01 Feb What I Cannot Know
It is 1918.
Four miles from here, at the front, a fragment of German shell strikes a rock. It ricochets with such force that it cuts entirely through one man’s stomach, and another man’s arm. By then it has lost enough momentum that when it strikes the third man in the jaw, it lodges there. The first man is dead. The other two will be arriving soon.
But when I tell Seamus this, he doesn’t believe me.
“You cannot know that,” he says.
He’s right. I cannot know it, and yet I do.
When two men are evacuated back to our operating hospital some hours later, one missing an arm and the other with a shard of metal stuck fast in the bone below his left ear, Seamus does not look at me in wonderment. Indeed, it seems he does not even remember what I told him.
“Edith,” he says, pointing to the man with shrapnel in his jaw, “this one.”
Putting the anaesthetic mask over his face is difficult. The metal is in the way.
The other soldier mutters to himself across the room, gesturing with what remains of his arm. He is stable, but shell shocked. I hear the words “guts” and “spill” and cannot bear to listen more closely.
The man below me on the table isn’t able to speak, but he is crying. His sobs are guttural and wet. The bubbles of spittle that escape from between his lips are tinged pink.
“Don’t be afraid,” I tell him. My voice is soft as I watch the steady drop drop drop of the chloroform onto the mask. “I won’t let it hurt.”
His eyes are wet with tears. I see in them everything we all want: to be warm, to be safe, to be home.
I count backwards from ten, and he blinks in time with me.
Ten, nine, eight… and his eyelids begin to slow. Seven, six, five…and they are out of sync with my count. Four, three, two, one…and they stay closed.
I switch the chloroform mask for the ether, and Seamus begins to work on him.
At the convalescent tent, another man has just been told that he will be sent back to the front tomorrow. It is another thing that I cannot know, but I do. Ida is the nurse on rounds in convalescence. And that is how I know, because Ida has told me. Or rather, she will tell me tonight, through her tears.
“Take his pistol away.” I know I say the words aloud, but Seamus doesn’t seem to hear me. It doesn’t matter. The words are not meant for him. I don’t know for whom they are meant.
The man tells Ida he is going for a walk. He thanks her for taking such good care of him. She watches him as he goes.
“Take his pistol away. Take his pistol away!” I am shouting it now, but no one reacts. No one responds.
There is no hope for that, I realize. I turn to Seamus instead.
“You must hold steady,” I tell him. “No matter what, hold steady.”
I know he must hear me, for he is nodding his head, but he looks as though he doesn’t understand the words I am saying. His eyes are fixed on his work.
I hear the scuff of boots just outside the canvass walls of our hospital. The ether puddles on the cloth of the mask. I want to run to the man outside, to stop him, but I cannot bring myself to move.
“Hold steady, Seamus. Please hold steady.”
But it’s no use.
The report is loud and close, and Seamus starts and suddenly there is a gout of blood across my chest and I am only just able to turn my head quick enough to keep it from getting in my eyes.
“God dammit!” Seamus tries to clamp on the severed artery, but the shell fragment has completely bisected it. It is already too late, and I know this even though I shouldn’t, and the blood slows and the ether drips until the last and at least, at least I was able to do that. At least it did not hurt.
And outside Ida is screaming because she has never seen a man shoot himself, and she did not know, how could she have known that he was going to do it?
No one could have known. Except I did. I knew and I could do nothing to stop it.
Later, when chaos has abated for a moment, I bring Seamus the strongest cup of tea I can make. He has been crying, but he tries not to let me see. There is blood under his nails, and mine as well.
We met here, at this field hospital, what feels like many years ago already. When he is sure no one is looking, Seamus kisses my hand. Doctors should not fraternize with their nurses, and Mother and Father would hardly approve, but I am long past caring. I let my fingers stay twined with his.
Seamus and I do not know each other, not really. We only know what war has made of us. But someday, when this ends, we want to change that. He wants to take me to Blarney—
lays us on the grass
gets us in the family way
then leaves us on our ass
right away, right away
right away, Salonika—
I don’t know that song.
He wants to take me to Blarney Castle, to kiss the stone.
“Though I don’t know what it would do for you,” he says. “Since you already speak so prettily.”
But we’ll never see Blarney, not together. He’ll be gone before the war is over.
I don’t know that. I can’t know that.
But he will be. He will go starving for air, his fingertips blue, his face—
I don’t want to think about that!
I squeeze his hand tighter in my own, and he is warm and alive. I do not know that he will die here. I refuse to know it.
“You haven’t heard that song yet,” he says, and I realize I have been humming the tune about Salonika. He’s right. The women are singing it now in Cork, but I can’t know that. I won’t know that until after the war is over, when I go there to find his mother, to tell her how brave her son was, to tell her where he is buried—
Stop it, Edith.
Seamus looks me in the face, and his eyes are dark. Have they always been so?
“Something much worse is coming.”
It comes on a stretcher from the front.
They carry him into our hospital, and he is Death. I see his face and it is only a skull, grinning with the promise of taking from me everything that I love. His bones rattle beneath the cloth of his uniform, and they tell me that the sound is the rales of a cough.
“He’s been gassed,” they say. But they are wrong.
“He’s not been gassed! He’s sick, don’t bring him in here! Take him over there! Over there!” I gesture frantically to the hospital tent designated for the sick, but they do not see me point. They do not hear my words.
It will not matter anyway. A barrier only of cloth and a few hundred metres cannot keep Death from us. He will reach the sick tent in due time, and the convalescence ward, and the quarters for the doctors and nurses. He will reach them all in time. But first he will come for the operation hospital. First he will come for us.
His flesh reforms before my eyes and he is suddenly only a boy. He heaves for breath, eyes burning with fever. A dusky hue has already spread over his cheeks. He reaches for my hand with his grey fingertips. He coughs, a jet of frothy, milky blood bubbling over his lips and out of his nose.
I take his hand. I cannot do otherwise. Even Death is afraid of what he brings to us.
His right lung is filling with fluid. Lung damage is an effect of chlorine gas, but I know this is not from gas. But there is nothing I can say or do that will change what is about to happen.
Seamus wants to drain the pleural space, to give the boy room to breathe.
My hands shake as I administer the chloroform, for this I can know and this I do know: anaesthetic will not take if you cannot breathe it in. The boy flickers, but refuses to fade fully under. His eyelids flutter, but do not close.
But Seamus will not wait any longer.
He goes in. The skin parts easily, and the muscle underneath.
I am crying, but again I cannot move.
“Seamus, please don’t. Please, please don’t. He won’t go under, he can’t.”
The rib comes out slick with blood, and the lung underneath is heavy and dark. Under my shaking hands, beneath the mask, the boy groans in delirium and pain.
“Please, Seamus, I’m begging you! He can still move!”
He doesn’t hear me. He never has. He never will.
I cannot know that the boy will buck when the needle goes in, but I do.
And the needle goes in and he does.
He bucks and he coughs and the great pressure against his lung is released out into the air through the needle. The pus is thin and sanguineous and as it comes down on Seamus like rain, I know Death has taken his hand as well.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” I’m sobbing, and it seems now that finally Seamus can hear me.
He wipes his face with his sleeve, smearing the bloody fluid away from his eyes. I think he knows now that this is not gas. I think he has known all along. But he couldn’t just let the boy die.
“Hold steady, Edith, we haven’t lost him yet.”
And he’s right. Despite all of it, the boy survives the surgery, and then he survives a single day more.
Seamus survives six.
He clutches my hand and there is blood under his nails.
He is sick, but he is only one of many. No one tries to drain their lungs. No one knows what to do. We give them whisky and water and wrap them in blankets and wait for them to die.
Seamus is dying now.
He is drowning. His eyes bulge red. His nose has bled for hours; the pillow beneath his head is matted with clots. The skin across his chest and throat crackles with trapped pockets of the air leaking from his heavy, bloody lungs.
His face is swollen and black.
He coughs and seizes and his nails dig into my skin again, but I will not pull away. He cannot speak, but he is begging me to help him. There is nothing I can do.
When it is finally over, his hand is still in mine and he is warm but not alive.
And his hand is still in mine, but then it is not his hand. It is a woman’s hand. She is alive, and she is a few years younger than I am, and she looks like my sister.
But she is not my sister Maryanne, because Maryanne died before the war even began. And she is not a few years younger than I am. She is many. The hand she holds in her own is small and wrinkled and old. My hand.
“No, Grandma Edith. It’s me, Susannah.”
The Scotsman on the radio sings about a far-off place and I think at first that it must be Salonika, but it is not. It is Italy.
There is a photograph on the wall and I am in it, but I am older. No, I am younger. I am in my wedding dress and I am smiling and the man next to me in his suit is not Seamus because Seamus did not live long enough for us to go to Blarney. The man is…his name is…Robert. He is gentle and kind and even when I thought I could never love again I did learn to love him.
Robert is gone now too, I remember, but he was old and we had lived a good life and it did not hurt, at least it did not hurt.
“Did you go somewhere frightening again, Grandma Edith?”
I am crying, I have been crying. I am shaking. I was afraid, but now it is easing.
I remember Susannah, too. I remember that I love her.
“I did, darling. I did.” The voice cracks with age, but I know it is mine. “Do I go there often?”
She nods and she looks so sad that my heart breaks for hers, as hers does for mine.
“Don’t worry. I’m back now, for a little while at least. Don’t be sad.”
It is 1972.
I am old, and my mind is going, and the only place it ever seems to go is back to that hell in 1918. I don’t want to go there, but I do. And it is just as horrible as it was the first time and every time that I have relived it since then.
But just as often, Susannah holds my hands and she brings me back where I belong. I want her to know how much this means to me, how much I love her, but she cannot know. She cannot know unless I tell her.
And so I write this. And so I do.
It is 1918.
Four miles from here, at the front, a fragment of German shell strikes a rock, and I know this when I cannot know it. I know this just as I know that the Spanish influenza is coming and I know that it will claim Seamus just as it will claim millions of others. And I will try to change this when I know I cannot change it.
And I know I am helpless and I am afraid.
But deep down in my heart I now know this, too: that I will not have to be afraid for long. Because Susannah will take my hands and bring me back, and for a time I will be safe and I’ll be warm. For a time, I will be home.
I know this and I will always know this, even when I cannot.
I found this letter in one of my mom’s old memory books. My great-grandma Edith wrote it for her. I never got to meet Edith, she passed away before I was born. Dementia.
Mom’s not doing so well right now either. Guess it just runs in our family. It’ll probably come for me too, when it’s time.
But fortunately for Mom, she didn’t live through the things Edith did. She doesn’t have memories like that, the kind that can grab you from 50 years in the past and tear your soul up again and again. I don’t either, and I hope I never do. But sometimes looking at the world nowadays I feel like we might be headed for times all too similar to what Edith saw.
I decided to share this here because that thought scares me, I can tell you that. It scares the hell out of me and I didn’t want to be alone with it anymore. I guess it just serves as a reminder that sometimes the worst and scariest things, the things that leave us truly sleepless, are real.
But maybe if we reach out, if you take my hands and I take yours, we can make it through okay. We can’t know unless we try.