I went to visit my father today at the Togus VA Hospital in Augusta Maine. Like all my other visits I first took Vinny for a walk around the grounds. It was an overcast day today, but still a beautiful day to be in Maine.
The grounds are a perfect example of what Maine has to offer. The streams, the trees and the spring flowers are what make this my home.
As I walked down a different road than I normally follow, my heart skipped a beat. As I continued on, my heart was crushed under the weight of the feelings that took over my being.
I was so taken by that moment that I had to sit down on the grass. There is so much more than graves here, so much more than the people who died in service to us and this country. There is the sacrifice made by all those left behind. The wives, children, friends and others that lost a part of themselves when this person died.
Then there are the others, the ones whose battle never ended. The survivors with physical and mental pain and suffering that did not end on the battlefield. For some, surviving was only the beginning. Let me tell you about one such person.
My father was born on April 28th, 1929 in Portland Maine. He grew up in a suburb called Riverton in a very modest home at 10 Tarbell Ave. My father talked about his younger days with a mix of longing for a return the adventure of riding motorcycles with his friends, juxtaposed with a resentment for the way he felt his father treated him. I think his father was just a strict man, and he just wanted the best from his children. Maybe he didn’t understand how to be a father. I’ll never know as he died when I was to young to remember him.
My grandfather, Chester Pierce, had opened a business not long before my father was born called C.A. Pierce Company in Portland. This business started as a furniture restoration company, then eventually into the furniture sales store it is now, run by his great grandson Larry Pierce. I don’t know all the history, but I think my father was more interested in motorcycles and girls than furniture, and never became part of the company. My father lived in New Mexico before joining the Army and worked at a creamery and as a roofer. He told many stories of riding motorcycles in the desert, and many fights in local bars. I think he was the rebellious “James Dean” type in those days.
He joined the Army on February 13, 1951 and was honorably discharged on May 25, 1956. He survived 6 months and 8 days in the combat zone in Korea, but like all who came back, part of him died as surely as those buried at Togus. He told a story of waking up one morning to every other man in his tent dead with his throat slit. “Psychological Warfare” they called it. Someone had slipped in during the night and killed them in their sleep. My father never got over living when the men right beside him died.
Some gave all, all gave some. I can think of no truer words to describe the plight of anyone that has gone to war. You see it in their eyes, the window to our souls. Something is missing, and in my fathers case I think it was the ability to connect with his children. I know he loved us, and we loved him, but I never felt like I had a Dad, just a father. It’s hard to explain, but I felt very alone as a child. I spent many hours by myself in Fort Williams, alone with my thoughts I dreamed about sailing away to distant shores filled with adventure. Such is the mind of an 8 year old boy longing for attention from his dad. Even though my father tried many times to do the “Dad” thing, I don’t think he knew how, just like his father.
All these years later when I look at him, I understand how hard that must have been on him also. I think about the times as an adult I didn’t make time for him when I know he wanted it, and I regret it very much. I was just like him even if I didn’t know it. Maybe there is some truth to the thought that we tend to follow the example put forth by our parents.
He was never one to shy away from responsibility. I learned from my father the drive to work hard, never ask for a handout when you could just work harder and get by. He gladly accepted the 3 children my mother had, then had 2 more of his own. He was never without a job, even with only an 8th grade education. We never felt poor even though we were close to it. He was “Old School”, and by that I mean he felt his duty was to provide the money, and my mother should raise the kids. That was the mindset of that generation.
I grew up resenting him just like he did his father. Maybe for the same reasons. As an adult, now free from the influence of a poor lifestyle rife with drug use and other poor choices, I see him in a new light. Maybe he is a victim of circumstances as surely as I. He never felt connected to his father, and that led in part to his inability to connect with me. Maybe his experience in Korea only exacerbated the situation further. I don’t know for sure, but I do know it’s to late now to reverse my mistakes, and try to make up ground.
The reason for my visit was because my mother, sisters and both brother in laws went to see him 3 days ago on their 54th wedding anniversary. My mother called me afterwards very distraught at the state of his health. I called the hospital and spoke to his nurse. She explained his situation, and I said I would come home to see him.
My father has dementia along with PTSD from his tour in Korea. Its possible the dementia caused a slide in his condition a few days ago. He seemed to bounce back a little, but there is a marked difference in just the last month. The difference in the last year is alarming. Last fall he was starting to wander, and my concern was for his safety. We tried to get him into a home owned by an RN with another veteran. That lasted 3 days and she decided he was to much for her. He was moved to Togus at that time and has been there ever since.
This was never what I wanted for him. The pain I feel every time I see him leaves me feeling a little more weak and disheartened. I want so much to tell him how I feel, but every time I try I don’t think I’m saying it in a way he truly understands. I will never forgive myself for waiting so long, waiting till it’s to late.
I don’t think he will last much longer. His voice was so weak that I had to lean in to hear him today. One minute he was talking, the next he was falling asleep in the wheelchair. I helped him to his room, into bed and he fell asleep almost immediately.
As I write this, tears are streaming down my face as I think about his life and what he has endured. I remember all the times I could have been a better son, and now I must live with my lack of forethought. Maybe the lucky ones died in battle. Maybe, had he never come back, less people would have been affected by what happened to him and all the suffering he went through. I’m only human, and I don’t know.
What I do know is, when he dies, a big part of me will die with him. The part of me that wanted to play little league, and have my dad cheering from the stands. The part of me who wanted to go camping and fishing with him. The part of me who wanted him to teach me to ride a bike.
The part of me left, will never forget him. I will never forget how what happened to him, also happened to me and all of his family. I will never forget the man he was, and who I bet he wanted to be. I will do my best to live up to what he wanted, and hope he finds some peace soon. For him at least, the war is almost over. But not for us.