Some time ago, Dr. Lori Drumm contacted me about writing a chapter for her next book, “Serving Heroes.” I shared with her a piece I had written about assisting my father on an Honor Flight to see the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.
In an email, Dr. Drumm asked if she could use my article in her forthcoming book. I was honored that she wanted to use what I wrote.
I had come to know Dr. Drumm through my dying father. I often transported my father from Walnut Creek, Ohio, where he lived in a retirement community with my mother. I was always impressed with how well Dr. Drumm listened to my father and reassured him as his prostate cancer returned with a vengeance 17 years after surgery to remove the disease.
At his last visit to the VA clinic in Canton, Ohio, my father pleaded with Dr. Drumm to find a spot for him on the Honor Flight plane. There was a long waiting list, and Dad knew he had little time left.
A few days later, Dad received notice that he was on the Honor Flight from Akron-Canton Regional Airport to Washington, D.C., on September 12, 2009. I agreed to be his guardian since he was on oxygen, had a catheter, and used a wheelchair.
Dr. Drumm had pulled some strings and ensured Dad was on the flight. When I saw what it meant to my father and the other veterans on board, I knew I had to write about it.
My article summed up the day, and I included photos. I sent the link to the article to Dr. Drumm, and she thanked me. I was forever grateful Dr. Drumm worked to get my father on that flight. Dad died three months later.
I never anticipated the story being a chapter in a book. But here it is. “Serving Heroes” is now available on Amazon.com and other book venues.
The original article was first published on Nov. 11, 2011. I am republishing a revised version today in honor of Veteran’s Day in the U.S. and for all those who work globally for peace.
By Bruce Stambaugh
The very first sermon I heard preached in a Mennonite church 40 years ago was on nonresistance. That was precisely what I was looking for spiritually, and I embraced it. My father, a World War II veteran, was skeptical, but eventually accepted my decision.
Now years later, I was to accompany my 89-year-old father on a special excursion called Honor Flight for World War II vets. Dad was dying of cancer, and he had long wanted to make this trip to Washington, D.C. Regardless of physical condition, each of the 117 vets on the plane was required to have a guardian for the all-day round-trip. Given his physical situation, Dad needed extra care.
Given my nonresistance stance on war, I was reluctant to go. I likely would be the only conscientious objector on the packed plane. But this trip wasn’t about me. It was about my father fulfilling one of his dreams. To help him accomplish that, regardless of my personal convictions, I needed to go with him.
As anticipated, the vets received their patriotic just due. Upon arriving at Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., fire trucks sprayed arches of water across our arriving jetliner. This ritual was usually reserved for dignitaries. As we exited the plane and entered the terminal, a concert band played patriotic music. Red, white and blue balloons were everywhere, and hundreds of volunteers vigorously greeted us.
At the circular, mostly granite World War II memorial, strangers came up to the vets and shook their hands and thanked them for their service. I emotionally took it all in, focusing my attention on caring for my elderly father.
The entourage visited several other war monuments in the U.S. capital that day, too. Back at the airport, we had left in the morning, the vets received a similar patriotic welcome home. Dad said this experience ranked right behind his 67- year marriage.
With that comment, I was exceedingly glad that I had had the chance to experience that day with my father. I felt honored to have been able to accompany him on his most significant day and glad he had gotten to go. Dad died three months later.
Despite all the hoopla of that day or perhaps because of it, the futility of war became all the more obvious to me and had actually reinforced my nonresistance stance. To a person, the vets with whom I spoke said they hated what they had had to do. I also remembered the words of Jesus, when he said to turn the other cheek and to go the second mile and beyond for your enemy.
For a day I had had one foot on the foundation of God and country, and the other on the teachings of Jesus. The trip with my father was an inspirational reminder of the commitment I had made as a young man to a different way of making peace in a hostile world.
Because of this experience, I had bonded with my father in his time of need, and I greatly respected what my father and the other veterans on the flight had done. And yet, I knew I could not have done what they had, not because of cowardice, but out of conviction.
I had participated in the Honor Flight out of love and respect for my earthly father. I had held fast to my peace convictions out of love and devotion to my father in heaven. In that paradox, I had found no conflict whatsoever.
In August, I emotionally crashed and burned. I thought I had been dealing pretty well with my father’s death late last year. Truth is, I wasn’t dealing with it at all.
Like so many others who have lost loved ones, I kept myself busy, and suppressed any emotions and hurts that spontaneously tried to ooze out at serendipitous times. I denied my suffering perhaps afraid to let myself go. I needed to properly mourn, take care of myself and share with others just how much Dad meant to me.
I thought I had of course. But I was just fooling myself. I know now that what happened to me was inevitable. I was in denial and the resulting consequences finally had caught up to me. I thought I was alone in this internal battle, and had to be strong for our mother and myself.
In his final months and days, Dad had received marvelous care from Hospice of Holmes County, along with the staff at Walnut Hills, the assisted living facility in Walnut Creek, Ohio where he and Mom lived. After his death, I began receiving monthly mailings from Hospice. Most of them had articles and literature on grieving.
Thinking that I was doing just fine, I usually glanced at them and that was it. That information was for others, not me. I was wrong.
The day my emotions hit rock bottom another Hospice mailing arrived. In it was an invitation to attend a special five-week session on grieving. I wasn’t tolerating the depression medicine the doctor had prescribed for me. I decided to stop the meds and start the counseling.
The group was small, which allowed for intimate, personal, confidential sharing. We met once a week for five consecutive Thursdays. I knew most of the handful of people who attended. The lives of rural people tend to intertwine consequentially.
Participants made the two hours each week a priority. We laughed, cried, listened and comforted each other. Our common, profound grief, our tears and smiles bonded us together with measureless compassion.
By the end of the final session, I had a greater appreciation for what others go through, how much people hurt even years after losing a loved one. I was no exception. I learned, though, that hearing the varying situations of others helped see my own issues in a new and realistic perspective.
We learned that grieving is an ongoing process. It takes time and understanding.
Still, I saw healing in my fellow mourners, and I felt healing myself. The last night we met, each of us took turns sharing something significant about our loved ones. Pictures, quilts, special mementos were all passed around.
I showed a slideshow of the Honor Flight trip I took with my father and older brother to Washington, D.C. in September 2009. Honor Flight is a program begun a few years ago to transport as many World War II vets as possible to the memorial in their honor in the nation’s capital.
I served as Dad’s guardian for the day, wheeling him around in his wheelchair. My older brother assisted two more able bodied vets. When asked where that experience fit in his 89 years of living, Dad said it ranked right after his marriage.
Knowing how much the trip meant to Dad, my brother and I were blessed to have been a part of that marvelous experience. In the same way, I was honored to have participated in the bereavement small group. The unconditional love and acceptance I experienced were unforgettable and priceless.
The hugs and handshakes upon parting told me the feelings were mutual.
I normally don’t sleep in, especially until 8:30 a.m. But this morning, I had good reason to do just that.
I had filled the previous day with a tightly packed set of eclectic but necessary events. I had played father, son and holy terror all in the same 24 hours. All of which wore me out enough to sleep like a baby for once.
Ironically, my busy day started earlier than I had planned. I had a fitful sleep that startled me wide-awake at 4 a.m. Consequently, I awoke for my big day tired before it had officially begun. That’s not a good way to start.
Fortunately the evening before I had set out some of the items I needed for a morning presentation. I had also made one of my dreaded “to do” lists with each of the places to be and times to be there. Unfortunately, I lost the list after the first stop.
That really was inconsequential since I had the day’s string of activities etched in my brain. I just hoped that no major unforeseen circumstances would derail my day. None did.
At 9 a.m. I met with the genial senior group from my church that gathers monthly. I had been asked to co-present about the Honor Flight on which I had accompanied my father as his guardian last fall. Another veteran and his guardian shared about their recent, extra-special Honor Flight that HBO had sponsored for World War II veterans from the Pacific campaign.
The emotional sharing went well, and I was off to an 11:15 a.m. doctor’s appointment 15-miles away. I got in and out of there in time to meet my mother for lunch at her assisted living facility.
I enjoyed both the good food and conversation with Mom and the other ladies at her table and then was off to my next appointment. But first I had to play like Superman. Only instead of ducking into a phone booth and donning a cape and leotards, I changed into sweats and a T-shirt in a bathroom for my physical therapy session five miles away.
Careful not to exceed the speed limit too much, I made it just in time and the painful but productive half an hour went by quickly. Next I zipped to the pharmacy to pick up some prescription renewals. I arrived home right on schedule, which allowed me some unexpected down time. In preparation for the evening ahead, I took a catnap, something not on my lost list.
At 4:30, I headed to Cleveland to attend my first ballgame of the season. On the way, I picked up my son and a long-time friend. Thanks to a combination of light traffic and my heavy foot, we were inside the ballpark with time enough to chow down before the first pitch.
The camaraderie among us was marvelous. My son and my friend reconnected, discovering mutual interests and acquaintances. Other than the outcome of the game, it was a most pleasurable evening all around.
However, after dropping them both off, I realized just how exhausted I was as midnight approached. I fended off drowsiness down the homestretch and silently rejoiced when I pulled in the driveway. I finally hit the hay long past my regular bedtime.
I was exceedingly glad I had slept in, but not half as glad as I was for the day’s gracious people and smorgasbord of events that had worn me out.
On the last morning of 2009, the entire year seemed to flash before me as my car spun out of control on the icy road. When the car crunched against the utility pole, I was jolted back into reality.
That minor mishap seemed a microcosm of my 2009. I thought of Dickens’ opening line in his classic “A Tale of Two Cities.” Indeed, “It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.” In many ways, I would like to forget 2009. Instead, I can’t stop remembering it.
Still, with everything that had happened, 2009 is all a whirl to me. Too many times life seemed to abruptly spin out of control last year, much like my car before it hit the pole.
I do know many more good things happened than bad. Our first granddaughter was born, and Maren is as precious as her name. My wife and I enjoyed spring training in Arizona. We cherished our times with friends at our beloved Lakeside, Ohio and continued to refurbish the little cottage that my folks built on Dad’s favorite fishing lake.
Even so, I still lost all sense of time, which is very uncharacteristic of me. I couldn’t remember if an event occurred the previous day or the previous week. That was a direct consequence of dealing with my father’s extended illness and subsequent death. Of course, I joined other family members in reassuring and tending to our mother, too.
Early in the year, Dad and I spent hours on the road and in doctors’ offices, an agonizing journey through the medical maze that led to the dreaded diagnosis that his cancer had returned.
Dad loved history, sports, family, archeology, hunting and fishing. But more than that, he loved sharing those experiences with others, and hearing their stories, too. Dad was a storyteller extraordinaire. As the designated driver on our trips, I was the beneficiary of tales involving many of those subjects.
Dad loved life and went at it like he did everything else, with reckless abandon. Even at his advanced age, he chose to fight back with radiation, and gave it a valiant effort. There was still so much to learn and share, he reasoned.
After he stopped his torturous treatments in early August, Dad seemed a changed man. He accepted his situation with as much dignity as he could muster, yet carried on hovering over Mom and conversing with whomever he could anytime he could. Though he never taught, Dad was the consummate teacher.
Dad set goals. He aimed to participate in the September 12 Honor Flight from Akron, Ohio to Washington, D.C. and back in one day, and he did. In all of his life’s experiences, Dad ranked that day right behind his 67-year marriage to Mom.
Next up was Thanksgiving, and Dad again defied the odds and joined the family assembled around the traditional meal one more time. He loved family gatherings, making those a priority in his life. Christmas was his next objective.
Sadly, Dad died four days before his favorite holiday. But my siblings and I agreed that that if there was an appropriate time for Dad to die, Christmas was it. From Dad’s enthusiastic viewpoint, everyday was Christmas Day.
On December 31, I scrambled out of my car uninjured. I was thankful that 2009 was ending, even if it did so with a crash. Given the events of 2009, I resolved to live everyday in 2010 with hope and thanksgiving. It’s what Dick Stambaugh would expect.
Contact Bruce Stambaugh at email@example.com.
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