Monday, November 24, 2014

vom kriege

When I was quite young, perhaps five or six, and fishing for tales of high adventure, I asked my father about war.  His answer was as disappointing as it was unsettling: "Son, war is like a glass that has been dropped, and it is riddled and run through with cracks, and it is never the same again."  This is a paraphrase from dim memory, but the image of the world as the bulb of a wine glass, irreparably cracked yet still intact, still haunts me.

My father had been an officer in the US Navy. During the Viet Nam War he was a gunnery officer on  the USS George K. McKenzie.  Although he was involved in combat missions and was exposed to hostile fire, his experience of the war was nothing at all like that which was depicted in the two iconic Viet Nam War films of my youth:  the sensational Platoon and the more artsy Full Metal Jacket.  In fact, I remember my father often making light of his war experience.  He would say that most of his time was spent eating ice cream and watching movies. Owing to the cryptic response to my question from when I was very young, I always he knew he was being disingenuous.   The killing in which my father participated may have been in one sense impersonal, or perhaps abstract.  That is to say, the targets of the guns he commanded were for the most part several miles away and barely in sight.  Still, I know the war never left his mind, or his heart, and it certainly never left his body.

When my father was diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma we all joked at first, given his relative distance from "the action," about it being caused by his service in the war.  But that is exactly what the cause was.  Soft tissue sarcoma is a relatively unusual cancer and has been linked to exposure to Agent Orange, a chemical used during the Viet Nam War to defoliate trees.  The idea was to diminish the enemy's ability to hide and use camouflage.  Thousands of veterans were afflicted with various illnesses because due to exposure to Agent Orange, ranging from cancer to birth defects in children.  Dow Chemical was eventually deemed culpable.  Although it seemed unlikely at first, the VA determined that my father had been exposed to the chemical sufficiently enough to warrant inclusion into the massive class action suit against Dow Chemical.  My father remained stoic and absolutely courageous throughout his treatment, which included chemotherapy, radiation therapy, the removal of his right adductor muscle, hyperbaric oxygen treatment for gangrene caused by an infected portacath, removal of a gangrenous vein in his right arm, a skin graft to cover the removal of said vein, numerous other minor (but nevertheless painful) infections, and the removal of one and a half lungs.  The cancer, which had first surfaced in his right thigh (he initially thought it was just a pulled muscle), metastasized to his lungs and kept coming back.

One of my father's final acts of courage was to my mind his greatest.  In the late summer of 1994, he decided to cease treatment and let the disease take its course.  He conquered what yogis call the affliction of abhinivesha, or the irrational fear of death and clinging to life.  Seven of his last eight weeks were spent at home with my mother.  He fished almost every day.  On November 24th, 1994, on Thanksgiving Day, my father died at home in his bed, unconnected to any machines.  He was unconscious from morphine and I, my brother, and, my mother were in the room with him.

 It is no understatement to say that my father's death, anticipated though it was, shattered me.  For fifteen years at least my relationships with my mother and brother were compromised.  I entered into an ill-advised marriage, became a junky... in general I continued to cause more suffering for myself and those closest to me.  I have found some measure of peace lately.  The ripples have abated somewhat, you could say, but the cracks remain.

I don't apologize for holding a mechanical, deterministic worldview.  It doesn't preclude one from hope or faith, nor even notions of accountability, to know that there is no denying the force of the past.  War and its echoes never cease.  Even the coldest cold of deep space is kept above absolute zero due to subtle, lingering radiation from the Big Bang. The glass, the fabric of existence, goes on for as long as we can conceive, and the cracks of old and new cataclysms continue to run through it unceasingly.  Still, it never disintegrates.  For all this, nature is never spent.  I remember this when the weight of history becomes too onerous, and I only want to go to sleep.  Besides, I have duties to others which I may have shirked before, but am determined to honor now.