The Siege of Bastogne

The clouds I see racing across the window are a brighter version
Of the icy ones that stalked the River Our at the opening of the Battle of the Bulge:
Racing clouds on a field of chalky blue, chased by Panzers.
The snow of that December, the debut of the coldest cold on record,
Piled up around the bivouacs, the stubble, around the Jeeps’ tires and our boots.

Despite heavy losses—
The fine head of my medic buddy, Paul,
For whom I named my first-born son, the first of three,
Was blown clean off before my eyes,
Making the war a lonelier place for both Paul and me
And curing me of my desire
To be the doctor that my father was—

Despite those losses, that battle was won.
The tide of war, already turned,
Trembled but did not recede.
My battle, though, is a losing one:
I am dying.
Oh, not today, probably;
Not tomorrow, but things don’t look good.
Even talking takes my breath away.
The family doesn’t know I know.

The racing clouds on chalky blue,
The sun from the window of the room,
Light on Nancy as she untwists the tubes that tie me
To the screen behind my head across which flash my vital signs.
When Nancy bends, intent, then pulls her mane behind one ear I see
Her gold-brown breasts in their cups like muffins
Baking in the blue steel pan my mother loved.

I had a friend who had what’s killing me.
I stayed with him as he gasped for breath,
Pulling off his mask to suck his whisky through a straw.
At the end they gave him morphine to keep him calm.
And in the end he slept and died.
Still, it was hell to watch him wild-eyed and clawing
For the air that always had been free.
We medics gave morphine in the war, of course,
To men ripped open and pulsing out their life.

The nurses end their every statement
With a perfunctory “OK?”
As if they’re asking my permission
For what they aim to do.
At some point near the dawn of time
The question may have been sincere;
Now it means “Get ready—
Something’s going up your nose.”

Those fast-moving clouds really take me back.
After the shell sheared off Paul’s head,
His body stood a second in his boots
Until his arms shot up and tipped him over in the snow,
His neck pumping blood into the gurney we’d been hauling.
No need for morphine there.

A slithery chaplain came through yesterday.
“Director of Spiritual Services,” his name tag said.
I wouldn’t repent or convert,
So we talked of my career at CIA.
“You had an exciting life,” he said
With gravity well rehearsed.
 “No doubt,” I sent back,
“And it’s not over yet.”

I lost Paul suddenly at Bastogne, as I said.
His namesake, my first son, lost his son, Isaac,
Four years ago. Did I say that, too?
His battle was a different one: mental illness, drugs.
The methadone a doctor gave him stopped his breathing while he slept.
Paul found him dead one morning, just like that,
Arm wrapped around the neck of his guitar.

Paul—my son, I mean—has gone to sleep
In the chair beside the bed where they put me twice each day
To change things up a bit.
He was up all night with the girl he loves, he said,
To dispel the gloom of Isaac’s birthday, which is today.

The woman he loves is married to someone else:
Lucie, a slim, blonde Belgian from a hamlet
Near Bastogne where Paul was killed—
Her husband is a viscount with a minor castle—
What she’s doing here, I don’t know;
She’s a diplomat, perhaps,
Or maybe just outgrew her turret.

Nancy’s back now with her muffins, tugging at my gown—
Readying me for a walk, I think.
The gurney in the hall reminds me of the one we carried
The day Paul lost his head so long ago.
I was only 20 then, the age of Isaac when he died from drugs.

The clouds that day were just like those
That race across the window
Above Paul’s dozing head.