It’s six-oh-six and I’ve been awake since four a.m. The dog has been fed, medicated, and reassured that humans still care for despite her age and the slight annoyances she causes. I’m casting an eye at the chores that demand attention before I can head east for the weekend. I take another bite of leftovers from JULIAN, pausing to lament that Chef Tio has decided to hang up her towel and put away her knives.
By noon, I will be nearing my birthplace. I plan to make my second annual foray to Calvary, where my little brother lies in a hole beside my parents and my brother’s daughter. I brought a small jar of flowers to my mother on Mother’s Day in 2016 and tramped around for twenty minutes looking for their graves before calling the office for help. The man who rescued me stood in respect while I pulled weeds and dusted the headstones. As I balanced the flowers on my mother’s grave, he said, as gently as he could, They will throw that jar away, just so you know. I nodded in his general direction but kept my eyes downward.
That was more than a year ago. I think I will be able to find the spot now, after trudging from section to section perhaps but I hope to do better. I don’t know what compels me to visit; perhaps my bi-monthly trips to my in-laws’ resting place at Mount Moriah; or maybe something in my gut, some deep need for resolution.
I call the place “my mother’s grave”, and acknowledge as an aside that my brother Stephen also lies in that ground. That my father shares the spot comes as an after-thought. This morning, in my sleepless hours, I summoned his face and met his eyes, seeking their truth or perhaps straining to impart my own. His ghost turned from me, denying what he saw, depriving me of what he knew.
My dad fought in World War II, in the Burma theatre as a Missouri mule-skinner. One of the Mars Men of Burma, he served as his company clerk. When I visited the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, I sought in vain a display about the Burma Road and the men who served their country on its rugged contours. But my father swelled with pride when he spoke of his service. I realized years ago that combat shattered my father’s psyche; his alcoholism, his abusive behavior, his personal hell started on the battle field. Today he would have been diagnosed with service-connected PTSD and given help. Decades ago, no one recognized or acknowledged the devastating impact of war.
I’m not sure it would have helped his children to understand the legacy of my father’s service. We felt its brunt. Some of us never overcame it; and I include myself in that group. I have not healed, although I’ve written thousands of words about my own shortcomings, dancing around my inability to foster self-respect. I’d like to say that I forgave my father. I’d like to travel each May, carrying a new flag to my father’s grave, just as I do for my favorite curmudgeon. A better woman might. I am not that woman. But I will lay a flower there, and wipe away the mud, and trim the weeds with the same scissors that I use here in Mount Moriah when I go to visit my in-laws. That much, I can do; that much, I can spare him.
I will bend down and trace the words of my mother’s name. I will remind her that I still miss her, even now, in words of lament that will ripple on the muggy St. Louis air. As for my brother, I might sit cross-legged on his headstone and turn glazed eyes toward the cemetery grounds. I will ask him for the thousandth time, Why, Stevie Pat, why oh why? I know the answer he would give: To stop the pain. But it’s not enough to know; I want it to be untrue. I want to travel back in time, twenty years next month, and stay his hand before it pulls the trigger.
I understand that Stephen’s death has nothing to do with my failures. I also see the twisted complexity of our childhood and the domino effect of what my father did and who my father was. Who my mother was. Who we all became or did not become, because of who they were and what they both did and did not do.
I recently took a seminar on the neuro-biological impact of trauma. I listened to the earnest explanations of how early exposure to abuse changes the neurological pathways of those who experience it. I took copious notes, striving to understand how to better serve the clients whom I represent who have survived family violence. Afterwards, I reached my fingers to my face, shocked to feel tears and taste their salt.
The sun lights my neighborhood. I’ve tarried longer than I intended. Perhaps it’s just as well; I won’t obsess over the grammar of these paragraphs as I normally do. I’ll just put it out to the internet. Those who wish to read, will do so. Those who would rather wait for next week’s fluffy sentiment may do that as well. I will not condemn you either way.
For those who of you who served in our Armed Forces, no matter the branch, no matter the duty, I offer thanks. If you saw combat, I hold a special place for you in my tattered heart. War is hell. If you have walked through hell and come to its far side, I honor you; but I also send my most tender hopes that you recognize the dangers you face because of what you’ve seen and done. No one travels through hell unscathed; and there is no shame in needing help to overcome the damage that it’s done to you.
So now I let my father’s spirit return to wherever it sleeps. I cannot hate the man. I wear his stamp on the face which I see in the mirror. He taught me to read. From his genes came this gift which enables me to write. He took pride in what I did as no one else has ever done. He accepted me. I can do no less for his memory.
My father’s war memorabilia.
By Ed Harcourt and Paloma Faith; performed by Paloma Faith