Awakened at 5:40 a.m. Wednesday by a phone call. My sister. A problem at Mom and Dad’s.
“I’m on my way.”
As I mentioned in the post below, Dad’s Alzheimer’s symptoms have gotten dramatically worse in the last month. I met Mom and my sister at a hospital in Henryetta, Oklahoma. He’ll spend a couple of weeks there. After that . . . well, we’re not sure. As a I said below, a season of hard decisions is upon us.
I took Mom home where she spent the first of what will almost certainly be many nights without her husband beside her.
The next day I drove her car into town to wash and service it. At the same do-it-yourself car wash I used back in high school 35 years ago, I dropped some quarters into the vacuum and went to work on the mats and carpet. While cleaning the passenger side floor, I noticed the ragged edge of a slip of paper sticking up from a crack between the carpet and the plastic door sill.
I gently teased it out of its hiding place and unfolded it. Here it is:
The camera phone picture quality is poor but the tattered card bears the words, “Army of the United States.” Puzzled by what I was holding, I looked more closely and saw my father’s name and a number typed in faded ink. The light came on for me when I saw these words at the top of the card:
Certificate of Service
This was Dad’s honorable discharge card. I flipped the card over and saw:
Period of Active Service
From: 29 Jan 51
To: 6 Jan 53
With the mystery of what I was holding solved, I turned to the bigger puzzle. What was a piece of paper issued to my father back in the Truman Administration doing wedged in the floorboard of a Buick my parents have only owned one year.
I showed it to Mom. She sighed and said it probably fell out of his wallet. But I can’t imagine that Dad has been carrying around his honorable discharge card for the last 57 years.
No, he put it in there recently. Of course he has been doing lots of unusual things recently. Over the course of the last year he has surrounded his favorite chair and his bedside with an astonishing assortment of family photos and memorabilia. He rummaged through the drawers of his old roll-top desk and retrieved long-buried photos and mementos, placing them around him
It is obvious what Dad has been doing. He has been fighting. Fighting to hold on to what he knows. Fighting to hold on to what he remembers. Fighting to preserve a sense of who he is. Or was.
At some point he came across that discharge card in a drawer and placed it in his wallet or pocket. And at some point, it fell out–which is an apt metaphor for what this hell-spawned disease has been doing to him for almost 10 years now.
Stuff he always carried around in his head or heart keeps falling out.
There has been another very telling aspect of this decline–one that has become more pronounced as the decline has accelerated.
On a daily basis Mom receives phone calls from concerned friends at church or from relatives. They are checking in on her and asking for a report on how Dad is doing. The problem is that, if she answers honestly, she must reveal some embarrassing things about Dad’s behavior or health problems, and when he hears her sharing this information, he gets very upset.
In recent weeks I learned to call when I knew Dad would be sleeping so Mom could speak freely about the struggles he’d been having. Otherwise, he would get very upset with her if she revealed anything about him.
There is a profound truth to be harvested in this field of blooming sadness.
All the marriage enrichment folks consistently claim that a man’s highest need–greater than even the core need for sexual fulfillment–is a hunger for honor . . . to be admired and respected by those he loves most.
I have always suspected this was correct, but now I am certain of it. Why?
Because as, piece by piece, most of what has made my father who he is has been stripped away–his gentleness, his calm, his good humor, his patience, his inclination to trust–one thing remains firmly intact. His need for honor.
Which brings us back to that faded, time-worn card, doesn’t it?
It is no accident that from among the hundreds of little cards and papers he could have selected, he chose to carry one that said the following:
THIS IS TO CERTIFY THAT
JOHN F HOLLAND US 54 007 570 Cpl
HONORABLY SERVED ON ACTIVE DUTY
Yes. Yes he did.
Period of active service: One lifetime.