Something amazing happened today. My dad took me with him to the traveling Vietnam memorial wall.
Last night I couldn’t sleep in anticipation. I was certain I’d lose it entirely at that wall, watching my dad read through names. I imagined him finding someone familiar. I imagined him feeling things he hadn’t felt in years. Turns out the old man is a good bit tougher than I am. Or far better at hiding his feelings.
I cried like a baby when I saw the length of that wall. I tried to be discreet and the wind did help, blowing hair over my wet eyes repeatedly.
Then we reached this spot.
This section, July of ’68. That’s when dad arrived in country. From that spot onward, I struggled with my composure.
That’s when I really felt it all as my father searched for names he knew. The meaning in the wall was crystal clear.
I read a lot. Lists of names and words in print tend to lose some meaning as time passes and I grow used to the sight of the letters and lists. But here, with him, lists sprung to life.
Each chiseled letter made out a name. Each name was once attached to living, breathing human. Most were young. Dad was 18 when he got there.
The wall came alive with faces I’d never seen. They were flashing through my mind. Sweating, smiling, filled with courage and honor and a sense of duty. Filled with hope and a hell of a lot of fear. I tried not to get into the dark reality. I would have collapsed where I stood had I allowed my mind to imagine it. All those young souls. All gone. I erased the blood from the memories I’d just created.
What lies in the picture below took the breathe from me. I gave it to their memories so they could breathe once more as they appeared before me just then.
Do you see the flags above the wall down the way? One is yellow.
Those flags flew dead center atop the long wall. They mark the end of my father’s time in that place. Not the end of his service, though. He had forest fires to fight when he got back, after all.
I started thinking some thoughts just before I snapped this photo. The names on that wall, as the height of the list gradually increased to plateau in the center to be feet higher than my head, were names of service men and women who had died while my dad was there with them.
I nearly threw up.
There were so many. It was nearly half of the wall. My mind was spinning.
All of that loss of life. It was happening within miles, feet, inches of him. I don’t know. He doesn’t talk much about it. That magnitude of suffering, fear, the last moments of so many; the death must have hung heavy upon the humid air.
That tragic effect of war must change the atmosphere of a place. I bet you could taste it. I imagine the energy there was stifling and soul smothering.
I wont ask him to describe it. Though I’ve always been curious, we learned not to pry.
Once, when I was in elementary school, I had a project to do. I had an assignment. I was to ask someone who had been to a different country about their sensory experience there and he was the only person I knew who had ever been outside of the United States. Well, there were some who had been to Canada. But, Minnesota and Canada are practically the same thing. I didn’t think anyone would be excited to hear about that report.
He agreed to it. We did just fine with sight.
Jungle. Trees. Lots of green leaves.
We were still good at taste.
He described some type of soup with fish eyes in it.
Sound was where I noticed some agitation. I don’t recall what he said exactly. I remember his answer being related to something loud.
But, smell is where I stopped. I stopped mid word while I wrote.
After I asked he paused. Then he simply said, “Rotting vegetation and bodies.”
I closed my notebook and walked away. After thanking him of course.
I remember peering back at him in his recliner from the end of the hall. He seemed sad and slightly angry. As an adult I now know that I have no idea exactly what he was sad about or who he was angry with.
I didn’t ask things for a long time after that.
I learned more today than I have in the last 32 years of my life about his time there while visiting that wall.
This war thing is something no one can understand unless they’ve lived it, but is often described as the most painful and cruel experience a human being can withstand. And each war is unique. Each battlefield is different. The jungles of Vietnam must have been sheer terror as so many veterans of that war in particular refuse to recall what occured.
Or maybe it was the treatment they received upon coming home. Shameful words of hate. No parades. Pure torture.
He read some names aloud and I honestly couldn’t bear to think he’d known them. He knew a few it seemed. Some from bootcamp.
The section of the wall in the photo below signifies the end of my fathers time there. November of ’69. Nearly every name on the wall before this spot, aside from a couple of short panels, were soldiers who lost their lives while my father shared that soil.
Upon additional research I discovered he was there during the deadliest years of occupation. The numbers varied slightly by source, but only slightly. In 1968 around 16,800 American soldiers lost their lives there. In 1969 around 11,780 died. The year 1967 was heavy in losses as well.
These are only the numbers for the American military members who died there. So much death in such a brief period of time. And he was there to feel it all.
Tears flowed forth. I tried to hide them. Dad was talking. Then he tilted his head down so he could look up at me from the top of his happy blue eyes, and he smiled at me.
I patted him on the back and we walked on.
On to honor the rest. Reading unfamiliar names and letting those strangers live in our hearts if only for the moment.
He answered more of my questions. How many people a plattoon was comprised of. How hot it usually was.
His best friend there was Azel, from Chicago. A nice black dude. They had a lot in common. Azel must be an awesome fellow.
He was also close with a T. C. and a Bobby. One from Arizona. The other he wasn’t sure.
He recognized a name on the wall. A guy from bootcamp who loved to smoke. He frequently got caught smoking when he wasn’t supposed to so he would often be seen standing outdoors with a rifle hoisted high over his shoulders until he could no longer hold it there with drill Sargent’s yelling, all so he could get a puff.
To think that he was gone.
I wonder what stories his fellow soldiers would tell about my father if he had landed on that wall.
I kept thinking of a picture he had once shown me. He was standing with two young Vietnamese boys under his arms. They were all smiling. They were all so young.
58, 307. Conflict. Something about that doesn’t sit right with me.
We walked out eventually. We walked past a chopper. He said he’d been in one of those.
I asked if this was the one they hung from and jumped into the jungle from. He said, “No. Those were bigger with men jumping from the tail end.”
We were driving out and he mumbled something about a deuce.
A two ton truck. He drove lots of those. With jet fuel for downed helicopters, land mines, explosives, etc. All of it rattling around in the vehicle with him as he sped through rough jungle roads. No wonder they threw men like him into forrest fires in California when he got home. No one was crazy enough to go into the blazing inferno where they freely drove knowing one much worse was behind them.
He was 17 when he enlisted. 18 when he went. Stayed over a year there. Came home and bravely battled on to protect and serve for many others before his contract with the Marine Corps was over.
His oldest daughter was born the month he deployed.
He sold his uniform when he came home.
Many pictures he had sent home were destroyed while he was still away.
I grew up knowing hardly a thing. I learned more today than I have ever known. I always knew one thing, though. I’m proud to be his daughter.
I always was. I always will be.
He doesn’t have to tell me one thing about that war. His behavior and actions every day that I’ve known him are more than enough proof of his honor, sense of duty, and his selflessness.
What he’s seen. What he’s been through. Only those who served alongside him will ever know about that. I just know he came home and rose above. He fought on. He didn’t let the unthinkable destroy any part of him. I’m sure he was lost for awhile. He was so young. But, the man I’ve always known has served me with a dignity, integrity, and intelligence that is truly uncommon in this world.
Thank God he isn’t on that wall. Thank all of you who ended up on it for sacrificing every piece of yourselves.
He said one thing to someone who thanked him for his service while we were there that I won’t soon forget.
While many men walked the street with veterans hats and even uniforms, my father felt no need to let anyone know who he was. I made mention of his service to a man who handed me a pamphlet to see if there was a way to find military members from Minnesota. As he walked away and thanked my father, dad said one simple thing that truly changed me.
“I would do it all again.”
I’ve never experienced pain like I felt when I lost my mother. People who haven’t experienced it will not understand until they feel it themselves.
A mother is special. A mother is irreplaceable. That bond. There is nothing to compare to it.
I knew my mother before I was born. She is deeply set in my memories. Her heartbeat and muddled voice were the first sounds my developing mind ever heard. She held me in her belly before anyone had the chance to place me in their arms. She was the only familiar one I met when entering into my new life. The only one that needed no introduction. The only one I had ALWAYS known.
It was her voice singing me lullabies. Her face peering into my crib hour after hour, night after night. She woke repeatedly to feed me, change me, bring me comfort if she could figure out how.
I was a fussy baby so this bond was very strong because she had to spend extra time holding, bouncing, swaying, rocking, singing, patting, burping, feeding, smiling, crying, breathing calmly while she wept furiously in exhaustion so I wouldn’t sense her fear.
She continued to grow in patience, strength, and love as I grew in inches, pounds, and feet. No matter where I wandered or wondered, her watchful heart was with me. No matter what I said or did, she loved me openly, loudly, without conditions.
She was the one who did the most so she was the one who took the most blame. When my rowdy teenage years hit, this woman who was in charge of figuring me out, well, she just couldn’t. So, of course, in my desperate state, I blamed her. I blamed her for not fixing me. I blamed her because I was broken though she tried every possible thing to mend my broken heart.
I couldn’t see how much love was in every gentle nudge and hard shove that led me in the right direction until I became a mother myself. Looking down at my baby who was crying in that crib, I’d wondered if she felt the same. The overwhelming amount of affection and protection that are born in a mother when given a child to care for. She had it, I have it, we bonded again. This time as mother’s, the two of us.
Then I moved away to try to keep my family together, for the first time my hard heart missed someone. Not my hero, my daddy. Not my best friend, my sister. But the woman I was just starting to know as she really was. My mother. I missed my mother.
I remember the first time that missing someone brought me to tears. I got sick and used chest rub and the smell overwhelmed me. Euphoric recall of some sort set in. I felt like a child. I remembered the soothing sense that came as my mother rubbed it on my chest and sang over my bed. I finally missed her. I finally knew her. I finally appreciated her as ALL of the memories flooded in.
Then the bad news came. I was desperate to keep her. Desperate to be with her. It just wasn’t possible. They said she had 6 months. I was on my way to the airport. She died before we got on the plane.
I felt shame and guilt like never before. Impossible for my softened heart to bear. I felt like I’d hurt her. I owed her my LIFE, literally. I was supposed to be there. All of the years I had struggled while blocking out her voice must have felt like torture.
I heard that as she lay dying she hallucinated about me. About myself and my children being in that room. That thought killed me inside knowing how badly she wanted me and sadly, I wasn’t there. Later on, I reflected, I felt grateful for her imaginings. To her, we really were there.
The most powerful thing I inherited from my mother was not money. I got her fire and strength. And as I battle real demons, as I fight for my own, I intend to use it. Without hesitation.
She’s with me when I need her still. Butterflies and red birds appear every time I feel weak. Every lesson she taught me flooded back to me.
Her words have been uncovered, once buried in my subconscious, no longer lost under resentments and fear.
I miss her every day. I will never be able to thank her. No one with a great mom can truly repay what’s been freely offered. The sacrafices, the hours, the damage to her body, the exhaustion on her spirit, I cannot repay. But, I can do my best to be as loving as she was with my babies whom she loved as much as she loved me.
I’ll repay her by being the woman she raised me to be. I’ll repay her by making her proud one more time by being her reflection, using the lessons and gifts she gave me to make the lives of her grandchildren great. By making the life of her baby girl great. By being happy, joyous, and free as I was when she rocked me in her arms as a child. Because, as a mother I know, that is our one greatest desire. For our children to be whole and happy as I finally am. Because of her.
Even as I sit here now without her I realize, she gave me everything I need. She protected me by teaching me how to protect myself and anyone else that I feel needs protection. I suppose she did as I have done. Whispering promises into an infants ears. I won’t fail because of her. She never failed me.
I was crying on the steps as a blue bird came near. Honestly. It sat close by. Closer than a wild bird should. It looked at me. It stayed still. Then I smiled and said, “I love you” outloud. THAT is when it flew away.
Thank you, Momma.
I just asked my oldest son if he knew I kissed his cheek and whispered “I love you” into his ears while he slept every night. His reply made me cry for the tenth time today. He told me that often in his dreams, someone he’s talking to will whisper those words to him, in my voice, and then carry on the works of his imagination without regard to the comment I’ve implanted in his slumbering subconcious. He recalled it instantly, genuinely, with amazement. He responded as if a great mystery now made sense.
I guess my work is done. All I have ever wanted for my children is that they KNOW, with certainty, that my love will never fail or flee. He knows. I’m sure his brother and sister know as well. I can’t stop smiling and looking at their sleeping faces with awe.
I have had a rough mother’s day. I miss my mother greatly, though her strength lives within me. I want her, especially now.
Now that I have found some of the memories, hidden away. Not hers, but his.
I found a movie stub for “Juno” and a familiar phone number and name on a scrap of paper I have saved for nearly ten years. They brought back too many memories for me to keep from rolling forth from my eyes.
I saw how my motherhood began and compared it to it’s current state. I have to say, I’ve become one of the best. But, I’m only human, still seeking approval, validation, and praise. No, I don’t need it, but it would feel nice.
I’m never lonely, always dripping in hugs and snuggles, but I’m aching to be held by someone bigger than me. Cradled, protected, cherished. I haven’t had that in such a long time.
That’s the biggest problem with being a tough chick. No one seems to realize that you desperately need the reassurance of a soothing embrace. I’ve often shuddered as many have tried to hold me, force me into a place of warmth. Help is uncomfortable for those who are unfamiliar with it, especially those who have fought long and painful darkness, years unending, to become self sufficient, knowing that needing someone often causes more pain when they fail.
I can metaphorically say God is holding me, because he is, but it’s not the same.
But, I’ll be patient this time. I’ll wait. I can now. I’m not the lost little girl I once was.
I’m a woman, with abilities and assets that shant be wasted, unappreciated, unloved anymore.
I can’t be hasty. I need to be free again. Freedom can be lonely when looking back at what’s been lost. I’m not going that way, though. So, eyes forward for now as I’ve managed to turn another house into a home, lifting furniture like a beast and working all day, into the night, to create comfort in a time of disturbance.
I fill my lonely spot with memories today, ones I won’t insult with the terrible taste of tears. I’ll feel the joy fill me without the thoughts of how it could’ve been, because it isn’t, it just isn’t.
Happy mom’s day, beautiful creators. Let my son’s words reassure you. No act of love, ignored or small, goes unnoticed or to waste. Every bit lives inside of them, even if you never know it. So keep loving them like only YOU can, Momma. They need it.
My heart has been hurting these last few days as I swing wildly from ecstatic freedom down to the depths of mourning frequently now. None of it is debilitating but all of it is uncomfortable. I loved him too much, because that’s the only way I know how to love, truthfully. It’s become obvious that I loved him far more than he loved me. S**t, I loved him more than I loved myself or I would’ve been gone long ago. I’m stuck in the “why’s” again. Like that’s any of my business. Many opportunities were given to do the right thing. None were accepted, so here we are. Today I miss him. We’ve all missed him for over a year. We’ve grown used to the type of longing that feels strangely similar to the feelings I’ve had for the one’s I love that i left behind when we moved away. There is hope in that loneliness. We grew accustomed to it. They still live in that illusion because I’ve padded the truth, as usual. I’ve explained things, as I have always done, in a way they can accept and understand. They don’t suffer. Today that agony is mine. I miss him. I miss that stupid throat noise he made when he was over joyed as he grabbed one of us and held us closely to his chest. I miss the warmth in that chest. I miss the soft heart held within it. I miss the thoughtful acts. Like the surprise trips to the bookstore before taking me to a movie. I miss how he’d make me laugh while I tried hard to be angry. I miss him dancing like an idiot just to make me smile. If he’d always been my monster, I never would have loved him but now he’s the creature that only lives in my nightly nightmares. I miss him more when I wake up sweating and crying, looking for his arms to hold me. I won the battles that caused the fear and am fairly certain I’ll win the war but damn do I hate doing it. I hate what has to be done but I’ll never hate him, or them. The cold shoulders and silent stares are painful, true. I loved all of them too much. I always will because that’s who I am. I’ve only ever had the capacity to hate myself. I’ll continue to show them this love even as it goes unrequited because I know no other way. In my opinion, the point of loving someone isn’t to gain anything, not one thing at all, but to show the one receiving that love how worthy they are of it all. I’ve finally come to a point in my life where I actually love myself. I love myself enough to know I don’t need everyone else to. But, some days it hurts to know that he probably never looked in through the window at me teary eyed because of the gratitude he felt for having me like I’ve done so many times. It hurts to know that he’s gone forever. Like Mom. Like Uncle Roger. Uncle Loran. Aunt Shannon. All gone within the last 4 years. I’ve become a professional griever. I’m going to make it through this. I have to move forward though he stands still as stone. Trapped in a tortured statue. Encased and suffocating, surrounded by thick and heavy concrete made up of all of the deadly sins. He’s gone forever and I’ll miss him everyday, but he’s not him anymore.