Memorial Day has come a lot closer to me this year. I will shed some tears on Monday, a day we remember and honor those who died in service to our country. But what about those who die later as a result of their service? Like Neil.
I helped Neil get his book Brothers, All put together and published. He was writing individual essays about his service in Vietnam—the funny things, the foolery of young boys, the hard stuff, the loss, and the fighting. Then he was diagnosed with lung cancer. We didn’t know how much time we had.
This was a big deal for me. My dad was a WWII veteran, and so was my mother, but over the last fifteen years, getting to know Neil, who volunteered early in the Vietnam War and observing his patriotism with no regrets and a conviction that he would do it all again, changed me. At the time he served, I was going to senior prom and being elected class favorite and going to senior parties with my friends and boyfriend and starting college—innocent, immature, and safe. He and other boys like him were off on the other side of the world, instantly becoming men with that first indoctrination to war.
I can’t explain the feeling I had when I read Neil’s chapter about Agent Orange, a powerful chemical defoliant used by the US military to clear the jungles and expose the enemy. Neil didn’t mention the chemical’s name in the text, but I knew, and I also knew that he consumed the chemical in every way that one can receive a substance into the body—through the skin, the mouth (drinking), the eyes (open under water), and the lungs by inhaling. Agent Orange is known to cause lung cancer.
“The next morning we had our orders to push on twenty clicks to the east, where Intelligence said there was likely VC troop movement. I started out as point and noticed after a ways, the going was somewhat easier. The jungle was as dense as ever, but some of the leaves were lying in the dirt, the rest bent and drooping, like a slow motion death bow before us as we passed. I still slashed at it with my machete and crawled on top of the withered greens.
I didn’t pay that much attention to it until Preacher, behind me, said he saw it, too. “Even in the dry season, I’ve never seen the jungle fold up and quit, and it kind of looks that way, doesn’t it?”
Preacher was on point and passed the word back that there was a small creek ahead that would be good for canteen filling and baths. We secured the area and in turn went to the water four at a time. I was in the first group. We gathered all the canteens. None had names on them, but it didn’t matter. Drinking after each other was not a worry, considering the other things we endured. I put the wire screen in the mouth of the first canteen to keep out the big stuff. Then I held it under, sideways, with half the opening above the water and watched it suck in its fill. I capped the canteen and tossed it in the full pile.
After the last canteen was filled, I stripped and sat down in the knee-deep creek, careful to be within a few feet of my rifle on the bank. With a cupped hand, I scooped the water and sloshed it on my face several times, then lay back and put my head under. I opened my eyes and looked up at the sunlight that danced silver lines on the water. Quiet, it was totally quiet. Nice to have quiet. Then I splashed up, and the first thing I saw was the contrast of the orange Dial soap I held in my hand against the green growth that surrounded me. I rubbed the Dial on my body, as foamy as I could, then I washed hard all over.”
Thus was Neil’s exposure to the chemical that would take him down fifty years later. The enemy planted itself, lurked, and waited, then ambushed, was surgically removed and chemically attacked and burned, only to return again and again and again, on a mission and determined to win.
“It is the cancer coming back and building in me that I can’t get away from. I figure this hole will be my grave.”
And it was.
Neil died January 31, 2017. That last day I sat with him and counted time between his breaths: One Mississippi Two Mississippi Three Mississippi Four Mississippi, as the morphine drip silently flowed and his beloveds and his writers group sat in wait. The experience of being immersed in the stories of this book and with this man who ultimately sacrificed all because of service to his country has taught me what it’s like to be a “brother” and what this special day means.
It’s not a holiday to start summer. It’s a day to remember those who don’t take breaths anymore because they did once, and once they carried a gun and crawled through jungles or across beaches and were fired upon, sometimes by a visible, sometimes not visible, enemy.
This year, remember a veteran. If you don’t have one to remember, think of Neil. His book lives on to help veterans; all proceeds go to veterans in Maury County, Tennessee.
Irises have rich historical meanings, and when given as gifts, they convey deep sentiments: hope, faith, wisdom, and courage. The flower takes its name from the Greek word for “rainbow.” Another Greek word, “eiris,” means “messenger.” The Greek Goddess Iris acted as the link between heaven and earth. She delivered messages for the gods and from the Underworld and traveled along rainbows as she moved between heaven and earth. Purple irises were planted over the graves of women to summon the Goddess to escort the dead on their journey upward into the afterlife.
I like to think this is symbolic and that the flower also inspires us with courage to rise up and reach out above our darkest times into growth and newness of life.
The purple iris also denotes royalty. During the Middle Ages, the purple iris was linked to the French monarchy, and the Fleur-de-lis design, inspired by the flower, eventually became the recognized national symbol of France.
The iris is also the state flower of Tennessee.
I have iris rhizomes from friends in Tennessee, from my grandmother’s farm in Mississippi, from William Faulkner’s house, Rowan Oak, (white cemetery iris) in Oxford, Mississippi. I dug up some irises from my old house in Fieldstone Farms and brought them to this new house on the hill. They fill in my landscape with their showy spikes and their flowing, silky, spring colors. I am surrounded by hope and faith. By wisdom. And courage.
The iris provides the perfect cover image for Editor Susan Cushman’s anthology, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We Are Meant to Be. My essay, “Pushing Up the Sun,” is included in this new book, released in March 2017. The flower is soft, delicate, in a silky, flowing design—feminine. But you better believe she is hardy, and no matter what she faces, whether being pounded by snow, rain, or hail, being slept upon by rabbits or stepped on by children or mowed down by a careless landscaper, she comes back. And she comes back bigger and stronger. Every year, those spikes strengthen and rise up and reach high, producing wrapped blooms that grow tall and open into flowers, repeating in second bloomings, and more.
What a perfect gift of hope and faith and wisdom and courage for Mother’s Day! And a book signing for this anthology will be held at Barnes and Noble Cool Springs in Brentwood, Tennessee, the day before. May 13, 1:00. I welcome you to come! Susan Cushman, editor, will be there. River Jordan, local author and contributor, will join us.
And a big shout out to Barnes and Noble — the best book store a local author could hope for!
I’ve only been kayaking once this summer, on the Duck River south of me. Maybe I can get in another adventure or two before winter. I don’t think about being on the river without being reminded of one expedition with my son Cory and his girlfriend Leah when the river was completely blocked. Below is part of a chapter from my book Remember the Dragonflies: A Memoir of Grief and Healing.
Eleven months after the Nashville area thousand-year flood of 2010, we took our boats out on the Harpeth River in Franklin for a short ride. We put in at the Rec Center, and we’d take out at Cotton Lane, which was in my neighborhood. The Rec Center put in was steep—stairs that went straight down—and I didn’t like it one bit. The river water was high that day, though, so it was easier to get in the boat.
Cory held my kayak while I stepped in. I had to turn circles and work to keep my boat stationary while he and Leah put in. We paddled, took pictures, watched birds, practiced skills, and fussed about all the garbage in the water. The Harpeth was trashy before the flood, but afterward, it was filled with junk—an old rusty car, plastic chairs, tires, plastic bottles and tin cans, and natural debris like fallen trees and somebody’s cornfield that got washed away.
We moved downstream in the twisting, coffee-colored flow, by the bridge on Hillsboro Road, and then through the southern part of Fieldstone Farms, my neighborhood of two thousand homes. I’d been looking at houses to buy and would’ve liked one that backed up to the river. I could go out in my back yard and put the kayak in. But that dream ended after the Flood of 2010. Those houses were filled with river water, and I’d never trust living there.
We were nearing our take out, and I kept looking ahead for the bridge off Cotton Lane. We’d get out just before the bridge and carry the boats up the embankment. If we missed it, we’d have to . . . paddle backward.
Then I saw something ahead. A strainer? A big strainer.
“Strai-ner!” I liked shouting it out to show that I knew the word. “Look at the debris way ahead,” I said. I kept trying to see an opening that we could paddle through. “Is it . . . blocking the river?”
I saw Cory’s eyes look left, then right, and his eyebrows tightened.
“You stay here,” he said. “Keep your boat way back here. Paddle in circles, paddle backwards. Don’t get anywhere near that. We’ll go check it out.”
They paddled to the left bank, then across the river, which was moving faster up there and making a whooshing sound, over to the right bank, then back toward me.
“It’s blocked. There’s no way through,” Cory said. Leah nodded.
“What do we do now?”
“We’ll have to take out here, climb this bank, walk around the blockage, and put in on the other side. We’re almost to Cotton Lane, so it will be a short run.”
I looked at the embankment. A dirt wall. Straight up. Maybe twenty feet. Or thirty.
“I don’t think I can get my boat up that cliff.”
“Leah and I will get all the kayaks up, then I’ll come back down and help you.”
“I’ll be fine. You worry about the boats. I’ll get up by myself.”
They took me up on it. What had I gotten myself into?
We scrambled for the boulder-lined water’s edge. I was last to get my kayak nosed in between rocks so I could get out. I stood and put one foot out on a slippery rock and tried to keep standing without sliding. I had one foot still in the boat, and the boat started moving downstream. I was doing the splits, and I tightened every muscle in my thighs to keep my legs from moving further apart and to hold my boat. Cory reached for me and grabbed my kayak.
I watched as they climbed, Cory with two boats, and Leah with hers. He got to the top, threw the boats up, and pulled her up. It was a difficult climb, even for the younger ones.
Then it was my turn. I could see the two disappearing into the woods with the boats.
“Y’all don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine,” I yelled after them. They didn’t seem to be worried.
I started scaling the dirt-mud cliff. I pushed a Chaco sandal into the earth and clawed into the dirt with my fingers. There was a clump of weeds, and I grabbed hold. The plant began coming out of the earth. I had to pull at one plant, then grab another. There were no saplings or sturdier plants to use in my climb. I got halfway up and looked back down at the stones below and the water moving fast. I looked up at the top of the hill, and there was a contemporary house nestled under trees not far from me. It had walls of windows. I imagined someone inside looking out at this poor, crazy woman struggling up the straight side of the cliff, fearful of her being dashed onto the boulders below, and wondering if they should call 9-1-1. I wished they would.
I began to fail myself, thinking I needed a rescue squad to come pull me out. I was unsure about going higher. I looked back down at the water moving fast over the jagged rocks. I knew I had to do it. There was no other way out. I took a deep breath, took on new strength, and pushed myself upward, grunting with each foothold. I grabbed onto any little green thing growing out of the mud wall, watching and groaning in fear of the earth releasing it.
Then Cory was there at the top.
“Come on, Mama!”
I sank back into weakness. “I can’t do this!”
“Yes you can. You’ve got to.”
I could feel my face hot and red, I dug my feet in, tightened my leg muscles, I pulled at the clumps of green, and got to where he could reach me. He held down a hand.
I reached up, and he pulled me to the solid surface, and I clawed into the dried grasses on top to secure myself. I made it, and as I lay there on my stomach, arms outstretched, I wanted to cry from the emotion of it all.
Needless to say, it wasn’t a peaceful run. We were spent, strained, hot, sore, and hurting, and we still had to put in and take out again.
I would realize later how much like grief this little outing was.
I was moving along gently down life’s way, following the peaceful sounds of the river and tracking through the choppier places, gliding over riffles, runs, and pools, and suddenly, there was a strainer. The water could move on through it, and I couldn’t. I was knocked out of the flow.
I was at the bottom of a ravine looking for a way out.
I couldn’t get out of this without hard effort, without clawing the dirt walls and getting mud under my fingernails and grunting and groaning and yelling out in pain and agony and pulling myself up bit by bit—pulling and climbing and sliding back some—until the dirt was smeared all over me, and I clung to weeds with shallow roots and tugged some more and waited for those fragile stalks to give way and drop me down again because I didn’t know if I could make it out. But I kept trying, I kept looking at the top, and I saw a hand reaching down for me.
A hand. Reaching down. For me.
Things that get in us when we’re children stay with us. We might not understand. We might just feel fear, insecurity, uncertainty, and dwell on our perceptions. That’s the way it was with me. Whatever was going on in the U.S. when I was ten, eleven, twelve, and thirteen got in me and never let go. I feared the H-bomb. There was an overwhelming fear that nuclear war would break out between the United States and Russia in the late 50s and early 60s. We even had bomb drills in school. People built and stocked bomb shelters. It didn’t help in 1960 to see Nikita Khrushchev on TV banging his shoe on the podium. He said, “We will bury you!”
How does a little girl sleep at night? I remember leaning on my window sill after bedtime, looking up at stars in the black sky and smelling the honeysuckle on the back fence and wondering what was out there and what if it came down on me and my little town.
I remember visiting one set of grandparents in the city of Cincinnati and looking up beyond tall buildings and worrying that a bomb would hit at any time. After all, it was a city, and cities were targets. I remember visiting the other set of grandparents on a farm in the Mississippi Hill Country. At the edge of the woods was a gully, deep, thirty feet, maybe forty. A natural spring came out of the ground at the bottom and ran in a gentle stream the length of the land. The red clay cliff walls deterred any climbing down to the bottom, but I could walk into the gully via the stream bed. One summer day I did just that and pulled myself up to a protrusion in the wall and sat for a while thinking. I looked up at the sunshine filtering through ancient trees at the top. No one could ever find me here. I vowed to come to the gully when it happened — end times, the bomb, the apocalypse, the burning of Babylon, the crash and failure of society. After all, everyone needs a plan.
I wonder now if I passed on my fear of end times to my own children. When they were little, we had our own secret code word that reflected catastrophe. I won’t say what it was, because it still is our code word.
Just yesterday as I told one son I was preparing to buy a new car, he said, “Good, make sure you have a sleeping bag, a tent, and some survival supplies in the cargo area, and you can head this way [North Carolina] when the time comes.” (Actually, I do have two survival bins of supplies in the garage next to the back of my car, ready to load in an emergency.) Just yesterday I sent the other son a text message and in the middle of it, that code word happened to appear. “Are you trying to tell me something?” he replied. No, I wasn’t. The apples don’t fall too far from the tree.
I’m thinking about all this now because the other day I found an old book that my husband bought in September 1969, so written on the inside cover. Alas, Babylon is the title. It’s a novel published in 1959 about nuclear war with Russia–the dropping of the bomb–and the end of the world. I read this book when I was child, maybe twelve, and it made an impact on me, not only because the subject matter was what it was, but also because it was really an adult book with adult language and situations, and my mother let me read it. One summer week I lay on top of the picnic table in the back yard under the pecan tree, sap dripping on me, and read about Randy in the fictional town of Fort Repose, Florida, near McCoy Air Force Base, who got the warning of doom from his Strategic Air Command brother Mark and experienced the bomb and the rebuilding of life after.
I guess I never got over the Cold War fears of the 50s and early 60s. By the mid-60s, though, Kennedy had been assassinated, Vietnam was on the world news every night on TV, and the bombs and fires and fiery actions of the civil rights movement were on the local news. And a girl tends to push back the H-bomb when all that is happening.
Now I return to read Alas, Babylon. The original version in paperback — the complete text of the original hardcover edition, not one word omitted. My sons read the book in high school as required reading, but it was a cleaned-up, dumbed-down version. This is the real sixty-cent deal.
The words on the back cover still apply today to whatever “bomb situation” comes up:
THE DAY AFTER THE BOMB DROPPED the thousands of years of “progress” that had covered the treacheries and weaknesses of ordinary man with a thin veneer of civilization were dissolved and melted like snow on the desert’s dusty face.
All this makes me want to say: Please, America, for the sake of little girls and boys everywhere, let’s work together and do this thing right. Let’s give and take, let’s don’t push for radical extremes, let’s don’t fight for our own ONE way, let’s be tolerant of others. Let’s work together for the good of all. Let’s keep “progress” and keep it going.
Remember the Dragonflies: A Memoir of Grief and Healing is now available. To order, click the icon:
Or…you may order a signed copy from me. Or you may order from amazon.com or barnesandnoble.com or have your favorite bookseller order it for you.
This is why I’ve got rotator cuff issues and impingement and bursitis and eight weeks of physical therapy.
From Resting Place: A Memoir of Grief and Healing:
“July 29, 2012
The back yard was stone-solid sienna clay when I bought this house in December, seven months ago. Fescue seeds had been scattered on top of it and covered with straw. Spring rains wet the clay and pounded the straw into it to mesh as part of the earth’s hardscape, and now the summer sun has baked it. Pottery, that’s what it is.”
In one year, I made this out of that: