A soldier will sacrifice more than you can know.
These last few days have been interesting. My travels are on hold as Mom is in the hospital healing from a heart attack. Thursday, 9/12, marked 7 months since Dad passed, and Friday the 13th would have been his 67th birthday. I’ve spent this time being there for others, meanwhile the waves of emotions have pulsed through me. I woke up this morning in tears, something very unusual.
In Taos, NM (read in greater detail in an upcoming post), I had stayed with some close friends. Their house has a mold issue, which is a reality I had lived in 2.5 years ago. February 2017 to be exact. The same February that Dad had come back into my life, seeking help, love, and forgiveness–healing before expiration. Naturally, it is while staying in a home with mold that I would stumble upon the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. Full circle. Only this time, I’m the one seeking healing.
Tucked in the woods about 30 miles outside of Taos, the memorial is bright white, with artifacts, a museum, a chapel, and a walkway lined with bricks honoring those who have served. Not too far from the parking lot rests a helicopter that was used in combat. Tears began welling behind these eyes as I looked in the windows and imagined what it was like for my Dad, the sharp shooter, to aim at the enemy from the sky, all while watching his friends’ die from the firing below. “I saw my friends’ heads blown off and had to keep going,” is what he would tell me when I was a little girl full of questions.
Somehow I made it past the helicopter without completely breaking down. No tear had fallen, just a feeling in my gut of understanding. I had not cried the entire trip, and after the sweat lodge in Sedona, AZ, I felt like perhaps I was unable to. May we find forgiveness for all the fathers.
Thousands of bricks lined either side of the walk, with the names, years served, and special recognition for the soldiers who had been honored there. How beautiful. I made my way into the chapel, prayed with Dad in mind (who believed in God deeply), and made it into the museum.
All the tears I had held onto, hit there. They were resting in the artifacts, the fatigues and boots Dad told me about, the history plagues, the letters from soldiers, the timelines posted, the pictures of POW, the looks on all of the men’s faces. It all made sense. The VA had helped my Dad at the end of his life, and it had given us so much, but it was because Dad had sacrificed so much as a soldier that he had to seek healing with me at the end. The looks on the faces in the photos had the same hollow gleam that Dad had while growing up. Dad couldn’t be there, because the men from Vietnam didn’t believe in getting help for PTSD. They toughed it out, the same way they toughed it out as Agent Orange fell on them. The same way they toughed it out as they were captured as POW. The same way they toughed it out when their friends expired right in front of them. The same way they toughed it out when they were first drafted.
I walked around the museum, grateful that there were tissues everywhere. This is a moving place for everyone, a place to release understanding and love for the soldiers who sacrificed more than just a few years in combat.
On the wall was a picture of the bunkers, a description of how unsafe it was for those resting there. I was instantly taken back to being 4 years old, trying to wake up my sleeping Dad for some boxing match I wanted to watch with him. I hadn’t realized that I couldn’t touch him when he was asleep, a symptom of war. I shook his shoulder “Daddy, Daddy, the fight is about to start!” SMACK. I had ducked, luckily, as his fist went right into the wall. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING! YOU COULD HAVE BEEN HURT, KNOTHEAD!!” Dad was shook, upset that he almost punched his sweet little girl. He sat up, hugged me, and told me to never try waking him up again. I’m sure I had sat there crying, shaking, scared of my Dad. I’m pretty sure he cooked dinner that night as my Mom walked in, and we sat on the couch talking about why Dad did that. “Your Dad was trained to be in combat even while asleep. Think about it: If the enemy were to attack while you were sleeping, you’d have to start fighting before you ever opened your eyes.” Looking back on it, my heart is moved in this moment, at the understanding Mom gave this man she chose to have a child with. No judgement, just understanding and love. It was just a few days later that Dad did his disappearing act again. His PTSD was triggered by this moment, and there was no coming back from it. Just self-medicating and movement to placate the screaming inside. Running away from the people who loved him, in an attempt not to hurt them.
I grabbed another tissue, this time grateful for the understanding and healing I received just from walking around. For the forgiveness I still needed to give him and now could. I had contemplated leaving Taos earlier, to escape the mold, but understood this was a peculiar little sign from Dad, playing a prank and offering the healing I believe he got when he moved in with me off of the streets that February 2017.
I somehow made it through the entire museum, and felt reassured when I saw a few other attendees take everything in, not hiding the emotions it brought out. The gift shop was the logical place to finish the memorial tour at.
Walls were lined with merchandise, and in the corner, sat paperwork to have a brick made in honor of a veteran. My Dad’s memorial was botched by others’ needs for control, and my heart was hurting as I knew his birthday would come and go with his ashes still in my possession. I picked up a sheet, just in time for a lovely older lady behind the desk to speak up “We lay bricks for all Veterans. We’re laying bricks tomorrow, as we do the Saturday before every Labor Day. If you fill this out today, though, it will have to be a part of next year’s ceremony.” Not only do I get to honor my Dad, but I have an excuse to return to New Mexico? Yes.
I filled out the paperwork, paid the fee, and felt so peaceful turning it in. The lady behind the counter asked about the soldier I was honoring, and she in turn told me about her veteran husband, the bartender down the road. We talked about what it is like loving a veteran, what it is like loving an old-timer who doesn’t believe in therapy. We shook hands, she gifted me a bumper sticker, and I walked away in peace, so very grateful that I found a way to honor my Dad even long after I am gone.
Thank you for following this journey. I have a few more travel posts to come, and then this blog may change shape until Spring hits and everyone is healthy and travel can resume once more. I am the only child and have the duty of loving my parents extra hard, being there as the main figure of community.