The Jungle Gliding Darkly By
Note: Fifty years ago this month, the man who would become my husband—Richard Lowell Hill—landed in the Republic of Vietnam. He was twenty-three years old, a college graduate who had been drafted into the army the year before. His experience in Vietnam launched a chain of events that would shape and change our lives. In memory of that fateful year—1968—I’ve decided to share excerpts here from my unpublished memoir and his Vietnam diary throughout the coming weeks.
My husband turned and his hospital gown slipped open—there in the bed at St. Vincent’s while he slept. No one saw this but me: His broad shoulders, his long back, the freckles running up and down his spine. How could the world exist without that beautiful back, those strong, reliable shoulders? For nearly twenty-eight years, I had relied on them. Admired them. Loved them.
It was August 9, 2005.
On that day, the world— mine and Richard’s—began to shut down.
Outside, the sun was shining, as it usually does in Portland, Oregon, that time of year. Parents were shopping for school supplies with their children. Rush hour traffic was grinding to a halt on the Sunset Highway. A continent and an ocean away in Bayreuth, Germany, our daughter Emily was sleeping. Peacefully, I hoped.
It would be her last untroubled sleep for a long, long time.
“The chemo isn’t working,” my husband’s oncologist had told us early that morning. “There’s nothing more we can do.”
So I watched my husband’s back as he slept that afternoon, those endearing freckles, the rise and fall of his breath. I dreaded the call we’d have to make to Emily in the morning; I dreaded the night I’d face back home alone— a wide, empty bed. I tried not to think about that, or the years ahead when I would lie alone in it, night after night.
I focused on Richard’s back. I focused on those freckles— long after my husband came home from the hospital, long after our daughter joined us from Germany in September. Through a glorious October, I watched those freckles, and his shrinking shoulders, even as he layered t-shirts and sweaters over them to keep away the cold.
Until he drew his last breath—on Sunday, November 13, 2005, at four a.m. When I officially became a Vietnam War widow.
Richard’s death certificate reads: “Cause of Death: Advanced Prostate Cancer.”
It doesn’t refer to his tour of duty in the highlands of southeastern Vietnam near the Cambodian border during 1968, or to Agent Orange, a cancer-causing herbicide and chemical agent used in the U.S. military’s effort to defoliate the jungles of the Republic of Vietnam and flush out the Viet Cong. But the Veterans Administration officially linked all this to my husband’s cancer, and by extension, his death.
On Christmas Eve 2004 — our last Christmas together—Richard received a thick, oversized envelope from the VA, packed with documents written in classic federal bureaucratic style. “We determined,” one of the documents began, “that the following condition(s) was/were related to your military service, so service connection has been granted: prostate cancer— 100%; bone cancer— 100%; cancer of the lymph nodes— 100%.” Several pages later, the letter identified the probable cause of his cancer: “Service connection may be granted for specific diseases or conditions, such as prostate cancer, which are presumed to have been caused by a veteran’s exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange if the veteran served in the Republic of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. g Your service medical records show that you served in the Republic of Vietnam in December of 1968 and that you are currently being treated for prostate cancer; therefore, although not shown in service, service connection for prostate cancer. . . has been granted on the basis of presumption.”
Standing in front of our eight-foot Grand fir, heavy with ornaments from all our Christmas pasts, Richard, a federal employee for twenty-eight-years, scanned those documents like a speed reader. Then he whooped, threw the papers up in the air, and jigged around the living room. This was what he’d been waiting for—news that he qualified for a “monthly entitlement,” compensation for the slow and silent death sentence Vietnam had imposed on him thirty-six years before. “The best Christmas present ever,” he grinned. “I just hope I live long enough to collect all the benefits.”
They were impressive. Richard now qualified for VA medical care, reduced Oregon property taxes, a free set of license plates, free fishing and hunting licenses, and free admittance to state and national parks. “And when I die,” he said, drawing me into his arms, “you’ll have a widow’s pension for life.”
I flinched, as I always did, at the unadorned truth with which Richard talked about his cancer. It was becoming harder to be plausibly optimistic, to continue to believe in the Winston Churchill line I’d taped to my computer screen after Richard’s diagnosis: “For myself I am an optimist— it does not seem to be much use being anything else.”
Four months after Richard’s death, while I was still waiting for my widow’s pension, I sat at the kitchen table—which had been in his family since he was a baby— and opened the comics section to BD and Boopsie in “Doonesbury.” BD had just received a big check from the VA for his “traumatic injury benefit” — losing a leg in Iraq.
“It’s like we won on some horrible reality show,” Boopsie said.
“Or lost,” BD replied.
I knew the feeling—all too well. And despite Richard’s bravado during our last Christmas, I knew he knew we’d lost too. He was merely trying to be an optimist because it wasn’t much use to be anything else.