“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 my dad’s headstone, and then turned to face me.
“Why yes. All these men and women were heroes.” She swept an arm around the immediate vicinity.
“They paid a high price for our freedom. Some paid with their physical and
mental health; and some with their lives. We must never forget or dishonor
their sacrifices, or that of their families,” she said as she resumed her
I stared at my father’s tombstone. I hadn’t made many visits to this site
during the forty plus years since his passing. When I did visit, it was out of
obligation. Over the years, I practiced keeping thoughts and feelings about my dad far from my mind. That morning, however, 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, Keith, had dropped me at the graveside, 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.
“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. I watched him in silence until he finished.
“Do you want to go now?” he asked.
“No, I want to just sit here for a few minutes.”
It was a warm day with a slight breeze moving shadows of leaves from the
massive tree that grew a few feet from my father’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 erupted at the slightest provocation.”
I directed my remarks to my husband but kept my eyes on the grave.
“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 soldiers that 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 and flowers.”
“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 and Yogi Berra. 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 I felt compelled to visit his grave.
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 than 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. I
reluctantly agreed to leave, 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 couldn’t spot her.
“Keith, did I tell you Papa’s favorite flower was the iris? He grew them you
“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 Veteran. Through tears of new-found recognition, I thanked him for the gift of my freedom that cost him his sanity, his health and ultimately his life. For the first time, I saw my father as a true war hero.
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. And I’ve acknowledged that even from his grave that day, Papa gave me a new kind of freedom – that only found in the reconciliation of forgiveness.
There are still many things I don’t and probably will never know about the
man I called, “Papa.” This I know for sure: future visits to the final resting place of my father will no longer be out of obligation.
Reposted on May 27, 2019 from original post February 2018
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