The last time I was in a church, it was for my Uncle’s funeral and I was (perhaps mistakenly) trying to make a point about ambivalence. He was one of those men that went to WWII and came back hopelessly fucked. His children remembered a capricious tyrant. His in-laws remembered a man that threw my beloved Aunt down the stairs when she was in her sixties. Even I remember a man in the mental institution after a suicide attempt.
It was the summer I turned 13. The parental units decided I was to be carted off to spend the summer with my Aunt. I didn’t know much about it, but Norma was going to teach me how to sew and that seemed like a good plan. We stayed up until midnight, had odd snacks before we went to bed, and we made malted mint chocolate milkshakes that I drank by the gallon. And we went to the mental institution where my Uncle sat in a high-backed chair behind a magnetic-lock door that buzzed when they let us through. He’d tried to commit suicide with a gun he’d taken off of a SS soldier that he’d killed in Germany. I was Norma’s distraction. Her something to do in a summer that didn’t have teaching duties or her own grown children.
But as I stood at the front of the church in a grey dress with a voice that sounded weird coming back at me from the microphone and a decided quiver, no notes, I wanted to make a point about a man who had to carry a burden of memory that not many people have to lug around. He was at Dachau when it was liberated. He saw the atrocities. No, he smelled the atrocities. I suspect the smell is harder to live with than the sight. He went from being a fifteen year old adopted kid with a propensity toward being bipolar and OCD to a sixteen year old killer in the Battle of the Bulge. He knew how hot fresh blood is, and his first kill sent him to his knees, retching.
There was more between his sixteenth birthday in battle and the redrafting as a conscientious objector in Korea.
Of course there was Dachau. The SS guards that had the running of the place had vacated a couple of days before the American’s arrived and left the camp in the care of regular soldiers who had less culpability on the grand continuum of culpability. He talked about being so angry. They chased any soldier that ran and killed him. He talked about chasing an officer through a farm and unloading more bullets into the man than was strictly necessary.
He also talked about stopping a fellow American soldier from forcing an old German hause-frau into a blow job. He talked about digging out latrines.
The much-glorified WWII, and it was gruesome, brutal, dehumanizing… words are really kind of stupid when there’s the smell to contend with.
Maybe it’s easy to have compassion when you aren’t the one that has to live with it. When you aren’t the son or daughter looking at the train wreck of a childhood and all the ways that it could have been other than what it was. PTSD is a lot harder up close and personal than it is when it comes on the news. And maybe my Uncle should have been a better human. I’ll give you all of that.
But trying to speak at his funeral, what I wanted everyone to understand was that we made him what he was. A collective burden for a hundred small decisions about who we vote for and what we buy and what we tolerate and all of our minuscule cowardices. His failures as a father and a husband were the currency we spent for defeating Hitler, and we spend more of the same every day in Afghanistan and anywhere else we get involved or don’t get involved. I’m not saying that we should do nothing. I’m not saying it wasn’t worth defeating Hitler. I’m saying that my uncle’s ability to be a good father and husband was the price we all paid for it. And the price for him was even bigger.
And the tragic romantic in me finds it impossible to condemn him for the fractures in his character. Any bone will break under that kind of a burden. He got through it. He tried. He lived. Yes, with a psychological handicap, but he still lived. He carried the smell with him to the grave. And I have a huge level of respect for my Aunt who stayed. I’m sure she wasn’t an easy mother to have. I’m sure there was little good about their collective experience as a family. It cost her too, this staying business. I don’t know if it was love or sheer orneriness – it runs in the family, orneriness – but she stayed. He was never a homeless vet and that’s not thanks to the VA or the American Legion, it’s because she held it together while he fell apart.
I don’t romanticize their union. I don’t romanticize any of it. I’ve never been thrown down the stairs; I have no idea what it is to live with physical abuse.
All I know that these truths are equal: No one should have to live with abuse. No one should have to dream of Dachau and wake up alone. And however you live between those two truths is bound to be ugly and imperfect.
All I know is that I have a huge respect for my Aunt Norma for staying, and immeasurable compassion for my Uncle Roland for living with things that are too big for one person and yet still must be carried alone.
Somehow, I think my funeral address (given almost seven years ago now) failed to get that across.