Appropriate for Halloween, no? But this is a ghost story of a different sort. One with no easy ending.
Daddy-O and I visited our cousin, dad's first cousin and my second (or first once-removed, or however that works), Robert Wayne. It would have been a pleasant, wonderful little reunion. But due to the circumstances, it was not. Robert Wayne has been in the Michael E. DeBakey VA Hospital of Houston for some time, due to his leg being amputated above the knee. That operation was, in fact, a direct result of him not taking care of himself for some time now. But it's not even as simple as that.
Robert Wayne is a Vietnam veteran. He went, young and scared, to serve his country because he thought it was the right thing to do. He did as his father did, called to duty in the name of the United States. He served his time. He is still serving it, but in a far different way. Between the divorce, the drugs, the wounds you can see and the ones you can't, he returned and remained a changed man. Robert Wayne was as likely as close as my dad came to having a brother. I grew up with his and his wife's children and we were all close cousins. But Robert Wayne was always troubled, always on the "fringe". He never spoke of the horrors over there but I know he lived them every day. And seeing him Friday my dad and I had to fight back tears. The Robert Wayne we knew and loved and had not seen for some time was still there. Deep inside. But he was disoriented, confused, and broken on the outside. He enjoyed seeing my dad, and I know it lifted his spirits. But he could not understand who I was. I am not sure he ever figured it out. He lives with assistance when not in the VA, but can never live completely independent anymore. And he is my dad's age. And his generation. Funny thing is, or should I say, fortunate thing is, that could have so easily been my dad. When dad's number came up, the only two things that kept him out of Vietnam was that he was a full-time college student who also worked to support a young wife and baby daughter. So he was deferred. And he never went to 'Nam.
If he had, would he have wound up like Robert Wayne? We can never know. But I held my daddy tighter that day and enjoyed Halloween with him this weekend more than I ever have. We are so lucky that I can scarcely believe our good fortune at times. He is here, whole, and with me.
The thing that struck me like a bolt of lightning was that this was not the same VA I had become so familiar with in 1992, when my grandfather, my mother's father, was dying of lung cancer from the millions of Lucky Strikes he had smoked since WWII. He saw action in Germany and returned home to take part of the American Dream. He became one of the Greatest Generation and was a wonderful husband, father and grandfather until his passing. I knew Friday when I spent time at that same hospital that this was not my granddaddy's VA. We are rapidly losing members of the greatest generation. The bulk of the population of the VA is decidedly different now, being comprised of mostly Korean veterans (although they too are becoming fewer in number by the day), Vietnam veterans, and veterans from the Desert Storm and Operation Freedom wars (or police actions, if you please). They are younger, angrier, from my dad's generation and mine alike. They haunt these halls in a different way than my grandfather's generation did. Their memories and futures are far closer, and more distant, than grandpa's ever were. I went to a shop in the VA where caps, patches, and other paraphernalia for veterans was being sold. Very little WWII things, but I saw tons of things for Vietnam vets. I knew this was a whole new ball game when I spied a patch that said "Jane Fonda - TRAITOR BITCH!" on it and realized that the anger over Vietnam for so many people will never go away. They have not forgotten, and I hope the veterans understand they have not BEEN forgotten.
The faces I looked into that day had a different gaze, and the VA had a different feel than what I had ever experienced. The place was alive, bustling, but yet it felt like a tomb to me. The halls are haunted with so many souls. I wish for those souls to find peace, but I don't know if they ever will. I know our cousin faces his own ghosts, of a "war" (yes, police action") that should never have been fought, of a family ripped apart, of his drug-addled life, of the wreckage he left behind, and of the family who still loves him in spite of the damage done. I wonder if his ghosts will ever leave him to wander down the halls of the VA and give him a measure of comfort that he needs after all this time.
These are ghosts of man's making. And those are the scariest ghosts of all.
Happy Halloween, all. Don't let your ghosts haunt you.
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