Losing Parents, Reliving Trauma, and Other Funny Stories

This blog post title is as cheerful as this is going to get, and both that claim and the title itself are deeply ironic, so be warned now that this is a rather maudlin essay. Like, Hawkeye Pierce-level maudlin. Which is a good reference, because M*A*S*H, which by the way is one of my favorite shows to this day and I still have an absurdly strong attraction to Alan Alda, even though he is ancient. Anyway, if you’re looking for something upbeat and happy, watch this instead.

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My aunt’s mother died recently. She was in her nineties, and although she wasn’t my maternal grandmother, I did have the pleasure of meeting her- a tiny, elegant Filipino woman with an enormous smile, which is what I guess all Filipinas are destined to become one day. She was wonderful and will be missed. I now gloss over this not to be callous, but because I know it’s not my place to presume too much detail about someone else’s loss.

This event has made me realize that the age difference between my aunt and myself at the time when my father died are rather significant. My aunt is grandmother to four grandchildren. My dad died when I was 19. It’s only in the last year or so that I have noticed my peers mentioning the illnesses and infirmities of parents- one person I know had an experience recently that involved holding his unconscious, not-breathing father on the ground and frantically preparing to do CPR. Yet most of the people I know who are losing parents are still much older than I. And selfishly, rightly or wrongly, I’m a little grimly fascinated by that.

Today, an account I follow online, Humans of New York, began a series documenting the experiences of veterans coming back from deployment. I’ll summarize it: Brandon, the photographer behind HONY, takes great photos and tells incredible stories.

Today he focused on a member of the National Guard who was deployed to Iraq in 2004. This veteran talks about how he never really intended to sign up, but his father was a platoon leader in the National Guard, and out of filial loyalty, out of a desire to bond with his father, he also joined. He talks about how he appreciated getting to see a new side of his father, how it was joked that the Boy Scouts would be sent to war before the National Guard ever was. And when they were in fact deployed, his father tried to go with the platoon. His father begged every higher-up, but because he had turned 60, was unable to go. He followed the platoon on the tarmac and was saluting his son and fellow soldiers until the ground crew forced him away from the plane.

Sometimes, I joke about the unbelievably strict childhood I had. One of the jokes that I like to tell is that for inexplicable reasons, my dad was afraid of me being kidnapped. This is true. By the time I was five, my father had retired and there was absolutely no reason anyone from any of his previous careers would have had to harass his family, much less kidnap his insufferable bratty daughter, and yet he worried about it to a comical degree.

The story from Humans of New York made me realize that perhaps that joke is grossly unfair. Because, yes, my dad’s time at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission filing paperwork was probably not kidnap-worthy, but my dad had spent time in Vietnam, with the CIA. He had an enormous scar that sliced up his stomach like a terribly-executed C-section, a shrapnel wound from a firefight he never really described to my childish satisfaction. Suffice to say, he’d seen some shit. And I don’t think he ever counted, in the 1970’s, on having an Asian child while in his 70’s.

dadandme
This is my father and me. Judging by the size of his glasses, he’s in his early 60’s. I’m either 3 or 4 and being forced to read. I may also have chicken pox. I definitely appear to have a severe underbite.

I have no evidence for this, but when I look back now to when he was telling me stories about kidnapped, and later decapitated, children in an attempt to scare me into staying close (by the way, that tactic, along with reading The Red Badge of Courage out loud to your six year old as a bedtime story, isn’t a highly recommended parenting strategy #IwishIwaskidding)…I see that look on his face and now interpret it differently. I feel like he was seeing back to this other time. One in crowded, humid cities, with little Asian kids that were separated, lost, taken, in war. When I was born, I looked fresh-off-the-boat with baby Buddha cheeks so big my eyes were lost in the folds. I am sure my dad had seen identical children go through hell and worse- and never, ever expected to be personally responsible for one.

How he may have gone about trying to prevent loss was not rational. But so, so many things we do and suffer are not rational. We do the best we can. Sometimes, we see the ocean at the dead of night while walking on the sidewalk on a sunny day in Arizona. Sometimes, we lose a parent; long illness, sudden accident. Sometimes, the child disappears first. So sometimes, you tell your stupid kid a terrifying story in the vain hope that their fear, their imagined boogeymen, will keep the real horrors away.

And sometimes, you just can’t protect your children. You can only watch, helpless, as the door closes and the plane takes off. As they pack their bags and go to college. When they wave goodbye and go to soccer practice. The moment anything loves anything, it is at risk for loss.

Does any of it make sense? Perhaps the inexorable pull of age and nature means we’re not surprised when our elders die, but does that really make it hurt less? Do people prepare themselves over four or five or six decades with their parents? Maybe that’s the part I don’t understand.

I don’t know if I really have a point to this particular essay. I am glad that soldier was able to get help for what he saw. I hope he and his father talk more, and have become closer, in the time he has been back home. I wish we, as a society…or hell, maybe as a species, had better ways of dealing with loss. I don’t really know what “better” means. Less painful? More healing, kum-ba-yah-ing? More hugging?

Maybe, it’s just supposed to hurt. Maybe you’re supposed to cry your eyes out all the way until the door closes, and let the awful, but genuine swell of relief fill you when the moment is over and the person you are missing is just…

…gone.

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