Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Memory eternal

My Dad, after whom I am named Roman, reposed on January 20, 2013. We used to talk by phone every week, and I tried to visit him at least once a year, even though we lived almost at the extreme antipodes of the continent from each other. It was hard for me, the first few months after he passed away, to get used to not hearing his voice when he would call me in the wee hours of a weekend morning, ‘Good morning, Norm... it’s Dad. How are you doing?’ It was also strange for me to not be flying to Florida to stay with him, after the last time, when I went to be with him as he was dying.

This morning, it has been two years. When my step-sister Jeannie, who lived with him his last year, called that January morning, I knew the end was soon. I quickly finished my work and got the first flight I could to Sarasota. Amazingly, and fortunately, I arrived before he passed. Before I left, I even had a chance to talk to him by phone, in case he reposed before I got there. I tried my best to tell him how much I loved and respected him, how thankful I was to have such a father, and I asked him to forgive me my many sins and offenses. Though he was almost out of breath, in his humility he responded, blessing me, and asking me for permission to go now, to be with the Lord. He had asked us the year before, and we said, ‘No, Dad, not yet, please.’ This time, we knew better. 

He was a good man, and a good Christian, as I finally discovered when I began visiting him and getting to know him, as an adult. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity. Many people miss this, because they stay distant from their parents and other relatives out of unforgiving resentment.

The evening before he reposed, I sat with him, holding his hand as he lay in bed. I talked to him gently and tried to encourage him to hang on to his faith in Christ no matter what happened, what he might meet ‘on the other side.’ He talked to me too, but because he was almost breathless, I could barely hear his words. Sometimes he beckoned me closer and I put my ear almost to his lips to hear what he was saying. They were fatherly, loving words. Sometimes, though, as I sat there, he would stop talking to me, turn his head and eyes upward, and seemingly speak to someone unseen above. I felt a presence too, but it felt like the ancestors coming closer to accompany him when he was finally released from this life.

In the morning of January 20, we were called into his room. We had just missed his leave-taking. A nurse who was with him told us that he expired peacefully at the moment of death. Since he wanted no funeral, we arranged to come to the funeral home, where they would lay his body out in a private room, covered with a white sheet, and sing the Orthodox memorial service. In the company of my step-brother and his wife, and a cousin, and my step-sister, I sang the memorial service and read the prayers, just as we do in church, since we had no priest available. My sister-in-law was the only Catholic, and she and I understood what we were doing more than the others, who were old time country Baptists, but I could tell, that beyond the unfamiliar ceremony, we were all of one mind and heart in bidding Dad farewell.

Though I’ve told these stories before, I want to share them with you, brethren and family alike, one more time.

I was 17 years old, had just gotten my driver's license, and had not yet really learned how to handle a car in all situations. I was working the 2nd shift at the Wheaton post office where my Dad was the superintendant. It was after midnight, and a drizzly sort of night, and I was going home. Filled with the sense of power I had, driving my Dad's new station wagon, I took a curve at too high a speed, rolled the car into a ditch, breaking the windshield and all the windows, lost my glasses and bumped my head really bad, but the car bounced back onto its wheels and was driveable. I drove the 18 miles to my house, my Mom was up waiting for me, but Dad was already in bed, snoring. She opened the door and asked, "Norm, are you alright?" and then looked at the car, roof smashed down and all the edges lined with grass poking out of sod fragments. She hurried me in, and then went and woke up my Dad. I went with her.

"What happened, Norm?" he asked. I lied. I made up a story of how there must've been oil on the road when I took that curve and rolled his new car into the ditch. He slowly got up and got dressed, "Where did it happen?" he asked, then, "Let's go and see if we can find the windshield and get the license sticker off of it, so it can't be traced." We went down and found the sticker and tore it off the shattered windshield, and drove home. We both went back to bed. I feared for my life in the morning.

What did Dad do? Nothing. He just started driving his jalopy to work, tried to salvage parts off the new car (he worked on cars), and rescheduled me to work in the Dead Letter department during his working hours, since we now had only one car in the family. He never blamed me or punished me or even mentioned what happened again. He took the loss, and acted as if he never had that new car.

I've never forgotten this incident all my life, and even though when I've reminisced about it with my Dad, he has said, “Well, that's not how I remember it!” ...well, he probably doesn't want to be made out to be a ‘softy.’ After all, he was an army man.

And another story about Dad which I first wrote without telling you who the old man was…

An old man sitting in his tiny room on a day bed. On the wall behind the bed are two glazed picture frames, the one on the left full of awards and ribbons from his American Legion days, the one on the right displays an arrangement of military decorations, bars and medals hanging from ribbons, with a sepia tone photo of a young soldier in his early twenties. He has company with him in his room, a rare event.

His visitor asks him about the medals, ‘What was this one for? And what about that other one?’ The old man’s eyes get a far away look in them when asked about a medal for his service in Korea during the war almost sixty years ago. ‘What did you do when you were in Korea to earn that? Were you in combat?’

‘No, not exactly what you’d call combat, but I was surrounded by it. Me and another soldier, we were assigned to carry mail between Pusan and the front lines. When we landed in Pusan, that’s about all there was of Korea, the Chinese had overrun everything. My original army unit was almost completely wiped out. I got placed in a different unit, and we took the mail back and forth.

‘We lived in the railway car that carried the mail, like a postal unit on wheels, it got hauled from the base at Pusan to wherever we had to get the mail to and from our troops. We took in a Korean boy, must’ve been twelve years old or so, named Kim Mun Heup. He spoke good English, he was from a rich family in Seoul, but both his parents were killed in the fighting. We took him in as our house boy. He cooked, washed our stuff, helped us buy food and supplies in the towns wherever we went. He lived with us in the railway car.

‘We paid him, of course, but I got a hold of a Sears Roebuck catalog, and we let him look through it and pick out clothes and other things. We sent away for them, and when they finally got here, boy, was he ever happy! He had a baseball cap and real American clothes, tee-shirts and blue jeans, and shoes. Boy, was he ever proud! Kim found five other boys, all orphans like himself, but younger, and became their manager. He got his orders from us, and gave them their work. He paid them, and shared with them, of course.

Kim Mun Heup (third from right) with his ‘cohort’
‘I was proud of him, too, and I wanted to adopt him and bring him back to America, but I knew that wouldn’t go over well. I’d just gotten married before being shipped off, and I had a baby on the way. I knew my wife wouldn’t want to see me bring home a kid just ten years younger than me, and not “one of us,” if you get my meaning.

‘When we were in the north, at the front, refugees would come to me and my buddy, maybe Kim told them about us, and we’d give them a place to stay and a ride in our mail car back to the south. We’d drop them off at various places along the way, where they had friends or relatives to take them in. Times were pretty rough, and they’d lost a lot. Once we even hid a bunch of Catholic nuns who escaped from the north and dropped them off in a safe area. They were Koreans, of course, but spoke good English, as did most of the people that came to us for help.

‘Boy, would we ever have gotten in trouble for hiding these people, if the base commander had found out! But he never did. That’s because we always dropped them off before the train got back to Pusan. We didn’t see any harm in it, helping those folks. What else could we have done?

‘I didn’t stay right to the end of the war. Our replacements arrived, and me and my buddy returned to the States. Like I said, I really wanted to adopt Kim and bring him home, but it just couldn’t happen. So before we left, we gave him a couple of thousand dollars and dropped him off in a small town where he had some relatives. The money was for his education. I hope he made it. We didn’t stay in touch after the war. Life had just changed too much for all of us.’

The visitor listened to the old man release his secret story and wondered, had anyone else heard this told in many a year? Was the buddy still alive, staying alone in some cottage like this old soldier? And where was Kim? Three whole lifetimes were lived completely apart, that once for a year or a little more had been more closely knit than family, two young men and a boy riding the rails together in a war-torn land, carrying messages between danger and safety, carrying souls secretly from oppression to freedom.

That’s worth more than medals.

1 comment:

Sasha said...

Memory eternal.