Do we think about time passing when we are engulfed in it? Not always, that’s why sometimes we look at today’s date and say Wow, time flies.
But time can drag too, especially when we are in pain or lonely or awaiting some legal or medical decision that will profoundly affect our lives. If your experience of time is whizzing by, it might be a sign that things are going smoothly for you.
Why Anniversary and PTSD
But time can drag if a person is in pain, if a person dreads the anniversary of an event. The very word anniversary comes from the Latin anniversārius meaning: recurring yearly. For Juan Romero in the photo above, the calendar’s movement toward the month of June hung over his head every year, a dark and debilitating cloud. A memory associated with June had affected the flow of time for Romero, reopening a wound in his psyche that often hindered his day to day living. Here’s the story.
Where Were You June 5, 1968?
Most of you reading Boomer Highway will remember what you were doing on November 22, 1963. And for the same reason, many of you will remember what was happening in your life on June 5, 1968. I was a junior at Mundelein College, studying for final exams. I probably heard the news on the radio early on the 6th, after staying up all night to study. Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, like his brother John, as he walked through the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just given a rousing speech after winning the California presidential primary.
For Juan Romero, a seventeen-year-old who worked in the kitchen of the hotel carrying trays for room service, that June day has for years been a day of pain, regret and guilt. The above iconic photo, taken by Boris Yaro of the Los Angeles Times and Bill Eppridge of Life Magazine, captures the horror of the moment. Kennedy was walking through the kitchen to get to his car, only to be felled by an assassin’s bullet. And that is Juan Romero, kneeling at RFK’s head in the photo.
“I wanted to protect his head from the cold concrete,” Romero told Steve Lopez for the affecting article that appeared in the LA TIMES. (Lopez has been in touch with Romero over the years.) Romero also told the reporter that he went to school the next day with Kennedy’s blood under his fingernails, refusing to wash it away.
Anxiety, Guilt and A Handshake from RFK
After that day, whenever June would come around, so would the memory of RFK’s death, a memory that stunted some of Romero’s choices, because his ability to move into the future had been damaged, a cloud of guilt pushing its way into his life. Why?
Romero relates that earlier that week, he had delivered a tray to RFK’s door: “He made me feel like a human being. He didn’t look at my color, he didn’t look at my position…and like I tell everybody, he shook my hand, I didn’t ask him.”
But the handshake is the reason that guilt plagued Romero for many years, because that June 5th night when RFK walked through the hotel kitchen, he paused to shake Romero’s hand again. And that gesture of Kennedy’s has keep Romero awake many nights, wondering if that brief pause had not occurred if Kennedy would have been spared the assassin’s bullet.
Claudia Zwiener Helps Romero
Though many like Lopez have tried to help Romero, it was Claudia Zwiener, a special-needs child therapist, who finally helped him accept and deal with his guilt. She made him see by looking at the photos of that awful night, that Romero hadn’t fled the scene but had remained, extended his humanity to the dying man. He was finally able to get this by studying the photos: “I saw a person in need and another person trying to help him.”
Romero has taken a life-lesson from this terrible loss, “that no matter how much hope you have, it can be taken away in a second.”
A Rosary and RFK’s Words
Now 65, Romero is at peace with the events of that night, though it took him 47 years to get to that place. Yes, he will always remember Kennedy, but it is easier now for him to relate all the details of that personal connection. That night he had rosary beads in his pocket and he pushed them into Kennedy’s hands as the man lay mortally wounded. He also insists that Kennedy spoke.
Romero told Lopez: “First he (Kennedy) asked, ‘Is everybody OK?’ and I told him, ‘Yes, everybody’s OK.’ And then he turned away from me and said, ‘Everything’s going to be OK.’ ”
Romero also relates that during that brief interchange, one of Kennedy’s eyes blinked and his leg twitched. Photos of that event show Romero next to RFK, but everyone else was at some distance. Zwiener helped Romero see value in himself once again. She knew that when the anniversary of that day came every year, so would the sorrow associated with it return, like experiencing the trauma all over again. When simple objects such as a photograph, or events such as a birthday party, bring traumatic memories to mind, people often try to bar the unwanted experience from their minds so as to proceed with life, with varying degrees of success. We now call this post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
Personal connections like these are the experience of many of us. And it doesn’t have to occur with a prominent person—reaching out to help someone in a trauma, a crisis, a stop in the free-flow of our lives and time—they stay with us. Peace only comes with reconciling why we were there and what role we played. Guilt doesn’t change the pain, but if you are harboring some unrest that plagues you like it did Romero, you need to speak to someone, to find a way to forgive yourself or at the very least inject some logic into what happened. When a dreaded anniversary comes around, being able to accept it with peace and a feeling of calm will help you and those you love. Life can be difficult enough without the searing and debilitating pain of memories.
Photos from the LA TIMES