Friday, December 16, 2011

Remembering Never Ends

Memories are triggered by almost anything, at any time, even when least expected, and they bring with them so much emotion. Not only the emotion of the time they happened, but all the emotions that are associated since that time, including happiness, love, wonder, nostalgia, longing, and grief.

For us, like so many others who have grieved for loved ones, especially those who have lost a child, the holidays will always hold those memories of the happy days gone by, all we shared, and bring to the fore all we will miss this holiday season. I am trying to keep focused on gratitude that we HAD those wonderful days, those years we enjoyed so much with our sons during the holidays.

Today I was doing some straightening up in my home office and came across something I don't remember even seeing or noticing at the time I received it. It's a pamphlet for parents about the death of a child called, "The Saddest Loss," written by Jane Woods Shoemaker. It was sent to us in a packet by USAA, the company that Leif dealt with for his car loan, vehicle insurance and a checking account, after I notified them of his death.

It's probably just as well that I didn't read it then. I don't know whether I would have been in any condition to really appreciate its message. It won't change anything, but reading it now is like an acknowledgement of all we have been through. I haven't read it fully, but these phrases stood out:

"The death of one's own child is so devastating you may not feel like reading this booklet right away."

Perhaps that's why I didn't. Perhaps that's why I don't even remember seeing it before.

"When a child dies, parents grieve harder and longer than with any other loss."

I can't know whether that is true, as I haven't experienced every other loss, but I do know it is the most devastating thing that has ever happened to us.

"The ties of love and hope that bind parent and child are the most powerful in human relationships."

I've written about the role of our hopes for our children, and the bond between me and Leif, and how I wonder if deep in us somewhere, even our DNA knows of the loss; certainly our bodies and brains respond to the loss in deep and profound ways.

"The suicide of a child leaves parents with so many unanswered questions. It is the most difficult loss to accept."

The questions will always haunt us, as long as we live and are capable of thinking.

The booklet deals forthrightly with the emotions surrounding what to do with your child's possessions, and how parents hold onto their child by keeping possessions. How well I know that feeling . . . and also the sadness that comes from disposing of them, which feels somehow disloyal.

"Memories are the worst and the best aspects of grief."

Yes, and that is the crux of it. We WANT to remember. We WANT to keep our child alive in our hearts and minds, but as the memories come, the grief comes along with the happiness, so many times.

There is a section on "Memorials," ways to memorialize one's child. Here, I have perhaps fallen victim to my own feelings of grief, for she writes, "A memorial should be a celebration of the child's life, not an expression of your grief."

She gives some examples, but my memorial for Leif is this blog, and it cannot be truthful without acknowledging grief. I found that out as I wrote it. If you have followed this blog these three-and-a-half years, you may remember that when I started it, the day we found him, I said I wanted it to be about the "remembering the good times." But it was and is not a biography that progressed in linear order through his life. It is not just a series of stories about him. It is a collection of thoughts, stories, emotions, which all intermingle, just as life does.

Here is a sentence from the last paragraph of the booklet, "Recovering from grief does not mean that you get over the death of your child."

Yes, every parent I've talked to who has suffered the death of their child says this. You never get over it, but you learn to cope. You learn to go on. You learn to handle the occasions the sadness and nostalgia return. You learn to be grateful for the years you had. You learn to treasure every memory and every photo. You learn to be thankful for them.

And you will never, never forget.

Leif will not be with us this holiday season, not in person, not on this earth, but he will be in our hearts.

This photo was taken of Leif in Hawaii in July 1984. He was nine years old. He looks happy, confident, adventurous. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reminders of Leif

Yesterday we went to an event in Tampa. On the way home, Peter remarked that we were passing the way to Leif's apartment. We don't ever pass that point on I-4 without thinking about that, and feeling sad that he isn't there. I asked Peter whether he misses Leif any less and he said no, that there are always reminders, and that we won't have him with us again this Christmas. The years keep passing, but we still miss him.

When I was singing with the German American Chorus at the Lutheran church service in German last Sunday, Pastor Stiller's sermon was about finding the joy in Christmas, and was particularly directed at those who don't have that joy and belief in their lives. Although it was a good acknowledgement of the difficulty some people have being happy during the holidays whether through grief, sadness, depression or loss, and a message of why it is important to be childlike in our faith and joy, it did not create that in me. I still miss Leif and it still hurts. There will always be that sadness in the holidays, the reminders that he isn't with us.

That doesn't mean I don't enjoy Christmas or the preparations for it. As I've written before, there comes a time when joy and sadness coexist. It's an odd mixture and I can cycle from happy anticipation and busy-ness to sadness in seconds.

I was thinking, for instance, about the gifts we are giving, and what we would have given Leif this year, had he been still alive, what foods he would have wanted for the Christmas celebrations, how his towering frame would have filled the door when he came in.

Today, I saw this report of a multi-car crash in Japan, involving eight Ferraris and a Lamborghini. I knew Leif would have had plenty to say about that! He loved those cars and photographed them whenever he saw them. He had a toy model Lamborghini he'd kept since childhood. The photo above is one he took of a Lamborghini Countach at an auto show in Chicago in February 1987. I'll never see an exotic sports car without thinking of Leif.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Leif's thoughts on infantry training and the army

Leif had such divided thoughts about the army and his military service. He was deeply devoted to our country and took very seriously his oath to defend it from all enemies, foreign and domestic. He had a reverence for our Constitution.

He was both enormously proud of his military service and very angry and how he was treated because of his asthma. He had leaders he liked and highly respected (though they are not mentioned in the piece below) and those he hated -- the ones he saw as petty dictators who delighted in humiliating soldiers, particularly his best friend; those he felt were careerists more interested in promotion than in the soldiers in the command.

His view of the army was through the lens of his unit and its operations, a micro view, to be sure, but it gives a window into a soldier's experience. Despite his biting criticism of their training (only being allowed to actually fire their weapons twice a year, for instance) and inefficiency, he was deeply proud of the soldiers with whom he served and continued to identify himself as a member of that infantry brotherhood all his life.

What made him so angry was what he continually saw as the monumental wastes of time, when he and the other soldiers had no more assigned tasks, past the end of the duty day, but were not dismissed to go home and had to just sit in the day room for an hour or hours. He hated the busywork that had them polishing floors rather than training, and with his quick mind and gift for strategy, felt that much of the training was wasteful marching rather than learning useful battle skills.

The piece below was written to his brother on February 8, 2001, in email he sent to me to be forwarded. It came in answer to his brother's thoughts on job satisfaction in the Air Force. Leif had been in the army for three years at that point and was deeply unhappy. It was during the period after he returned from service in Bosnia to find that his marriage was over, his health was ruined, and although he was the best machine gunner in the battalion (and had the awards for it) and could meet the requirements of the army PT (physical training test), he was treated abusively and denied promotion and awards because of his asthma, which made him unable to run as fast as that leader wanted his men to run. He was a deeply unhappy man when he wrote this, but it accurately reflects his feelings at the time. He was medically retired from the army a few months later.

During his service in Bosnia, he was not unhappy and he did feel they had a useful mission, and that things went much better when they did have a clear military mission. However, at that time, he still felt that mission had not been a clear benefit to the citizens of the USA or the world. I don't know whether he felt differently about it over the years. He was proud of that service.

With that background in mind, here are his thoughts from early 2001.

The photo of him was taken sitting on his cot in the first camp he was in when he went to Bosnia. I don't know who took it, but it was another soldier in his unit. The date on the photo is September 13, 1999. He was moved from camp to camp during the Bosnia duty. Because of his pose, I hesitated to post this photo, but it is surely no secret that this gesture is used, and the photo seems to fit the sentiments expressed below.

First off, You Weenie! Oh the horror, no shower for 33 hours! Try 33 days, you wimp.

But otherwise I must say that I can in no way whatsoever relate to what you are talking about. As a member of the line infantry, or nation's first line of defense (against whatever your compadres failed to shoot down or bomb into oblivion), I have seen a lot of operations. Many, if not all, cost the taxpayer a very pretty penny. And I have yet to see or be able to say that they served any purpose other than to provide a nice bullet for some officer's OER*.

Hundreds of thousands, even millions, are spent on our training and deployments but I cannot say that we have done a single thing that truly benefited this nation or made us more prepared for war, at least not in any proportion with the monetary expenditure that said exercises required. 
From my limited experience with the Air force, I wish that they could be commissioned to reorganize/realign the army. In Bosnia we spend over a million dollars a day to operate one camp. And in seven months I could not give you one example of a day that I felt I had made a difference.

Job satisfaction? That is a concept so alien to me that I must recall the days when I was a pizza delivery driver, for I made much more difference in the quality of life of the American citizen by getting that pizza to a hungry customer On Time than I did to the people of the world as a soldier in the United States infantry.

Perhaps it is simply the fact that we exist for the sole purpose of all out war and when no such war exists there is no secondary purpose to which our leadership can divert us. Our training is contrived and artificial. Our days are an endless monotony of wasted time and an apparent inability to deal with the "difficult" tasks of peace time life, a waste that only furthers our contempt for the nature of the army. Strangely, the ineptitude of our organization in peace time does not make me fear for war. In war there is no time for career-minded ambition. No worries about the luster of the floors. No luxury of petty superiority.

When those things leave us and a real challenge arrives, we seem to posses the ability to pull together and work toward the common purposes of victory and survival. However, in time of peace we seem to lose our way and become distracted with such frivolous and meaningless pursuits as would befit a janitor or gardener, not the noble warriors that defend our great nation. Countless dollars are spent on floor wax and training exercises that teach us nothing except how to walk blindly with the confidence of a boxer that has never lost a fight. Our budget allows us to perform multi-million-dollar operations that teach us nothing and then deny us the opportunity to fire our rifles more than twice a year.

The sort of efficiency you described is simply impossible in the army. Even a rapid deployment force would take days just to prep and plan for such an operation. Our army is sick. No one on the outside can see its ailments for we proud men hide our flaws andshield our egos from the light of day. And like a proud man our army will not seek adoctor's care.

Only when it collapses will an outsider see how it has deteriorated. Only then, in our darkest hour, when this 'machine' of incompetence and misdirection has broken down will we be able to start again and build the army of tomorrow. Until then our only satisfaction will lie in the fact that no matter how flawed or pointless the endeavors that may fill the interlude between wars, we few men and women of the United States Army volunteered to defend this great nation against all enemies foreign and domestic should she ever need to call on us.

*OER = Officer Efficiency Report (job evaluation for promotion purposes)