Saturday, November 14, 2009

Death, Love, and Duty

Velma Ford was groomed for this. She married a Navy man fresh out of the South Pacific in 1945 and she was prepared for what that meant. Or at least committed based on what she thought it meant. Sixty-four years of doting and serving later, she is just as faithful to him on his deathbed as she was to their marriage bed. The ideal of the 50's housewife stretched beyond a decade and into a way of life for Velma.

Tommy Smith was never an easy man to love. Just ask his children. As was the case with so many men of his generation, Tommy was as impenetrable as the line of defense he had helped to form halfway across the world. One would have to travel much further than Iwo Jima to find the heart he had so diligently buried. Even his grandchildren found him a mysterious creature; one whom you instinctively feared and deeply respected. He had built a small empire out of nothing based on good 'ole American opportunity and a hard Christian work ethic.

Having rejected with horror all the burnt bras of the women's liberation movement and the father-wound feeling Freudian opportunities over the years, Velma and Tommy now reside quietly in the den of their empty home together, survivors of the 20th century. Velma sits uneasily on the couch, half looking through shopping catalogs, half listening to the TBN preachers by whom she is reservedly convinced of her husband's self-inflicted faithless suffering.  Tommy lies contorted in his hospital bed, tubes and all, struggling to breathe, refusing to eat, begrudgingly choosing morphine over bone pain.

I ask her if she needs anything. "No," she says, "the Lord provides at just the right times." The Medicare I voted against pays for everything, even the hospice nurses. Kathy brings groceries and sometimes stays a while so she can go out to have her hair done. She doesn't know if he'll make it to Thanksgiving. She just doesn't understand why he won't eat. Maybe it feels like an affront to the lifestyle she's made out of feeding him for three quarters of a century. "He never was much of an eater," she consoles herself. "He'd rather have a cup of coffee and a cigarette and get on to his work." I remember that to be true. Barely a tear shines through. She has to hold it together. For him; for us; for herself.

When we visit, I tell him I'm here and I love him. He reaches for my hand or chuckles. I help move his small, withered body or I convince him to take a pill by non-verbal emotional blackmail. He's in and out of a room he never leaves. He lets out a half-hearted "oh me," like he's trying to let us know he's in pain without having to admit that it hurts. I think about the last time I tried to ask him something about his life. It was already too late. He proceeded to tell me a story which my dad later compassionately told me was a little less attached to reality than its historian had believed.

As painful and as frustrating as this scenario is, I can't imagine what it would have been like if Tommy and Velma had not been committed to each other though all the ups and downs. I don't remember them ever agreeing about anything, but that didn't matter: anything less than faithful love and dutiful service was simply out of the question. My parents' generation, with all their liberation and their feelings and their self-actualization, probably wouldn't have put up with this kind of self denial in the name of a silly covenant made by young sweethearts in the midst of deep naivete before God and their few witnesses. My parents' generation also won't have nearly as many people to sit with them as they lay dying because all their otherwise allies ended up as casualties in their war against responsibility. Even though we may have disagreed on theology or emotional intimacy or anything else, I'm so grateful for my Grandma and Pop and what they continue to teach me about true love and duty.

I'm going to miss him. I already do.

1 comment:

Jonathan Vowell said...

"My parents' generation also won't have nearly as many people to sit with them as they lay dying because all their otherwise allies ended up as casualties in their war against responsibility."

Brilliant, and excellent writing, my friend.