So long, Old Nam Vet
Today I’m writing about my father, a two time Purple Heart recipient of the Vietnam conflict. He fathered five boys in his 65 years of life. He was also married 4 times. As a father, he was a hard man to get along with. So hard in fact, most of us couldn’t wait to get out of the house, never to come back unless it was absolutely necessary! During that time we grew apart.
As a child, I grew up resenting him. His constant yelling and verbal abuse took its toll on all of us. He always seemed so stressed out, angry, and detached. I could never understand why. So over time, I just figured he was an asshole. This relationship carried on for about 20 years.
What I did not realize, was that he had made some changes in his life. I was too blinded by resentment to really care. You see, in the last 20 years he divorced his third wife, remarried a sickly woman who died a few years later. On top of that, both his mother and father died as well. I guess you could say life really kicked him in the nuts. Once all the dust settled, he hooked up with a woman 20 years younger than him. So began his journey of enlightenment, if you will. This younger gal is a real go getter who will not take “I can’t” for an answer. It was just what the old man needed.
My father was always one to earn his own way. He never went without a job for 45 years! He never wanted or asked for any handouts. He was forced into retirement and started to panic about income. In late 2012 to early 2013 he started to have some pain in his abdomen. Most of us just figured it was stress. Well his girlfriend just happens to know about the benefits war vets are entitled to, so she took him to the VA and got him all signed up. On one of the many trips to the VA, my father picked up a pamphlet on PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). He almost started crying right there in the office. He said “It was like reading a book about me!” Once he started to get help for it, you could sense the relief in his voice. He called my brothers and me, and apologized for being such a jerk all the time. He didn’t even know they had a name for what he was going through. Mere words were not enough for me. I was just like” whatever, I have my own life and problems man”. He wanted us to give him credit for realizing his wrongs and starting over, but I didn’t.
I had not seen my father in a long time. On his 65th birthday, they had a little get together. My family and I were sitting in the banquet room waiting for them to arrive. I wasn’t expecting anything at all really, that is until my dad walked in. He looked like he was 110 years old! His cane in hand, all hunched over barely able to walk. I had to excuse myself! I went out in the truck and cried like a baby for about 5 minutes. What happened to the proud angry bastard I’ve known my whole life? I knew then that what he had was more than stress.
Within days after his party, he could no longer sustain himself at home. So they rushed him to the VA and got him a bed. He was there for four days. I only left his side to go home and sleep. During those four days we had several long chats. We were able to re bond to a degree and make up for some lost time. Staying by his side for that time was one of the best choices of my life, for I was with him when he got the news.
The doctors told him that he had malignant melanoma, cancer on his organs. They told him that there is nothing they can do for him. He looked the doctors straight in the face and said these words: “I should have died so many times already. I got to come home, there were 50,000 of us that didn’t. I can’t complain at all, thank you doctor.” It was then and there that I think I finally understood my father. He lived his entire life never able to forget things he had seen and done in Vietnam. He was never able to escape the “Screw it, I’m probably going to die anyway” mentality. Keeping his deepest emotions tucked away where nobody could get to them. We were raised up thinking love is just known, not shown. He was just happy to get through a day, let alone a month or year. I wonder how many vets are living this way today with our endless wars in the Middle East and elsewhere.
He didn’t die that week in the hospital. They got him re-hydrated and holding in some food, then sent him on his way. With there being no history of cancer in my family, they did some research and found that his condition is most likely from exposure to Agent Orange. He told us a story of a place they used to drive through they called “Sleepy Hallow”. No birds, trees, bushes, or bugs! Everything was dead from the chemical. He still didn’t break down any, not in front of anyone.
We all spent Thanksgiving at his little place in Arizona that he calls his ranch. Frail and weak, he still has hope that he will get through all of this somehow. They called in hospice to check on him once a week and refill his pain meds. I fear he will not make it to Christmas. One of his last wishes was to go duck hunting. He fears the weather would be too much for him to bear. He doesn’t think it would be fair for him to go off and die in a duck blind, when his girlfriend and her two children are trying to keep him alive. I say in a duck blind is a hell of a way to go, but ok.
In parting, I would just like to thank my dad for teaching me how to hunt and fish. I will never forget waking up at 3:00am so we could have the decoys set or all the shad net before the sun came up. Our friends used to think we were crazy, but the memories I have are priceless. I will never forget looking at my dad with his cigarette hanging off his lip in the ice cold air as we motored across the lake in the old duck boat. I thank my father for never missing any of my sporting events. Even though I resented his angry ass, it still meant a lot to me that he was there. He showed me it is more fun to make things rather than buy them. Most of all, I thank you for showing me how to wear the armored shield of a real man. Even with death staring you in the face, you still keep going. For anyone who has ever lived with someone who was battling with PTSD you will understand these final words to my father most of all; “The Nam finally got ya pops. You can rest when you’re ready to. I will be with you until the end….. So long, Old Nam Vet.”
God… Bless America
And Father… you are not gone yet and there is a chance you may read this. I rather hope you do, because I can probably write my feelings better than say them anyway. You raised us to be tough after all. But you deserve to know everything you’ve been to me and everything you will continue to be for me long after you go. Because of your actions, you will never really be gone… you’ll be right here, no matter what. I carry not only your blood, but your memory as well. I am a lucky son, and I hope you know how proud of you I really am. We wasted years because of things we misunderstood. No longer. I am at peace. I hope you know that all is forgiven. I just hope you can forgive me, and I hope with all that I am that you can finally find your peace too. Here’s to you dad!