The Things We Carry

The Things We Carry

Ken Burns’ new series, The Vietnam War, premiers this week on PBS. It is sure to be riveting and trenchantly visceral television. The 1960s offer interesting parallels to the present: Vietnam is to Afghanistan as the riots of Chicago, LA, Detroit and Baltimore are to the unrest and turmoil of Fergusson and Baltimore (again); Nixon is to Trump as Tommie Smith and John Carlos are to Colin Kaepernick.  

Thinking of history in parallels reminds me, again, of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who says today’s life-struggles are little different than those of the past. Life is always a problem, he says. Our responsibility is to struggle through. (George Packer, by the way, has a candid rebuttal to Coates’ singular definition of the problem in an essay published last week.)

Burns’ film recalls another book about Vietnam, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I read this book years ago and was recently reminded of it by a Tunbridge alum, who was reading it in her literature class at Baltimore City College.

O’Brien’s book, in turn, regularly causes me to reflect on what I carry with me as I make my way through the day. In this post-9-11 world I’ve become more aware of what I carry as I more often have to empty my pockets. The airport, the Naval Academy, the Orioles game—go to any of these places and you have to hand over what you carry. Because of this required ritual, I suspect, we reveal more of ourselves, more often, than in previous generations. How many times have I dumped out my wallet, my keys, my extra fine point pens, my mashed-up notebook?

Of course the tool most of us carry that has the potential to reveal nearly all of us, whether we realize it or not, is our cell phone. My cell phone, like others, carries all of my digital life. It also, I realize too often, carries the names of former students who have died.

Afya is celebrating its ten-year anniversary this year. Many of those years live within my phone. The pictures of memorable events, access to Facebook and our website, thousands of emails, all live in my pocket. The names of the students who have died or who have been murdered also live there.  

In ten years Afya has lost six students. Two, Kortney Jones and Darius Coleman, died too early due to health problems. Four others—Keith Powell, Jermaine Mitter, Maurice Eley, and Thomas Johnson, Jr.—were murdered in this unforgiving city of ours. Thomas is pictured here, just a few minutes after he graduated from Afya.

Thomas, it says in this article in the Sun, screamed his address to police as he lay dying. He refused to say who shot him. He wanted people to know where he lived so his mom could be notified. Reading a few sentences like that is punishing. A 16-year-old boy, the moment before dying, screams out his home address. Pause on that for a second.

My dog Josie died last Thursday afternoon. Josie was more my wife Kate’s dog than mine. We got Josie in the late-spring of 2010. She was a rescue dog, a mix of a lot of things that really shouldn’t mix. Kate had always loved the name Josie and wanted the name for each of our girls. I said no every time. Something about the sound of it didn’t seem quite suitable. When it came to the dog I was more concerned with living with it than naming it, so I conceded the point. But of course dogs have a way of entering our lives, whether or not they have been directly invited, and they take up a space that is rarely evanescent. In time, I grew to love Josie as much, and more, than a man who didn’t want a dog to begin with could.

Last Thursday, a little before one in the afternoon, I stopped home after a school visit to let Josie and Oliver, our other dog, outside. From the moment I entered the house I knew Josie was not well. She lay on the carpet, there in the main room, with such a stillness that I thought right then that she had died.

She hadn’t yet. I would experience that for myself over the next ten minutes or so. I’ve been close to death before. I visited my grandmother’s deathbed, just a few minutes after she passed, and witnessed the hollowness of her, the striking paleness, the void. Before that I sat with my cat, stricken with a neurological disorder, as the doctor injected her with the pentobarbital. With my hand on her tummy I could feel the beat of her heart drift towards silence.

My experience with Josie was more frantic. As she lay dying I tried to take action. I took pictures to send to Kate, looking for advice. I called the vet. I comforted her. Even as I did them, these efforts seemed fruitless and barren. The rapid development of what had overwhelmed her, internal bleeding likely caused by a tumor that had suddenly and inexorably developed, could not be arrested. I watched her take her last breaths. I watched her expire. And then I carried her. I carried her along with my keys and my cell phone, along with my bent-up notebook and my extra fine-point pens, along with my memories of Thomas and Maurice and Kortney and Darius and Jermaine and Keith. I carried my wife’s Josie to the car, struggling as she slipped through my arms, and together we drove to the hospital for no good reason but that it was the only thing to do.