Part 6: The good Marine
That's what Joe Aguiar felt after two rounds of artificial insemination failed to make his wife's sister, Wendy Moricas, pregnant.
"I was scared," he says, "and being scared, I was almost happy that this wasn't happening, if you want to know the truth."
How could he tell Kathy that he's afraid to be a father? It would only make her feel worse. So instead, he's kept a bit of distance - numbing himself, in effect, to the reality of his fear and Kathy's disappointment.
Numbing is something Joe knows how to do from long experience - ever since he found himself, at age 18, gazing for the first time with neither shock nor disgust at the corpse of a Viet Cong sniper, three bullet holes in the man's stiffening body, face half-turned into the sand, one blank eye staring.
"That's when I noticed something was changing in me," he says. "I looked and I said, 'wow,' but it's like" - he shrugs - " 'O-kay, this is what I got to look forward to.' My brain was starting to say, 'You'd better accept this because this is what you're gonna see.' "
Joe was 17 when he enlisted in the Marine Corps, having early on absorbed the silent message in the photographs on a wall of his parents' home: his grandfather in the Portuguese army, a sword hanging by his side; his other grandfather, in World War I; his father and several other relatives all gloriously serving their country.
Joe was a good Marine from the start. Out of 90 recruits in his platoon, he was one of eight to graduate basic training as a private first class.
Skilled as he was, he was also naive.
"I had nothing in my mind about Vietnam, to be honest with you," he says. "I was kind of like a country boy. Born in Woonsocket, raised in North Smithfield - that's the woods, you know - I was kind of like a hick. I never thought of going to war. That's how gullible I was. I thought of doing my hitch."
When the orders came, sending him to Vietnam, Joe called his mother and cried.
* * *
Thirty years later, Joe's memories retain a cinematic clarity.
He can still see the enemy in their black pajamas, making their way down the mountains to secure rice and other food from the town, only to be riddled with machine-gun fire on their way back.
Though word spread among the troops that America was winning the war, Joe was skeptical - "So how come they keep sending all these troops over?"
His sense was that his superiors didn't really care what happened over there. It was: Here's your gun, you're gonna be here a year, a year and a half, do what you want . . . do anything you want because nothing can happen to you.
After a year and a half, he came home, his psyche in splinters, and a period of drinking and drifting began.
Guilty over the war - and having survived it - he sought peace in church.
"I must've seen 20 priests," he says. Each one assured him, "It's not your fault, you had to do that." And, "it was the government," but Joe was inconsolable. "Still, Father!" he'd counter. "It says, 'Thou shalt not kill!' "
Though Joe's own father was a veteran of World War II, Joe did not talk to him about Vietnam; after all, the soldiers of his father's war had come home heroes, not pariahs.
One priest was so moved by the broken veteran's desperate piety that he sought out Joe's mother. "Your son," he told her, "is closer to God than I will ever be."
* * *
Joe met Kathy in 1983.
He was 34 - nine years older than Kathy - and very shy around her, a quality he covered with cockiness.
"You want to go out or what?" was his suave way of breaking the ice.
"Yes, give me a call," said Kathy, for she felt an electric charge between them. Here, she felt, was a strong person, "a man's man," who was also sensitive and in need of some help. Here was someone she could nurture.
One thing Kathy noticed about Joe in those early years was that he didn't like to go out, preferring to stay close to home. I seen it all, was all Joe would say. I don't want to see no more.
Once, they did take a ride to Newport together. Kathy was gazing out the window at the beautiful view - a meadow and a line of trees in the setting sun - only to glance over and find Joe sweating and shaking, clutching the steering wheel for life.
"What's the matter? What's the matter?" Kathy cried, throwing her arms around him.
He'd had a flashback.
"All he could see," she says, "was a rice paddy."
* * *
In time, Joe came to terms with his service in Vietnam. His medals and ribbons, including a Cross of Gallantry, are displayed now on red velvet in a frame, along with a proclamation by President Lyndon Johnson, attesting that Joseph Aguiar showed "extraordinary heroism in action against the North Vietnamese Army forces during the battle of Khe Sanh."
He will probably always carry the mental scars of the war - guilt and remorse, recurrent nightmares and flashbacks. He is frightened of heavy rain because it reminds him of monsoon season. He panics in the heat, so he must have a car with air conditioning, as well as a cool towel handy.
It is a classic case of post-traumatic stress disorder, for which he receives a full military disability pension.
Joe is among the first Rhode Island veterans to prove exposure to Agent Orange, and received some compensation in a class-action lawsuit against the chemical manufacturers.
He does not know how Agent Orange would affect a child of his; it's a worry, because the children of some of his veteran friends have been born with deformities.
But a urologist who tested Joe said the fact that his sperm is "up and running" is a good sign, and that, chances are, all would be well.
Looking back now on where he's been, Joe can't believe he's in this good marriage, with a comfortable home of his own - two of the three blessings his father said are the biggest blessings in life.
It's the possibility of the third blessing - a child - that seems too much to bear.