My life was once defined by violence. Now it is not.
My experience as an infantry sergeant in the Vietnam War has not made me an authority on deadly violence but I feel it has given me permission to speak.
When an act of extreme violence becomes front-page news everyone feels threatened. We don’t say it but we know it could have happened to us. In a deeper sense it has happened to all of us. We feel fear, then anger. From that darkness we begin looking for someone to blame in addition to the perpetrator. That sows the seed of separation, lines of defense and justification for vengeance. That is how we move us away from peace and become a link in a chain of violence.
That’s the way it happened to me. I didn’t want anyone to know I had such feelings of rage. I hardly admitted it to myself. I was not peaceful. I buried compassion along with fear and anger. I finally understood that all those emotions were valid and I embraced them all. I could not choose how I felt but I could choose to act out of anger or from compassion. The tricky thing about compassion is that to be genuine it must be universal. Genuine compassion includes the ones we love, ourselves and yes the ones who have violently attacked us.
It is not enough to feel compassion. We must be compassionate. It is not enough to feel love. We must perform loving acts. If we are to find peace we must act peacefully.
What brings peace, an end to strife, is now and forever, our loving reverence for life.
It was deep in the winter of 1995. Mom was at the end of a long illness. She was dying. We called for the parish priest. He came and administered last rites. When the priest left I was sitting with mom and she said “I must be pretty bad if the priest came. I must be dying.” I couldn’t answer. I just nodded my head. Mom folded her hands in her lap then looked at me. She blinked back tears and said “I don’t want to leave my family.” I don’t know where the words came from but I said “Mom, in heaven there is no time or space. We will all be waiting there for you.” She looked out the living room window for a moment then said “I guess it will be alright then”.
Mom slipped into a coma a few days later. She lay in the bed mom and dad had shared for over five decades. Dad hardly left her side. She died the next day before noon. After the funeral dad and some of us were sitting at the kitchen table. I really can’t remember who else was there because I had withdrawn even deeper than usual. Dad began to speak –
I want to tell you about what happened the night before Florence died. I always held your mother’s hand at night even then, when she was in a coma. It was after midnight when I felt her hand move. The bedside lamp was still on and I sat up and watched her. Her grip tighten then she opened her eyes and smiled up at me. At that moment I felt all the happiness and all the joy of the life we had lived together.
Dad smiled through his tears and looked at each of us as if wondering whether or not we could comprehend what he had just described.
Understanding came to me slowly. It has been two decades since that day. Now, because of my father’s gift to me, I don’t reach for the brass ring of a good relationship. I seek the Holy Grail of a love and devotion that not only goes beyond the grave but is greater than anything I can ever hope to understand.
One path to reintegration after deployment is through a garden. While working in my garden last fall I realized I hadn’t thought about Vietnam all day. The fresh air, sun and exercise were only part of the benefits. Providing a place where life could flourish had changed me. Looking forward to the harvest and planning for next year felt so good. So much different than surviving.