Monday, October 26, 2009

The Last Salute

The flight back home was grueling. It takes a day to make the trip from Iraq to Kuwait and back to Oregon. The processing, waiting and endless security checks are infuriating. By the time I got to the airport in Oregon (two hours from Mom's house) it was one in the afternoon. For me though, it was still about 6-am and I had only gotten about 6 hours of sleep during the flight.

I gazed out the window of the plane, across the sun and the rolling fields of clouds and wondered why couldn't he wait? I got the news when I called my boss from Kuwait. He had been in an induced coma for three weeks and he finally succumbed to respiratory complications and an infection which had been caused by a terrible bout of flesh-eating virus he had miraculously survived many years ago but had lived in pain since and his condition was worsening. I hadn't realized how bad it was when I first found out. Before I had even left Iraq my Dad had already died.

My Mom and Dad got divorced when I was about two years old. My Mom had to deal with me and my two sisters. I was the real hellion though. I went through a foster home then she took me back and finally put me up for adoption. I was just five years old when Mike and Marsha adopted me. It wasn't easy for me being taken away from my family. I didn't understand and I guess looking back I felt betrayed, unwanted, and discarded.

Growing up I was somewhat of a social misfit and eccentric to say the least. My parents and I had a rocky relationship. I won't deny it wasn't easy raising me. I was wild, hyper-active, and always getting into some sort of trouble.

After I graduated high school I joined the Marine Corps. During that time I met Tatiana and I later had to inform my parents that I was getting married and she was pregnant. Well, Dad didn't quite approve and things were said. It was hard after that.

Over the years, things got better between us but it seemed like exchanged politeness mostly. I would call and we would talk for a minute or two usually and he would hand the phone to Mom. The last conversation I remember with him went pretty much the same way. I told them we were going to Iraq for the second time.

Life teaches us hard lessons. If you have something you want to say to someone, treat every moment as if it was your last chance to say it. I wanted to be angry at him. I was angry at myself too. But all I could think now was that I wish I could have told him I loved him one last time.

During the trip home, I had to stop a few times in a private corner and stop the flow of tears from my eyes. I've always been stubborn with my emotions. I don't think a man should be seen crying. That's foolish, of course. So instead, I kept it in during the trip home. And through the entire trip my head ached and my stomach hurt but I didn't want to make a 'scene'. I didn't want strangers' pity.

I started writing this down on some paper I had and it felt a little better, as if I was talking to someone.

Our flight to Denver got delayed and when I got off the plane I had about 15 minutes to get to my connecting gate which was on the opposite end of the terminal. I had to practically race down the moving walkways just to get there barely in time to board.

As I was making my way through the terminal I noticed a comical character. A man, tall and thin as a rail in his 30s or 40s, wearing stone-washed designer jeans, a black leather jacket, aviator shades and sporting a styled hair-do reminiscent of Elvis. But I didn't have time to stop and gawk.

On my flight to Oregon I struck up conversation with a contractor for a company that specializes in sniper equipment and had just come from the annual sniper competition in Fort Benning, Georgia. After talking to me and hearing my situation he handed me a coin. It's one of those military coins engraved with his company's logo on it. I also sat next to a retired hunter from Roseburg, Oregon just a quick drive from Oakland where my Mom lives. He offered me a ride if I needed it but Mom was going to meet me at the airport.

It was raining when I got there. A couple days later we went to a viewing. My Dad didn't want a ceremony or a service or anything like that and had requested to be cremated. He was stubborn too and didn't like people fussing about him. He hated being nearly crippled and admitting he was in pain.

I finally broke down and cried. He looked peaceful. At one point, I almost thought he was just sleeping maybe. We may have had some bad times but we had good times too. My thoughts drifted back to when I was younger. I love my Dad and this is how I'll always remember him.

 Before I left I joked with my Boss. I said bad things happen in threes and my dog would probably die. Well, today my dog Hilde had to be put down. She was an old German Shepherd and had severe arthritis and was succumbing to it finally. My Mom still has Hilde's son and daughter Lothar and Falkie thankfully though. So when the chips are down they really are down.

My fondest memory of my Dad is when he read The Hobbit to me when I was 5 years old. He would read a chapter every night to me and every night I would beg him to read just one more. I've been an avid reader ever since.

When I get back home from this deployment I'll read The Hobbit to my kids too.

As we left the viewing and said our final goodbyes I walked over to him alone. I looked at his face. It was him but just a shadow. I'll always remember him as he was in that photograph. What I had to say to him required no words to be spoken.

I stood straight and at attention and slowly raised my hand in salute to the former Marine who had served in Vietnam and perhaps more admirably had served as my father, then slowly lowered my hand.

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