He was a Viet Nam vet. He didn't let that fact dictate the way he lived, but it ended up dictating the way he died. He was a conscientious objector. He didn't want to go. He was so young. His conscience won out over his objections and he enlisted in the Air Force because he was told it was the right thing to do. He was one of the lucky ones. He came home.
I flew across the country with my baby boy on the day he died to be with my mom. That night we three lay in her bed, sleepless, in shock. There in the bed they'd so recently shared, with my son who was born with my dad's smile quietly nursing between us, my mom told me all about the first time he went away from her. That year he spent at war. Her voice was quiet and small in the darkness, almost childlike.
She was barely 21, they'd only been married a year. He'd been told he wouldn't have to go. He'd been told his conscience would be considered. He'd been told he'd have a desk job, away from combat. Then he was told his first tour was Viet Nam. In the year he was gone, my mom made do with her circumstances the same as she had her whole young life. She just put her shoulder into it and moved on. She learned to drive, got her ears pierced, moved to a new state, taught school, made friends and tried not to think the unthinkable. The year he was gone, he... I don't know. He never really talked about it and whatever he had confided in my mom when he got back, has stayed with her. He left his uniforms in the airport parking lot when he was discharged and walked away. All I have of him from that time are a few faded pictures of a young man with my face, grinning in fatigues, the jungle in the background, a Vietnamese child on his hip.
He kept his medals in a bottom desk drawer. I played with them as a child, running my fingers over the colorful ribbons, looking at the patterns they made, feeling their weight but not really understanding the weightiness of those colorful bits of metal and ribbon shoved in the back of his drawer. The family joke is that I was a liberal at a young age. We lived in the D.C. area when I was a toddler. On a trip to the Capitol Building, I wandered off and got separated from my parents. They found me in the rotunda, tugging on Ted Kennedy's pants leg, no doubt mistaking one pair of dark men's pants for another. My mom says it must have rubbed off on me then. I threw my dad's medals in the garbage one day. They were long gone before anyone noticed.
There was a full military graveside service. Some extremely sharp young servicemen and women folded the flag from his casket, saluted and presented it to my mom. They played taps and each firing of the rifles jarred me more than just the mere sudden sound in a somber setting. This was a part of him I didn't know. In life, he never traded on his status as veteran. He declined membership in local VFWs, he eschewed any celebration or recognition of his having served. He was a patriot, loved his country, appreciated its freedoms and blessings; but his allegiance was first to God, then to his family. Toward the end of his life, when we were at unwinnable wars again, he was disheartened and discouraged by the capricious disposal of human life. His time served was not a defining characteristic in his life, its acknowledgement in his death was disconcerting to me.
He noticed the first tremor in the thumb of his right hand when he was 44 years old. He ignored it as a mild annoyance for the first year. When it spread to his index finger and part of his hand, he had it checked out. Early onset Parkinson's Disease. This man who had lived with such vigor and such interest his whole life, spent 20 years with his muscles steadily betraying him a little more each year. Right fingers turned into hand turned into arm turned into his whole right side. He slowly lost things like facial expression, comfortable speech, the ability to play his guitar; the wide grin he bequeathed to me and my son slowly became tighter, more rigid, more difficult to summon or maintain. For 20 years he continued to garden, sculpt, preach, paint, grow bonsai trees, travel and teach. All without complaint. He learned to manage his steadily more rebellious muscles through a sheer force of will so that he could continue in his pursuits. I can still see him sweating in the Houston summer sun, toting a wheelbarrow of gravel for the new front path he was building for my mom. Watching his slow progress from the window, the distinctive Parkinsonian gait, the occasional stumble, stopping to straighten up and let his diaphragm relax enough for a full breath of the humid, sticky air; then pushing on. He was always just pushing on.
On October 5, 2008, he lost the battle with his unruly muscles when that most important muscle just stopped. As I was helping my mom with the endless paperwork of death, I found his final hospital bill. The minute by minute list of charges for an hour and a half in the wee hours that Sunday morning as the nurses and doctor on call tried to start that muscle again. "Like wet Kleenex" was the phrase the autopsy doctor used to describe the condition of his heart. He'd never even had high cholesterol.
This, from the US Department of Veterans Affairs website:
VA presumes Veterans' Parkinson’s disease is related to their exposure to Agent Orange or other herbicides during military service. VA's final regulation* recognizing this association took effect on October 30, 2010. Veterans exposed to herbicides do not have to prove a connection between their Parkinson’s disease and military service to be eligible to receive VA benefits.
Two years too late for my dad, the VA says "Whoops! Our bad." My dad's story isn't the only or the worst. The casualties of war are not always on the battlefield, they're not always immediate. War is never good. No one wins. I'm sorry if I don't feel like waving flags today. I'm sorry if it conjures the image of my mother's freckled hands worrying the edge of that perfectly folded triangle in her lap; the same as the thousands of other flags that have been clutched by tens of thousands of other mothers, daughters, husbands, sons, wives, fathers, brothers, sisters. I just can't do it today, I respect that flag too much. I honor the people who have served, who are currently serving. I oppose the wars. It has been popular recently to call people who oppose the wars "unpatriotic". The most important veteran in my life taught me that what's popular isn't always what's right.
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