When I was growing up I always dreaded Memorial Day. I knew that at some point during the weekend there would be a long drive out to the cemetery and then long uncomfortable moments sitting with my mom at my dad's grave.
We never talked about my dad around the house--I assume out of respect for my stepfather whom my mom married when I was 4. My stepdad had also been in Vietnam, but unlike my own father, he obviously made it back. I have no idea if my now estranged stepfather had any guilt over this cause it never occurred to me to ask him in the 16 years he was married to my mom, but that idea has been suggested to me many times over the years. It has also been suggested to me that I subconsciously harbored resentment towards him for living. (Oh the insight therapy can buy...)
Whatever the reason was, the memory of my father was buried, only to be unearthed once a year at his grave. Our yearly trip to the cemetery was about the only time and place my mom would talk to me about my dad, and probably the only place I didn't want to be long enough to hear the stories. It was like a pre-designated time to get emotional and mourn this man whose photo sat on my grandmother's coffee table and that my mom never talked about but who was critical to my existence and identity.
Sometimes it was more emotional than others, sometimes I had to fake emotion--if I didn't feel sad or teary at that moment I would feel guilty. Like if I wasn't crying, somehow I didn't feel sad, when the reality of it was I was sad about it all the time, not just this one time a year that it was ok to express it. The fact that I had a strained relationship with my emotionally unavailable stepfather didn't help matters much. I worried whether or not turning on the tears for my mom would be disrespectful to him--or whether I cared. The trips with him and my sisters sitting in the car waiting out our designated mourning time were significantly shorter than those with just my mom and me.
Through all those years I never knew how I was supposed to feel about my dad, who is really little more than a concept to me since I have no memories. What was proper and not proper in the way of grieving and remembering him?. I didn't know how to talk about him and really didn't even know enough to talk about. And I don't think I really start to mourn his death til I was in my early twenties.
I remember being in a movie theater telling the story of my dad's death to my boyfriend at the time. That my dad had been a door gunner in Vietnam and his helicopter was shot down one month before he was to return home. That he survived the crash but suffered the third degree burns that ultimately took his life while attempting to rescue his buddy out of the wreckage. My boyfriend said, "Wow, you must be so proud." Surprisingly, that was the first time anyone had presented that concept to me.
Maybe because my dad had been drafted after dropping out of college. All those years and it had never occurred to me to feel proud that my dad served his country, died for his country, died fighting for freedom, died trying to save someone else. Up until that time I had only felt sadness, anger and bitterness over being jipped out of a great dad--and a happier life.
It wasn't long after that I went to the The Wall in DC and I'll never forget the brief conversation I had with a young boy there. I had found my dad's name on the wall and done a rubbing and was just standing there sobbing in front of the wall. A boy about age 10 who had been staring at me, approached me and said very timidly, "Did you know him?" to which I replied, "No," and began blubbering inconsolably. That was the end of our conversation but I'll never forget that kid's face which had the bewildered look of, "Why on earth are you carrying on like this over someone you didn't even know?" It was at that moment that I finally knew exactly what I was mourning--a father I did not, and would never, know.
These days I don't have a designated mourning place or time, but I no longer avoid it. I pretty much feel the sadness, anger and bitterness when ever it comes upon me--and that has been this weekend.
My brother-in-law's safe return from Iraq has made this Memorial Day this year something to celebrate. I am ever so grateful my nieces will not know that yearly trip to the cemetery. It is also with his return that I am able to ultimately realize what I lost. I'm sure Joe might not ever fully comprehend how much his tour of duty in Iraq meant to me or how it affected me personally, but he is my hero. Not only for his dedication to duty but for making it home to his family.
This is the first year I actually yearned to visit that cemetery. Unfortunately, my financial situation prevented me from doing so.
Instead I'm "celebrating" the weekend by watching history programs as well as war movies, a genre that I've only introduced myself to post 9/11 when my personal pity party stopped and I realized how many more children had been robbed of their perfect lives. But no matter how many I watch, war movies as a genre are not something I will ever become accustomed to.
To begin with, I never watched war movies--specifically combat movies--because my mom avoided them (and still does I believe). And I can understand why. My first one, "Saving Private Ryan," was difficult and painful to watch. I didn't just see bodies going down on the beach of Normandy, I saw fathers going down--each one leaving behind a kid full of questions and unexplainable feelings of loss. And the tears fell for each one.
But all of that has not kept me from continuing to watch. While I do find the movies--and other programs-- informative and somewhat therapeutic, the more I watch, read and learn about the Vietnam war in particular, the more angry and bitter I become about losing my father (and the more I despise former President Johnson). And all the movie watching got me realizing that there's really only one reason I keep watching--to get an understanding of what my dad's own personal experience in Vietnam may have been like. Unfortunately, many tears later, it hadn't happened.
Until this weekend.
But what got to me personally was seeing the helicopter pilots and door gunners in action. Finally, a close up view of what it might have been like for my dad and the role he played. Then seeing a helicopter shot down, explosions and a soldier's body charred so badly layers of flesh literally slid off to expose raw flesh underneath--the only relief being morphine to numb the pain until death. After the movie, I felt I finally had an understanding of what my father's last months and moments were like. Only now I wish I didn't.
It would be so much easier if he were just another name on 101st row on the panel 11W of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Wall.
Many of you can relate to what I'm talking about, still more of you cannot. For those of you that can, my heart is with you this weekend. For those of you who cannot, consider yourself blessed--ignorance is bliss. I wish for everyone that they never know anyone personally whose name becomes just one of thousands on a wall. For every last one of those names on every last memorial is so much more than just a name... to someone, even if it's just a plain old tallglassofmilk.
Since I can't be in Iowa, tomorrow I plan to visit this...
Los Angeles National Cemetery
I also plan to watch this...
Ike: Countdown to D-Day A&E Memorial Day 8PM/7C
The newest faces of this...
Operation Iraqi Freedom Faces of Valor