“Unlike some war stories that focus on intense, harsh and graphic depictions of post-combat trauma, this tale unfolds gently, like an Edna Ferber novel, spread across many decades, detailing the impact this soldier’s illness has on an entire family, including children and grandchildren. KEEP FOREVER is a wonderful, emotionally satisfying read that I highly recommend. ”
GARY SEIGEL, author of “Haskell Himself”
Published: March 28th, 2020
Published: March 28th, 2020
Paul O’Brien’s idyllic childhood in Southern California comes to a halt when his mother dies in the summer before his senior year of high school and a very different persona of his father emerges – isolating himself inside the house, turning to alcohol for comfort, and barely noticing his only child. Simultaneously, the war in Vietnam is sending shock waves around the world and young men from one coast to the other are being called upon to serve. Paul enlists in the Marines before receiving his draft notice.
Elizabeth Sutton is eager to gain some independence from her father’s old fashioned notions and looking forward to her first year in high school. At fifteen years old, tragedy strikes with the loss of both parents in an auto accident, turning her childhood into one of responsibility and worry overnight. The four siblings are scattered when her nine-year-old twin sisters are sent to live with their Aunt and Uncle on Nantucket Island, and Elizabeth is left behind in Boston with their grandmother. Her older brother, Sam, enlists in the Marines, eager to join the conflict a world away as opposed to dealing with the one unfolding at home.
A bond develops between Paul and Sam in Vietnam, and both are injured in a bloody battle that costs Sam his right hand and sets the stage for a lifetime of nightmares and sleepless nights for Paul. Matched by similar tragedies at a young age, Elizabeth and Paul’s first introduction by Sam upon their return from Vietnam is the beginning of friendship and love that survives five decades.
After marrying, welcoming their first child, and inheriting a small beach house, the couple adapts to their new surroundings, but distant memories of Vietnam continue to haunt Paul. In an era when veterans refuse to speak of their pain and the government denies that thousands of soldiers are coming home irreparably damaged, he is left to deal with the challenge of caring for his loved ones amidst his his erratic flashback episodes and moods. As their lives unravel from the lingering effects of PTSD, Elizabeth learns to accept the burden that Paul brought home, and together they make their own memories to keep forever.
“Anything you can give me for this headache?” Paul clenched his teeth, hoping to reduce the lightning bolts behind his eyes. He tried to remember how delicious it felt to be pain-free.
“We’ll get you something.” Dr. Shapiro turned to his nurse. “I’m ordering a mild sedative for Paul so we can remove the shrapnel. When we’re done, find him a spot in the ward and—”
Paul interrupted. “I have a friend who was wounded. I think he was on the chopper with me. Do you know if Sam Sutton is here?” He looked at the doctor for reassurance.
Dr. Shapiro knew who Paul was talking about. He laid a hand on Paul’s arm. “He just got out of surgery. I’ll see if I can get him a bed next to you once the anesthesia has worn off.”
“Will he be okay?”
“Yes, we treated his hand.” That’s all Doctor Shapiro would share with Paul. He stood up and moved to the next patient in line. Paul struggled to prop himself against the wall, comforted only by a small pillow for his head and a thin blanket to minimize the shaking he couldn’t repress. He surveyed the scene that unfolded before him and waited for Sam to join him. The room was filled with muffled groans from dozens of young men, many in critical condition with life-threatening injuries, mutilated limbs, and grotesque facial wounds that replaced the once handsome, strong, vigorous appearance of youth. Some screamed in agony as young nurses did their best to scrub lacerations and change dressings, while others lay silent with nothing more than a vacant, faraway look.
Paul watched a trim and confident nurse, her chestnut hair securely pulled away from her face in a tight bun that showed off her high cheek bones and almond-shaped eyes—rich, like the color of chocolate. She wrapped the final piece of clean gauze around the head of a distressed young soldier and whispered something in his ear. Whatever she had said appeared to relieve his agitation as a slight smile crossed his face and he surrendered his broken body to sleep.
The nurse walked over to Paul, pulled up a chair, and introduced herself. “Hello. My name’s Diane. Feeling okay? Any pain? It’s almost time for another dose of medication.” Amidst all the suffering, she smiled and waited for Paul’s response.
“Hey, hi, I mean hello, Diane. My name’s Paul. Waiting for my friend, Sam Sutton. Doc said they would bring him out soon. Ya know if his hand’s okay?” He hoped Diane might have more information about Sam’s condition, but she politely excused herself as she rushed to meet two medics entering with Sam, still groggy from surgery. They inched closer to Paul and the empty cot next to his. Diane’s gentle hand guided the corpsmen as they lifted Sam from the stretcher to make his transition to his bed as comfortable as possible.
Paul gasped aloud. He couldn’t help it. There was no way to silence the sound that rose from his throat when he saw his friend beside him, his right hand thick with bandages, wrapped as if to protect something that was no longer there. Paul slowly brought his hands to his face and felt the layers of soft bandages, only his eyes, nose, and mouth exposed. His head pulsated and his face felt tight and swollen. With crystal clarity, his mind flashed back to the instant when his life, when Sam’s life, were forever changed. His body tensed with the memory—the sounds, the heat, the explosions, the cries for help, and the smell of death all around them. He choked back tears and resolved to remain stoic and grateful that his wounds would soon be invisible. Unlike Sam, he had escaped a lifetime of disfigurement and the constant reminder of his brush with death.
Diane hovered over Sam as he stirred. She had played this part too many times the last nine months, soothing traumatized young men, convincing them that everything
would be just fine, even though it was not always the truth. She knew he would need a voice of reassurance when he realized where he was and the severity of his injuries. Sam’s eyelids fluttered. He tried to focus on his surroundings and take in the foul odor and musty smell of the tent, lined from one end to the other with broken bodies. The stench of disinfectant, humidity, and soiled linens stuck to the canvas walls of the makeshift hospital like glue, and he swallowed hard to prevent the nausea from taking hold of his body. Sam rolled his head to one side and looked at Paul, who appeared composed, determined, and calm.
“You made it, buddy. We made it,” whispered Paul.
About the author:
ALEXA KINGAARD was born in San Diego, CA and has lived most of her life in the area. She currently resides in Carlsbad and is the mother of a son and daughter who continue to be her biggest fans and cheerleaders.
Her debut novel, KEEP FOREVER, was inspired by her late ex-husband who batted the residual effects of the Vietnam War for decades after his return. The burden he brought home is shared by combat veterans of all conflicts, and her fictional account highlights the collateral damage encountered by family members and loved ones living with PTSD in their midst.
Her second novel, MY NAME IS ROSE, departs from her personal experiences and focuses on the collective memories of her generation. She loves writing about nostalgia and the human condition, the common denominator of our lives.
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