“He was a hero, you know.” A stranger announced this while I sat at my father’s grave in Ft. Logan National Cemetery. It was Memorial Day Weekend. She was moving from grave to grave, placing small American flags in front of each headstone.
“Was he?” I asked.
She put a flag at the grave next to my dad’s, then turned to face me. “Why yes. All these men and women were heroes.” She swept an arm around the immediate vicinity to emphasize inclusion.
“They paid a high price to help us stay free. Some paid with their physical and mental health; and some with their lives. We must never forget or dishonor their sacrifices.” She resumed her journey, the full skirt of her red dress swaying with movement of her trim figure.
I stared at my father’s tombstone. I hadn’t made many visits to this site during the forty plus years since his passing. Even when I did make an outing to the cemetery, I did it out of some sort of obligation. I felt guilty sometimes because I didn’t make more of an effort to go to his burial place. Over the years, I practiced keeping thoughts and feelings about my dad far from my mind. That morning, however, during my devotional time I felt compelled to make an appearance at the cemetery.
“Here we go, water for the flowers and a screwdriver to dig out the metal vase.” My husband had dropped me at the grave side, parked the car and brought the necessary equipment to decorate the grave.
“What’s wrong?” Keith asked when I made no acknowledgement of his return. “What is it? I thought you wanted to come here today.”
“I thought I did too. But when I got here, all the old feelings of resentment and fear of this man I barely knew came flooding back. Then some woman in a red dress declared him a hero,” I snorted.
Keith went about adorning the grave with multi-colored irises and digging out grass that had grown near the vase. I watched him in silence until he finished.
“Do you want to go now?”
“No, I want to just sit here for a few minutes. I need to catch up with myself and try to figure out what just happened.”
It was a warm May day with a slight breeze moving shadows of leaves on the massive tree that grew a few feet from my dad’s grave. I watched the lady in red walking among graves and placing flags. I thought about what she said, wondered why she spoke to me and how she knew anything about my father. I didn’t even know very much about him.
“Maybe it was a mistake to come here, Keith. I didn’t know much about this man other than he had a bad temper that struck out at the slightest provocation. Why would God be so clear about directing me to sit at the grave of someone I have such strong negative feelings about?” I directed my remarks to my husband but kept my eyes on the ground.
“Maybe you just don’t remember the good things about him. Maybe it’s time you stopped hating your father and made peace with the past. What did she say?” He nodded in the direction of the red-clad stranger.
“She said these men and women sacrificed their health, even mental health…” I trailed off and grasped.
“Where did your dad serve, Laura?”
I whispered the answer as I let out my breath. “Northern Africa. He was a munitions expert on the front lines. He always said his hearing wasn’t right because of explosions and yells from his fellow shoulders who were injured or…” again words failed me.
“Keith, do you think my dad had PTSD and that was why he had such erratic and violent outbursts? I know he died from a service-connected disability in his fifties, after decades of suffering. But do you think what they once called ‘shell shock’ was the major factor in Papa’s mental instability?”
“I don’t know, Honey. I think it’s very likely. What else to you remember about him, besides his temper? Papa. Is that what you called him?” Keith asked. I nodded.
I sat for several minutes allowing the warm breeze and sunshine breaking through the tree’s shelter to form a safe place for unpacking memories. I shook my head to clear almost fifty years of mental cobwebs laced with resentment.
“Well, he had a great sense of humor and quick wit. He loved music and Ed Sullivan. He fancied himself quite the dancer. He and my mother went dancing a lot at the old Elitch’s Tracadero Ballroom. They won quite a few contests, you know. He was passionate about gardening too and particularly loved his trees.”
A memory of his funeral surfaced. I recalled my older sister saying he would be pleased if there was a tree next his resting place some day. That thought brought a smile to my heart.
“He loved baseball and even though he completed school only through the fifth grade, he had a photographic memory that allowed him to tell you who won most World Series contests and who was on the pitching mound at the time. One of his happiest days was when he could afford to take his family to see the New York Yankees play an exhibition game at Mile High Stadium. All his favorites were there – Mickey Mantle, Roger Marris, Joe Pepitone. Oh yeah, Yogi Berra was there too. I can’t be sure but I think Whitey Ford was on the mound. Papa smiled and stuck his chest out like those men were his personal friends.”
For the next two hours, we sat under the big tree as shadows shifted on and around us while I told Keith about my dad. I alternated laughter with tears and silence until I realized why God directed me to Papa’s grave that day.
Keith was right. It was time to begin the healing and understand that my father was not an angry, brutal monster. He had something no one diagnosed in those days – one of the effects of war – PTSD. He had no way of understanding or controlling it. As we strolled through my childhood there were as many, or more, good memories as bad. Those memories were buried under years of anger, resentment, lack of understanding and even unprocessed grief.
As evening approached, Keith reminded me we had a dinner commitment and needed to leave. I reluctantly agreed, but not before cleaning off my father’s headstone and rearranging the irises. I stood for a few minutes searching the massive cemetery for the lady in red, but I couldn’t spot her.
“Did I tell you Papa’s favorite flower was the iris? He grew them you know.”
“No I didn’t know that, Laura. “ Keith took my hand and with tenderness guided me toward the car. I turned to look back at the grave of Albert Carvallo, Tech 5, U.S Army, WWII. Through tears of new-found recognition, I thanked him for the gift of my freedom that cost him his sanity, his family and ultimately his life. For the first time, I saw my father as a true war hero.
That night I offered a prayer of thanksgiving to God for encouraging me to accept His healing balm on the soul of a little girl in a grown woman’s body. I’ve since cried many tears of loss and released my resentment toward my dad. I’ve processed where our country would be without the brave men and women in uniform who selflessly sacrifice to protect and defend our freedom.
There are still many things I do not and probably will never know about my father. But one thing I am clear about. My future visits to Papa’s final resting place will no longer be done out of obligation.
Copyright February 4, 2018
Laura L. Padgett
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See my Publications tab on this website for books I am featured in, including “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books and Xulon Press, “Letters to America”.