Memorial Day

I awoke and immediately dreaded the day—Dad’s appointment at the Veterans’ Hospital would take up most of my time. No matter how many doctors had already been seen that month for both of my parents, or that I had declared September the month to catch up on my own overdo appointments, this got pushed to the top of my list. My siblings and I were trying to get veteran benefits for Dad’s diminished hearing, and because of a deadline, it had to be done. Today.

I didn’t look forward to the extended time in the car with Dad, having the same repeated conversations. No use trying to talk much either because he couldn’t hear my responses. And music, which greatly helped my spirits, was intolerable to him. I was left to my own thoughts—and his—which tumbled out continually.

When I drove up to the retirement home, Dad wasn’t waiting outside as usual. I parked the car and popped the trunk for his walker. He rushed through the double doors a few minutes later, apologizing for being late—he’d gone back to grab a sweater as it had turned unusually cool that morning.

I felt guilty. So many of my friends no longer had their parents and told me I was fortunate to still have mine. They wished for one more day. One more conversation. One more hug. Because of their words, I decided to put myself in fast-forward: I pretended my dad was gone and I missed him, even his well-worn stories and typical rants. I was grateful to be with him, even if it meant a trip to the VA hospital.

Playing this mind game changed everything.

I glanced at Dad in the passenger seat and smiled. Impeccably groomed, he wore navy dress pants, a striped laundered shirt and leather dress shoes. He sported a fresh haircut with salt-and-pepper hair neatly combed back. The retrieved yellow cardigan finished the look.

As we drove, talking was easier than usual—thanks to the new hearing-aid receiver around his neck and a microphone attached to my lapel. Instead of letting him control the conversation path, I asked questions. And since we were investigating the damage to his hearing because of military service, I probed about his job as a twenty-year-old yeoman aboard a Navy destroyer in WWII.

“Dad, what did it mean to be a “gunner”? Did you have any earplugs or headset to protect from the blasts? Where were you when the war ended?”

As he answered, I pictured him: a lean young sprout fresh off a farm in Kansas, heading to an unknown future because of duty to country, with his high school sweetheart (my mom) left behind. Because the black and white photos in his Navy album were still clear, I could picture the guns, more like small cannons, and his ship. I learned he handed the heavy ammunition to another sailor who loaded it into the barrel of the 5-inch diameter cannon right before the blast. Neither servicemen nor their superiors had ever heard of such a thing as protective headgear. He shared the difference between V-E day (victory over Europe) and V-J Day (victory over Japan) and said he was on the destroyer during the first victory and in a movie theatre watching Citizen Kane on the second. He left the darkness of the theatre to walk outside to a city gone crazy. Watching frenzied people on the streets, he thought the world had come to an end—everyone poured out of buildings and apartments to celebrate together. Hugging necks. Cheering and back-slapping. Kissing strangers.

Looking at me with raised eyebrows, Dad shook his head and chuckled, “It took a moment for the message to sink in. The war was over!”

We arrived downtown and parked in a deck miles away from the main hospital. Then we boarded a shuttle to travel the rest of the way with dozens of other veterans. I leaned back and sighed, letting the familiar voice of Elton John on the intercom soothe my weariness. At least Dad couldn’t tell the driver to turn the music down. The words to Someone Saved My Life Tonight seemed fitting.

Once there, we walked at least a half-mile in hallways to different processing stations before ending up at Dad’s interview. Streams of people passed us, all seeming to know where they were headed while he and I were unsure at many turns. Everyone was helpful and pointed the way; younger veterans joked with him about borrowing his walker, or better yet, having him push them to their appointment. I related each comment to him so he could be in on the joke. He nodded and smiled.

Dad passed the interview with flying colors. Because of his tendency to ramble and talk instead of listen, I had coached him on what to say and not say. He was a consummate gentleman and an articulate patient. The audiologist, respectful and kind, often repeated her comments so he could understand important information clearly. She was amazed to learn he was approaching 90; she would have guessed much younger. He admitted his memory gave him away—as a professional sales trainer, he used to remember a room full of students’ names. Now he couldn’t remember his neighbor’s.

I wanted to give him a “high five” when it was all over, but ruled it out—he wouldn’t know the appropriate response and I didn’t have the emotional energy to explain. I inwardly cheered, and texted my brother a fist-pump celebrating our own VA-victory.

Instead of an endurance test, I spent the day with a remarkable man and stole a scenario from the future. Instead of drudgery, the trip to the hospital became a stepping-stone in understanding the complexities of the man I called Dad. With memories still sharp and scenes—now a half-century old—still vivid, he bestowed one of his greatest gifts to me, his daughter.

When the passenger seat was empty eight months later, I could no longer pretend.