Three times a year I make the same phone call. I am the daughter of a Vietnam veteran. For the longest time, I wanted to not know this about my dad. I didn’t want to imagine the horror of what he had seen, what he might have done, what was done to him, what it still does to him to this day. There are the visible scars of war, the unknowable scars, and the ones that lurk and then announce their arrival later- like my father’s Agent Orange caused lymphoma. And though I initally wanted to not know this chapter of my father’s life, I couldn’t help but begin to see it after traveling to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC with him when I was 15.
Walking across an expanse of grass, each foot falling in tandem with my stomach, I moved towards that wall, my dad to my right, with a broken heart. Everywhere before me on this Veteran’s Day were men in various states of brokenness. It broke me. My dad went to touch the wall, to search the names, and I turned away, noticing the faces of men who wanted nothing more than to matter after this war took so much of and from them. Later, we moved to the mall where the first President Bush was scheduled to speak to all of these veterans who had gathered in this space on their day. We waited past the announced starting time. One hour. Two. And then an announcement that the President was not able to make it. The rimshot of sadness, of yet another shot hitting these men, was almost audible in that space. My stomach plummeted further. Later, I watched the news in my cousin’s condo where we were staying. President Bush was back at the family ranch in Texas for the weekend. I cut off the television when my father walked into the room, wanting to protect him from this news.
This past weekend, I traveled to Kentucky to attend a Vietnam reunion with my dad. He’s been asking me to go for awhile, and how could I not after these men from that time in his life served as his life line during his three rounds of cancer treatment? After they supported my efforts to raise funds for leukemia and lymphoma research by doing two century rides in a year by donating dollars from their pensions and then sent my e-mails on to others? After they attended my book signings in cities like Chicago and included me in their e-mails about veterans in their communities? After they served as his lifeline for a time in his life that I can’t ever really know, even though I am no longer scared of it, even though I actively engage in it, how can I stay away from knowing this, from understanding it in a way that allows me to understand my father? On Saturday night, I stood with my dad outside the banquet hall, waiting for my mom and my sister’s family, when I saw a young man, not unlike the girl I was at 15 when I saw the Vietnam Wall surrounded by the men’s whose names did not make it onto that marble, stare at my dad from a distance. His eyes were processing all of this, putting the pieces together of his grandfather’s experience. I watched him because I am a former high school teacher and I am always captivated by that age. And I watched him because I understood some of what he was feeling. And then he broke away from his family and moved towards my dad. “Thank you for your service,” he said, reaching his hand out to my dad. ”Thank you so much,” my dad replied. ”It is so nice to hear that from a young man.” Even now, as I am typing this, my eyes flood with tears. And that, right there, is the sum of the phone call that I have made three times a year since I left home for college. Every Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veteran’s Day, I call my Papito and thank him for his service. It is my way of acknowledging the whole of him, of letting him know that he matters.
I returned home on Sunday, my heart happy with having done something that meant so much to my father. BF and I have been working our way through the first season of West Wing and so after laundry, unpacking, etc, we popped in the next episode. As it turns out, “In Excelsis Deo” included the storyline of a homeless Korean War veteran who died on a park bench on a cold December night. Toby, one of the White House staffers becomes involved, and he arranges a funeral for the solider that Toby, Mrs. Van Landingham (the President’s secretary), the veteran’s homeless brother, and someone from the VA attend. The final scene of the episode left me weeping.
Today, I will pick up the phone and call my dad. “Thank you for your service, Papito,” I will say, and he will thank me. And then I’ll get off the phone and wonder if he really knows how much he matters.