As originally published in The Atlantic Monthly, April 1996|
God, my father, and the war that came between us
Y father: not until years later did I appreciate how commanding was his presence. As a boy, I was aware of the admiring glances he drew as he walked into the Officers' Club, but I thought nothing of them. I used to see him in the corridors of the Pentagon, where I would go after school and then ride home with him. I sensed the regard people had for him, but I assumed that his warmth and goodness were common to everyone of his rank. I had no way of knowing how unlikely was the story of his success, nor had I any way to grasp the difference between him and other Air Force generals. He was as tall as they, but looked more like a movie actor. I saw him stand at banquet tables as the speaker at communion breakfasts, at sports-team dinners, and, once, at a German-American Friendship Gala in Berlin. His voice was resonant and firm. He approved of laughter and could evoke it easily, though he never told jokes. His mode of public speaking had a touch of the preacher in it. He brought fervor to what he said, and a display of one naked feeling: an unrestrained love of his country.
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A fluent patriot, a man of power. Grace and authority were so much a part of
his natural temperament that I did not mark them as such until they no longer
characterized him. His relationship with his sons was formal -- we addressed him
as "sir" -- but there was nothing stern in his nature. He never struck us. He
never thumped the table until the pressures of the age made it impossible not
to. We always knew he loved us. The problem was his absolute assumption that
the existing social context, the frame within which he had found his
extraordinary success, was immutable. His belief in the world of hierarchy was
total, and his sense of himself, as a father and as a general, depended on that
world's survival. Defending it was his one real passion, his vocational
commitment, and his religious duty.
The Paper Boy is a General
The windshield wipers kept getting stuck in the buildup of grainy ice, which we would scoop away as we returned from running the bulky papers up to the houses of my subscribers, Dad on one side of the street, I on the other. It was raw, unpleasant work, but that morning I loved it. Indeed, in my mind it was a game, a version of "war," which we kids were always playing then. Those dashes from our car were sorties, I thought, bombing runs, commando raids. A stack of papers -- artillery shells, mines, grenades -- sat between us on the front seat. We would drive for fifty yards, jolt to a stop, snap into action. I would lean toward Dad, pointing through the fogged-up windows. I was the navigator, the bombardier: "That one, that one." Then we'd each bolt from the car, duck into the freezing rain, splash up driveways and across soggy lawns, prop the papers inside storm doors, and then dash away as if the things were going to explode. We achieved a brilliant synchrony, a teamwork that overstamped everything that might ever separate us. Drive. Stop. Fold. Open the door. Duck. Dash. Return. Way to go! Sir!
If my father had been the commander of a two-man suicide mission, I'd have followed him -- not out of any readiness to die but out of the absolute trustworthiness of what bound us at that moment. I would have sworn that time itself could not undo it. "Neither ... principalities nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come" -- I was an altar boy over whose head Saint Paul usually sailed, but these words had lodged themselves in me -- "nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate us... ." Paul, of course, was talking about the love of God, but my only real faith then was in the good order of the world over which Dad presided. Him -- nothing would separate me from him. That morning was delicious for being just the two of us.
When we'd almost finished, something hideous happened. My father had run up to a house and dropped the paper and was running back toward the car when the door of the house swung open.
"Hey, you!" a voice boomed. Even in that wind I heard the threat in it. This was on the far side of Hollin Hills, where the newer, smaller houses were. My distributor had signed these people up. I didn't know them. The voice was a man's, and it was laced with authority. "Get back here, God damn it!"
My father stopped and stood with his back to the man, still facing me. I searched his eyes to see what was in them, but the distance between us, and the rain, made it impossible to see.
"Get your ass back here, I said. Put my paper where it belongs."
I looked across and saw that Dad had dropped the paper under the overhang protruding from the lintel -- dry enough, but not quite at the threshold. I thought of making the dash myself, to spare us all. But then I saw, on a low post beside my father, a sign with luminous letters on it. Dad was looking at it too. "M. Sgt. John Smith." Master Sergeant. The man was military. An NCO was barking orders at a general like a drill instructor bellowing at recruits.
Again I looked for Dad's eyes, and though it seemed I found them, I could read nothing of his reaction. I was stunned enough for both of us. Caught! was the feeling. Captured! Now they shoot us. I was frozen to a spot near the rear bumper of our car. Rain and sleet pelted my face, my soaked clothing, my slimy skin, my watery bones. A shudder coursed through me, a fever and a chill at once.
"Get back here, God damn it!"
My father's stare made me feel sure this was my fault. I started to sprint toward the house, to retrieve the paper and apologize. But as I was about to pass Dad, he put his hand up, stopping me. He turned, and with a low humping movement -- ducking gunfire? -- he retraced his path up the sergeant's driveway, dodging rivulets, scooting past a wheelbarrow and a mound of topsoil. Sergeant Smith's car was off to the side, and now I saw the bumper sticker identifying it with Fort Belvoir, an Army post a few miles away.
The sergeant had remained in the shadow of the doorway, out of the weather. He held the storm door half open. I could see only his arm and the dark bulk of his body. He was a big man. I had collected at the house once or twice, but from his wife. In the short time they'd been on my route, they'd never complained. I took a step forward as Dad bent to pick up the newspaper. He carried it the two or three steps to the door and held it out, and the man took it, saying something I could not hear. Then Dad was running toward me again, pumping like a halfback. "In the car," he called.
I scooted around to my side, and when he leaped onto the front seat, so did I, as if we'd just pulled one off together. Our doors shut simultaneously. Dad dropped the car into gear and popped the clutch, and we lurched forward, away.
"What did he say, Dad?" I asked, though I was afraid of the answer.
"He said ..." Dad looked at me, and I still could not read him. "He said, `Don't let it happen again, bub.'"
"What'd you say?"
"`No, sir !'" His face cracked open with pleasure, sheer triumph. Sir! Even I knew how senior NCOs hated it when stupid punk recruits addressed them as if they were officers. "`No, sir!'" Dad repeated. Then we laughed and laughed, heads back. He slapped my leg. No, sir! I was swept up in a wave of gratitude, both that my father had not needed to pull rank on the bastard and that he'd found a way to prick him.
Our over-reaction was about more than that, though, and now I know what. The
order of the hierarchy, of the universe we shared, had just been upended. Years
later, in a literature class, I would learn that such reversal is the essence
of comedy -- and also of tragedy. But that morning, bound more tightly than
before, my father and I found his near humiliation and his too sly but finally
generous riposte only funny. Nothing would ever seem this funny to us
again -- certainly not my eventual upending of the ordered world. But that
morning it was enough. We laughed until we got home, and then found ourselves
unable to explain to the others why. Which only made it better.
"Can These Bones Live?"
On a Saturday in February of 1969 more than 200 people filed into the chapel. The statue of Mary and the wretched crucifix were on display. The paraphernalia of a Roman Catholic liturgy were laid out on the side table and altar -- the cruets, the covered chalice, the beeswax candles, the oversized red missal, which the chaplain's assistant would spell "missile." The congregation included Air Force officers in uniform, since this mass had the character of an official function. A number were generals who had come down from Generals' Row, the ridge road along the upper slope of the base, where the vice chief, the inspector general, and members of the Air Staff lived. These were the chairborne commanders of Operation Rolling Thunder, an air war that by then had dropped more bomb tonnage on a peninsula in Asia than the Army Air Corps ever dropped on Germany.
The generals and their wives, easing down the center aisle, looked for their host and hostess and found them already seated in the front pew. They were Lieutenant General and Mrs. Joseph F. Carroll -- Joe and Mary. He was the founding director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the man in charge of counting the enemy and evaluating targets in Vietnam. Today he wore civvies, but with his steely hair, fixed gaze, and erect posture, he looked like what he was. She, a staunch, chin-high Catholic woman, was in possession of a lifelong Irish dream: she was the newly minted mother of a priest. But there was worry in her fingers as the beads she held fed through them. Her lips were moving.
A bell rang. The airman at the Hammond organ and a seminary choir began with a hymn, and the people stood, joining in with a set of coughs that moved through the chapel like a wind sent to rough up the chipper happiness of the seminarians. A line of altar boys entered from the sacristy in the rear, ambling into the center aisle, leading a procession of a dozen priests wearing stoles and albs, a pair of candle bearers, a thurifer, the surpliced master of ceremonies, and, last of all, the ordained priest come to celebrate his first mass and preach his first anointed sermon. That new priest, with his primly folded hands and his close haircut and his polished black wingtips, was I.
A few minutes later the Air Force chief of chaplains, Major General Edwin Chess, by Church rank a monsignor, whom I had known since he accompanied Cardinal Spellman to our quarters for a Christmas visit at a base in Germany years before, stood at the microphone to introduce me. "In a day when our society is so disjointed," he said to his fellow generals, "it is a great joy to know that Father Carroll is on our side."
What? On whose side?
I was celebrating my first mass here, as tradition required, in my parents' parish, not mine. True, I had served as an altar boy in this chapel nearly a decade before. My brother Brian had been married in its sister chapel, across the hills at Andrews Air Force Base. A rotation of Air Force chaplains had been welcomed into our family like bachelor uncles. When I had entered the seminary, after a year at Georgetown University (where I was named Outstanding Air Force ROTC Cadet), it had been with the specific intention of becoming an Air Force chaplain myself. General Chess had been my spiritual director.
And no wonder I'd harbored that ambition. Air bases were like sanctuaries to me. I loved them -- the air policemen saluting us at the gates, the sprawling hangars, the regular roar of airplanes, the friendly sergeants in the base exchange, the Base Ops snack bar, the mounded ammo dumps amid stretches of grass on which I'd played ball. Air Force bases were a realm of mine. I grew up a prince, a would-be flyboy, absolutely on the side of everyone in blue. But now?
On our side -- when had that unambiguous phrase ceased to describe my position? Perhaps in November of 1965, when below my father's third-floor window at the Pentagon a thirty-one-year-old Quaker named Norman Morrison set himself on fire. It took a couple of years, but by October 21, 1967, I was standing on roughly the same spot below my father's window. No self-immolator, I only chanted anti-war slogans -- and I dared do even that only because tens of thousands of others stood chanting with me. I was sure it would never occur to my father that I was out there, and I was careful not to isolate myself from the throng. He never saw me.
While in the seminary I had embraced as an ideal Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest and poet. Only months before my ordination he and his brother led the infamous raid on the draft-board offices in Catonsville, Maryland. On their side? Compared with the Berrigan witness, my anonymous participation in Washington's tremendous anti-war demonstrations was the height of timidity. In secret I had taken the stainless-steel model B-52 bomber that was my prize for that ROTC award out to a ravine behind the seminary and hurled it, the napalm machine, into a fetid swamp. I remember its gleaming arc as my version of the gods dispelling in midair -- their annihilation, not ours, as Wallace Stevens had it, "yet it left us feeling that in a measure, we, too, had been annihilated." Those photographs of little slant-eyed people with melted chins and no eyelids and charred blue skin and fused fingers had given new meaning to the old word "hit," as in "hit of napalm."
I had had dreams about the war, about flying airplanes in it, but my puerile fantasy had become a nightmare. Once, I dreamed of crashing a jet plane into my parents' house on Generals' Row. But it was all a secret, and not just from them. When, only a few months before, General Curtis LeMay, a 1968 vice-presidential candidate, had put a savage warmongering on display, I could not square my shame with the near worship I had felt for him as our next-door neighbor at Bolling in the early sixties. That was a secret too. I dreaded the thought that my fellow protesters might learn who my neighbors were, not to mention my father. In public, standing alone, I had never declared myself on the war. But what did it mean to be alone? I was two people, and considered independently, each of my selves seemed to have integrity, but this was belied by the fact that I could not bring them together. For the longest time I could not speak.
And now? What to my father surely seemed a proper obeisance had become to me the secret cowardice of a magnum silentium . He had reason to take for granted the reliable decorum of my first priestly performance. But my mother, with her worrying fingers, had reason to be anxious, for she had learned never to trust the arrival of a dream, even if she could not quite imagine how it might shatter.
Despite my clerical draft exemption, or because of it, mounting the tidy pulpit of that pristine war church felt exactly like conscription. On our side? The chief chaplain's words had hit me like a draft notice, and I felt as naked as any inductee before my well-clothed brothers, friends, and neighbors; before a few of my fellow seminarians, hardly peaceniks; before beaming chaplains and generals; before my parents; before -- here was the deepest feeling -- the one-man congregation of my father. I could no more look at him than at God.
I remember looking at the other bright, uplifted faces. One was my brother Dennis, who before that year was out would be a draft fugitive. Another was my brother Brian, who before Dennis returned from exile abroad would be an FBI agent, catching fugitives like him. I remember the beveled edges of the wooden lectern inside my clutching fingers. The Scriptures in front of me were open to a text I had chosen myself, departing from the order given by the liturgical cycle. And I remember:
The hand of Yahweh was laid on me, and he carried me away ... and set me down in the middle of a valley, a valley full of bones. He made me walk up and down among them. There were vast quantities of these bones on the ground the whole length of the valley; and they were quite dried up.
A mystical vision? The prophet Ezekiel in an epileptic trance? Yet news accounts not long before had described just such a scene in the valley below a besieged hilltop called Khe Sanh. William Westmoreland had proposed using nuclear weapons to break the siege. Casualties had mounted; 10,000 men had been killed in a matter of weeks. That carnage was in my mind when I, presumptuously, chose Ezekiel's text.
Dry bones: the metaphor rang in the air, a double-edged image of rebuke, cutting both ways -- toward the literal Southeast Asian valleys of the dead and toward the realm of crushed hopes about which some of us had never dared to speak. "Can these bones live?" I now asked in my excursus, repeating Ezekiel's refrain. "Dried and burned by time," I said, "and by desert wind, by the sun, and most of all" -- I paused, knowing the offense it would be to use a word that tied the image to the real, the one word I must never use in this church, never use with them -- "by napalm."
It was as specific as I dared get -- or as I needed to. Others in that congregation may not have felt the dead weight of that word, but I knew my father would, and so would the other generals. No one but opponents of the war referred to the indiscriminately dropped gelatinous gasoline that adheres to flesh and smolders indefinitely, turning death into torture or leaving wounds impossible to treat. Napalm embodied the perversion of the Air Force -- how "Off we go into the wild blue yonder" had become the agonized screeches of children. There was a sick silence in the chapel that only deepened when I repeated, "Can these bones live?" But now the meaning was Can they live after what you have done?
That was not a real question, of course, about the million Vietnamese whose bones the men in front of me had already scorched, or the more than 20,000 Americans who had fallen by then. They were dead. And even a timid, metaphoric evocation of their corpses seemed an act of impudence. "Can these bones live?" I realized that I had unconsciously clenched my fist and raised it. All power to the people! Hell, no, we won't go! My fist upraised, as if I were Tommie Smith or John Carlos on the medal stand at the Mexico City Olympics, as if I were Bobby Seale. I recall my stupefaction, and now imagine my eyes going to that uplifted arm, draped in the ample folds of my first chasuble. "Can these bones live?"
I answered with Ezekiel's affirmation of the power of Yahweh, the great wind breathing life into the fallen multitude -- an image of the resurrection hope central to the faith of Christians. I reached for the spirit of uplift with which I had been trained to end sermons, and perhaps I thought I'd found it. Yes, we can live and love each other and be on the same side, no matter what. ("Peace," as LeMay's Strategic Air Command motto had it, "is our profession.") None of us is evil. God loves us all. Who am I to judge? Coming from one who had just spit the word "napalm" at them, what crap this must have been to those generals.
Can these bones live? The answer to the question that day was no. We all knew it. In my mind now I look down at my parents, stiff in the front pew, my mother staring at the rosary beads in her lap, my father stupefied like me, meeting my eyes. He must have known that I had chosen this text. That violation of the liturgical order would have been enough to garner his disapproval. But a biblical battlefield? He must have known exactly what it meant. Bones? Vietnam? To ask the question was to answer it. My fist was clenched in my father's face. "Prophesy over these bones!" Yahweh commanded. And, coward that I was, I did.
In the Catholic Church to which I was born, the theology of the priesthood affirmed that the effect on a man -- always a man -- of the sacrament of orders was an "ontological change," a transformation at the deepest level of his essence and existence. It is an absurdly anachronistic notion, I would say now, but that morning I was living proof of it. My ordination had given me an authority I had never felt before. In my first sermon as a priest it prompted me to break the great rule of the separation of Church and state, claiming an expertise not only about an abstract moral theology but about its most specific application -- an expertise that my father, for one, had never granted me. "I was not ordained for this," I would have said, sensing the wound that my timid reference had opened in him. "But I can't help it."
After my first mass there was a reception at the Officers' Club, and I was not
the only one who noticed that my father's fellow generals did not show up. They
had no need to pretend, apparently, that my affirming peroration had undone the
damage of my impudent reference to the war. My father stood rigidly beside me
in the boycotted reception line. We were the same height, but his posture was
better than mine and I thought of him as taller. Looking at it from his side,
as I was conditioned to do, I saw that his presence next to me displayed a
rather larger portion of parental loyalty than I deserved. For more than two
years I had feared that if I dared even hint at my rejection of the war, if I
hinted at my not being "on his side" in the home-front war against armies led
by the Berrigans and even Bobby Seale, he would neither understand nor forgive
me. In prospect, to a young man, such a consequence is fearsome -- but abstractly
so. I anticipated my father's reaction accurately, but I never imagined how
debilitating to him would be not my rejection but all that it symbolized -- the
hierarchical order by which he lived upended -- or how disheartening to me would
be our lifelong alienation.
A Spoiled Priest
Thirty-five years before, Joe Carroll and Mary Morrissey had risked everything to be together. He had trained for the priesthood himself, obtaining his entire high school and college education in the seminary. In the last hour he had refused his own ordination, defying his cardinal, his mother, the Church, and, by all lights, God. Then Mary had stared that act of sacrilege in the eye and found a way to second it. They had married in violation of all they had been raised to believe. Whatever his success, Joe was, and always would be, a spoiled priest. It would be impossible, despite an otherwise magical ascent, ever to feel out from under that shadow. Until now.
"May the blessing of almighty God ..." My kneeling mother's head was bent before me. She was wearing a black mantilla, what she'd worn each of her two times in the presence of a Pope. Her hands on the altar rail clutched the rosary. "... the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit ..." I was quartering the air above her. In a million years she would not have looked up at me, and I did not want her to. This was not about her Jimmy, I told myself. This was about God. Jimmy did not exist there. It was not Jimmy who brought his hands together, palms downward, and lowered them to her bent head. It was a priest. "... descend upon you, and remain with you forever."
There, Mom. For you.
When I reached to touch her chin, she startled me by grasping my hands and pulling them to her mouth. My mother kissed my hands as if she were an Irish peasant, as if I were the Pope. Before I could say "I love you," she was turning away and then gone.
I took one step along the rail. In those vestments I felt like a float in a parade. My father in his dark civilian suit was kneeling there with his head bent, his face in his hands. What I noticed was his hair, and I was shocked to see how white it had become. He was fifty-eight years old, but I had never thought of him as anything but young and powerful.
"May the blessing of almighty God ..." I raised my eyes toward heaven. "... the Father ..." I brought the blade of my hand up in front of my own face. Behind my kneeling father were my brothers, a line of relatives from Chicago, and the blue-uniformed chaplains waiting to kneel to me. Not me -- a priest. ". . . the Son ..." I lowered my hand toward my bent-over dad. My eyes followed and were caught by something, a motion in his shoulders. "... and the Holy Ghost descend upon you ..."
I put my hands on my father's head, pressing that white hair, the first time I had ever touched him there. I was so grateful to have this way to press into him at last all of my thwarted love. But as I did, it was as if an electric current flowed through me, because instantly his body convulsed. The movement in his shoulders exploded into quaking, and I feared at once, though I could not imagine what it was, that some awful breach of nature had occurred.
And so it had. I had never seen a hint of such a thing in him. My father was
racked with sobbing. Crude guttural sounds came from inside the hands that
remained closed upon his face. He was weeping loudly now, and I pressed my love
onto his head. Oh, what gratitude I felt for the raw physical sensation of
touching this man. I wanted to fill the abyss inside him, and I did not care at
last if what I filled it with was myself.
In the spring of 1974 I went to Washington to tell my parents of my decision to leave the priesthood. Observing the form required by my superiors, I would quietly resign from the campus ministry at Boston University and begin a twelve-month leave of absence before applying to Rome for "laicization." My mind was clear. The decision I had come to in Israel had only been confirmed. As I approached my father's house, I was acutely aware that undergirding every aspect of the religious and political transformation I had been through was the war that had come between us. Later I would realize that my time as a Paulist -- from John Kennedy to Gerald Ford; from the autumn of 1962 until the week in the spring of 1975 when I sent my final letter to the Pope -- had coincided almost exactly with the span of America's war in Vietnam. For better and for worse, the war destroyed the thing in me that had made my priesthood possible.
I faced my parents across the kitchen counter. "I'm taking a leave of absence from the priesthood," I said. "I'm going to resign."
My mother exhaled. Only then did I realize that she had not taken a breath since I'd told them I had something serious to say. My father was staring at the cigarette clutched in the fingers of both his hands. His decidedly unconsecrated fingers.
Finally, pushing her chair away and standing, my mother said, "I expected this." She left the room without looking at me or asking her question: Where is the place in heaven for the mother of a priest who quit?
When Dad raised his eyes, the smoke clouded them, but even so I could see painful cold rejection.
"Can I tell you why?" I asked.
He only stared at me. Where was the man who had wept beneath my hands? He was as far from weeping now as it was possible to be. So was I. And why, since I had never seen hatred aimed at me before, did I think that was what I saw? What a devil's bargain had bound the two of us all these years. Why shouldn't he hate me, for my having been a party to it?
On the way there I had rehearsed a statement, foolishly thinking it might soothe him, and since I had nothing else to say, I recited it. "I'm leaving the priesthood, Dad, because I want to have a life like yours, with a loving wife and children."
"Children?" Now his eyes flashed. I glimpsed the full force of his feeling. Yes: hatred, sure enough. "Why would you want children?" he said. "They would only grow up and break your heart."
I found it possible to stand and say, "I'm sorry that's the way you feel, Dad."
And I left, admitting for the first time in my life that I could not fill the
void in him with anything I did or anything I was. The void was bottomless. He
was on his own. So was I. Sad. Free.
Eventually there would be his versions of "hyperorality," the compulsion to put things into the mouth; of hoarding (he kept cartons of cigarettes under his bed even after he'd forgotten how to smoke); and of paranoid delusion. His last time at the wheel of an automobile was a mad midnight effort to drive from Ocean City, Maryland, to Washington, "because," as he told the trooper who tracked down his Cadillac on a back road of the Eastern Shore, "the President needs me."
Toward the end he would seem to be consoled by a compulsive fondling of stuffed animals -- "hypermetamorphosis." My children, who never knew my father as a figure of power and grace (how to convince them that once, Presidents did need him?), recognized him as a fellow lover of Kermit the Frog, which they chose as a special gift for him.
The most staggering consequence of the disease -- to us and, I am sure, to him -- was the progressive difficulty in communication, the gradual loss of the ability to speak ("aphasia") and of the ability to write ("agraphia"). I believe now that my father's angry letters to me, increasingly halting and jerky, were what my mother insisted they were: symptoms of illness and markers on the road to the most terrible solitude. He was losing his mind, and the rest of my family was following me in losing him.
My mother was shattered. She remained a sharp and lively woman, yet unhesitatingly devoted herself to the restrictive regimen of taking care of him, first at home and then in a nearby nursing home, where she visited twice a day. She was a guardian of his dignity, making sure he was properly cleaned and dressed. She insisted that aides call him General, not Joe, although behind her back they had taken to calling him "Oh, Boy," before he stopped saying even that. For a time, mocking her, nursing-home orderlies called him "General Diet," referring to the designation card that appeared on his dinner tray. My mother ignored the gibe, and eventually the staffers grew accustomed to my father's title, and used it unfailingly. If my mother had wanted them to salute, she would have found a way to get them to do it. Her attitude was catching. In time they also took pride in what my father had been. My mother was his omnipresent protector. She took her meals with him. Without a hint of condescension she fed him herself, as she had fed her babies years before. "Open wide," she'd say.
When I visited, I would feed him too, although what I said to get him to open up for the swooping spoon was "Airplane."
Such a symbol of all that had joined -- and then divided -- us. I would get word that my father was dying just as U.S. Air Force airplanes were lighting up the skies over Baghdad, at the start of the Persian Gulf War. My father, having refused to come to my wedding years before, would die without ever really acknowledging my wife and children. I choose to believe that the onset of his Alzheimer's was at least partly the cause of this rejection. In any case his senility ended forever any chance of our reconciliation.
When I fed him in the nursing home, I always thought of those B-52s. He stopped recognizing us, which was a shocking letdown for everyone in my family except me. For the first time in fifteen years I did not sense his tensing when I arrived. I could sit with him for hours with no fear of bad feelings. I could shave him, clean his dentures, bathe him. He gave himself over into my hands. I could even tell him my stories as I was writing them. While working on a novel inspired by his life, Memorial Bridge, I would hold his hand and relate whole passages, including my own presumptuous interpretations of his experiences in the Pentagon. He would listen as if nothing I wrote offended him -- all because he did not know what I was saying, because he did not know it was I. It was the next best thing to being reconciled.
He would look at my mother, she said, as if she were a stranger. But what seemed even sadder to her -- she showed me this by holding up a mirror -- was that he no longer recognized himself. One day a bright young college graduate joined the nursing-home staff as the new occupational therapist. She came upon my father in the hallway, sitting in his wheelchair beside my mother. The young woman spoke cheerfully to my father and, pulling a table over, put a fresh new pad of paper and a crayon down in front of him.
"He doesn't do that anymore, dear," my mother said. Her voice was pleasant, but she was determined to protect him from yet another failure. By then it had been three years since my father had written, more than a year since he had spoken intelligibly or recognized anyone. But while my mother explained this to the therapist, my father began to move the crayon across the paper. Both women watched his hand. Even scribbling would be an achievement.
The marks he made were not scribbling. In a sweeping, unsteady cursive scrawl he was forming letters. My mother and the therapist leaned forward. Unmistakable letters. "M," the young woman said. "That's an M." My mother said nothing. She watched his hand move across the paper, the letters becoming visible individually, until a word was uncovered.
"Mary," the young woman read, and watched while my father wrote it again. And then again. The script was jerky but legible. "Mary. Mary. Mary," down the page. He did not stop. And he did not look up. "Mary."
The young woman looked at my mother, who said, "That's me."
The next day my mother arrived at the nursing home with an entire box of crayons and a large pad of construction paper. She sat beside my otherwise uncomprehending father as he filled page after page with the one word "Mary." This went on for some days until, having forgotten again and once more in the grip of hyperorality, he put the crayon in his mouth. But my mother had her pages, his last word, the absolute treasure of her life.
Illustrations by Ira M. Korman
Copyright © 1996, The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1996; An American Requiem; Volume 277, No. 4; pages 76-88.