Friday, December 21, 2012

Dog Tags

Sometimes when I think back to during the time when my dad was sick, I remember a detail that I had forgotten or overlooked in my memories before.  

Today I remembered his dog tags.

When I was growing up, whenever I asked my dad about his experience serving in Vietnam, he always talked about how his job there was to guard a building with weapons in it, often on an overnight shift.  

My dad was never a "night owl;" as far back as I can remember, he was much more of a morning person, and I guess that was true when he was in the service, too, because he often commented when he talked about that time about how hard it was for him to stay awake on his overnight shifts.  He said he usually ran around and around the building he was assigned to guard so that he would stay awake and alert during those shifts.  The only problem with this plan, he reported, was that he had to wear his dog tags at all times and, as they hung from the chain around his neck, they drove him crazy bouncing against his chest as he ran.  Ever the improviser, though, he thought of a solution to this problem too: he took the dog tags off from around his neck and put them in his pants - in his jock strap, to be exact. 

It's kind of funny to think that a person can be proud of someone else before that person was even born or before they knew each other, but I know it's possible, because, picturing my dad as a young soldier in a foreign land, before I was born, doing what he had to do to get his job done and to defend our country, I feel such a sense of pride and respect, the same pride and respect that I have had for him throughout my life. 

But those dog tags from Dad's days in Vietnam aren't the ones I think about most often these days.  The dog tags on my mind are the ones that Dad wore on a chain around his neck as a 66 year-old man as he trained for the Ironman triathlon.  He tucked those into his shirt as he rode his bike or ran, and, the day before he became disoriented on a run and our campaign against his brain cancer began, the chain that held those dog tags broke.  And so, on that fateful day, he set out for the first time in many months without any form of identification at all.  

I think when most people think about dog tags, they think about toughness.  That's what I think about, too, because it was that, along with his strength and resilience that day that allowed Dad to dig deep enough so that, even in his state of confusion coming from the tumor the size of a racquetball in his brain, he could remember not just his home phone number (which was called first by the police but went unanswered because my mom was out of town) but also my aunt's cell phone number, which he also recalled and then gave to the police who had been called to the scene because he somehow also remembered that my mom was out of town that day and realized he needed to call someone local.

I have spent time, some while Dad was sick and even more since he went on ahead, thinking about how things would have likely gone had he not had the fortitude to pull out that information in those few moments before he was taken to the hospital by ambulance, before he had a couple of seizures, and before he quit breathing and had to be put on life support temporarily until he could be stabilized.  It is nothing short of terrifying to think that all of that would have been going on and no one in our family would have been able to be notified so that we could all get there to be with him.  It's horrifying to think about the fact that he would have been a Missing Person for an undetermined amount of time, because, with my mom out of town overnight that night, it is highly likely that no one would have realized that he didn't make it home after his run that afternoon.  We would not have known that anything out of the ordinary was going on.  Again and again, it hits me that, even with as bad as it was when he first got sick and throughout his illness, it could have been worse.  At least we knew where he was, and what was going on with him, and at least we were able to be with him. 

Dad, wearing the dog tags, competing in what ended up being his last race, one month prior to his diagnosis of brain cancer
In the days just before and just after his surgery, Dad worried a lot about what he called "loose ends."  As it would be for any of us whose life was put on hold in the blink of an eye, it was unnerving and extremely anxiety-causing for Dad that he had not been able to prepare for the time he was having to miss work and everything else for which he considered himself to be responsible.  In the midst of the constant stream of worries he had about his health and about needing to take care of the responsibilities in his personal and professional roles in life, he said he wanted to get the chain that had held his dog tags fixed, "so that I'll have it ready as soon as I can get back on the road."

And so, sitting in the hospital room with him in the Neuro-ICU, I searched on the Internet and found a company that sold replacement chains and ordered one for him; he was visibly relieved when I told him that a new chain was being sent to him in the mail.  And that's where the meaning of those dog tags deepens in our story; instead of standing only for toughness, Dad's dog tags also represented Hopefulness, and we desperately needed everything we could get to bolster both of those qualities as we entered into a more grueling battle than any of us could even imagine at that point.

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