Sunday, January 27, 2013

Rummaging Through the Attic

I went up to the attic to get something the other day and looked over at the mountain of papers, boxes and manila envelopes that spilled from one corner out into the middle of the room. It was the avoidance pile, the place to which we’ve relegated everything we’ve wanted to save or maybe ought to save or perhaps would enjoy reading again someday. But now it’s thirty years later and we don’t even know what’s in the mountain anymore, much less have any use for the stuff. It’s just been sitting there, growing and growling at us for a very long time.

I decided to purge. At first I was going to just toss it all. But then that same ‘what if there’s something I might want or need’ syndrome took hold and I resigned myself to dig through the intimidating slop.

For the past week I’ve sat on the floor and re-read the pages of my life. It’s mostly been those titillating bank statements from 1983 and of course each and every canceled insurance policy cuz you never know when you might need those again. There were thousands of slips of paper dating back as far as twenty five years ago that we’d kept in case the IRS ever singled us out. Every homework assignment the kids ever did was in there. Not as fascinating as I’d thought they might be all these years later.

Most of the stuff should have been relegated to the shred pile a long time ago, but not all of it. Buried within the layers of useless time keepers were treasures and tid-bits of our life as it has passed through the years. In the middle of the pile was a manila envelope labeled “Donna’s Freelance Writing.” In it was a piece I’d written years ago about my mother and my step-father. The story reminded me of the perspective I always want to have; the one I often write about in this blog. So, I decided to post an excerpt from the story. Even though I wrote it more than twenty years ago, I think it still holds meaning for each of us. The piece is titled The Great Masquerader.

It was six in the morning. The sun spilled through the window and onto the blanket under which Stan lay motionless. At first the light had warmed him, but now it was making him hot. It occurred to him how cruel it was that he could not push the covers back himself, but then he dismissed the thought. It had been years since he could manage even the simplest task and years since he had stopped agonizing over the fact that one of the harshest fates had sought him out. In the quiet stillness of early morning Stan waited for Ellie to wake up and come down to the living room where he now slept in a hospital bed. Ellie could pull the covers back for him.

Stan was forty eight when he was diagnosed in 1973. He and Ellie had been married less than a year at the time. Theirs had been a later-in-life romance that anyone might hope for. Stan was handsome and vibrant. His winning personality was hard to resist and Ellie fell in love quickly. They sang together and held hands and danced. Stan was an excellent dancer. Their days were dotted with long walks on the beach and candlelit dinners by the fire.

Double vision, a slight limp and numbness in his right hand brought Stan to the doctor that first year. Tests were inconclusive. Certain illnesses were eliminated. In the end, he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, or MS. There was no test to confirm the diagnosis. MS masquerades as other conditions, lurking behind symptoms that could be many other things, but then they’re not and in the end your doctor concludes you have MS. It is a disease of the central nervous system. There are four types and they vary in severity but each of them takes from the patient at least some of what he used to have.The Fast Progressive strain takes it all.

At first Stan and Ellie were hopeful. Odds were, since Stan was a male and already middle aged, his would be a mild case. The only test would be that of time. They had no choice but to see what course the disease would follow. They waited and worried as their assailant worked its vicious way upon their lives. One by one symptoms came and never went. Stan’s case would not be one of the easy ones.

At first he was weak on his right side. Then he couldn’t write. Soon he needed assistance to walk. From a cane he went to a walker; from the walker to a wheelchair. Finally he couldn’t get out of bed. In a very short time the MS had summonsed Stan from the building of his life and taken him down.

The progressive physical debilitation was, in many ways, not as difficult for Stan and Ellie as the emotional and psychological impact. Stan had to quit work, so they could no longer afford their home. They moved to Ellie’s family cottage in the boondocks of New Hampshire. As Stan’s speech became affected and his ability to control bodily functions diminished, it became increasingly awkward to be around him and friends began to drop away. Stan and Ellie felt hurt, then angry, then simply alone.

Stan lost the fighting attitude early on and became consumed by his fear and disappointment. It didn’t take long for depression to set in. Ellie couldn’t get him to do anything for himself or with her and, gradually, the affection between the two lovers began to fade. Eventually, Ellie became little more than a nursemaid whose drudgery consisted of not only her own ablutions each morning but Stan’s as well. After that she cooked for Stan then fed him then hoisted him in the lift so she could change his sheets and dress his bedsores. She counted out his meds and spent hours on the phone with various agencies.

Years passed. During the first nine of them Stan was still angry. The only available target was Ellie. She was healthy and he was not; it wasn’t fair. So he began to resent her, even though she was the one keeping him alive; the one who stood between him and an institution. Eventually, though, even the anger went away and left nothing in its place but the horrible suffering of a man who was locked within himself, unable to move, to speak or to do anything but lie there in contorted pain. It was so difficult to watch, so utterly heart breaking. What must it have been like for Stan as he passed through the countless days that threatened never to end?

In 1988, after fifteen years, Ellie could no longer care for Stan at home and she had to move him to the V.A. Hospital about an hour away. She visited him every day and sat with him as he lay curled in the fetal position. One day she got there and he had died in the night. They said it was heart failure. We always wondered if someone hadn’t put him out of his misery.

Now it’s 2013. As I sit in the attic and look through the envelopes that detail the last thirty years of my life, I rediscover dusty and faded memories. I feel enriched again by the wonderful experiences and relationships that have visited themselves upon me. When I think of Stan, I realize how lucky I am and I hope never to complain about anything again.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Man in the Photograph

           Today is the anniversary of the day my father was lost over North Korea. I have many people in my life for whom I am thankful. This is not to take away from the riches they have brought me. But today I pay homage to the layer that lies beneath everything else. It has come forward through the years and become a part of who I am. A while ago I wrote an essay about my father’s loss. In tribute to him today, I am posting it.
            It came in a telegram. In the ‘50s that’s how they did it. “I regret to inform you…”

            It’s the message that brings a military wife to her knees. An envelope delivered to the front door. She takes it into her trembling hands and stares at it, already knowing.  

            My mother was seven months pregnant with me when she got her telegram. The message was not of death. Hers delivered a different kind of blow. My father was Missing in Action. He’d gone out on a night mission over North Korea and hadn’t come back to base. No word. No witnesses. He’d simply disappeared.

            He’d probably been captured and was being held as a POW. Mom tried to stifle the terrible images of torture and starvation that crept in at night when she was supposed to be sleeping. She clung to her thoughts of the day he would come home. Two months later, I was born. My older brother and I were good distractions. 

            The days and months passed. It got harder to picture his face and to hear his voice. But still she clung to the glimmer that had insinuated itself into our lives. Dad would be home as soon as the war was over.

            When the war ended a year and a half later, they televised POWs crossing the bridge during repatriation in Panmunjom. As the men hobbled across, one by one, expectant and frightened families watched from far away. When they saw their Johnny cross over, they would cry out. Some jumped to their feet. Mom stood silently, clenched fists at her breast, searching the faces. 

            The last man crossed over. His family must have been so relieved. My mother crumbled to the floor. This was not the grief of a woman who’d been told her husband had been killed. Mom was caught somewhere between his death and something worse. Where was he? 

            The government promised to do everything it could to get answers but that turned out to be more talk than action. Later, the 944 List came out. My father’s name was on it. The list was of men who remained missing for whom the government felt there should be an accounting based on circumstances surrounding their loss. In my father’s case, two of his crew members had come back. They’d been captured and held for the rest of the war. That meant the North Koreans and the Chinese who fought with them had found the air craft wreckage. They either had my father or knew where he was buried.

            There should have been information but there wasn’t, and there was no coordinated effort to get any. Eventually, the government changed my father’s status from MIA to Presumed Dead and that was the end of it—for them, but not for us. When you love someone, it’s hard to just presume he's dead. He is your husband. He is your children’s father. He is your life. You don’t just write him off and go about your business.

            You wait and wonder and agonize every day over what might have happened to him. Years pass and details of the life you shared with him begin to fade. But the anguish never does. It lives alongside of you in his stead. My mother carried on, but the loss came with her. Where was her husband?

            My brother eventually stopped standing at the front door crying “I want my daddy,” but he never stopped missing the man who had carried him on his shoulders. I grew up without ever having known my father, but my mother managed to bring him to life for me. His picture was on my bed stand. His hockey skates and other artifacts sat about the room. There were countless stories of him; there were countless tears for him. And always, always there was the hope that one day he would be standing at the door. 

            Years passed. The silent wondering pressed to the back of our hearts and made room for life unfolding. Then, in 1991, Boris Yeltsin came to the U.S. and told of how American POWs had secretly been taken out of Korea to the Soviet Union and never returned. 

            Families of the 8,000 men missing from the Korean War were outraged. The men’s children were now of an age to get involved and we did. We organized and demanded that the government do something to finally get the answers we had all yearned for but never received. The reluctant assumption we had made that our fathers must have died passed quickly from our lives and, in its place, came an anger that we had been made to live with the not knowing for forty years. 

            Each of us was set to wondering anew. Was my father one of the men who had been taken? Had he been thrown into a gulag and forced to live in Siberia, alone and waiting to be rescued? New anguish piled on top of the old. We were now guilty of inaction. We had abandoned our fathers.

            There were Congressional hearings. An office was formed in the Department of Defense. Its mission: to find out what had happened to the men who never came back. I quit working and became a full-time advocate on behalf of POW/MIAs. Along with thousands of other family members, I badgered Congress and the State Department and the White House. I traveled to former Soviet Bloc countries and to China and even to North Korea is search of answers. There were marches and newsletters and too many speeches to remember. I combed the National Archives, filing one Freedom of Information request after another. Twice I testified at Congressional hearings. Most powerful of all, for me, I found my father’s crew members. They told me everything they could remember about that night. All of it placed my father’s loss in context, but none of it told me where he was. He had simply vanished.  

            More than twenty years into our search, we still have no answers. My father is 87 now, if he’s still alive. Every year, on January 13th, just at the hour his plane went down, I hike into the woods, his picture and his hockey glove in hand. I sit alone and find him in my heart and get into that plane with him. I picture a bail-out. Then I picture going down in flames, in case it happened that way. I feel his emotions as they must have been in those terrible moments when life and death flashed by him and chased him to the ground.  

            I lost my father to war. The fact that he was MIA instead of KIA has tormented me my entire life. We’ve pressed for resolution to the uncertainty. Find the answers, however bad they might be, we’ve always said. We just want to know.

            Sometimes I wonder if I really do. After all these years, I have grown accustomed to having him somewhere out there. Missing in Action; not dead. The uncertainty has kept him alive. He is the man in the photograph—my father—all things a child might want him to be.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Empty Spaces

Christmas is a conundrum to me. The ride up begins weeks, sometimes months, before and gradually starts to look a little like insanity. There’s the coming up with unique gift ideas even after all these years of buying for the same people. Then you shop and wrap and mail till your feet ache and your fingers are bleeding. You bake pies you know you won’t eat. Decorations come down from the attic and clutter the living room so you no longer recognize it. And you need to just accept that you will spend every dollar that comes in and your credit cards will simply be on fire.

And yet, it is my favorite time of year. I love Christmas. The family comes home and we nestle in and finally, after all the hoopla, we just sit around the tree and in front of the fire in our pajamas for hours. We talk and laugh and share things. We cook and eat and just be present together. It is a time of family and friendship. It is so totally worth all the hassle.

This year we had company. On Christmas day, seven of us sat at the table. A week later, the kids were gone, my sister went home, guests returned to their own lives and Cecil flew to Texas to be with his dad. I woke up the first morning of being alone and fought off feelings of loneliness. The house was too quiet. It seemed empty. There was now this void that wanted to be filled up. What was I going to do with it?

It made me appreciate what a few people I know are going through as relationships in their lives have broken. What used to enrich them is not there anymore. I’ve watched them be sad as they grapple with the newness of their circumstances. The void has come to them and it doesn’t feel good. It feels like less than what was.

And it is less. But a void is space. Space can be left empty and it will seem lonely and incomplete. Or it can be an opportunity to bring new energy into your life, a chance to grow and discover wonders that might have passed you by when you had no space to fill.

When the feds targeted Cecil and pretty much stole life as we knew it, we stood with much less at hand than before they came at us. It was tempting to let that hole suck me in to where I would just disappear. Instead I looked around for ways to fill it. I started practicing law again. And I started writing. For me, the writing saved the day. It helped to put thoughts and feelings into words. The therapeutic exercise grew into an interest and then a passion. Writing is now what fills me up. It beckons to me in the middle of the night. I have met new people and made new friends.

I could never say the witch hunt was a good thing. It was an affront so all-consuming that it has defied my many attempts to understand what happened and why. What they took from us created a void. It was a space in my life that I could have left alone to eat me up. Instead, I turned to the emptiness and filled it with other things.

Sometimes voids in our life are large. Sometimes they are small. And sometimes they converge to inspire new things. 

My father has been missing in action my entire life. He went off to war and just disappeared. No one has been able to tell us what happened to him. Huge void.

I finished my manuscript about Cecil’s prosecution and found myself lost because writing the book had become a way of life for me. Small void.

These two spaces in my life have now come together to create something different. I have conceived my next book. It will be a novel based on my father’s disappearance. I am energized about my new writing project and I am enriched by the prospect of spending the next couple of years with my father as he lives within me so I can tell his story.

It’s hard to deal with loss. But life is about many things. Some of them are sad and make no sense. These challenges add layers and dimension that come together to create windows of opportunity that will lead to the intriguing experience each of us will have. 

I look at it as the full measure of life.