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Day by day, the numbers of World War II veterans grow smaller. Their dwindling is a matter close to my heart, because, earlier this month, a week shy of his 94th birthday, my father joined that waning parade.
Wounded and captured in the Battle of the Bulge, weakened and hollowed out by slow starvation in a prisoner of war camp, nearly succumbed to despair on a death march toward the North Sea, my father just barely made it out of the war alive. He was scarred, afterward, weighed down not only by the shrapnel he still carried in his body, but by a darkness that shadowed him, and shadowed us, his family.
He was scarred, afterward, weighed down not only by the shrapnel he still carried in his body, but by a darkness that shadowed him, and shadowed us, his family.
At the same time, in a good way, my father’s experience of the war — and his own improbable survival — left him deeply aware of the preciousness of life. More vividly than anyone else I’ve known, he sought to live joyfully in the present, building boats and sailing them, gardening, playing basketball, singing — and encouraging others to sing and leap and play along.
He also felt an urgent imperative to change the world for the better. Shot from the turmoil of the war into the opportunities of post-war America, he followed a brilliant trajectory from Maine farm boy to international agricultural scientist, advocate and pioneer. Farmers all over the world were able to feed their children and send more to market because of his work.
His ambition could not have been more noble, but it left behind his first family, a wife and three daughters. That, too, I’ve come to see as a familiar story. Still, we were proud of him; and very lucky: he lived long. He had time to mellow, to slow down a little. He listened to us, knew us, savored us, finally, as individuals.
Feeling new connection, wanting more than ever to understand the role of his war in my father’s life — and in my own — I spent two weeks last summer at UMass Boston’s William Joiner Institute for the Study of War and Social Consequence, a long name in which every word matters. I knew only a little about my father’s war, but a lot about the social consequence, a lot about the war’s shadow. My father never saw the poems I began to write at the Joiner Center, but writing them steadied me in a way that proved timely.
How did my father see the inevitable end of his life? For years, he seemed to deny the possibility, resisting any sense of limit. The miracle of his survival would just keep going. Always, though, he turned back towards life. Although he had grown up in a staunch Methodist family, singing about dwelling in Beulah Land, if you asked my father about heaven, he would answer, gesturing and forceful, that the important thing is this life, here.
Toward the latter part of his 80s, he began to hedge. ‟We can’t know,” he would say, and change the topic.
Then there were a few years when he spoke less and less, about religion or anything else. Still, the way he grinned at me, the eldest, when one of my sisters was telling a story, making a joke, making a point — those grins spoke whole volumes we are reading still.
I wish his wish for all who miss him: that we find new courage for living out our purposes; that we keep those purposes high and proud; and that we take time, often, to stand under the sky to thank our lucky stars.
At the very end, contrary to anything I had expected, in spite of dementia and advancing weakness, he could still be himself, not in every moment, but in some. This energetic, accomplished, charismatic man — now almost silent, confined to a bed, being fed by our stepmother — could still radiate calm and courage that helped to sustain us.
Now, in these weeks after my father’s death, out for walks at sunset, I admire Venus, my eyes drawn again and again to that brilliant point of light hovering against a pale wash of tangerine. Following tradition, I wish on that first star-bright planet I see in the sky.
I could wish for my father’s spirit. Instead, hearing his voice, I wish his wish for all who miss him: that we find new courage for living out our purposes; that we keep those purposes high and proud; and that we take time, often, to stand under the sky to thank our lucky stars.
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