Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day, 2013

Time, it appears, flies whether you’re having a good time, and the past year hasn’t been all that much of a good time.

Last year, on this day, I see that I was posting rather a lot about my husband’s recovery from cancer surgery, and rather a little about Memorial Day.

This year, I’ll try to equal the balance out a bit.

On the cancer seat on the teeter-totter, after eight months of living cancer free, we found out in February that my husband’s cancer has recurred, and we’re now in “treatable, not curable” mode. So Jim’s been going through chemo, and tomorrow we find out whether it’s working, Needless to say, we are on pins, we are on needles.

Just as last year, I was mastering the care and feeding of Jim’s post-surgical feeding tube, this year it’s the less complex but far scarier chemo pump.

Was I the last person in the world to learn that some chemo regimens are on a take-out basis?

Jim’s first blast is given in the hospital, then they bag him up for drug #2 with a portable pump, carried in a rather fetching man-purse. After it runs for 46 hours, you can have “it” – the needle, the line – removed back at the hospital, or have your caregiver take care of it at home.

Although we are less than a 10 minute walk from the hospital, we have elected for the home take down, which involves scrubbing up, donning surgical gloves, capping a line, syringing the tube with saline solution and heparin, and, finally, removing the needle from the port.

Then there’s the disposal.

The pump, lines, and gloves are double-bagged and FedExed off to some processing center in Michigan. The non-lethal “stuff” – like the plastic syringes that contained the saline and the heparin – can be tossed in the trash. And the needle and the part of the line that trails it are placed in your own personal sharps jar – ours is an old spaghetti sauce container. When it’s full – another round or so – I can bring it back to MGH for them to get rid of.

The first time I went through this process, I was plenty nervous, imagining a line gone wild spurting chemo all over the place. (They do send you home with supplies and instructions for what to do if that happens.) My nervousness was not alleviated any by my husband asking whether I was clamping the line in the right place, whether I was syringing in the right order, etc. The capstone of his arm-chair quarterbacking was when, observing what can only be described as a flop-sweat – sweat was literally dripping off my nose - he said, “You seemed so confident when they showed you in the hospital.” Thanks, hon, that sure helps…

But, now that we’re into it, things run pretty smoothly.

And if this is the worst thing I ever have to deal with, well…

It’s not exactly the horrors of war and those who face them down, who are the folks that we memorialize today.

It promises to be a brilliant spring day here in Boston, but as I right this it’s cold, dreary, drizzling – not atypical spring weather in these parts, and actually pretty fitting, when you think of it.

Sure, war is sometimes conducted on delightfully balmy days. But as often as not, those in battle are coping with terrible physical conditions.

It’s frostbitten feet at Valley Forge. It’s contending with the heat at the Battle of the Wilderness.  Muck in the trenches of Château-Thierry. Rappelling up the cliff at Pointe du Hoc during a pelting rainstorm. The cold and ice at Choisin Reservoir. Monsoon season in Vietnam. Sandstorms in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And that’s in addition to having the other guy trying to kill you, while you’re trying to kill the other guy. Having to crawl over the body parts. Watching your buddies buy the farm. Praying that you’ll make it out alive (or for the million dollar wound).

An altogether crappy way to live (and die).

Of course, most of those in the military never see combat.

Fortunately, most of the time there isn’t a war on.

And even if there is a war on, only about 10% of those who serve will ever see combat.

My father’s war-time experience was surely not atypical.

Although it would have taken a while for Uncle Sam to get him – he was 29 when WWII started, and he was working in a wire factory engaged in war-work – my father volunteered.

He tried the Army, but they wouldn’t have him: flat feet. Can’t march, so no good in the the infantry.

But the Navy wasn’t so fussy, so my father was inducted.

One of the first things they did was give the new recruits an IQ test.

My father scored pretty high, and although he wasn’t a college graduate – he was going through college, course at a time, via night school – he was told that he was smart enough to become an officer.

Because my father was smart enough to become an officer, he declined the offer.

I think it was mostly because he didn’t like the officers he’d met, WASP-y Southern boys who were never going to be especially fond of a wise-guy Irish fellow from Massachusetts.

So my father ended up a Chief Petty Officer (the highest level of non-com, which was fine with him).

He was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. In Trinidad, when that was going to be staging center for a big invasion of Africa that never quite came off. And in downtown Chicago, at Navy Pier.

Not exactly the horrors of war. (Unless you count four years out of your life…)

The only time my father’s life was in jeopardy was on the ship going to and from Trinidad, where there was risk of being sunk by a U-Boat.

Still, as my father would say, you went where Uncle Sam sent you, so Norfolk, Trinidad, and Chicago it was.

Up until the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, he thought that he might end up being shipped out to the Pacific theatre. So he and my mother, whom he’d met while stationed in downtown Chicago, waited to become engaged until after that first bomb was dropped, and they knew with certainty that the war would be over soon.

So my father never got to be a big brave combat veteran.

There’s no doubt in my mind that, given the chance, he would have been.  (And there’s no doubt in my mind that anyone who knew my father would disagree with this. He was tough, physical, charismatic, and courageous. He was also not stupid, so he wasn’t raising his hand asking to be sent into combat, But if he had been, he would have done good.)

But plenty others out there have been in combat, and today we think of them. Mostly young men, with what should have been their lives before them. Then gone, often, quite troublingly, for a not particularly good reason.

I’m not the biggest John Kerry fan on the face of the earth, but he had it right when he said:

How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

But we continue to do so, and that has nothing to do with the bravery of those who serve or the respect we should pay to those who are killed and wounded.

I’m not one who believes that everyone in the military is an automatic hero. Even those who have died. Far from it. But I do believe that, in an all volunteer military, one wouldn’t go in to begin with unless they had at least some small measure of bravery, love of country, and willingness to put his (or, increasingly her) life on the line.

So, on this Memorial Day, I salute those who’ve died in time of war, especially the 33,000 from Massachusetts Flags - 2013who’ve been killed in battle since the Civil War. Each year, for the last several years, a group has placed flags on the Boston Common commemorating their sacrifice. This picture does not do it justice, but it’s really something to see. That’s an awful lot of flags, especially when you consider that each one is attached to an awfully young life.

I was going to end with “Happy Memorial Day,” but can Memorial Day ever be really and truly happy? Sure, it’s the start of summer, and a long weekend, and there’s baseball being played at Fenway. Still, if we think about it at all…

So instead I’ll end with – to all those who’ve died while serving our country, to those who are “in” now: I’ll be thinking of you.  (You, too, Dad, even if you never saw a day of combat.)

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