Monday, March 25, 2013

Of Semper Fi and Silences

~”…Some days//there were no clouds, as though/the sources of the past had vanished. The world// was bleached, like a negative; the light passed/directly through it. Then/the image faded.//Above the world/there was only blue, blue everywhere.”                                                                        ~Louise Gluck, “Landscape”
            When I was seventeen, I tore the ACL in my right knee, while playing a game of pick-up basketball with some neighborhood boys. I was a decent player; my gym teacher, Mrs. Brady, who also coached girls’ basketball at my Catholic high school, had hounded me for two years to join her team, which I resisted based on the argument that I was an “artist,” a musician, not a “jock.” But I liked the sport, and so instead, I’d occasionally join a pick-up basketball game in my neighborhood. On this particular summer morning, I was dribbling the ball and pivoted too quickly, trying to pass, and half of my leg didn’t follow through. I collapsed on the ground; the pain was nauseating.  Two of the boys carried me into my friend, Valerie’s house, where her mother put an ice pack on my leg, while we waited for my mom to come and pick me up.
            By late afternoon, my knee had ballooned, and I was set to see Dr. Levitsky, my pediatrician, the following morning. I hopped around the house on my one good leg, propping it up on the couch, icing it with bags of frozen peas, watching television. At one point, struggling with my new injury, I hobbled into my parent’s bedroom, where dad was reading, and burst into tears. Dad sat me down and put his arm around my shoulder. I sobbed into his chest and heaved,

            I’ll NEVER learn to live with this!  The leg I was born with will NEVER be the same!  Even if the doctors can fix this, I will never have the leg I was born with!

            I was a very sensitive and emotional teenage girl given to the moody ups and downs of the age. I continued on in this vein for a bit longer, wiping my tears with my dad’s handkerchief. I finished, sighing dramatically, Daddy, you just don’t understand!  

My father pulled away from me, a smile on his face, and said quietly, “I think I might understand.” And suddenly, I was mortified!  Next to me, Dad sat, as he always did: his left leg, bent at the knee, left foot on the floor, acting as a counterbalance to his right leg, which was propped straight out, rigid against the carpet with its immoveable right foot pointing firmly toward the ceiling. Absorbed in my own self-pity, I had completely and totally forgotten. Dad had a wooden leg. It was not something that crossed my mind much, because I had only ever known my father this way. Losing his leg was not something Dad ever talked about, and we, his twelve children, learned not to ask him questions about it.
Dad with Grandma Fagan, Aged 21
            When we were young, we knew the basics of the story: Dad had joined the Marines, while studying at Notre Dame University.  When he graduated, he was made a lieutenant in the Corp and was sent over to fight in the Korean conflict.  During a terrible battle, he was shot and by the time he received medical help, doctors had to amputate his right leg above the knee. He was only 21 years old. For his service, he received a Purple Heart.  I knew, also, that he spent a year in a hospital/rehabilitation center in California. He spent that year learning to walk on his new prosthetic and writing letters to my mother back in Queens, NY. The two of them had been on only a handful of dates before Dad shipped out to Korea. From California, he wrote beautiful, heartfelt letters, which helped Mom to get to know him deeply. They fell in love over the course of that year.
Dad and Mom's Wedding Day

            As I grew older, I would, at times, try to imagine my intellectual, religious, sensitive father carrying a gun or aiming his rifle at another human being.  I couldn’t picture it. It was incomprehensible to me that my father, whose interests ranged from sharing bad puns, reading books, writing, painting, growing roses, and watching Notre Dame football games, to theological and philosophical discussions, had been a Marine in the war. I had seen a few old photographs of Dad, so young and in uniform, steadily standing on crutches and standing in front of his house in Little Silver, NJ with his mother, father and younger brother, Jim. But, I just couldn’t fathom the man that I knew, who emotionally belted out “Oh Danny Boy,” while my sister Maureen accompanied him on the piano, leading men into a violent battle, where he was injured and others, died.
            But, because my father rarely mentioned his experiences during the war, nor the battle that took his leg, I was never able to ask him the mounting questions I had. I assumed that all veterans, who returned from war, kept their experiences a secret. What I didn’t realize, until after he died, was the tremendous toll my father’s silence took on him for the rest of his life. Dad struggled with frequent bouts of melancholy his whole life; yet, my mother remembers him as a young man, who loved to joke around and make people laugh.  On our summer vacations to the beaches of New Jersey or Cape Cod, Dad could never join us or walk along the ocean with us (he couldn’t maintain his balance on sand with his wooden leg.) He would tour the historic sites wherever we vacationed, usually solo, as we splashed in the surf. Yet, as a high school boy, Dad loved playing football with his friends on the beaches of Sandy Hook, near his home in Little Silver, NJ. My Dad was vigilant and overly-cautious; he saw danger around every corner, and he constantly tried to protect us from real or perceived harm though, as a child, he loved climbing apple trees, walking alone in the woods and having solo adventures.     
Dad with Grandpa Fagan
            One of the rare times Dad ever brought up losing his leg with me was during one of our arguments during my high school years. One Saturday morning, my father said “No.” I couldn’t go into New York City with my boyfriend. (We were a ½ hour train ride from the city.) Dad definitely perceived Manhattan as a very dangerous place to be, even though my mother had grown up in the city. We had been arguing for a while. I finally yelled something to the effect of,

            Well, you’re just wrong! The whole world’s not as dangerous as you say!

To which my father shocked me by retorting,

            You know, Sharon. There are things you just don’t understand. Once I stood up when I shouldn’t have and lost my leg forever! 

            He was equally shocked that he had said this, and before I could ask him more, he walked away. Mostly, Dad kept the secrets from that awful day, when he lost his leg locked inside of him, and he paid for his silence.
Dad, Returning from his Year in Rehab, with brother, Jim
            All of these memories flooded me recently, when I visited Semper Fi Odyssey Camp, near Ligonier, Pennsylvania, with a group of four eleventh-grade students, as part of my Contemporary World Literature class’s documentary film project. Based on one of the guiding questions that framed our coursework—How does a person maintain his or her sense of compassion, caring, and humanity while living through oppressive crisis or war situations?—students were learning to interview local people, who had gone through serious situations and were willing to talk about it on film. We traveled to Semper Fi Odyssey Camp, so that the boys could interview the General Manager of the camp, a young soldier, Justin, who had lost his right leg at the age of 22, while sweeping for mines during the Afghanistan War.
            As the boys interviewed and filmed him, Justin talked openly about his many, many surgeries, his initial depression, the challenges of reintegrating into civilian life, his post-traumatic stress and about how he coped with “bad days,” by lifting weights, meditating by the ocean, staying busy as a student, and mostly, by helping others, especially other soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

            What soldiers need the most, after returning from combat, are other soldiers to talk with about their experiences. Only a soldier or a Marine can truly understand what another soldier or Marine has been through in the war.

            I began to weep hearing Justin articulate all that he had been through. How differently he carried the tremendous weight of having lived through his war experiences and the amputation of his leg! I kept marveling at how at ease he appeared, talking with my high school boys about what he had been through and where he was in his life now, nine years later. His life had meaning and purpose; he was pursuing an undergraduate degree at a university in Florida where, he told us, he could be near the “healing power of the ocean.”
            Later, Justin gave me a hug and asked me if I were all right. I told him about my father, about his lifetime of silences and how, I had come to realize that his silence about his devastating battle in Korea had exacted too high a price on him. I told him that I had always, privately, feared that my father was not capable of being fully happy, ever, as an adult. I told Justin that my mother had told me, after my father died in 2002 from complications of Parkinson’s Disease, that she knew my father had always carried a tremendous amount of guilt about that day in battle, because he blamed himself for the death of the other men in his battalion, as he had been the first one shot. Many men he knew died that day. I could not imagine carrying such a huge burden of guilt! Finally, I said to Justin,

            I can’t help wondering how my father’s life might have been different, happier, had he had an opportunity to talk about what had happened to him,      to reveal his guilt and anguish and loss to other Marines, as they’re doing today at this Semper Fi Camp.

And Justin turned to me and said,

            It’s because of what the veterans of your father’s generation and the veterans who returned from Vietnam suffered through in silence—it’s because of them that we learned that we need to do this for soldiers and Marines now, to give them a safe place to talk with others, who have been where they’ve been and who have experienced what they have experienced. And to offer them all the resources out there available to them to help them more fully reintegrate back into civilian life.”
Dad, Tricia, Ray, Maureen
            On that day, long ago, when I was seventeen and sharing my anguish about the torn cartilage in my knee with my Dad, he gave me a gift: one last glimpse into how he lived with his own tremendous loss. After giving me a hug, he simply said, I miss my leg.

            I held my breath and looked over at him, afraid that he would stop talking. Dad had a faraway look in his eyes. Then, he gazed out the window, at the setting sun, which was streaking the sky in tangerine and violet:    

            You know, Shar, sometimes I think that when I die, heaven will be a place,
            where I spend all of eternity running.


  1. Love this! You should send it to the Sun.

  2. Your writing always moves me but this time you did me in. Thank you for sharing this part of your Dad with all of us. Funny you should mention Danny Boy - your Uncle Jimmy is often asked to sing that song for friends yet I don't believe these brothers ever got to sing together, it would have been awesome.

  3. Wow. Thanks Shar.