I had a brief, quiet, intense conversation with a friend today. She had just lost another friend, a close one, to a sudden and tragic accident.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
“Okay,” she replied, as she turned to go up the hallway. In a second, I knew better. “No, not okay.”
Her usually bright smile was strained, her voice soft, her features drawn.
That brief exchange, the sharing of feelings about trauma to mind, body, and soul, did what those exchanges almost always do to many of us. It triggered, instantly, my feelings and memories of the death of my father twenty four years ago.
As I have written elsewhere recently, I can’t help but wonder how dozens if not hundreds or even thousands of people are dealing with these kinds of reactions and feelings as we have been assaulted on every level by hate, destruction, and death. This on top of expected deaths from old age, deaths from illnesses that are not expected but are accepted, and accidents that leave us jarred, numb and questioning everything we’ve always held dear.
“Your father has collapsed.”
The call came at the worst time possible. We were moving into a new house, we needed to pack, and someone needed to watch the kids.
“I don’t know. Your mother is with him. They’re taking him to the hospital now. I don’t know.”
I am in the car in what feels like minutes. I don’t think I even take a toothbrush, although I really don’t remember.
“Call and let me know as soon as you find out something. We’ll be fine heel. Go.”
“Take all the time you need. We’ll cover things here. Don’t worry. You need to be with your mother. Go.”
Racing down the interstate in slow motion. Time flying by as it stands stock still. Tears and prayers and more prayers and more tears and time flying by with the miles.
“Don’t you die on me. Don’t you die before I get there. Hang on until I get there.”
There are still so many things unsaid. The scenery blurs, clears, blurs, clears, blurs, clears. My eyelids are the windshield wipers for my soul. Is it raining outside? No, it is raining inside. Come in out of the rain. I can’t. I’m getting soaked.
“Don’t you dare die on me.”
The time in the hospital is a blur. The waiting room. The ICU. The doctor. The staff with their kind eyes and kinder manner. My mother is broken, silent in the corner. I have the knowledge but not the will. There are decisions to make.
“We can make him better. We can rebuild him.” A part of my brain laughs hysterically at the thought of the old television reference, so stark against the sunshiny darkness of his bed. Beep, beep, beep. We can never rebuild him. I have seen the scans. They show me because I am a doctor. I see the vast whiteness in his brain. Clean, pure, permanent. I know what this means. I do not want to be a doctor. Oh, God, not now.
I try to support my mother as we walk up the aisle in the church. I see little. I remember little. His mother, my grandmother.
“Oh, parents are not supposed to outlive their children. Oh, ohhhhhh.”
We travel. We talk and eat and visit with folks who have known me since birth.
“Oh, how your children have grown and I remember when your Daddy…”
They put him in the ground. It is hot. Why do people die in the summer, that hysterical part of my brain laughs, way off in the distance. It laughs and laughs so that it will not cry. They put him in the ground. My little sister is there, off to his side. Others are already there waiting for him. Waiting for all of us, I think. It is so hot and the hole in my chest is so huge that I cannot get enough air. I am drowning in the middle Georgia sunshine.
Six days later I am working in an air conditioned emotional bubble. I do what I know how to do the best I know how to do it.
Six months later, I open my closet door and see the stack of papers there on the floor beside the filing cabinet. Odd, I think. That’s not like me. I sit down and go through them, filing and getting things back in order. I feel like I have just awakened from a half year’s dream. No. A nightmare.
Twenty four years later, I think about him every day. Every. Single. Day. It is not unpleasant. It is not painful. The scar over the huge chest wound is thin and tenuous, but it holds.
When change jingles in my pocket, or when someone mispronounces a word the way he did, I smile. When I hold my grandchildren in my arms, the way he held his the day he died, I feel proud. He is here with me. He will always be with me.
As my mother once described it, I am not happy with what happened, but I am content.
This is grief.
This is life.
One thing about starting a new blog that celebrates getting older is that I, as the guy getting older and writing the blog, am allowed to have a good old fashioned old man rant every once in a while. It’s just the right thing to do. It must be done. This will be a small but important one. Please bear with me.
I love holidays. I really do. Holidays are usually fun, festive and bring people together to eat, drink, be merry and give each other gifts of some sort. Some holidays are religious, some are spooky, some are silly, and let’s face it, some are simply made up by the card companies to sell more greeting cards. That being said, today is Memorial Day in the United States. It is not Veterans Day. It is Memorial Day. Are they different, you ask? Read on.
Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the US that is designed to remember and honor those who have died while in the service of the armed forces of their country. It is observed on the last Monday of May. It is also considered to be the unofficial start of summer. Read more about the sometime controversial history of the start of Memorial Day here.
There are two other holidays that celebrate veterans and their service. Veterans Day celebrates the service of all US veterans. Armed Forces Day honors those who are currently serving in the armed forces of the US.
A couple of facts that you may or may not know about Memorial Day as it is currently observed: in the year 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance Act, asking people to take a moment at 3:00 PM on Memorial Day to stop and reflect; on Memorial Day, the flag of the United States is raised vigorously to the top of the staff, then solemnly lowered to half-staff, where it should remain only until noon, after which it is raised to full-staff once again; parades are held across the land in big cities and small towns on Memorial Day weekend, usually involving marching bands and displays of vehicles used in our various wars; volunteers place thousands of flags on the gravesites of fallen warriors in national cemeteries across the country on this weekend.
Now, my rant.
Memorial Day honors those who have died while serving in the armed services. Thus, in my humble American old man opinion, it is not appropriate to wish anyone a “Happy Memorial Day”. Those who visit the national cemeteries, gravesites of their loved ones, and place flowers through their tears are not celebrating anything happy. They are grieving a painful loss, one that in no small part is why we have the precious freedoms we all enjoy today.
Thus, we do not celebrate Memorial Day, but we observe it, with respect and honor for those who died, and with a profound sense of gratitude for all they did to keep us free.
Veterans Day? Celebrate your heart out. That day, November 11th, will be for all veterans past and present, living and dead. It is also the birthday of my oldest granddaughter, so a doubly celebratory day for us! Thank a veteran for his or her service, give them a hug, salute them if appropriate for you to do so, and let them know that they are loved, cherished and valued by all Americans. (You may do this for my granddaughter as well if you see her. I kid….)
Enjoy the unofficial start of summer today (Lord knows where I live it is plenty hot already), but remember why we observe this solemn holiday in the United States. Take a moment to acknowledge the ultimate sacrifice that some of our men and women in uniform made in order to ensure that we keep and enjoy our many freedoms.