Even if your hands are shakin’
And your faith is broken
Even as the eyes are closin’
Do it with a heart wide open
Say what you need to say
Say what you need to say
John Mayer “Say” 2007
I smiled when I read George Wagner’s obituary earlier this year, reflecting on a life well lived … and something more.
George had been a P39 fighter pilot in World War II, completing 225 missions against the Japanese in the Pacific without a single bullet hole in his plane. He had been a successful businessman with a Cadillac dealership that bore his name. He was well known and respected in the community. By all accounts, he was a fine man.
I never met him. Our relationship was more of a “third person” encounter. I once scribbled a note to him, and he returned the favor by writing a personal note tucked into the book “Born to be a Fighter,” a memoir about his life. You see, George collaborated with former Religion Editor Laurie Davies to tell his story. She interviewed him, wrote up his story, prepared the manuscript … and asked me to be her editor.
Laurie is a clean writer, and George’s book didn’t need a lot of editing. I just helped her smooth out some rough spots and clear up a couple of references to the war.
I finished the editing job on the evening of Oct. 27, 2001.
I know because that’s the night I lost my dad. He died of a heart attack during a family gathering in Oklahoma. My wife and I had planned to be there, but because of the intensifying war in Afghanistan following 9-11, I stayed close to the newsroom.
They say there are five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. You don’t necessarily go through them in that order, and everyone deals with them in their own way and at their own pace.
My brother Stu broke the news in a phone call from the hospital in Stillwater. Reacting with disbelief, I went into denial. Did that really happen? Had I heard him right? Is this just a bad dream? It was evening. We couldn’t leave until the next day. We would pack and get on the road… in the morning.
Tonight, I would finish editing the book. And I did. For another three or four hours, blocking out what my brother had said, I leaned into that manuscript and gave it the best editing job I could. The next morning, we drove to Norman to be with my mother and help make arrangements for the funeral.
By then, I was angry. I hadn’t been there on his last night as family members huddled over him. But I held it in, tucked it away inside… the wrong way of handling emotions.
My wife says I went through the anger stage privately, dealing with it outside my sister’s home, pacing, fists clenched, alone with my thoughts. Following from room to room, she watched from inside as I walked the perimeter. I never knew until recently how much she worried.
I don’t really understand the “bargaining” phase of grief. In Dad’s case, he left in a hurry… there at the start of a song and gone by the end. There was no bargaining; maybe an occasional “if only” or “what if.”
Depression hit the family in different ways. Mine came and went, resurfacing later in diminishing waves. But at that moment, there was a funeral service to plan, an obituary to write, a eulogy to prepare… one all five siblings co-authored.
Once the funeral was over, my next task left little time for depression. I wrote a book about his life. Ten years earlier, my daughter had asked him about the war. Like many veterans, he couldn’t talk about it, but neither could he dodge such a request from his granddaughter. He promised he would write it.
And he did, knocking out 37 single-spaced pages on his Commodore computer.
Dad was a tank commander in a maintenance company of the 3rd Armored “Spearhead” Division. His crew traveled just behind the battle tanks, pulling damaged Shermans off the line and repairing those that weren’t destroyed. Instead of the big gun out front, his tank retriever sported a heavy-lift winch. He saw battle, lost his best friend and saw horrors we can’t comprehend.
His story started with childhood and how he dropped out of high school to run the farm when granddad got sick. Inducted before Pearl Harbor, he reported to Fort Polk and lied on his application to get into tank maintenance training. He wrote of wartime courtship and marriage, his role in the Normandy invasion, how his crew crafted and attached plow blades to the frontline tanks, allowing them to conquer Normandy’s hedgerows and advance across France. He relived the Battle of the Bulge, the first Allied advance across the Rhine, the death of General Rose, the war’s end and the lonely trip home.
I was determined to share his story with the rest of the family by Christmas. I found a wealth of old photos, postcards, letters, clippings he had carried, notes he had scribbled. To those I added information from 3rd Armored archives, memories and comments from my mother and other family members… and I had a good book. Everyone got a copy of “Les: His Story” for Christmas, and that memoir occupies an honored spot on the shelf next to one I have since written about my mother.
Compiling Dad’s book dragged me back and forth through the grief process, but the sorrow diminished as I wrote… and I came to know my father much better.
Finally, there came acceptance. I found it in the memory of our final moments together.
A month before he died, I drove north to Norman, Oklahoma, a five-hour trip if you don’t stop to eat. Something was gnawing at me to make the journey… no occasion, no holiday, no family get-together... just me.
It was a week or so after 9-11 and I needed a break. It had been a tough time for everyone, and I was exhausted. I knew war was coming. But not this weekend, I reasoned. So, on a Friday after work I told my wife I needed to go home and see my folks – a quick trip up and back.
I told Dad to stock up on Cokes, popcorn and vanilla ice cream; I would bring the movie, a 1951 film I found online called “The Tanks Are Coming.” It wasn’t a great movie, but the characters would be familiar – a tank maintenance crew from his very own 3rd Armored Division.
The weekend was perfect. We watched “The Tanks Are Coming,” joked about the characters, talked about his war and my war, shared our thoughts about the attacks on September 11 and talked into the night.
The next day, I hopped into my Jeep and through the open window told my parents I loved them. He said he loved me too, something I always knew but didn’t often hear. Then I headed south.
It was the last time I saw him.
But we had left nothing unsaid. Acceptance for me started with that weekend.
You know that little voice deep inside that speaks up every once in awhile. Call it God, call it intuition, call it a gut feeling, call it what you like… but listen to it.
Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His Focal Point column appears every Wednesday in the My Generation section. Next week, we’ll talk about coffee mugs and why we love them.