By Jade Stone
As many of you know, I grew up military in a mostly blended family with my mom, stepdad, and brother. Though my “real dad” lived far away in Ft Bragg, NC, my birthplace, I managed to maintain a good relationship with him.
I didn’t see dad often but my mom and stepdad, Lynn, saw to it that I learned who he was and taught me to love and respect him, even though he wasn’t around much. My dad was a quiet yet rebellious man who always seemed to harbor a grudge against authority but still managed to be a mostly law abiding citizen, even throughout his biker gang affiliations. True, he lived by a slightly different code of ethics than the law might have allowed but it was truly based on integrity, honesty and just deserts.
Unfortunately, the physical and psychological burden he carried was great, as Agent Orange began to take its toll on him. His body was beginning to break down and crumble into a wheelchair from problems like degenerative spine disease, kidney disease and eventually cancer just to name a few.
While I was in college, his heart began to fail and had to have open heart surgery, reducing his activity level even more. From then on, we all thought that his heart would give out first. That might have been a kinder sort of death.
Sometime in 2003 he and my stepmom moved from Ft. Bragg to Crossville, TN, to be closer to her family. They bought a beautiful home with a wrap around front porch, seated in the mountains on a quiet patch of land surrounded by thick forests. It was the perfect place to sit and watch the wildlife while enjoying the fresh, crisp mountain air. Fate, however, had a different plan.
By late fall, dad was diagnosed with lung cancer which soon took over his bones. Upon hearing the news, my boyfriend Jay, and I made plans to go to Tennessee that upcoming summer to visit for a week, not knowing how much time dad had, and praying it wouldn’t be too late. By our summer visit in 2004 he had endured at least two rounds of chemotherapy and though he was fighting hard for his life, Dad was still in great spirits. I later learned it was partially due to the fact that Jay had asked for his blessing to marry me. Months later Jay told me dad was so happy he couldn’t contain himself! And sure enough Jay proposed on that trip, but that’s another story for another time!
At any rate, we had a great time and thought dad might just beat this. Jay and I were married that fall and in March, we found out we would have a baby in October of 2005. We were so excited to think dad might actually get to see his daughter’s first child. But within a couple months, his health began to fail at an alarming rate.
I couldn’t bear of dad never seeing my child so the very least we could do was let him know what we were having before anyone else did, even us! I know, sounds crazy to some of you, but Jay and I decided we didn’t want to know the sex. So, when the time came to find out, I took a pre-stamped, addressed envelope with an index card inside that read “Hi papaw, my folks wanted you to know that I am a ______________!” to my ultrasound appointment and gave it to the ultrasound technician to fill out.
We mailed it immediately and told my stepmom not to tell us or anyone else what it was, not even my mom no matter how much she begged!! She told me that when dad opened the envelope, his eyes sparkled with joy and pride and then he picked up the phone, called my mom, and said “Ha ha, I know what she’s having and I’m not telling”!!! Yup, that was my dad for you — ornery to the core.
Sure enough, in August that year dad took a turn for the worst and my brother and I were called home to see him before he passed away. When we got there, dad was no longer the man I remembered, but rather the shell of a man who had dwindled into skin covering bones that jutted out angrily against it as if they would break through the skin at any moment. His once bright blue eyes were now pale and cavernous, as if they were only there to fill the hollow spot in the skull.
I think he knew who I was the first day but any cognitive ability to recognize loved ones had most certainly disappeared by the next day, along with his ability to sit upright. It was heartbreaking to watch and yet I willed my eyes not to reflect my own desperation for him to see. I talked to him and told him how much I loved him and that it was okay to go. I also told him I would take good care of his grandbaby and then miraculously, dad squeezed my hand. This was the last communication I had with my dad before he passed away that night after a long, torturous battle with cancer.
Now, dad being who he was wanted no memorial service, funeral or fuss. He simply wanted to be cremated and placed in a memorial cemetery in Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, and my stepmom did just that. She saw to it that he got his rightful resting place in the Veteran’s cemetery near post. We didn’t get to see it but she assured us that it was where he wanted to be — with his “brothers”.
As I write this, I am on my way home from a trip to North Carolina. I finally got to see my father’s resting place, and to be truthful, it was surreal. Something about seeing a loved one’s name on a stone in a cemetery for the first time is jolting. But my stepmom was right. He was surrounded by his “brothers” who had gone before him and had finally joined the ranks as one of the fallen, something I think he wished had happened long before.
This trip, while difficult to make, was worthwhile in so many ways. Though I’m saddened to relive this painful memory, I am relieved and proud to have had the chance to know my father. Even with all his faults, he was a decent person, an honest man, and an impeccable soldier who loved this country with all his might. Like so many others, he sacrificed his entire life for the betterment of our nation and for that I will always be grateful and proud. Military life, in many ways for him, was all he’d ever known. It was the beginning of life for him as a young man, and also the end of life as he knew it as an adult, even after death. Honestly, I don’t think he would have had it any other way.
Jade welcomes your comments here as well as any suggestions you may have for her future posts. You may also e-mail her at akajadestone [AT] yahoo [DOT] com. To read previous Military Mama posts, CLICK HERE. *Photo credit: Paul F. Wilson