My dad never expected to live to be as old as I am now, and I don’t think he was completely prepared for it. When he actually outlived my mother — for whom he had prepared for every possibility when she was “left alone” — he grudgingly put in two more years on this planet, and then checked out with the eagerness of one boarding a cruise ship for blue waters.
I loved him ferociously when I was young, and fought with him quietly but intensely for decades after that — but we had forged an agreement during his final years, and for that I am grateful. However, I am just beginning to understand him, and I can’t talk to him directly about what I have figured out.
It was a series of old photos that my sister forwarded to me that hit me like lightning. They were of my dad in New Guinea during World War II, picking his way across some old boards that had been placed over the mud. He was shirtless, half-smiling, and years younger than my children are now. He was also a Mormon kid from Missouri who had just graduated with an English degree and had faked the eye exam so he could enlist in the Navy. He had managed to convince the recruiter that it didn’t matter that he couldn’t swim (a result of polio and a broken back as a child), and that he was okay with going down with the ship should the occasion arise. He also didn’t want to carry a gun because he hated them, so they never made him do so since he was a medic and he was able to lug around an extra first aid kit with his gun-free hand.
He had been raised by a Welsh family of mostly women so repressed and so repressing that their collective consciousness must have seemed like wet wool to his finely honed and sensitive intellect. His father, my grandfather Jody after whom I am named, was a whimsical, sweet, brilliant man who simply accepted life and dealt with it, fair or not. My father struggled against it every step of the way, and questioned every nuance, every omen, every shadow.
In the photos in New Guinea, he must be about 24 or so. He’s not much more than the boy who rode the train off to college, who never learned to drive until he had to get behind the wheel of a truck in the jungle, and who worshipped my mother. In her he found his one great stroke of luck in that she loved him without ceasing every moment of her life. Her words of advice to me one time when I asked why-why-why were, “Why does it matter? Just try to love him. Then you might understand how it is with him.”
I looked at the way his head was lowered in the old pictures, how his eyes were twinkling, and realized that he was happy on some level to be doing something about the war and the wounded. And this realization was made even more remarkable by the fact that he almost never talked about the war later on, almost never mentioned what he had seen and what he had been forced to do.
There are some stories that he told — about direct transfusions into one horribly wounded sailor of his own blood, and that he had hoped he would know when to stop. The sailor had lived — in fact, they both had. He talked about the complications of trying to dispose of corpses in the tropics, and of skin diseases and malformed babies being delivered in huts. He had been there for all of this — the Mormon kid who had been rendered speechless at the glimpse of the back of a woman’s knee. And then it was over, and all of those boys who weren’t maimed or killed were told to go home and go back to living their lives. How could that ever have been possible again?
A few years ago, my sister and I found a name for what we had always suspected had haunted him. Post traumatic stress disorder. It was both a relief to have a name for the odd little circus of eccentricities that our father sometimes displayed. But it was also frustrating, because he had already escaped this little planet to get to wherever my mother had saved him a seat on the cruise ship.
And now the great blue ocean stretches out before me, and for all of us.