I’ve experienced the loss of several people I’d consider close friends or relatives. The first was Don Henry, killed in action in August 1970. Don and I were stationed together fresh out of flight school at Hamilton AFB in 1968. We shared an apartment the last six months or so before we shipped out to the combat crew training pipeline. I remember being in the squadron office in Thailand when the news came through that his helicopter had been shot down. I was left with a hole in my heart that was only partially healed by multiple visits to The Wall. I saw Don’s face turning corners for years after coming back, and there are seven more friends of mine honored on the black granite.
Losing Red Haven, my mother and Grandfather Olson within a space of three years starting in 1980 did not bring the same sense of loss. Grandfather Olson speaks to me occasionally. How do I know? He is the only one who calls me “Lanny.”
Dad’s health and surgery are having a tremendous effect on my life. What is the difference?
First, sobriety. In the 1980’s I was able to drown my feelings in a bottle. I now have 21 plus years without alcohol. And, more than that, 21 plus years of emotional and spiritual growth, most of it in the past ten years. I remain grateful for the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous for the scaffolding that has supported this process (and I am still member). I have developed a practice of mindfulness in Buddhism and the Tao and am now better able to examine my thoughts and emotions and decide which to follow and which to let go. I am now aware of my thoughts rather than being driven by them.
Not totally, however. My PTSD has shown me that thoughts and emotions can appear out of the blue. Often their strength and surprise brings on anger and tears. I have to seek the help of others to remind me that the state I’m in is temporary. In January 1991 I didn’t know about the anger and flashbacks and sought help from the VA. Iraq 2003 didn’t have quite the same effect. I now have both a grounding in spiritual practice and the experience of powerful emotions. Add sobriety, and I now have a clarity of body, mind and spirit to feel them.
Dad and I have been able to establish an adult-adult relationship over the past few years, and I give him due credit for his part in this blessing. He has been the patriarch of the family for quite some time, and I find myself being able to help him now through a very stressful time of his life. Sitting in the exam room while the physician gives him the news of his condition has been difficult. This is a set of two experiences I’ve not hard before. One is the actual office visit and the news. That’s hard enough because I am my father’s son. I look at his face and see me. I feel his confusion and fear. The other experience is being asked to walk with him during this segment of his journey. I feel so honored.