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Today is Veterans’ Day. It’s a day to remember the incredible sacrifices that our men and women in uniform have to make on a daily basis to serve and defend our nation. Most of the time they’re on the periphery of our thoughts. They go about the day and night, doing their duty, while the rest of us live our lives—the lives they’ve taken an oath to protect.
Today I remember my father. He was an Army first sergeant. I was a child when we were living on bases all over the world. I was only thirteen when he retired. The memories I have of those days are poignant, yet hazy, filtered through the passage of time.
I remember the days, two weeks at a time, he would be gone. He called it “out in the field”, practicing maneuvers and war strategy. I remember the months and months he was gone as he did his time in Vietnam, and the letters he sent are still neatly tied and tucked away in a box. They were exhortations to an 8-year-old child that longed to sit in her daddy’s lap, to be “a big girl,” to “help your mommy,” and to “take care of your little brother.” They were my orders to chin up, do your duty, and do it well.
I remember the day he came home from the war. We met him at the airport. We ran to him when we spotted him through the gate. There wasn’t a gate made that was going to stop us from reaching him. I remember his arms coming around me and squeezing me so hard that I thought I would break. It was also the first time I’d seen my daddy cry, though it wouldn’t be the last.
My dad would wake up around 4 am every morning, and by 4:30 am, he was sitting at the table drinking a cup of coffee, dressed and ready to go. As I got older, it became my ritual to get up with him, to sit there and quietly discuss anything and everything that came to mind. It was our time together, and I cherish those memories. I can remember sitting with him in the evenings while mom and my brother were in another room, helping him polish his brass or his shoes. Or, he’d be at the table, catching up on paperwork. He’d hand me a blue and red pencil and let me help him with the stuff that wasn’t that important, but had to be done.
I remember the times that we’d travel to visit my mother’s parents in Denmark. It was a 12-hour drive from our home in Germany. While everyone else slept, I’d scrunch up behind my dad and talk to him, or we’d sing country and western songs in hushed voices, trying not to wake anyone up. We counted license plates and made up stories about people in other cars. He enjoyed the company. I wanted to make sure he didn’t fall asleep.
Even after he retired, there was a precision, a sense of honor and duty that stayed with him for the rest of his life. He worked hard to provide for us, especially during financial trials and family tribulations. We never suffered from lack of anything. I can remember him, stretched out on the couch on a Sunday, dozing in between football games on TV, resting so he could get back at it the next day. I remember him planting his garden each and every year, and how proud he was of my mother when she worked hard to put it all up into jars or the freezer. He was a simple country boy with simple needs the whole of his life, and his family was his reason for living.
His “take it on the chin and pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality was no more evident than the day that the doctors told him he was dying and gave him less than a year to live. His mouth clenched, he nodded briefly, and swallowed hard. That was it. I’m sure he shared his fears and concerns with my mother, but in my presence he persevered, carried on, made the best of it.
I was pregnant with our first child at the time of daddy’s diagnosis. I prayed to God to let him live long enough to see his first grandchild. God was more than generous. He lived long enough to see his second granddaughter born two years later. I wish he could have been here to see my brother’s son.
There are many things I regret when I look back on my life and my dad’s time on earth. Time wasted on petty differences, arguments, being a stupid adolescent and refusing to learn things he could have taught me that I’ve lost forever now he’s gone. But still there’s hope.
I know that when it’s my time to go home, he’ll be the first one to greet me. I don’t think he’ll let a gate stand in his way. And I know that he’ll hug me so tight, that I’ll think I’m going to break.
I love you, daddy. I remember your sacrifice and I remember your life. Thank you for mine.