Monday, March 22, 2010

Upon Further Review...

I have spent two sleepless nights, troubled by my last post.  A phrase kept running through my mind, "You don't know the terror.  This is your heritage, too."  

I'm no visionary.  When people talk of heavenly lights and ecstatic episodes, I tend to turn away; there's no time for visions when there is so much work to be done. And on those moments when I do feel the press of something beyond my understanding, when, to use a phrase popular in Mormonism, "the veil becomes thin," I keep it to myself.  These things are personal, private, not to be held up for public inspection.

But there I was in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, hands shaking, filled with a very real dread, a dread that was at once mine and not mine.  

We grew up in the era of detached empathy, our minds filled with the images of suffering in distant places, static suffering, frozen suffering, the little Vietnamese girl, her clothes burned away, forever running in terror from a napalm attack; the Russian mother at Stalingrad, black coated arms outstretched in agony like some lesser Jesus, eternally kneeling over the body of her fallen son; the solemn, hollow-eyed stares of survivors of concentration camps and ethnic cleansing and earthquakes and hurricanes, always mute and numb and victimized.  We feel sadness when we see them, shake our heads at the mindless brutality of this world, sigh with secret relief that it is not us, not our daughter screaming with pain and fear, not our mother aching with loss, not our wife or son or brother tattered and starving, staring blankly into the camera lens.  And we move on.

This is different.

I spent time on Sunday, rereading the military medical record of my long-dead ancestor.  He was fifteen years, two months old when he entered the service, blonde haired, blue eyed, and four feet, eleven inches tall.  His first visit to the infirmary, for treatment of a sexually transmitted disease, happened just weeks after induction.  

There were others, several others, and each time the hospital stay lasted days; he once spent fourteen days in hospital for what was termed a "minor outbreak."  Of the twelve years he spent in the service, he spent 244 days in hospital, nearly all of it for treatment of STDs.

Reading the notes -- which I will not detail here, for even though this man, my ancestor, is long dead, they are of a deeply personal and embarrassing nature -- it became clear that this boy was not a victimizer; he was a victim.

I do not know the details, but it seems clear that when you place teenage boys in close proximity with men who are bigger, stronger, and surely more debauched than them, terrible things will happen.  I have thought of this young man, sick, hurt, and traumatized, all alone and defenseless.  It is a terror that I have never known.  And because it was his, I have to take it up.  I have to help heal it.

Now, a bit about my grandfather.

Grand-Pa is one of the five most influential people in my life.  I am very different than him.  I tend to be cynical, where he was perpetually, naively optimistic.  I love books and solitude; he loved being around people.  He was a gifted musician; I'm musically hopeless.  But all that is good in me, I learned from him.  I learned the truth of King Benjamin's injunction -- "when ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God" -- through Grand-Pa's example.  I learned to value family, to cherish those cross-generational links of parents and children and grandparents and grandchildren, because his home was always open to me.  From him I learned that sometimes the best way to lead is to laugh, and the best laughter is when you poke fun at yourself.  I do not share his faith, but my faith is strong and sure and living because of the example of devotion he set. 

He was the round-bellied old guy who'd take us sledding and make us french toast and play old Polish carols on his violin.  He was also the handsome young fellow with the slicked back hair and the three-piece suit, the Don Juan of Third Ward.

Before he was any of those things, he was an eight year old boy whose mother died, whose father remarried very quickly, who was thrown into a house with lots of step-brothers and step-sisters, and a new mother who didn't have any time for him.  And the man who saw all of his children graduate from college was first the ten year old boy who said goodbye to school, and went to work in the lumberyards on River Road.  Working with the Poles and the Russians and the Irishmen in those places, with the saws and the sawdust and the shouting and the rough talk that flows when working men gather, he got an education of his own.   

So when ancient, senile Tony asked every single nurse in the assisted care facility, "Hey, do you love me?"  and I got flustered and blushed and went around apologizing, I shouldn't have.  It wasn't the old man talking.  It wasn't the young Lothario, either.  It was that little boy, sharing a room with people who hated him, working in a place too dangerous for little boys, awake and alone late at night, missing his mother.

Mormons believe that the hearts of the children must be turned to the fathers, that this is the reason Earth exists, that without this turning, this binding, this healing, the whole world would be utterly wasted.

 This is obviously a wedding photograph, although I am not sure of any other details.
Grand-Pa is in the second row, all the way to the right.  He is wearing a boutonniere, which leads me to think he was related to the groom.  I'm guessing this photo was taken about 1922.  Note that he's the only person in the photo who's smiling.
I felt my ancestors calling me this weekend.  And I hope that in some small way, my empathy, my involvement, my remembering has healed them, has given purpose to this place.

1 comment:

  1. Beautifully written. I hope that you have sweeter dreams soon!