We were showing the NSL team the Vietnam Memorial, this week and explaining how this site of memory had morphed from a place of nation-splitting controversy to a place of healing, a place to mourn and heal.
We were walking out when a thin older woman appeared, with long blond hair and glasses. She was clutching a crumpled white piece of paper with a name and a number E63. Her pleading eyes caught mine and she asked me, “How can I find someone?” I looked at the note and told her that the A- Z register was at the other end, but she said she had the panel, it was E63.
Mo, my Palestinian friend on NSL who was at my side, also tried to help. She said, I think I can find it, and as she turned away, I went forward to suggest she check the register, but Mo pulled me back. He whispered, ” She is really upset- let her go.” and thankful that he could see her tears more than I could, I retreated but not before asking her, “Was it a friend or relative?” She said, “We were engaged.”
We walked with the NSL team to the Womens’ Vietnam statue and I watched as this lady walked to E63 and with her fingers felt for the name, When she found it, she collapsed at the foot of the panel, and her body seemed to disappear into the depths of her loss, even after so many years.
As i showed my NSL team the Pieta of the nurse holding the body of the dying soldier, I was hiding my tears for this lone women who finally found the name of her lost love. How many futures had she lost? I thought of my mum, an RAF nurse, who loved a dashing Canadian pilot in World War Two and how she wrote poetry to console herself when his plane disappeared over Berlin.
We were finishing the tour, time to go home and as we walked back past the memorial out to Constitution Avenue, there she was again.
I went down to her and she recognized me, and I embraced her and said,” I am heartbroken for your loss.” And she said “Thank you for your help.” and then she asked me, “Who did you lose?” I heard myself say, “My Mum and Dad fought in World War Two, and each lost their closest friends in battle and I lost what they lost- Even if I never went to war, like they did, we all had to grow up in their war. ”
Her question haunts me still, “Who did you lose?”
If the true cost of war was ever weighed, it would be the story reflected in the sorrowful women at that Vietnam Nurses Memorial who remind us that in war, we are all losers, we lose our loved ones, we lose our sanity and our humanity, we lose those futures we sacrifice for the sake of some unresolved past.
Yes, she was engaged to be married and war tore her love away. And 40 years later, the tears have still not dried.