Full Sentences

I walked into his room.  He looked at me and said, "You didn't dress very well for going out."

My first thought:  "Wow!  I think he  actually knows who I am and why I'm here!" My second thought: "Holy crap!  My father just uttered a full sentence!!!  I haven't heard a full sentence come out of his mouth in ages!!!"
My third thought:  "Hey, wait a minute!  What do you mean I didn't dress very well?"

(Never mind all that.  For god's sake, he just delivered A FULL SENTENCE!!)

     "Hi Dad.  It's time to go out to lunch at Daytons.  Are you ready?"
     "Yes.  I've been waiting.  Let's go."

We're at lunch.  Ourida stops by and Dad asks her, "Where are you from again?"
    "I'm from Tunisia."
    "That's right.  North Africa."

(Good god!  He remembers she's from a foreign country and he knows where Tunisia is!!!)

Dad brings up Mom all on his own.  "Helen used to love this place."
     "Yes, I know, Dad.  She especially loved the desserts."
     "Too bad she was in such bad health."
     "Yes, Dad.  It was a shame."
     "How old was she when she died?"
     "She was 83."
     "Too bad.  She was a good one.  How old am I?"
     "You're 85."
     "Is my father still alive?"
     "No.  He died a long time ago."
     "Oh.  I don't remember that."
     "Do you believe in an afterlife, Dad?"
     "No.  I suspect it isn't true."
     "Me neither, Dad."
     "But people want to believe it."
     "Yes.  They sure do."
     "When did Dick Bringgold die?"
     "I'm not exactly sure, Dad.  I think it was about 10 years ago."
     "It's too bad he smoked.  You know, I was really upset for a long time when they moved to Arizona."


WOW!  WE JUST GLOSSED OVER THE FACT THAT HE DOESN'T BELIEVE IN THE RELIGIOUS FANTASY!  THIS IS HUGE!!!  THIS IS STUNNING!!!  Or is it? No.  Not really.  I guess if I'd ever bothered to give it any thought (which I didn't) I wouldn't have found it all that surprising for a man of his intellect and pragmatism. I'll admit, I take comfort in this knowledge - I'm glad to know I'm not alone.  Oddly, I find I take greater comfort in not believing than I ever did when I tried to believe. Why is that?  I don't know; maybe because with acceptance comes peace.  As it turns out, it doesn't really matter.  It had no bearing on the way Dad lived his life: being honorable, forthright, loving, generous and kind.  He was a shining example of what is GOOD and it had nothing to do with religion.

Most telling of all, even as he approaches his own death, he is not so fearful of dying that he has bought into the self-soothing notion he will magically live on after he draws his last breath --- the Wishful Thinking Syndrome we humans are so desperate to believe because we can't bear to come to terms with our own mortality.  It scares us - knowing we will cease to exist.  (Though, why that's any scarier than closing our eyes and going to sleep at night is somewhat of a mystery to me.)  While I used to find it strange (even distressing) that people DIDN'T believe, I suddenly find myself thinking it is even stranger that people DO believe in an afterlife.  Our impact on the world occurs while we're alive.  After we're gone we live on in the memories of those who knew us.  After those people are gone, we become just another obscure name on the family tree.  Do we wish we were more meaningful than that?  Of course - we are by nature egocentric.  But are we more meaningful than that?  Only in our own minds.

I realize this is no great revelation - and I suppose it is because we recognize (and are terrified by) our insignificance that we are so smitten with the idea of an afterlife.  No one wants to admit they are so vastly unimportant in the big scheme of things.  No one wants to admit they are limited to such a brief existence in the universe.  I get it.  I understand why the concept (preposterous though it may be) of continuing to live after we've died is very appealing.  I understand why we want to believe we'll be reunited with our loved ones.  I'm not sure why we attempt to ascribe human physical abilities to the dead -- we know better; we know we will never see them or hold them in our arms again, but that doesn't stop us from wishing it was possible.  We throw in words like "spirit" and "faith" and we keep wishing.  But wishing doesn't make it so.  I'm just not buying it.  (And the multi-trillion dollar religion industry can't sell it to me.)


Dad talks about what a good life he has had.  He waxes nostalgic about high school. The only blight in his memory is the war:
     "When I was in the war I couldn't believe what the Japs did to those women and children."
     "Yes.  I've heard it was bad.  There was a movie on T.V. where WWII vets talked about coming back from the Pacific and they had nightmares for many years afterwards."
     "Really?  I never had nightmares."

(Okay.  So I know that's not true, but I am secretly delighted his memory about that horror is completely gone.  At least, it is today.)

     "You know, I was very lucky.  That nurse in Saipan was from North Dakota and she wanted to make sure I was sent home."
     "Yes.  The doctor was on the fence.  He was ready to send me back to my unit, but the nurse wanted to make sure I got sent home."
     "Because she was from Fargo and I was from Williston."


     "I liked being the radio man and the platoon runner.  I got to be in charge somewhat."
     "How were you in charge, Dad?"
     "I got to make little decisions.  I got to have more responsibility."
     "So in between the fighting you were going back and forth between different platoons delivering messages?"
     "Yes.  That and carrying litters.  If we weren't at the front of it we were carrying men to the back."
     "Everyone did that?"
     "Yes.  Sometimes you couldn't get to them for a long time.  And you always thought it could be you next time."
     "Well, I'm glad you survived the war, Dad.  Otherwise we wouldn't be here having this conversation."
He laughs and says, "It was all a matter of luck."
     "I'm glad you were lucky, Dad."

He picks up his fork all on his own.  Stunning!  This hasn't happened in a long, long time.  He temporarily struggles with the option of using his right hand or his left hand.  (Damn teachers in the 30's: forcing left-handed children to use their right hands.  Interesting how 80 years later he is reverting back to his natural tendency.)

He has the fork in his right hand (probably because I placed it on the right side of his plate) and then transfers it to his left hand.  The food falls off.  (As it often does.)
     "That happens to me a lot."
     "Don't worry about it, Dad.  It happens to everyone."
He looks at me... somewhat bemused...  somewhat irritated...  somewhat suspicious... and says, "No it doesn't."

No.  He's right.  It doesn't.

Then, suddenly...  as suddenly as he appeared; he was gone - as though someone flipped a switch.

     "Who are you?"
     "I'm your daughter."
     "Whose daughter?"
     "I'm your daughter."
     "If you say so."

That was the last intelligible sentence of the day.  The rest was the usual gibberish we've grown so accustomed to hearing.

BUT, FOR AN HOUR, I GOT TO SEE MY DAD.  I heard my dad's voice, I saw my dad's smile and I was privy to my dad's wit.  Yes, it was an infinitesimal slice of who he used to be.  But it was so much more than I've seen in a long, long, long time.

I know if he was aware of his decline he wouldn't want to live like this.  I completely understand.  But for a brief moment -- the very briefest of moments --  I saw my father today.  When he sank back into oblivion I wanted to grab him and shake him into reality.  "Wait!!!  Don't go yet!!!!"  It's weird to think oblivion is his new reality. God, how he would have hated it.

But let's ignore all that.  Let's remember the full sentences.  Let's remember the hour, on April 30th, 2010, that  I caught a fleeting glimpse of my father.


April - 65 Years Ago

My dad was a soldier in WWII.  He was a rifleman and platoon runner in the 96th Infantry, 381st Regiment, L Company.  While he was overseas he wrote to Mom regularly - as regularly as he could - and we are fortunate to have all the letters she saved.

Dad artfully managed to avoid describing the atrocities he witnessed (and he wasn't permitted to discuss casualties or his letters would have been censored), but occasionally his words inadvertently revealed the losses they were suffering.  There were 40 men in Dad's platoon in October 1944 when the battle of Leyte began, yet in a letter dated January 4, 1945, he wrote, "Just got some mail in.  Only five letters for 30 men."  They were missing 10 men after 3 months of fighting.

The last letter Mom received from the Philippines was dated March 24, 1945.  The battle of Okinawa began April 1st, but there were no letters from Okinawa.  Mom didn't hear from Dad again until May 21st when he wrote from the hospital.  That letter contained only one sentence about Okinawa:  "It was as bad as hell can possibly be."

On April 29, 1945, the 307th Infantry took over for the 381st Infantry.  By the time it was relieved, the 381st had been reduced to about 40 percent combat efficiency and had suffered 1,021 casualties; 536 of them in the Maeda Escarpment in the previous four days.  Some platoons were down to five or six men.  Many of the men were so exhausted that they did not have the energy to carry their equipment down the slope to the road below where trucks were waiting to take them to the rear.

Decades later, we asked Dad to write his memoir and this was what he shared with us about Okinawa:
         We had easy going for a couple of days, but I was very uncomfortable during that period.  My intuition said, "This is just not right; I have a bad feeling." And sure enough, a couple of days later all hell broke loose.  I am uncertain as to the time frame, but one night when we were receiving artillery fire, I did four hours on watch and then went to sleep.  From that point, I don't know what happened.  Later, in a hospital on Saipan, I saw my medical chart which indicated minor injuries from rocks and other debris, and a severe concussion that left me comatose for several days.
         One of the survivors of our Company later sent me a picture taken just before the battle on Okinawa was over, which showed five men.  This was the remainder of my 40-man platoon.  Of the five surviving at the point the picture was taken, only two were original members, and three were replacements; one of whom was killed before the battle ended.

It's hard to believe that 65 years ago today my father was 7000 miles away from home on an island in the Pacific.  It's hard to imagine him as a 20-year-old soldier carrying a rifle, sitting in a foxhole up to his waist in water and mud while machine guns blasted and shells exploded around him.  It's hard to imagine the things he saw and the fear he felt.  According to the statistics, 12,513 American men died on Okinawa and 38,916 were wounded.  It's hard to comprehend how many boys and men just like my dad didn't come home.

I remember when I was a teenager we drove past the cemetery and I asked Dad if he was going to be buried at Fort Snelling.  He shook his head, no.  When I asked him why, he said, "I'm no hero."

He was wrong about that.


The Life I Don't Have

I live someplace warm.  Not California - they have earthquakes; not Florida - too humid; not Texas - I've never gotten over the Drew Pearson thing (not to mention the whole North Stars debacle); not Colorado - too much snow; not Utah - I find Mormons troubling.  I'm thinking maybe Nevada, Arizona or New Mexico... or perhaps an island in the Caribbean so I can have the ocean.

I have a nice little two bedroom townhouse with walls so thick I can't hear the neighbors.

I have a job I love.  I'm not exactly sure what that job would be, but it would be nice to get paid for doing something I loved.  (Do they pay people to eat ice cream?)

I wake up looking forward to the day.  (Not in an unrealistic, bound-out-of-bed singing show tunes sort of way, but at least not feeling encumbered by sadness, regret and nagging dread.)

I occasionally hang out with good friends.  (Kind of like Sex and the City, only the women are normal.)

My son comes home from college (which is paid for because he earned a full scholarship) on all the holidays and spends his summers with me until he graduates; at which time he finds a high-paying, secure job (with excellent medical and dental benefits, an ironclad pension, and free parking) doing something he enjoys.

My 11-year-old car lasts another 11 years.

I am inexplicably happy.

(Seriously, do they pay people to eat ice cream?)

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