Here We All Are

Excerpt from

The Fayetteville Observer, January 10, 2010

Read this essay online

Liebling says of veterans, “They mourn for their dead but also for war.” My father hurt for the families of his lost comrades; in recent years, he has talked often of the families of soldiers fighting now. It is frequently the Military section of The Fayetteville Observer that lies open on the table in front of him at Scotia Village in Laurinburg.

Since mid-February of last year, my father has lived in the dementia-care part of their retirement community. My mom inhabits the apartment that they shared for a little over a year after they moved there in late 2007. She visits him every day and every day takes him The Fayetteville Observer and, occasionally, with mixed feelings, leaves him to visit her children and grandchildren. She is, this Monday after Christmas, with my brother in Atlanta. I am visiting my father solo.

I open my laptop and the file with Auden’s lines. My father sits forward, curious, alert. “Do you remember reading this to me, Daddy?” He does not answer, but he smiles.

I begin to read, a little self-consciously, not wanting to disturb the two nurses and the few patients by the TV at the other end of the room. They are here with him every day, and they are here now during the holidays. They are endurance runners in his daily life and in that of my mom; I am merely a sporadic sprinter.

I read on. Whenever I pause for breath, he says, “Go on. Go on.” When I read the words “children who whispered so excitedly/Outside the locked door,” he exclaims, “Yes!” and then with more of a drift “…they have forgotten the words.”

I pause, thinking he might say more, thinking I will figure out what he means. “Please go on,” he says.

I do, and after the last words, I look over at him. He is looking at me, smiling a broad, peaceful smile (as much as I hesitate to use the word, I think his smile was beatific). He begins to tap a rhythm, not absently but with attention and focus. Is it the rhythm of the last two lines of Auden’s poem (That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers, God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph)? It seems so, but I cannot be sure.

He continues to look directly into my eyes and at the same time to cock his head to the side to keep track of his tapping. He continues this for almost a minute. Then he stops. Still, the beatific smile. He has responded, not in words, but with a rhythm.

On Jan. 3, I fly to be with some of the Italian family who took my father in the fall of 1945 when he was 20 years old and combat-weary and had months to idle before he could ship home. My younger son and I will join in their celebration at the return home of one of their sons from fighting in Afghanistan.

I first went with my father and older brother to visit his Italian friends in December 1975. It was my father’s first trip back. I was honored to be with him and honored that he wanted me to go along. I slept in the room where he had slept 30 years earlier and threw open the curtains in the morning and looked out at the mountains and knew a little of something about what began to heal his heart way back then.

A man who collected my father’s stories over the past few years for a project that he is submitting to the National War Museum in Carlisle, Pa., told me that he does not know how my father made it out alive or how he kept standing up and speaking his heart and mind every Sunday for decades after.

At times, I wondered if my father felt guilty about having survived. I wondered if his life after the war would ever measure up to his life during the war. But as the years passed and he took me and my sons and my former husband and showed us his battlefields and his foxhole, as we stood and spoke with the small Italian woman who had been the laundress at the company headquarters north of Florence, as he shared these friends of his youth with us, I came to know he was weaving together a life of all he loved.

He took me to church with him once in the last few years. The topic was heaven. He had been asked to speak to the Sunday school class about afterlife. He said his views were more Unitarian than Presbyterian. He said he believes God makes it right with everyone.

He reached under the table and squeezed my hand. My father is an eternal optimist.

As I leave on Monday, he is again looking at The Fayetteville Observer. There is a headline with 2010 in it. “I am going to have some of 2010,” he says. I remind my father that I will see him again after I go visit his friends in Italy. I’m not sure he focuses or comprehends, but perhaps he does. He says only, “I love you so much.”