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Going Home

By Monday, January 5, I was plotting my departure. The thought still filled me with dread. Yet I gathered strength from the leafless great oak outside my window, noticing that its thick branches were shouldering drifts of snow, weathering the season.

Later that day, doctors removed my stitches and ordered up a new wardrobe for Stumpy. Thick bandages were replaced by an elastic "sock-aid" to reduce swelling. I would have to change it myself twice a day at home. The sock looked like two pairs of one-legged tights connected at the toe. I was supposed to double it over my forearm -- no easy chore with one hand. Captain Katie, the Princess of Pragmatism, demonstrated how to do it using my knees, teeth, and good hand. I kept dropping the sock and biting the wrong side, cursing all along, until finally I mastered it.

My withdrawal from intravenous painkillers took place over a couple of days. Nurses pulled out the nerve block catheter and removed the narcotics pump. Little by little, the morphine drip was cut back. I broke loose from the IV pole for the first time since my injury, but I still had plenty of painkillers in the form of oral narcotics, principally the heroin substitute methadone, which I was gobbling.

A few logistical snags had to be ironed out. My bosses at Time eliminated the biggest: transportation to and from Walter Reed for my daily treatment and rehab. They agreed to put a car and driver at my disposal. Then there was the question of running a household. My sister urged me to get a housekeeper to clean and prepare meals. She had an ally in Tammy LaFrancois, who had witnessed firsthand my less than patient nature and had concerns about my ability to deal with the frustration. She called me into her office and warned that once-simple tasks would be more difficult. Instead of getting dressed in fifteen minutes, for example, I might need an hour. If I hired a helper I'd have the time and space to adjust to everyday life with a single hand.

The concerns didn't sway me. I already had Rebekah to help me settle in. My mother planned to visit from California immediately after Rebekah left. I wanted to regain independence as soon as possible. The more nursemaids I had, the longer it would take me to get there.

My discharge papers arrived the afternoon of January 8. Rebekah and I spent the day consulting doctors, packing up, and saying good-bye. I gave boxes of Frango Mints to my favorite nurses. We had only to wait for medications before leaving. I took one last lap around the ward, passing wall posters and pictures I'd grown to recognize as old friends. I hugged LaFrancois and Tami Barr, promising to stay in touch. When at last the pharmacy dispensed the sixteen different prescriptions and several pages of instructions in a brown paper bag and we got up to leave, Dr. Friedman walked in. He was accompanied by his eight-year-old son, Daniel, who asked me to autograph a copy of Time's "Person of the Year" issue. It seemed a fitting occasion for my first left-handed signature.

I insisted on leaving Walter Reed on my own two feet, but quickly learned why the hospital recommends wheelchair departures. I hadn't negotiated stairs for a while. I was wobbly and spacey from the painkillers. Descending a concrete staircase to the lower-level parking lot, I lost balance and started to fall, my left hand reaching helplessly for the railing. Rebekah caught me before I did any real damage. It was just the first of many stumbles in the days ahead. She steadied me as I got into the car for the ride home.

Driving away was unsettling. For the past two months, the army had been home. When I climbed into a Humvee for the first time, I had felt no connection to the soldiers surrounding me; they inhabited a universe whose values and culture seemed foreign. And yet I ended up in my own platoon of wounded warriors, ordinary guys like me who had gotten hurt doing a job. We were fighting together to recover our strength and dignity, a moment-to-moment struggle. I'd be back every day, but it wouldn't be the same. I'd miss the little grievances, the triumphs and trials of a common experience. I was leaving the nest, entering a civilian world with its different truths and tempos.

The car drove down Washington streets I had taken many times before. But everything looked different, like a sepia photograph of a place I once had known. Maybe it was me. I had changed. Less than two months earlier, I had traveled to Iraq as a diversion from an increasingly stale routine. The twelve-thousand-mile journey had been renewing in one sense. Now I was back home, where the everyday things I had once taken for granted had become an adventure.

Excerpt from the book Blood Brothers by Michael Weisskopf Published by Henry Holt; October 2006;$25.00US/$34.00CAN; 0-8050-7860-6
Copyright 2006 Michael Weisskopf

A senior correspondent for Time magazine, Michael Weisskopf is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a winner of the George Polk Award, the Goldsmith Award for Investigative Reporting, the National Headliners Award, and the Daniel Pearl Award for Courage and Integrity in Journalism. Weisskopf lives in Washington, D.C.

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