all of the selves we Have ever been
My father’s pack was already heavy
that day that he enlisted in the United States Army.
He just didn’t know it yet.
At 16, filled with youthful energy and resolve, dad thought he had found a solution to life’s problems. His father died when dad was 14. The death was sudden and unexpected—a bad case of pneumonia before the advent of antibiotics. It did not take long for the pneumonia to overtake my grandfather. In a couple of days, he went from being a healthy, active dad of two boys to only a memory. The older of the two boys and now responsible for the care of his disabled mother and little brother, dad made a pact with his brother Bob. As soon as he could, dad would enlist in the military and provide financially for their needs. Bob would remain at home and care for their mother.
Already in that invisible pack the day dad enlisted: being born at the start of the Great Depression to two physically disabled parents; living on the edge of poverty throughout his youth; a great war that terrified the world and made the future uncertain; the death of a father and no time to mourn; worry and care for a younger sibling and a grieving mother.
Added to that pack through years of military service first in the Army and then the Air Force: adjustment to military life, a pack or two of cigarettes each day; a hasty and short marriage that ended in annulment; deployments; marriage and four children; moving every couple of years; job stress; deaths of family members. It seemed the pack was bottomless.
After 17 years of active duty, my father separated from the military. Later, my parents divorced, and my father moved away. More weight for the pack. Further down the road, he developed pancreatic cancer. Dad faced it like a soldier-airman, and through a miracle that awed his doctors, dad lived five more years. The illness and treatment took a toll, but dad had some quality of life. Disappointed that he no longer had the stamina to work, dad became a hospice volunteer. My talented and artistic sister-in-law made dad some calling cards that said, “Believe in Miracles.” Dad was a hit in his hospice circle.
When our father’s cancer returned, his attempts at treatment were halfhearted. My brother, HB, became desperate to keep our father alive. HB had a menu of health drinks that he concocted daily for Dad. During a visit to his home, I noticed that Dad left the health potions untouched on the end table while he stared blankly at the TV. One day, alone with my father, I pointed out the warm health drink that now looked thick, flat and disgusting. “Dad, you don’t want to do this, do you?” My father began to cry. He had nothing left, he said. The first round of cancer had been so difficult that it took everything he had to survive. “We must tell the others,” I said. True to his roots as a soldier and an airman, my father expressed a feeling of shame about giving up. He did not want any of us to be disappointed in him. He did not want to let us down. I assured him that we all understood. We had all been with dad through that first horrifying round of surgeries, complications, and treatments. We had all survived dad’s blackout and car crash that sent us searching for him in the night when his blood sugar tanked as he tried to adjust to his post-surgical insulin-dependence.
As the disease progressed, I often spoke to my father by phone—he from his home in California, me from my home in Ohio. I always knew it was dad calling because I heard gut-wrenching sobs coming from the other end of the line when I answered the phone. I waited patiently until my father reached the point where he had exhausted himself and could cry no more. I then offered what comfort I could.
One day the phone rang. Again, there was sobbing on the other end of the line. When the sobbing ceased, and it was quiet, I spoke, “Dad, I know that you are sick and sad and scared, but somehow I know there is something more that you are not saying.”
More tears. “For fifty hears something has been bugging me. Until now, I never knew what it was.”
The thing that had been bugging my father for most of his life was the death of his own father. Years of unexpressed grief were now overtaking my dad. “Because of it, I was not the man I could have been. I was not the father I wanted to be. I did not have the life I dreamed of.” Dad’s last piece of fatherly advice: “Don’t let sorrow ruin your life.”
In that moment on the phone, Dad’s invisible pack burst open. There was no holding it back. The pack had grown so enormous and so heavy that the real man had been hidden from view. It had gotten in the way of fully living his life. My father was like Sisyphus rolling a giant boulder up the mountain. Every day was consumed by the effort of shouldering his invisible pack. And now he had insight but no time left for a do-over. Mercifully, there was enough time for frank conversations and forgiveness.
Dad grew up in a time when people did not talk openly about their sorrows. Adults did not even believe that children were affected by events like the death of a parent. My father reached manhood amongst the brave but silent World War II veterans who provided an example of how to be a soldier and a man.
We all come into this world with an invisible pack. Some of us are fortunate to reach adulthood with little weight added. Others, like my dad, carry overwhelming burdens before they reach high school.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “Sorrow makes us all children again…” For my father, the overwhelming sorrow of childhood robbed him of a successful adulthood. Though handsome in his uniform, It was all dress-up and make believe. Dad’s pack was heavy. It weighed on all of us. We just didn’t know it.
The commercial airlines have it right. Keep your baggage light or it may cost you more than you want to pay.
More than 78,000 servicemen
went missing during World War II.
Too many families were left to wonder.
One mother received the news that her son’s plane went down over the mountains of Europe. Neither the plane nor his body was ever recovered. For the rest of her life, that mother never moved from the house where she first received the news, and she never again locked the doors in case her beloved son should find his way home.
Some people might say this mother lived in a state of denial. Maybe a doctor or therapist diagnosed her with complicated bereavement, unresolved grief or depression. Over time, others may have grown frustrated at her unwillingness to accept the “truth” and at her foolishness in leaving the doors unlocked. Many people may have given up on her, getting on with their lives, and leaving that mother alone with her wishful thinking and her grief.
But the story speaks to me of love, the deep, abiding kind of love that does not end. It is spiritual in nature. I cannot but join her in hope that love might win and bring her boy back through that open door even though I know his return is unlikely.
Though the longing hurts, it says that love has lived in a heart now torn by loss. Longing is a terrible itch and an aching tear; hope is the salve and the suture.
There are plenty of gashes in me mended by the thread of hope. I have spent more than a few hours of my life negotiating with God, trying to get Him to see things my way, offering bargains. Some folks call those silent conversations prayer. Others call them denial. Perhaps they are a display of hope, a positive emotion that springs up in the face of fear and uncertainty.
In the Greek myth, after Pandora opened the box releasing evil and disease into the world, only hope remained. Sometimes hope is the only tool remaining in our tool boxes, too. Employing it does not mean that we are silly or stupid.
G. K. Chesterton wrote that “hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate.” That kind of hope gives us the will and the courage to fight evil in the world and the determination and ingenuity to conquer disease.
So, let us stand with all those whose hearts are filled with longing, and leave our doors open for hope.
War is hell.
And so can be the long aftermath.
Several years ago I was asked to comfort a dying World War II veteran. I sat at the bedside as the veteran told me of his youth that was marked by the Great Depression and then the war. All the young men in this veteran’s small town enlisted. It was the right thing to do. The veteran was deployed to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese. He and his comrades were warned not to engage the enemy in hand-to-hand combat given the enemy’s exceptional skill. “Shoot, and shoot to kill,” was the order.
While the young solder lay sprawled in the dense jungle foliage, the enemy came at him like waves on the ocean shore. "There were so many. They just kept coming. Wave after wave." The young soldier was terrified. And he shot. And he shot. And he killed. And he killed. And he survived the war.
Returning home, he and the others gathered nightly in the local saloon dousing their flaming memories with alcohol. After a time, this returning soldier realized the road to the bar was neither a path from the past nor one to the future. He began keeping company with a local preacher. The Great Depression and the war had taken a toll on his family. While he desperately wanted to go to college, the family needed his income, and so he worked. A wise mentor told him that the education he sought could be obtained for free at the local library, and so he took refuge in books and ideas. Through church, the library, and hard work, the veteran built a good, successful life and a happy family.
He could speak of those things with joy and with satisfaction, but now, as his life was drawing to a close, he wept, not for the impending loss of his own life, but for all of the lives he had taken when he was a terrified teenage boy in the jungles of the South Pacific. The question he had kept at bay for so many years now taunted him—“How will I answer to God for what I have done?”
As he lay on his bed with tears running down his neck, I could see that he was every bit as terrified as the teenager he had been when facing an ocean of enemy soldiers. Trite accolades about doing his duty and being a war hero would be not only inadequate, but for him, an outright lie.
Sharing a common faith tradition with this man, I searched my mind for all I could remember about God and the afterlife. My thoughts lacked the certainty that this veteran urgently needed.
“We cannot know,” I began hesitantly, “but, perhaps, this is a time for faith and not fear,” I said. “The same God that was with you in the jungle is with you now. The same God who directed your steps from the bar to the library is with you now. The same God who heard your pleas in the jungle hears you now, and I believe He feels your sorrow and accepts your apology—both the one spoken and the one that was your lived life. I have faith that He forgives that terrified teenage boy in the jungle.”
I reflected on what other survivors of World War II had told me, other veterans, Holocaust survivors, civilians. “Don’t talk about it and get on with your life”—that was believed to be the best medicine at the time. And so they did not speak, and they tried to move on.
Perhaps the old folks had a point in saying, “Get on with your life.” Maybe we all answer to God long before we reach the pearly gates by the way we have lived our lives.
I have a sign on the wall across from my bed now. It says, “Arise, and do not be afraid.” It is from
Matthew 17:7. I assume that the “Live and get on with it,” is implied.
I have learned from these veterans and from my own life that when we suffer, the only way through is to arise and live. Live in moments. Live in inches. Do the best we can, but keep at it, and if there is someone willing to walk with you and hold your hand, grab on.
A beautiful, very wise, young Air Force chaplain once asked a crowd of mourners, “Is it the answers we seek, or the Answerer?” I felt relieved and comforted by his words. It was no longer on me to have all of the answers.
It is the human condition to wonder and to ponder, to ask “Why?” and to worry. We do not have all of the answers. Trying to eat the fruit of that knowledge got Adam and Eve in a whole lot of trouble. We must live and find something to believe in so that we can arise, and not be afraid.