I have a pretty big family. And among that family I boast countless uncles, great uncles, and aunts and cousins too.
But, I have uncles I’ve never met. They are brothers to my father who died just about 14 months ago.
My father had 7 brothers and a sister who I’ve grown up alongside. I have cousins galore, and I love them all.
But there is another part of my Dad’s life that only began to become real to me in the weeks preceding his death. And that is where I began to learn about these other uncles.
And even today, as I sit, on this snowy day, in my office, in Dad’s chair, and with his old champion sweatshirt for warmth, I have plenty of time to reflect.
We spent today home. Meghan and I were beat up by a schedule that is beyond our capability to maintain for extended periods of time. We crashed. Hard. Sometimes it’s easy to ignore this chronic illness we have. Sometimes it’s easy to forget about this genetic mutation lying in wait to wreak havoc on our lives. Sometimes we do such a good job pressing on – getting it all done – that we forget we need to pause.
Cowden’s Syndrome doesn’t cause the fatigue, per se. At least we don’t think so. But, somewhere in between the messed up blood counts, and the appointments, and MRIs and scans and trips to Manhattan, the fatigue finds its way in. Add in surgery on the calendar for me in February. Couple that with the raw determination of an 11-year-old who is intent on conquering the world – and you have focused school work, swim practice, meets, theater practice, and an epic amount of community outreach work as the date closes in on our “JEANS FOR RARE GENES” Fundraiser at the Hilton next month, and suddenly this exhaustion seems easily explained.
Suffice it to say, a January snow on a Saturday morning was truly a heaven-sent gift for us.
And so after the laundry is back under control, and the house is returned to reasonable order, I get time to sit with my blog – a place I have missed in the chaos of the last two weeks.
And while I have so many family and friends that I love so much, the reality is that when I had things on my mind – intense medical things. I would always and without fail use Dad as a sounding board. He would listen for hours with no judgement passed. He would offer advice when he could, and respect when he couldn’t.
For large parts of my youth Dad was absent, almost completely. I didn’t understand, but it was what it was. Sometime after I got engaged in 1999 our relationship began a lot of repair work. We talked more and more as the years past, but there was always a detachment. There was a shield. Even with us.
He settled on Staten Island finally, about 5 years before he passed away. He lived with his sister, my aunt, and they were good company for each other. He reached out. He made an effort. Slowly he started to let me in.
I was a psychology and education major in college. I remember the lessons on PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Immediately so many things made sense, and I saw my father in those lessons. But the real moment came when he said it himself during one of our long conversations. “I have something called PTSD…” and there was an opening to a world I had never been allowed into before.
There was a young man – still in his late teens. A young man who became a Marine. One who enlisted with a few friends during a war that I knew precious little about until I began my own research.
My grandfathers, all three of them had fought in World War II and tales of their service were common. Never in a bragging way, but matter of fact lessons and experiences and stories, told and shared my whole life.
I studied World War II in school. I learned, probably not enough, but enough to carry on an intelligent conversation. But, I as a teacher of young children, had precious little knowledge of the horrors that were the Vietnam War.
My Dad who left for that war never came back. Sure, he survived treacherous battles in the jungle, but he never came back as the boy who grew up on the local streets with his friends and siblings. He returned a changed man.
My Dad gave his entire life for his country, even though his service record bills his active service as about 3 years (of that 13 months were in the jungles of Vietnam,) He came back traumatized, confused, and unsettled. One of the talks we had after the acknowledgement of the PTSD included, “I spent the first 40 years after I came back thinking everyone else was crazy, and the last 5 thinking maybe it was me.”
Years of wandering allowed him to make “friends” with lots of people in lots of places. But in reality Dad was a “man’s man.” It was easy for people to trust him and share with him. Many people who viewed him as friends knew very little about my Dad the man.
As he got sick Dad authorized the release of his medical and service record to me. He knew I would pore over every detail and search and question, and hopefully find answers no one else could. I searched and I read and I researched and I asked, but in the end the course of events was set to be what it was. During that process though I read, first hand accounts from my father about things I had never known.
I also got to spend more time in his apartment. And there were three pictures there. And Dad would talk briefly about those pictures. And I would wonder about the other men behind those eyes. And how their lives had turned out.
After we buried Dad in December of 2013 I continued my quest through our local Congressman to get his service records reviewed. Still in a deep quest for closure I uncovered some photo CDs in Dad’s things. Most were of photos taken by him. One was marked Vietnam. On it were photos not taken by Dad, of Marines who served with my him. There were pictures of men, pictures of war, and documents that I had never seen.
Not long after that, a conversation with Holly, a woman who we all love, who shared a long relationship with Dad, produced a contact list for Dad’s Marines. The names matched the names on the photos and I set about writing letters to each of them.
I sent out letters to each of them, looking for specific information. I knew my hope was a longshot. I was looking for recall of events that had taken place over 45 years prior. I sent out 18 letters. I expected I’d be lucky if I heard from one of them. Why would they answer me?
And that is where I learned of the uncles I never met.
Aside from the 2 Marines who had predeceased my Dad I had responses from all of them. Every single one of them reached out to me, to offer condolences, to tell a story, and to offer support. I laughed and cried and healed more during that month than I could have imagined possible. These men, together for a relatively short window of their lives, were deeply bonded as brothers forever. These were my “other” uncles.
And I connected with the men from the photos, “Merck and Zepe” as Dad called them. To listen to their tales of stories I had never heard, was a gift I could not have imagined.
But there is one. One “Uncle” who has been there for me this past year in ways far beyond what I could have ever imagined. “Uncle Alan” had listened to my tears, taught me, comforted me, and supported my endeavors. His compassion knows no bounds. He has prayed for my family, asked about my daughter, given me peace on Father’s Day, and has done more for me than I imagine he will ever know.
Last week I was at the height of exhausted and in my mail was a package from “Uncle Alan.” In it was the book “90 Minutes in Heaven” as well as a bumper sticker, a T-shirt, and a “US Marine AM-GRUNTS” hat. I cried. Tears of gratitude. For God’s introduction to family I never knew I had. I cried tears of healing, as I come each day to understand more about my father through these men who call him “brother.”
Dad and I spoke sometimes, towards the end, about the “whys.” He wondered why he got to come back and live his life, when his dear friend Tommy was KIA. He wondered about mine and Meghan’s Cowden’s Syndrome. He wondered if there could be a connection to his ruthless exposure to Agent Orange. If somehow that genetic mutation could have arrived in me through him. He wondered about the possible connection to the cancer that took his life. We wondered together lots of things we will never know the answer to.
But there are things I don’t wonder.
Dad’s life had purpose. It had meaning. It left impact on everyone he ever loved. Out of his suffering came great strength, and a deep faith in a good and perfect God. I don’t wonder for a minute where Dad is now. I am sure he is flying free in Heaven.
I don’t wonder “how” we got Cowden’s Syndrome. Cause we have it. I don’t even wonder “why” we have it. Because we do.
And who we are develops through our experiences in life. And while there are some I would have preferred for us not to endure, I don’t wish to change them. We are learning to be the best people we can be.
And along the way, there are people looking out for us. “Uncles” we never knew.
Alan signs his letters “S/F” for the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fi” – “Always Faithful”
I have not known truer words.
I plan to get to visit “Uncle Alan” in June. We have lots more to talk about.
Blessing abound if we keep our eyes open.