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.

Sunday, December 16, 2012


As a child, I loved nature and the outdoors. When I needed some alone time, I would often grab a plastic milk crate and, with that in hand, climb one of the pecan trees in our backyard.  High up in the tree, I would place the crate upside down in the branches and sit on it so I could relax as I felt the breeze blowing through the limbs and watch what was going on below.

One thing I've found since my dad went on ahead is a renewed feeling of that love for the open air and the peace that it gives me; it makes me feel some of the connection to my dad that I, like many others who have lost loved ones, am seeking - so much so that we often end up noticing, watching for, and even collecting things that remind us of our loved one.  Just like I did up in those tree branches many years ago, these days I find peace in the sight of a rainbow or a particularly magnificent sunset or a bird that seems to be looking right at me for an atypical amount of time.

A few months after my dad died, I mentioned in conversation with a friend that I derived a little bit of comfort in having some of my dad's things with me - an old shirt of his, a pair of his socks, a book of his with the corners of some pages folded over where he had marked his place.  My friend, who had been through the loss of a parent before me, told me that she understood, and she predicted that at some point I wouldn't feel as strong of a need to hold onto my dad's things because I would feel connected to him through my memories instead.  She may be right, but I'm not there yet.

For as long as I can remember, my dad had a favorite pillow.  He was always a little particular about things that affected the quality of his sleep; I guess that came from getting up so early to run for so many years.  For years while I was growing up, he had an orthopedic-type of pillow that he slept on every night; he even took it on road trips so he would have that one instead of having to sleep on a hotel pillow.  There were several instances when he left his pillow behind in a hotel room, and, when he realized his mistake, he called the front desk at the hotel and with his usual friendliness persuaded an employee to mail it back to him at home.

When I went to the hospital to be with my dad when he first got sick, I brought a pillow from my house.  The pillow case was one that my daughters had tie-dyed months before; I thought it would be good to have an extra one at the hospital for Dad or whomever was staying there with him to use, and I knew the original design of that pillow case would differentiate our pillow from one that was hospital property.  That pillow ended up following us along during the whole time Dad was sick, going with us from the hospital, to rehab, to the hotel where we stayed when we took Dad to the Brain Tumor Clinic at Duke, to my parents' house, to the hospital again, and finally back to my parents' house.  When we brought Dad home from the hospital the last time, we bought about a dozen new pillows to use to position him to try to keep him comfortable in the hospital bed; we encased all of them in blue pillow cases which we'd also purchased just for that purpose.  The pillow in the tie-dyed case wasn't needed anymore, and so I took it to sleep on, first at my parents' house and later at my own house.  I sleep on that pillow every night now; it, like the outdoors and like some of Dad's things from when he was healthy, bring me some comfort in an unexplainable way, especially at night when I seem to need it the most. 

The pillow that followed us

I imagine that it is a universal struggle for those of us left behind to decide what to do with the belongings of the person who has gone on ahead.  Dad would tell us to get rid of it all; he'd think we were being silly and sentimental, and he would point out that it's just stuff.  And it is, but his possessions marked his place in the world, and, in a way, I feel like they still do.  

Everything that changes in my parents' house - even in my house and even in the world around us - is something that takes me further away from him.  The first few times I was at my parents' house [I know I should just call it my mom's house, but sometimes I revert back to referring to it as theirs] after Dad died, I found myself looking around for dust - not to check my mother's housekeeping skills but because I had read somewhere a long time ago that household dust is made up of mostly skin cells, and so I reasoned that some of Dad physically was still there.  I felt - and I still do to some extent - desperate to hold onto anything that has the possibility of making me feel connected to him.  

Along the way, we've cleaned out and gotten rid of some of Dad's stuff; we donated some of his suits and most of the many pairs of running shoes that were crowding his closet.  It felt a little like ripping off a band-aid, except for the fact that it still hurts afterwards too.  Again, I am sure he would have wanted us to give those things to someone who will use them, but letting go of any of it is still a really hard thing to do.  I just don't want to lose any more of him.