By Mike Wagoner
I got the call on a Sunday afternoon… It was a neighbor of my folks back in Walla Walla, where I grew up. I was in Nashville where I was teaching high school and playing at an open mic from time to time. The gist of the message was that my mom and dad were not doin’ so well. It was news to me, since my weekly phone visits never indicated that things weren’t good… well, it turned out, they weren’t being honest with me. A couple members of the last Greatest Generation, I guess they didn’t want to be a burden. I’d had a sister who lived closer to them, but who died a year or so previously… Now it was just me.
After thanking the neighbor, I hung up and sat silently for a time. It didn’t take long before my little voice told me what I needed to do. As it happened, the school year was close to being over. I met with the principal, told him my situation and gave my notice… I wouldn’t be returning.
The old home town looked the same to me, but things were different. I pulled in the drive and noticed the lawn right away… it wasn’t like it had always been. My dad opened the door. His face also was different. We hugged… probably for the first time ever… and I felt how thin he had become. Mom was sittin’ in the living room with a walker by her chair… another first.
I remember thinking…“Is that really for her?” I settled in and began experiencing what so many Boomers have been and are continuing to be faced with: reality.
At night from my old room downstairs, I could hear the thump when my mom would fall trying to get into her bathroom — something my dad’s old ears just couldn’t detect anymore.
So many surreal things, like interviewing a woman who would be helping my mom in the shower and bringing that lawn back to life as my old hero watched, smiling, from the window. My basic goal was to keep them out of a nursing home as long as I could. Mom, with limited speech, tutored me in the kitchen — the place where she had served as councilor to both me and my sister during those formative years.
Mom left us first. And it was then when my dad and I sort of just became roommates that our roles really began to change… especially when he started to ask me things like, “What do those numbers mean on my night stand?” Or when he’d get up at two in the morning and begin making coffee.
Yup, he was starting to fade, but he could remember every little thing that had occurred years ago. He filled me in about his childhood on the little farm a few miles from town. His favorite fishin’ holes… his adventures as a high-school kid… drinkin’ a lot of homemade apple wine one Sunday with a couple buddies and shootin’ the tail off a cow on a dare.
He said that next day, at first, he was afraid he might die and a little later he was afraid he wouldn’t.
I knew he had fought in WWll as a Marine, but the details about that time of his life had always been sketchy at best. Well, that began to change in a big way. There were times when I sat spellbound across from him in the little sitting room as he told me things he had kept to himself for so many years.
The graphic details of landing on Saipan with his platoon… the women and children that they tried to round up after the dust had settled, many of them jumping to their deaths with babies in their arms off the north end of the island, where the cliffs were high above the rocky surf below, rather than to submit to the Americans.
He told me of the necklaces some men would make, adorned with teeth taken from the mouths of the enemy… something he wouldn’t allow his men to do.
There’s more, but I’ll cut it off here. I’ll just say that as the days went by I began to feel a kind of love and appreciation for him that I had never really felt before.
It was a sunny summer afternoon when he left. The ring of the front door bell found me staring at him with enlightened and grateful eyes. He, along with my mom, had shown me how to live, and how to die…
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