Updated: Sep 13, 2021
“I sometimes hold it half a sin To put in words the grief I feel; For words, like nature, half reveal And half conceal the Soul within.” -Alfred Tennyson
Today is September 3, 2021. The countdown to September 5 has been in my conscience for the last few weeks.
I attended a military funeral last Friday at The Abraham National Cemetery in Elwood, IL. The friend who died came home from Vietnam at the age of 23 with PTSD and, later, the affects of agent orange. From 23 to when he died at 76, his life was defined by those years in Vietnam. He suffered from depression, anger, often confusion, physical pain, and knew his productivity could never be what it was for so many of his colleagues. While he’d had 2 suicide attempts, he did not die by his own hand. It’s believed he had a heart attack or a stroke. He was found by a neighbor in his side yard, face down, in the morning. His brother told me Tom would sleep fitfully, have terrible nightmares, and often just walk around outside in his neighborhood.
Tom had 3 children and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I’d been in his wedding to Rita in 1966. He was part of the “couples’ gang” from high school. He was fun, funny, smart, thoughtful, and quite the prankster. That’s how I will remember him. I had lunch with Tom and Rita about 3 years ago. He was quiet with no spark in his eyes. He talked of the “help” he received from the VA- some good, some not-sogood.
He was part of The American Legion and the VFW. While Rita and I recalled times of merriment from the past, his smile was like that of a ghost. “How I wish I could return to those days before…” After the long drive back to Plano from Elwood, I rode with one of Tom’s best friends from grade school through high school. Don recounted various mischievous adventures. While eating at The American Legion, there was much talk of Tom’s good years but also a lot of talk about the rest of his life. Stop to think that the majority of his life was one of pain and misery.
More than 1 person, especially his children, said, “Thank God it wasn’t a suicide. It sure could have been. We are so glad he didn’t leave us with that legacy.” I had to agree. Thank God it wasn’t a suicide. I was already in my “count down to September 5” phase. It cheered me to be with people who knew Mom and who spoke of her lovingly and with great stories about her.
Last Sunday, August 29, there was 1 more gathering of the gang before some flew or drove back to their own lives. Again much reminiscing until I was asked, “Tell us about your mom. Her death.” Well, I don’t tell that story much anymore and it took many tears to get through it. The blame I still carry, the despair she felt, the phone call…I walked through it all again. And they listened. Some cried with me. That’s why I chose the above quote for this column. I told it all. I held nothing back.
The sweet words of friends reminded me of my age at that time, my place in my own life with 4 young children, and the fact that “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” Usually when people ask me the story of mom, I can give facts and remain seemingly detached. Usually I’m not sitting with friends who knew her, truly wanted to know her story and how it affected me AND…more importantly…how I am still affected to this day. There was no judgment. There was simply love and acceptance. I trusted my feelings to tell the truth and to simply let it happen.
Is this then one of the “gifts”? I think it is. Yesterday, my 18-year-old grandson moved in with Bill and I. It’s a story for another time, perhaps, but I found myself telling him that this Sunday, September 5, I will need some time alone in my garden. I told him why.
His mom was 8 years old when mom died. I’m sure as Jacob and I talk, we’ll both gain clearer perspectives of this event. It’s been 42 years. The grief goes on. I haven’t “gotten over it” or “moved past it”. A piece of it still sits squarely in the center of my heart. It’s ok. Our grief is ok. It’s personal. It’s ours. Let no one tell you otherwise…