Our Own Private Normandy

The sky overhead is sinking rapidly, the clouds now an oil-stained pillow with strict orders to suffocate my entire platoon.
I peek through the rectangular slit in the lift gate of our boat as it thunders through the swells toward the coast of Normandy.
The waves arc and swat the side of our ship like white-capped claws trying to pull us under before we even hit the break.
Before the gate drops.
Before we charge headfirst into a wall of gunfire.
I watch the first wave of landing crafts approach the beach.
I watch the boats open their mouths and spit out men by the dozens and I watch them drop like green sandbags onto the reddening shore.


Hundreds of machine gun flashes from pillboxes dotting the cliffs ahead.
Scattered bursts of lightning.
I know I'm next to die if I don't thread the needle, slip through the shower of artillery, hide behind the pleading skeleton arms of burned out trees.
I know I'm next to die if I don't silence the lightning.
For me.
For all of the men behind me.
The sound of the air as we hit the beach is a fury unlike anything I've ever heard.
To silence the noise, I know I have to silence the lightning.

This is not my story and it may very well be no man's story.
I wasn't even born until decades after this infamous day.
But this is an image that lives in my head all the time.
A looped fantasy from the POV of a soldier approaching Omaha Beach on D-Day.
I can't help it.
In a world where we play pretty fast and loose with the word courage it helps ground me in reality.
Four cancers. Countless rounds of chemo and radiation and surgeries of all sizes.
Brutal for sure. But, for me at least, not the same kind of courage.
I have peered through that rectangular slit and quaked at the sight of that beach so many times but I know how small my Normandy is compared to that of the men who stormed the beaches in the actual invasion.
It's important to remember how small I am.
It's how I survive.

A couple of nights ago I wandered into my living room in the middle of the night buzzing with insomnia and I flipped on a documentary about that day.
The footage was real and the explosions were real and bodies were real.
And through the infinite clatter of artillery, mortar and rocket fire I heard something beautiful.

The faint staccato lilt of a piano.
The angelic sigh of a violin.
The honeyed crawl of a cello slithering between both.

I thought it was an odd choice the director made but I liked its odd simplicity.
It was surreal and incongruous and absurd.
But for some reason it was there.
A sun break in an ash-bellied sky.

One of my dearest friends was diagnosed with Parkinson's a few years ago and was the recipient of a then-new type of deep brain mechanism.
One that would require him to be awake as they opened his skull.
One that would allow him some control over the tremors, dystonia and horrific rigidity that made the simple task of getting out of bed in the morning a monumental ordeal.
Every morning he would wake in the shape of a question mark and spend hours uncurling the tangled mess of limbs his brain had molded during the night.
This mechanism would change his life. Make it livable in a sense.
He was, and still is, a young man.
A brilliant writer who was slowly losing his ability to type.
A scorchingly funny man who was losing his ability to speak.
I never knew him before the disease knew him.
And he never knew me before my disease knew me.
And it was probably meant to happen that way.
Because we bonded in a way very few human beings get to bond.
We had both ridden our boats across the channel and watched the crimson beach widen through our viewing windows.
Our own tiny Normandys.

I received an email from him several hours after I finished watching the documentary. An odd coincidence. He had been in a very bad car accident with his wife and young son. His brain's artificial control center was short-circuited and his marching orders were clear:
Back in the boat. Back to the beaches. Back to venom-raining sky.
They were going to open his skull once again.

I could smell the electricity in the words of his email.
The sting of a 9-volt on the tongue.
I knew the smell because I know the smell.
I knew the taste because I know the taste.
I knew the view through that metal slit because I know that view.
It never leaves me.
And when I read his words--few and surely labored--I thought about the footage I had seen just hours before.
I thought about the wall of sound that blanketed the earth that day in 1944.
The screams, the cavernous crackle of mortar shells, the deafening whistle that presaged every mammoth explosion.
And then I thought about the music.
The music.
I had to sift through the cacophony of destruction to find it.
But it was there.
Surreal and incongruous and absurd.
A sun break in an ash-bellied sky.
The music through the gunfire.

I don't know how many more times I will be forced to storm those beaches.
I don't know how many more times my friend will have to cross the channel with me or all by himself.
But I do know we are both acutely aware of this deployment possibility every second of every day.
I think anyone who is dealing with the helplessness of a body in betrayal sees a version of that beach through the opening of their own boat.
Some of us are close enough to see the lightning from the cliffs, some of us far enough to just smell the smoke from the invisible coastline.
But if you are out there pushing your way through the waves, I beg you to seek the music through the gunfire.
It is there.
We'll find it together.