Carpe Diem

What does returning home really mean for an injured warrior?

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1. Carpe Diem

I was strong once. Before this happened, I was a warrior. Before this happened, I was a hero. Before this happened, I was a man. Now? Now I’m a shell. A wreck. A ruined monument, with vestiges of former glory clinging hopelessly to a crumbling façade. I feel… caged. Trapped in this rolling prison, its very existence defining me as weak.

Getting up is a chore. Some days I simply don’t bother. Others, it’s a case of seeing how many times I fall before I finally manage to drag myself into the chair. I hate it. Its faux leather seat, its shining wheels with flecks of paint coming off, the thin rubber tires that creak when they rotate, the tiny foot-rests that would only be of help if you were a child. The things I loathe the most are the handles. Those moulded plastic shapes patronise me, a symbol of my utter reliance on strangers.

Once I’ve managed to get into the wretched thing it’s a case of navigating the tight corridors of this infernal house until I reach the bathroom. No-one considers wheelchair access when they buy a house. Why would they even anticipate it? I was an active man, with an eternity before me to enjoy the beautiful architecture of this place. There’s no denying it’s stunning but to me it seems a cage. A gilded cage for a withered, crippled bird.

The bathroom presents yet more difficulties. There are the obvious ones, using the toilet, getting into the shower, standing in the shower. And then there are the less physical ones. Looking in the mirror for example. It used to make me physically sick seeing my reflection. I smashed it once. A lot of good that did.  Simply added to the scars. I’d rather that than see the image held within its frame. There’s a picture somewhere in the house of me before the war. I’m standing tall and proud in my uniform, white blonde hair glinting slightly in the artificial light, eyes sparkling with life and hope. That’s all gone now. The hair is probably mouldering in a landfill somewhere as they had to shave it in order to remove the shrapnel from my skull. My figure was muscular in those days. I took so much pride in it, working out daily in order to keep in peak physical condition. Seems stupid now. Pointless even.

Apparently I was regarded as handsome then. I’d like to show those admirers my face now. I wonder if they’d find it attractive, an emaciated map of scars. Most of them are miniscule, imperceptible even but there’s the thick one that bisects the right hand side of my face, twisting my lip slightly, gently slurring my speech. Luckily, it misses my eyes or else I’d have been blinded as well as immobilized.

The mirror taunts me. In my face I can see traces of my former self, hidden behind the repugnant reality. A woman once told me that I should be proud of my scars, proud of my injuries, proud of my… Disability. It proved that I was a man, that I’d fought and sacrificed for my country. I laughed at her, then I fired her. I couldn’t stand having a nurse around, judging me and spouting off indoctrinated propaganda about how I was a hero who deserved respect and awe. I almost asked her, if I’m such a hero, how did this happen? If I’m so worthy of your respect, how did I end up like this? If I’m so awe inspiring, why do people’s eyes slide over me as if I don’t exist?

The brilliant flickers of light and white hot pain lurking just behind my eyelids keep me awake at night, waiting to strike me down in a cacophony of sensations and fears. Every night the same. Pain as fresh and sharp each time as if it had just happened. They weren’t going to accept me for active duty, given my medical history and my already weak leg but they made an exception due to my tactical knowledge. Figured I’d be of use on the ground with my ability to make rapid decisions. I’d fought in wars before and this was no different. Same reasons masked behind new ideology.

That day, we were to attack a small encampment around 10k north of our position. It was meant to be a lightning strike, a blitzkrieg as the Germans once referred to it. The opposing side had heard about our plan and as we got close they opened fire. I took a bullet to the arm in seconds but carried on, leading my team forward until the firing prohibited us from advancing any further. With the adrenaline pumping around my body I didn’t even notice at the time that the bullet had gone straight through. It was only afterwards, when I’d lost sensation in my right hand that the doctors told me this.

We kept to our position, firing back at the opponents, for about half an hour. And then the bombs came. Screaming over us with their interminable shrieks and detonating metres away from us. We lost Zaphyer first, in a cloud of shrapnel, sand and blood. Then it was Mcinley and Smith, two with the same shell. They’d been joined at the hip since day one. Then one came screeching over my head and I dived left and then it exploded and then… And then… Pain. Blackness. My father. I saw my father, pointing back to the hell that I was leaving behind on this earth, refusing to let me join him, refusing to let me acquire peace. 

I woke up a week later to the soft blindness of a bandage over my eyes. The shrapnel had barely missed my eyes and they weren’t taking any chances. The pain in my leg was unbearable, unbelievable, unreal. Then the morphine kicked in and the agony departed, leaving behind the fog of numbness that I’ve become accustomed to now. I couldn’t feel my right arm and every breath was a pinprick of agony, even through the drug haze.

When I was lucid the doctors told me that not only had I lost sensation in my right arm, most likely permanently, I’d also broken four ribs on my left side and two on my right. My face was heavily scarred but luckily only one looked to be lasting. Luckily. The doctor told me to thank heaven for small mercies. I replied that I’d given up on heaven a long time ago. He’d looked at me pityingly then proceeded to tell me about my leg. A shattered femur, patella, sartorius, rectus femoris, vastus medialis muscles and a ruptured superficial femoral vein didn’t mean much to me at the time but I now know exactly what all this medical jargon added up to. A life sentence.

An eternity lost, perpetual weakness and unending imprisonment inside the most solitary of all confinements. Myself. After being flown home I spent two months in a respite home with hopelessly optimistic nurses, who, rather than dragging me out of my depression, forced me to retreat into myself. They sent me back here afterwards, dispatched with a nurse who was gone within a month of being back.

I haven’t left the house since then. Two years is a long time to be confined within the same four walls but time isn’t important. After all, I’m here for the long haul. One of my doctors kept telling me ‘Carpe Diem’. I asked him one day, with what? Can you seize the day with only one functioning limb? He couldn’t reply. I took that as a no. And resigned myself to this interminable existence.

You may ask how old I am, to be so cynical. I was 19 when this happened. So I guess I’m 21. I think. Time is so unimportant here…You may ask what’s keeping me going. My heart, in all honesty. Its relentless need to keep pumping, to keep me alive, to keep me suffering. I think my body hates me. I know I hate it.

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