? They are us. We are them. We have been battered and broken, but we are not beaten. We move forward. We listen to the robin’s song and we hope in its power to make us whole again.
Nature is our salve. The rivers are our therapists. And by the grace of God, the outside heals us.