|David Adams Berry (1943-2016)|
I don't know how to write this. I am looking at this photo and all I want to do is cry. This is David as I will always remember him, the David that I knew when I was a girl and teen. The David that was my stepfather. The one who came back from Vietnam a wreck, not only because of Vietnam but also because he came back early because his mother had died, and he needed to take care of his younger brother and sister.
The David wearing his army hat, the one with the three bullets in it, one for each of his friends that died from 'friendly fire' in Vietnam, the friends that haunted him and propelled him to write G.R. Point, his brilliant play about Vietnam, set in Vietnam and put on Broadway in 1977, too soon for people to be able to appreciate the complexity of his experience there, anyone's experience there.
David was always haunted by Vietnam, and having been born into WWII, that war also haunted him. The family cottage in Maine with the hooks for the submarine nets and him dreaming of U-boats coming into Casco Bay and how he would save everyone miraculously from them - a hero from a comic book no doubt. He wasn't stupid in 1968 when he graduated from university. He knew Vietnam wasn't WWII, but he also knew he had to go or someone would have to go in his place, so he enlisted. He came back the way I remember him: the person who saved me from a very scary situation when that was necessary, and also the person who was pushed into a dark place - what we now call PTSD but then was simply ignored and misunderstood - after seeing where I had been trapped. He always said to me the room he found me in reminded him of Vietnam. That was in 1974. Watergate was happening. Vietnam was 'lost.' We were lost. He was a young man working at a theater company. I was 10. All the other kids at my school had fathers working at Electric Boat making nuclear submarines.
This all happened. Life in the 1970s is impossible to describe to those who were not there, how lost everyone was, how feral we kids were, because all the adults were so so so lost and the world was just coming unglued in every way.
It's easy now to be nostalgic for that time, since the unglued seems to now be superglued into some kind of late-capitalist spectacle wherein we are trapped in a dystopian Disneyland where most people have to live underground to prop up the illusion above and penalties are imposed for taking off your costume. And if you think David would take issue with this description or think I was getting 'too political' in this moment, you would be woefully wrong.
After 9/11, David and I met at a cafe. We both lived in NYC, him in Brooklyn, me in Yorkville. We met somewhere downtown, maybe Cafe Orlin, I don't know. And we both just looked at each other and laughed and cried and knew that we were seeing the same thing, the fake innocence having been pierced by the reality we both knew had been lurking all along thanks to our multiple interventions for oil. The rage at the manipulation machinery being unleashed, wherein any tears of ours for the real wounds of our own city would be used to start another stupid war. Yeah, we knew that, a week after 9/11 in NYC, and yes that is what we talked about.
This is why it is incomprehensible to have to live this life - especially now - without him here. And why I regret bitterly how little time we spent together in the past few years - that laziness that comes from living in the same city but not close by - we'd always see each other 'soon' or another time or whatever. And we didn't and then he died of a heart attack. Just like that. Just like 9/11 except personal. One moment life is one way and the next moment it's another. Just like the friendly fire attack that killed his friends in Vietnam. Just like the moment his mother died in his sister's arms while he was in Vietnam. One moment the world is one way and then just as suddenly, and without warning, it changes.
Grief is not convenient. Grief doesn't give a fuck how you feel or what you want to accomplish. Sudden death is the same, whether it's a heart attack, a bomb, alcoholism or an embolism or people flying planes into buildings, or a miscarriage, there is loss and you are reeling, and there is no sense to be made. And yet you scramble to make sense or others try to make sense for you and most concern is simply people's desire for order being imposed on you - please, they say, as they ask how you are, please don't tear the fabric, please don't make me doubt my reason for going on, please don't be inconsolable. And then there are the other people, the angels in disguise, who don't do that, who demand nothing, who can hold space for all your feelings, but even they - I am sure - get tired, because there is no way to allow in for real the swooshing void that real grief is and demands. There is no way to do that and remain wholly sane, as in functional in this world as it is, this world we have created at least in this country that does not allow for grief, that demands relentlessly productivity and some kind of facsimile of optimism and what the fuck is that but again the stupid Disney dystopia gussied up as 'concern.'
And this for me is my messy Memorial Day, because David was first and foremost a Vet, a Vietnam Vet. A war so crazy we still can't wrap our minds around it, and I imagine Iraq and Afghanistan is the same, but we don't know as much about that because that information is so tightly controlled and we have sent out a force of men and women that are separated so much from the general population, though I teach many of them and I can tell you each and every one of the recent vets suffer PTSD (this is self-reported - I am not exaggerating). And I am so sad about David because I know part of what killed him so out of the blue is the insane political situation in which people who have no military experience at all and have never had to risk even a thumb scratch send young men and women to kill and die mostly to enhance their own profits and say it's for our security, which is manifestly insane, given the fact now we have violence everywhere and these same politicians won't lift a finger to get guns off our streets, which are killing more people than any so-called terrorist (meaning of color of course). And David also was gay, something he wasn't allowed to be in the 1960s in Vietnam, but was and held as a secret, held until the 1970s when he couldn't hide anymore and neither could anyone else and yes it's better for gay people today, but let's face it, it's still no picnic and all the violence unleashed against anyone different, he felt that.
And so many people looked to him to protect them and he didn't have anyone to go to protect him, he who had both his fathers die when he was young, trying to be the big man, the protector from so young, and knowing he was gay in the 1950s and 1960s - just try to imagine this. Try to imagine. All that, all that he brought to his writing and to his friends, so many friends he had, he had a talent for friendship, people loved him fiercely, his students loved him fiercely and he loved them the same way and we are all, all, all so lucky to have had him in our lives.
I think my mother in some ways was his protector, and that is why they were married as long as they were past when it was feasible for obvious reasons. He protected her, too. And it was only when he died that I realized - too late, too late, too late - that as bizarre and Absolutely Fabulous our strange family was - it was a family, my family, the family I grew up in - the one that formed me, and even though my mother remarried an absolutely lovely, humane, intelligent, generous, beautiful human being when I was in college, my life, my childhood, my whole personality was developed during the tumultuous late 1960s-1970s with my mother and David and all the people drifting in and out and all the danger and the joy and the stupidity and of course the end of it all, namely AIDS, which devastated most everyone around us except - shockingly - David.
And here I am and it is Memorial Day and I am writing this and there is salsa playing loudly outside on the street in the summer breeze - competing salsa I should add - and dominoes being plunked down onto tables and young women taking selfies and kids throwing balls and me in my room typing and typing and typing as if it matters, as if it's even possible to talk about grief, as if there is anything but loss.