For me, last weekend was one of those that each of us needs every once in a while. I watched Legends of the Fall with Daniel before he went to bed, and then found Flags of our Fathers on HBO in-progress. I caught the last hour. I realized while watching those two movies that I had turned some corner. I don’t remember when this happened. There was no accompanying fanfare, as I might have expected as a younger man. It even took me the better part of an hour to accurately identify exactly what had just come about.
Context: My mother, Jean, was an exceptional woman. I spent forty years and twenty some-odd days learning from her. She taught me living, loving, accepting, raising children, cooking, crisis response, and civility in the face of fear, panic, meanness, and anger; the lessons were endless and her example remains with me every moment. She left her mark on each person who loved her, and each of us would chew our leg off rather than feel unable to live up to our own expectations in light of the example that she set for us.
Jean passed away in October of 2010. She had a massive heart-attack, and I rushed back to Texas from Twentynine Palms as quickly as I possibly could. She had been resuscitated in the Emergency Room, but it had taken them a very long time to affect that, longer than her brain could go without oxygen. Thus, she was alive but not present by the time I arrived. Her body took a few days to pass, and I accepted the deathwatch at her bedside each night. It was somehow fitting, I reckon, that it became my lot to be with her in the small hours. She loved peace and quiet when she was among us, and there is nothing so peaceful, nor so quiet, as a hospital room at 0300. As was her wont, my mother held on for a number of days and nights. I don’t remember how many, as those days have become a single, jagged wound. The night that her body finally gave in to the pressures placed upon it, I was beside her, reading. I did not notice that she had left for some time. There was no fanfare, as I did expect, unreasonably, as a younger man. I kissed her forehead. I said goodbye. I told her that I loved her. I then made the walk down to the nurses’ station to inform the staff that my mother was dead.
I say these things, partly out of the empathic need to finally describe that night, but mostly because I realize something now, almost four years later, which is vitally important. We each go through life preparing ourselves for something. The training that we conduct, the education that we receive, the preparations that we make all generally carry with them some expectation that we will be tested at some point. That we will use this training and education. That these preparations we have made will be called upon. Those of us who made careers out of being Marines naturally assume that this trial will take place in war, or something very much like it. In that assumption, I was only partially correct.
I came home from Iraq in 2006 with the satisfaction that I had acquitted myself well. That the training and preparations were appropriate to what was expected of me by my boss, myself, and the Marines under my charge. I see now that Iraq was ALSO preparation for what would come. It prepared me emotionally for the hardest thing I’ve ever done. All of that training, education, preparation, and experience was necessary for me to see my mother off into the next world, and to deliver her eulogy.
So it might seem a trivial way for me to realize something that had been staring me in the face for quite some time. I’ve watched Legends of the Fall probably forty or-so times, but I’ve always identified most closely with “Tristan”, the character who refused to bend his identity to match the conventions of his time. This time, I inexplicably found myself identifying very closely with the patron of the family “Col. Ludlow”. (This might have been aided by my son’s regular comparisons between the Col. and myself.) Then, as I watched Flags of our Fathers, I found myself identifying with the aged Corpsman, John Bradley rather than his son, who sought to understand his father. In either case, this represented a change in my perception. Both of the elder characters had reached their allotted four-score and ten years and their time of trial had become the mentorship of their adult children. Their wars were over. It was all prologue to their last years spent as the patrons of their respective families. This was a nuance to human existence that I had never really considered.
Maybe this is part of a trap of my own making. I’ve always wondered why I made it through Iraq twice. Since then, I’ve wondered what would pass for a death for me. A senile old man? Wandering through a home in a robe with a walker grafted onto my fists? I had kind of surrendered to the idea that all of this time after my war was just a long epilogue. I’ll just keep doing my bit to train the next generation of Marines to go and fight (and HOPEFULLY help them to combine arms in a meaningful way), die in harness, have them dump my ashes over Trench 1 at 410A, and call it good. Carry on.
I don’t know, maybe a lot of veterans think that way.
But after watching the end of Flags of our Fathers, as I was washing up before bed, I heard Ma asking me from somewhere deep in my consciousness, “what are Joel, Sarah, and Daniel going to say about you someday, when it’s their turn to do for you what you did for me? What have you earned, in that respect? You used to write, what have you written for them to have, after you’re gone? ”
Then I heard, “the legacy you leave will be determined by the effort you give every day. It is yours. Own it.”
I bought a new laptop to replace my balky tablet the next day.
It’s all training. All of it is preparation. Every word, every lesson. It’s preparation for WHATEVER comes next. The test comes every day. There is no epilogue because apparently God is not interested in the literary aesthetic. I have a feeling that his symmetry is on a much, much larger scale.