But this too is true: stories can save us. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive. And Ted Lavender, too, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon, and a slim young man I killed, and an old man sprawled beside a pigpen, and several others whose bodies I once lifted and dumped into a truck. They’re all dead. But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.
Here, O’Brien comments on his reasons for telling stories about Vietnam and those he knew who died, including his first love, Linda. The storytelling brings the dead temporarily back to life and allows them to speak and even act. By being remembered, the lives of the dead are saved or immortalized. The stories also save O’Brien’s life by helping him process feelings like grief and loss. By interacting with these people once again, even if only in his imagination, O’Brien gets to examine and analyze emotions and events, which may lessen his emotional and mental burden.
That’s what a story does. The bodies are animated. You make the dead talk. They sometimes say things like, “Roger that.” Or they say, “Timmy, stop crying,” which is what Linda said to me after she was dead.
O’Brien comments on the way stories can reanimate the dead and invite them to speak again. He learned the power of this kind of storytelling after his first love, Linda, died from a brain tumor. Bringing Linda back to life in a story is his way of dealing with the arbitrariness and pain of her death. In his imagination, O’Brien remembers how Ted Lavender, who was killed in Vietnam, would say, “Roger that.” This commonplace memory comforts O’Brien just as he is comforted by imagining that Linda is able to tell his nine-year-old self to stop crying.
I watched Linda clamp down the cap with the palm of her hand, holding it there, smiling over in Nick’s direction as if none of it really mattered.
For me, though, it did matter. It still does. I should’ve stepped in; fourth grade is no excuse. Besides, it doesn’t get easier with time, and twelve years later, when Vietnam presented much harder choices, some practice at being brave might’ve helped a little.
O’Brien reflects on not protecting Linda from the boy in their class who was teasing her by trying to snatch the cap off her head. Here, Linda and this experience symbolize lessons he learned about bravery, lessons he continued to learn while in Vietnam. Telling this story about Linda not only brings her back to life but allows him to understand that brave is something a person learns how to be, over time. Through storytelling, O’Brien is able to be brave about looking at the past in a way that he wasn’t at the time.
But in a story I can steal her soul. I can revive, at least briefly, that which is absolute and unchanging. In a story, miracles can happen. Linda can smile and sit up. She can reach out, touch my wrist, and say, “Timmy, stop crying.”
Here, O’Brien is talking about his desire to save Linda’s life—“[n]ot her body—her life”—through storytelling. In saying this, he is acknowledging that he can’t change the facts of what happens in life, like the fact that Linda died at the age of nine of a brain tumor. But he is asserting the power of stories to save people’s lives by immortalizing them. Here, Linda symbolizes the birth of O’Brien’s understanding of this power, his power, to bring people back to life and give them back their voice. O’Brien also uses story to imaginatively heal his own life by envisioning that Linda can return from the dead to comfort nine-year-old Timmy.
She was dead. I understood that. After all, I’d seen her body. And yet even as a nine-year-old I had begun to practice the magic of stories. Some I just dreamed up. Others I wrote down—the scenes and dialogue. And at nighttime I’d slide into sleep knowing that Linda would be there waiting for me.
As a nine-year-old boy, O’Brien learned what imagination and stories can do to help bring the dead back to life; Linda’s death served as the catalyst for such a discovery. The stories also give him a measure of control in the face of the arbitrariness of death. And they give him a way of dealing with loss and grief that will be useful for him in dealing with death and other experiences of the Vietnam War. As O’Brien concludes, he is “trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.”