There are these moments, mundane ones usually, when a harsh truth confronts me. Tonight it came while running cold water over Mama’s wire-rimmed glasses.
“Where are you going with those?” Mama asked, when I walked out of the room carrying her glasses.
“I’m going to wash them. They are dirty,” I replied.
I stood there, in Mama’s bathroom, soaping up the thick lenses, and thinking: The eyeglasses of the dead litter antique stores and second-hand shops all across this nation.
I’ve picked through the eye-wear of the dead in musty shops in Lubbock, Texas and LaGrange, Georgia, and at numerous stops in-between. The older the glasses, the more brittle the wire.
That’s how Mama is feeling lately. She told Sister Tater she just wished all of this would go away. One observer commented, flippantly, that it all will go away soon enough. But Mama meant the cancer, not her life.
What is there to say in such moments, except, “I’m sorry, Mama. I wish you didn’t have to suffer.”
Not that she is suffering in that way of people who are in agony. There are medications to avoid that. But the truth is, Mama has almost always done her best suffering quietly. And I have spent the bulk of my life wishing my mother’s suffering away.
I was in my first year of high school when then Senator George McGovern stood in the Senate Chambers and admonished his peers to bring America’s young men and women home from Vietnam:
“Every Senator in this chamber is partly responsible for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This chamber reeks of blood. Every Senator here is partly responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval and all across our land—young men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces or hopes. There are not very many of these blasted and broken boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk to them about bugging out, or national honor or courage. It does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and their lives and their hopes. And if we do not end this damnable war those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.”
I wish I could have been there that day, standing beside Senator McGovern, applauding him for his courage, and his forthrightness.
It was too late for our family, of course. Daddy had lost every single drop of his blood on a muddy jungle floor of the Ia Drang Valley four years prior. Bringing the troops home, as McGovern urged, wouldn’t have spared our family, but, by golly, it would have saved a lot of other families the fate we knew.
It’s a fate we still live out.
In a million mundane ways.
Mama sat upright in a chair, fighting back the tears that would not be dissuaded.
She has two MRIs scheduled this week and Mama fears them. The thought of being trapped inside a plastic contraption fills her with gasping anxiety. There are drugs for that, too, of course. If there is a benefit to having cancer as your known-cause of death, it is the accessibility of designer drugs suited for whatever ails you. God Bless America.
The Chamber full of Senators did not applaud McGovern’s speech. They only offered him stone-cold silence. One fellow-Senator told McGovern that he was offended by the speech.
Good, McGovern reportedly replied. That’s what I intended.
There are some things worth crying about. I told Mama that as she curled up in her bed, pillows blocking the direct flow of air from the fan she insists on running.
She started sleeping with a box fan running the year Daddy died.
I never knew if it was because we lived in a trailer lacking AC or if it was to shield our ears from the crying she did at night, when she thought she was out of earshot of us kids.
Crying makes my nose stuffy, Mama said, ever the practical one.
Decades after his Senate address, after he lost his bid for president, and after America lost over 58,000 men and women in yet another war waged on behalf of peace, McGovern’s daughter Terry walked out of a bar and into a snowbank in Madison, Wisconsin, and froze to death. She had been drinking.
Some of the people who study these sorts of things say it was McGovern’s anti-war speech that ruined him politically.
But standing before Panel 9E Line 71, which is where I go when I need to talk to my father at eye level, I can’t help but think of how different things might be today if we had gotten our troops out of Vietnam, sooner, the way McGovern urged us to do.
Politicians like to wrap themselves in flags.
Servicemen like my father are just buried under them.
The military gave that flag to my mother. It’s in a triangle box just outside the bedroom where we attend our Mama, trying as we have long sought to do, to find some way to ease her suffering.
They prayed peace for the late Senator McGovern on the radio today.
He’d like that, I’m sure.
I prayed the same thing for my mother tonight.
Placing my hand on her bald head, I asked Jesus to give Mama sweet dreams, free from the anxieties of the living.