Sunday, December 9, 2012
Day 6 of The Gratitude Challenge: In Honor of Veterans Day, my Uncle's StoryOkay, pictures aren't my strong point, since I can't see! Lol. So for today's Gratitude Challenge, which is actually being written before, as tomorrow is also Veterans Day, I shall try to paint a picture with words instead of capturing one with a camera. I don't know my Dad's side of the family that well, but one of my uncles went off to Vietnam at the tender age of 17. He was getting into fights at home & Grandpa figured Nam would teach him better, or rather, that being in the military would. My uncle did 3 tours, yes, count them, 3. Frontlines, bodies blown to bits, guts & blood & limbs strewn about in front of him. Tiny babies losing their heads & turned to nothing but mangled, misshapened pieces of their former selves. Their innocence & that boy's left murdered on the paddy fields of some nameless, faceless place that Americans *even though having seen the tragedy every night on TV* could never, would never understand. Right & wrong were massacred there, as is with every war before or since. Nothing but wreckage, carnage & Hell itself existed there. Sure we new names like Saigon & Hanoi, heard about battles like the Tet Offensive, but the truth is, we didn't know JACK! We new names & that was it. Unless your son or daughter was there, as a fighter or a nurse, you new nothing. TV couldn't have done Vietnam's vets justice, just as it doesn't do justice to vets from Afghanistan or Iraq. Anyway, this is a story about gratitude, & not about whether or not people agree with or don't agree with a war. I'm a firm believer that we can love our men & women, but hate the war itself, or even hate the word WAR. Fast forward to 2003, the end of August to be exact. We were back in school, I was a senior. It was still warm outside & when it rained, it was warm rain. The rain would mix with the dirt & raise up the smell of the ocean from the depths of the buried, from somewhere deep underground. A beautiful smell for a girl like me who's only been to the ocean once as a youngin'. I was taking Communications 101 otherwise known as 'that colege prep class that would get me off the hook for College English 101'. That was fine by me! The less college courses I had to take, the better! I hated school, HATED it! & with the sun blazing outside the classroom windows & seeping into my sedintary soul as the teacher droned on about some nonsense or other, I hated it even more. There was no time for that though. My guidance counselor approached me one day & said: 'You've only got 2 classes to take next semester. If you bundle them you can be outta here by December.' I thought: 'Out? of here? by December??? Hell yeah!!! I'm game!' Nevermind that I either didn't have books for the majority of my classes, they showed up late, &/or my teacher's aide would read whole chapters, printouts & passages to me & I'd either take notes or recall them from memory & do my work based off said recollections. So what, 6 classes, Comm 101 being one of them, I was still game to take on Economics AKA Econ & whatever that other class was. No biggie! It was way better then having an hour long bus ride from January to May only to do 2 hours of work Monday through Friday & sit on my butt for the other 4 hours. Or so that's what I told myself. Then the teacher in Comm 101 said something that caught my attention. 'We're going to be doing a book report on a book called "All Quiet on the Western Front"' 'What? Please tell me this isn't another Lord of the Flies thing! I'd rather slit my wrists then go through that again! That was torture on a scale of epic proportions! Don't they have laws against this stuff? Isn't it like, cruel & unusual punishment or something? If not, I'm sure it qualifies!' People murmured around me: 'What is it about? Who did you say wrote it? I can't even spell that guy's name! Is this really necessary?' Turns out Eric Maria Remarque wrote it, & I'd be getting SUPERWELL aquainted with it & him soon enough. That was our big class project so it was saved for the holidays. Not that I know why, since holidays are supposedly supposed to be happy times, but who was I but just a student taking orders? She told us it was about war. Now war, I new about that. I'd been back home & heard my uncle talk about it. He got smashed every night it seemed like & he'd tell us about it. Vietnam. I new that word, had it etched in my brain by the time I was 13, though I'd only seen my uncle 2 or 3 times since I was born. It was his favorite topic of discussion, his only topic of discussion it seemed like. He was a great guy, took us out for pizza & pancake breakfasts at IHOP, so he rocked! At night though, he'd get drunk as a skunk & tell us about Vietnam. I new my uncle was hurting. I new something about hurt myself, having had 3 dozen surgeries or so at that time & hanging out with families, parents who didn't know if their kids would live or die, families who's kids did die, sick patients hooked up to I.V's & oxygen masks over their mouthes helping them to breathe when their oxygen levels dropped to low & the nurses declared it necessary even when they, we fought it off. Yes, I had my share of those experiences. He didn't cry, didn't shed a single, solitary tear. He just talked about it all night long & into the wee hours of the morning. This though, this I was unprepared for. We started learning more as it got closer. I got the book on tape & in Braille. Why I'm not sure. Honestly, looking back, I can't even remember if I'm the one who initiated the process of having 'double' formats to it or if my aide or the school did that. Either way, it doesn't matter. I had it in two workable mediums & wasn't going to turn it down. The day came to watch the all important movie, the old version, the one made before we were born & all done in black & white. . . I missed that day, I may have been out on travel, learning how to handle myself on bus travel alone with my cane, learning a route & following my cane, asking others & trusting their answers about which street or stop was which so I knew when to get off the bus, when I'd be at my destination. When I came back the next day I found out I'd missed it & was terribly upset. I hadn't dug into the book yet, I hadn't had to. I borrowed the movie from the teacher instead & brought it home. I watched it with my family & they described it to me. By the end, when the protagonist stands up, he's drawing a bird & he stands up for a better view, the bullet strikes him down. . . That was how I felt, like I'd been struck down. I cried for hours. It's a miracle my eyes didn't start bleeding from all the bursted blood vessels. 'It's just a movie.' No, it wasn't just a movie, & if they were to stupid to understand, I wasn't going to explain because I didn't have to! Erich Maria Remarque fought in World War I. When he came home, he wrote the book "All Quiet on the Western Front" They made the movie of the same name, based off that book. Now, in late October/early November, I new what I had to do. You know how people look you in the eye, they put their hands on your shoulders & say: 'I understand. . . I'm so sorry for *fill in the blank here*.' They may hug you with one arm & pat or rub your back with their other hand. & all you want to do is slap those well-meaning words right off their face! You feel like screaming: 'What do you know about me! About this! About what I've been through!!?? Don't give me that well meaning line of bs!' Of course, not all of us feel this way, & most of those of us who do, DO NOT admit to having said feelings. We smile & nod, hug them back & say: 'Thank you so much. I really appreciate this.' I did it all the time after surgery. My uncle didn't have that luxury. They spit on him when he came home. He was Mexican which was already stacking the deck against him. On top of that, he was, like every other man, perceived as an 'baby killer'. Nobody wanted a baby killer around. I also flashed back to memories of him screaming at my grandmother: 'My brother did nothing in Vietnam! He was on a ******* ship somewhere in the ocean, below deck! He didn't see a G*****n thing! Not a thing! You praise him? You praise him for what? He did nothing! Saw NOTHING!' With that in mind, I made it my mission to show him that I understood. I immersed myself in that book, in the Braille, in the voice on the tape, in the voices & sounds of the movie. I started waking up at night hearing naying horses *from WWI*, helicopters *from later wars*, & everything from muskets to M-16's. Nevermind the boys I heard crying for their mothers before they died, bleeding out before my eyes, before I could save them. It's the most 'out of my mind' that I've ever been. My other classes passed in a blur. I'd sit day after day in the teacher's aide's room drafting & redrafting my book report. I went through at least one sheaf of Braille paper *500 sheets per package*, & maybe more without knowing it. One night I scared my Dad. He called me out for dinner & I came out & just sat at the table, elbow resting on it, cheek resting in my hand. 'Aren't you going to eat?' 'I'm just waiting for my food.' 'It's right in front of you. Can't you smell it?' Oops, didn't realize that. I started wondering how long it would be before he'd find out about the nightmares. I didn't tell him. I kept them to myself. I was already feeling suicidal, had for a loooong time at that point & he did know about that. If he new about the nightmares, about how hard I was taking this, that I seemed to be having PTSD symptoms & reactions to wars I'd never fought in, what would he think then? I was pulling down mostly straight A's. If I could just pull this off, survive it, get through it, I'd be ok. Thank God my TA wasn't telling anyone about how I was breaking down every 2 seconds while revising my report. I'd be screwed if she did! I had to do this, for my uncle, for all the men in all the wars! This was an absolute necessity mental & emotional traumas be damned! By mid December things were winding down, finally. I handed my teacher the report & she said: 'I can't give you an A on this. There's too much blood & gore in it. Take some of it out & I'll give you an A.' Even back then though, once I'd made my mind up about something, I didn't back down. If I new what I was doing was right, NOONE could sway me from my convictions. 'Lady, what do you think war is? Club med??? For God's sake!!! I'm not doing this so you can pad your grade book. I don't want your A. I'm writing this for my uncle & all the men in Iraq *We'd just gone in in March of that year*, for the dead & the living, I'm doing this, writing this paper for them. Keep your A.' Needless to say, I wasn't making any friends here. At least she was diplomatic & didn't get pissed off at me. She left the paper with me anyway, choosing to give me an opportunity to think it over. I didn't think it over & at the end of December, the day I graduated 6 months ahead of my class, my report was stamped with a C. 'Too much extra, not fleshed out enough.' AKA It would have been fleshed out perfectly if I'd done what she wanted me to. The reward however, came in late December after Christmas. We went to see my Dad's side of the family & were their for a month. My uncle was their & had lost his wonderful wife to cancer since we'd last seen him. He was a wreck, & actually lost it one night, bawling his eyes out. He'd spent the whole night talking about his love & his pain & I kept having to leave, compose myself & then come back to the table for the next salvo. A few nights after that, he was on Grandma's turf this time, telling stories again & again Grandma was praising her other son, the black sheep of the family to all but her. My uncle slammed his hands down on the table & screamed again: 'What did he do? What did he see? He saw nothing! He did nothing! My G*****n brother did nothing!!!!' He seemed to end more on an anguished wail then an enraged cry. Most people didn't dare to approach him when he was drunk. He was by nature a non-scary drunk if a bit loud, but if you tested him, he could change. I did. Why? What made me do it? I don't know, but I approached calmly & gently put my hand on his upper arm. I slid my other hand into his other hand & squeezed gently. 'Uncle, c'mhere. Let me talk to you.' Why he gave up so quickly, his emotions disipating as quickly as they'd come, leaving nothing but the shadows of long agonizing torture in the room I couldn't say. But he pushed his chair back & followed me without question. I gave him my book report & he read it. How he read it in his frame of mind I'll never know, but he hugged me tightly & said: 'Mija (Daughter) you understand me. I don't know how you do, but you do. I ask God every day why you were born like this. Maybe this is why. You're the only one in this family who understands me. Thank you.' I realized then, that all the anguish, all the pain & torture I had put myself through to get to this point worked. It had finally paid off. He understood just how much I felt for him, how much I ached in the wake of his pain & he was greatful. 6 years on, I am greatful. I am greatful that I was able to help this wonderful man, a kind, gracious, gentle soul, beneath all the rage & the anger. My uncle isn't a famous man. Some people would say he's most certainly not a great man. I would have to disagree whole heartedly. Did I heal him? Unfortunately not. But I did show him that I was united with him in his pain, that he & his pain meant something to me, & I was willing to risk my own mental stability to prove it. *At least, risking my own mental stability was what it felt like at the time.* Sometimes, when I think back on it, it still does. He has that book report, there is no proof other then the report that he has proving that I wrote it, but that's okay. I can live with that. I wish I had a copy, but knowing that he has a copy is worth my not having one. Greatfully, Michelle -- "It'll only take a few minutes. When does anything that's supposed to take a few minutes only take a few minutes?"--Garfield - "The Garfield Show" & he's right! "Find me, feel me, fill me, then cut me up!!"--Shaun Morgan - Seether "Burrito" "It's so cold out here tonight, I met a bear walking down the street & even he was wearing pants!"--Elias Soriano Febuary 2009, joking about Michigan's f-f-f-freezing weather!