Memorial Day honors those who gave their lives for our freedom. My brother Rob reminded me that while Dad returned home safely from Vietnam, the diseases he suffered in his sixties and seventies – prostate cancer and Alzheimer’s – are tied to Agent Orange exposure. He survived the cancer but not the Alzheimer’s. So, my family honors my Dad on this day.
When we were planning my Dad’s funeral I learned two things about him. Technically, I already knew these things but I didn’t know the details. Maybe if my Dad hadn’t lost his ability to speak shortly after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis I might have asked him to tell me more. But we weren’t able to communicate with him in the final years of his life.
The first thing I learned was how much his 1967 tour of duty in Vietnam meant to him (how could it not? But I was just a kid). I remember, that when he came home the biggest change I noticed was his cigarette habit. I also remember the reel-to-reel audio tapes he periodically sent home. I can recall sitting on my parent’s bed on a hot summer San Antonio night listening to his slow, low voice coming from the tape player. When he came home he never really talked about that year and we moved on with our lives.
Years later, as he was dying we talked to Debbie, my Dad’s wife of nearly 30 years, about the arrangements. It was then that she told us how important it was to him to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, even if it meant a month or two delay. We were raised to be quietly patriotic and so he pretty much kept to himself the pride he felt about his service to the country. We buried my Dad at Arlington on October 19th, 2012 with full military honors. It was beautiful and I am comforted that his final resting place is exactly where he wanted to be.
The other thing I learned is the depth of my Dad’s devotion to Catholicism. I joined Debbie in a meeting with the Priest to plan the service. I admit to feeling rather uncomfortable, thinking all the while, “Jeez, no, I mean gosh, I hope Father Alvez doesn’t find out that it’s been 35 years since I’d regularly attended mass.” Anyway Debbie and Father Alvez had this amazing conversation about my Dad and his faith and how much he cherished the Virgin Mary. He converted to Catholicism as a teenager and I am comforted to know that he had this deep faith to guide him through the devastation that is Alzheimer’s disease. Debbie made sure my Dad had access to his faith throughout his sickness and in his death.
Dad was always kind to those around him, he loved his family unconditionally and he loved his country. He would have celebrated his 78th Birthday next month and we all plan to gather back at Deb’s to remember him. Miss you, Dad.