Memory has nothing to do with age; I couldn’t remember anything while in my prime—whenever that was. As a remedy, I’ve always kept lists and worked to stay organized enough to find them. A magnetic calendar on my refrigerator shows the dates of my kids’ school events and games. My phone alerts me of appointments and a colorful notepad tells me which exercise routine I’ll subject myself to each day. And if I don’t write “shaving cream” on my shopping list the minute I run out, my legs’ll stay hairy for another week.
Despite this effort, unexpected things throw me off my A-game. (Though I wonder when I’m ever on my A-game.) Filled with sporting events, the upcoming seven days harken back to “Hell Week” in college. Only instead of finals, we’ll drive to random ballfields hours away—youngsters screeching in their carseats—where we’ll sit on ass-numbing bleachers in subtropic heat, youngsters still screeching, but—being unrestrained from their carseats—now trying to join the softball game already in progress.
While I plot events on our calendar like a general mapping battle strategies, my husband embarks on his own expedition of remembering. Shortly before his father died, Jason and his mother had begun the process of applying for a Purple Heart. My father-in-law was injured during combat in Vietnam, but had not received the medal, though there is significant evidence he had earned it through acts of valor. Unfortunately, our state officials were preoccupied with their never-ending debates regarding Roe v. Wade and gay marriage, so they couldn’t find space on their agenda for one dying veteran. Now, over six months after his death, my husband is still toiling to see his father properly honored.
In addition to his job as acting editor of our little hometown newspaper, Jason is head coach of our youngest son’s T-ball team. I am his “assistant,” but I can’t pitch worth a damn. And, regardless of the name of the sport, these kids are expected to come out of the birth canal able to hit any ball pitched in their general direction. The use of the tee is often viewed as a failure on the part of the pitcher, and I draw the ire of parents whenever I’m forced to stand in for my husband.
So, of course, this busy week is also when the remaining members of my father-in law’s platoon will to travel to Tennessee for one final gathering. They are all aging, far from their teenage selves that travelled across the ocean—most had never flown before they enlisted or were drafted—to fight in the most unpopular war in our country’s history (though our current ongoing conflicts are beginning to give the Vietnam War some serious competition for that status). They have all been touched by Agent Orange, the gift that keeps on giving cancer to these men and their offspring—my brother-in-law died from a very rare form just five years prior to his father. This is the last time these men will be in the same room together, and Jason will be there to gather stories about his father, Wesley, their Pointman, before their memories can die with them.
I struggle with Jason’s departure. I struggle with the entire task of remembrance. Whereas Jason heard little from his father—the man drank to forget what had happened—my own shared much too much. While Jason seeks to learn all he can about his father’s experiences, I wish to leave the past in the grave, where it belongs. My memories of Vietnam, though not my own, are tangled and tied to the man who abused me. I don’t blame the jungle for his actions, but I could feel the vines tighten around him as he wrapped that leather belt around his fist. In short, there is no way I can accompany my husband on this journey.
My memories of Vietnam, though not my own, are tangled and tied to the man who abused me. I don’t blame the jungle for his actions, but I could feel the vines tighten around him as he wrapped that leather belt around his fist.
I’ve found reasons to yell at him to make my decision easier. But what kind of wife gets angry with her husband for trying to learn about his father? A sampling of my ridiculousness: You know I can’t pitch. Those parents are going to ridicule me. And, There was a goddamn sock on the floor after your shower and you left the bathroom light on again! Then, How could you leave when the litter box needs cleaned?
He had to explain to me: this trip isn’t just about the Purple Heart. When we met in grad school, Jason had begun work on a nonfiction book about inheritance as it applies to the effects of war—PTSD and cancer. I had forgotten. He hasn’t worked on it since. With five kids and all the work he does for the newspaper, he hasn’t had time. But the death of his father relit the fuse, and he wants to get back to it before it is extinguished once again by time and distraction. I ended up looking like an unsupportive ass.
Because I was an unsupportive ass.
You see, I recently bought a new planner. I unboxed it and placed it on the table next to my spot on the couch, and then returned to the next task on my list. Jasmine, my two-year-old daughter, found the planner—and a pen—and filled the days with scribbles and scratches. She brought it to show me: “See?” And in that moment of her typical toddler behavior, I saw that she’d drawn an accurate depiction of the circuitry of my brain, the chaos of my thoughts.
But there is still hope. In this confusion, along with my fallible memory, there lies an occasional chance to create something truly indelible. A Pushcart-nominated poem sewn together from the decomposing remains of bad poems. A story about a girl that saves another child’s life and loses a bit of her own fear. An as-yet unwritten book that’ll speak the truth so clearly, it’ll stop the breath in your lungs. The kind of book you’ll never forget. And someday it’ll overtake Katy Perry’s literary oeuvre for a Pulitzer. Or, at the very least, make the bestseller list.