Where the Old Warrior Looks Up & Finds That Death Has Been Defeated
by Denyse O’Leary
Years ago, a woman I knew told me that her father’s death had created a sort of hole in her world. I said that when my own father dies, it will be like waking up to see that a mountain range in the distance has suddenly disappeared. That was how one of my close friends, whose father lost his hearing going over Vimy Ridge nearly a century ago, described the effect of his death in 1983.
Why should women on the verge of old age think as we do about very aged fathers? Partly because our fathers had fought in the World Wars. In subtle ways, our families were defined by those wars. People who asked about our parents implicitly recognized that, as in, “Did your father and mother meet during the War?” “Was your mother one of the WAVES?” “What did he do after the War?” and so forth. Some say the Sixties changed everything, but on reflection, I don’t think it changed us much. We were defined by the Warsand by being one generation off the farm.
In January of his 90th year, my father had a stroke. He had been struggling with Alzheimer’s for some time. The hospital staff had seen many like him, and they quietly conveyed to us that we should not expect too much. It was even spelled out, not merely hinted, that, beyond what common humanity required, the quality of his care would likely not matter much, and we ought not to spend his estate on it.
At first, I delayed going to visit him at the rehab, in a small city about 80 miles away. Responsibilities tie me to the big city, but more than that, everyone rushes out to see the newly stricken. What about the long months of plastic dishes, metal frames, and monitors? Who visits then, besides the medications nurse and the ward cleaner?
So I went about four weeks later.
Another Escape Attempt
I got off the intercity bus, found the hospital, and located the crowded, bewildering ward. I finally spotted him, subdued, shrunken, and painfully pushing a walker along a hallway, followed by two attendants. I was sure it was him, but what if . . .
I shouted tentatively (if that is possible), “John O’Leary.”
He immediately straightened up, military style, and shouted back, “John O’Leary!” He stared around glassily; he had suffered eye damage and I was not in his field of vision.
I came closer and said, “Dad, it’s me, Denyse. Your daughter.” (Now, always, forever. The stroke can’t take that away from us.)
We went to sit in the patients’ dining area, which had the feel of a bus station waiting room. Nothing fancy, just a place to wait for a bus with no known destination. Then he started talking about the War.
He rarely talked about it when I was growing up, except for recounting the occasional mess room legend, a laugh track that drowned out the horror. But I soon realized that the twenty-something staff members all knew (doubtless from him) that he had been an Allied escapee, a shot-down airman who escaped overland to Gibraltar via the Resistance, bringing valuable information to the British base there.
Why did he bring up this old news now? A sign of dementia, some hinted: the old man, babbling aimlessly, doesn’t know where he is. But that is not what I sensed. The stroke was, for him, the Nazis all over again, threatening to imprison him “for the duration.” So he was reaching far back into those days when he had escaped their clutches. Whatever had worked for him then might work now. Needless to say, he regarded stroke and slowly developing Alzheimer’s as the enemies of his brain, as if they were Heydrich and Himmler.
The Hoot & His Girl Friday
If Dad wanted to escape, I wanted to help. Dad and I had not had a particularly good or close relationship. But I couldn’t just leave him there.
I started visiting weekly on Fridays. One thing that hadn’t changed was his habit of ad-libbing jokes. “Yes, I had a stroke,” he said, for example, “and I am about ready to stroke back.” I began to call him The Hoot and myself his Girl Friday. I called the project, “Rehabbing the Hoot.”
In truth, it was a right-side stroke and relatively sparing of Dad. His speech was unaffected, but his short-term memory was largely gone. So, at his wish (and insistence), I began to work with him on that. We went on memory tours of the past and present, sixty years of which I have shared. I took pictures of family members and brought them to him, labeled and sorted (children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, siblings, nieces, grand-nieces, and so forth). He has a soft spot for one particular little face at the bottom of the chart, his great-grandson (and my grandson), peeking out at the world at six months of age.
I also printed off aerial views of places he has lived, courtesy of Google Maps. He stared at them intently, andI suddenly rememberedof course, part of his job as an airman had been to interpret aerial views. They interest him almost as much as faces do.
Courtesy of the tourist boards, I found photos of his old stomping grounds online as well. He could then recall what a man earned per day at the brickworks and the name of the woman the brickies boarded with. He remembered his first-grade teacher, Sister Mechtilde, and wanted me to find a picture of the school in the little “Catholic” town near his family’s farm. But perhaps the only images left now are in fast-fading minds like his.
In the meantime, after carefully considering the advice not to waste his estate on his care, we his family moved him and his wife to the best old-age residence in the area.
It wasn’t always easy. At one point, he got depressed. His wife also got depressed because he was, and also because he couldn’t just bounce back. I racked up huge bills on my cell phone, calling all his living siblings. He would mutter, “I am not the man I used to be,” and one by one, until it became a chorus, his sisters would shout back, “I am not the woman I used to be!” He knew what that meant: The O’Leary girls had been much admired for their beauty, and they cherished their wedding photos, from marriages to men long dead. And that was all so long ago.
One time, we phoned a great-granddaughter who was off school and recovering from an illness. On another occasion, I had to catch a bus while he was still yakking up a storm with a younger brother. I left quietly, abandoning my phone. I was haunted by visions of three-figure phone bills. A relative said, “Don’t worry, he wouldn’t know how to use the phone again, and it’ll run out of charge.” But I replied, “Sure, and another old codger around there might well know how to use it, and how to recharge it too!” That, thankfully, never happened.
At times, people hinted that I was wasting my effort. There were also times when his memory wouldn’t cooperate at all, and other times when he emerged into lucidity only to say, “I hate my life.” But he never mentioned suicide. He would not let his stroke force him to kill himself. That would be like surrendering, like letting the Nazis win.
Building a New Memory
He takes each little victory seriously, and is now reasonably well oriented to social life. He no longer needs the wheelchair he used to zip around the rehab in, sometimes narrowly missing a wall and giving the impression of a plane pulling out of a dive. He walks unassisted now, somewhat unsteadily, occasionally needing a cane. Of course, he still has significant short-term memory problems, and his affairs are in the hands of a trustee. But when I speak to him on the phone, you would never know he had had a stroke or that people had said not to expect too much of him.
In the meantime, he was becoming much more humble and patient than I had ever seen him before. He began to say, “I have short-term memory loss. If I forget things, please remind me.” That’s an ideal attitude for coming back from an assault on one’s 92-year-old brain.
In truth, I was not entirely surprised by his progress because, while co-writing The Spiritual Brain (Harper One, 2007), I grappled with neuroplasticitythe surprising truth that our brains are not computers, but are organs constantly reshaped by our thoughts, memories, and feelings. Dad was not recovering his short-term memory so much as building a new one from the ruins of the old, using my intact memory and that of many other people as his power and information source.
I like to think I helped Dad escape, this time around. I slipped him a key, and he grabbed it. If we live for this life only, that would be the end of the story. Beer and cheer all around to celebrate our little victories until Lights Out.
But in the light of eternity, life is not so simple. What if a man were to get a message from beyond this life?
Darker Memories Return
Dad’s wartime memories were not just tales of a successful escape. Other memories were beginning to surface, too. Deeper, darker ones. Things he didn’t want to talk about. The reasons why he didn’t want to be thought of as a hero.
The truth is, Dad had made his children’s lives very difficult at a promising time in our history. He always lived as though he didn’t deserve toand as though we didn’t, either. He squandered opportunities for himself and for us, and cut himself off from everyone who mattered to him, including the Catholic Church of his childhood. He joined the most liberal denomination he could find, and he held forth against religion in long harangues, directed mostly at people who were gradually ceasing to care about transcendent religion anyway.
For many years, we put it down to the fact that he was one of the few survivors of Bomber Command. The only time I saw him near tears was when I showed him a picture, on his 70th birthday, of his graduation from flight school, showing a commanding officer shaking his hand in front of a Fairy Battle. In the background were some of his many comrades who had “gone south” shortly afterward.
But there was more, and it began to come out in conversations on my weekly visits. He told me a story I’d never heard before: He had a load of bombs he was to drop on a German factory, but he couldn’t find it. So the crew flew home with the bombs. Both he and his commanding officer were reprimanded. Munitions, he was told, are expensive. Next time, drop your load on any German village.
Did he carry out those orders? Somehow, I couldn’t ask. He’d gone far enough just telling me this. His wife, not a woman of many words, told me later, “He fears he killed children.”
Was it a relief to have been shot down? At least he could say, “I suffered too, you know. The rest of my life was blighted. I blighted myself. Doesn’t that satisfy you?” Apparently not. The true war debt was coming due. He could not draw on the strength of his war experiences any longer without coming to terms with all of them.
Reconciled & Forgiven
Circumstances prevented me visiting my father one Friday in January. But I received a phone call that evening from his closest sister, about 93, who lives in an old-age home in a midwestern city.
She told me that after sixty years of practical atheism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Christianity, Dad wanted to be reconciled to the Church. He had a dream, she said. His parents appeared and were calling him, urging this course on him, so that he could one day join them in glory. He told her he hoped that I, as a Catholic, could help.
Unlike some family members, I did not think his wish proceeded from an addled mind. I recognized its source instinctively. He wanted someone from heaven to forgive him, someone whose word he need never doubt.
I lost no time finding a priest. A relative in medicine had warned me that Dad’s next stroke would likely be his last contact with normal cognition. By Wednesday afternoon, the priest and I were sitting in the apartment with Dad. The priest was an affable man with an interest in World War II, born perhaps of his vocation to older folk. I distracted my stepmom by asking to see the crafts room, and when we returned, my father said, steadily and with composure, “I have been reconciled to the Catholic Church, and my sins have been forgiven.”
Dad and I had not talked about religion for many years, and I have made a point of not raising the subject since then. I needed to make it clear with everyone that I had not been manipulating him in any way, for any purpose. It was his own free decision.
But he seems calmer now. His memory is getting worse, but it matters less. For once, he accepts that we love him for who he is, period. So why not enjoy what’s left here, while it remains?
Put another way, he has a strong, perfect plea. And he knows it.
A Goodly Vision
Yet, at the back of my mind, I hear a war-bereft mother of his own age screaming at me, “How dare you help him save himself, you bitch! You’re worse than him! I want him to go to hell, for what he has done to my children! You go to hell, too!”
And then I see the futility of any response except that we can all finally choose to be one in Christ Jesus or not. Even sending someone to hell would not change a jot of that past. And I was only doing for my father what she would, I must hope, do for hers.
Despite rays of light, there are no formulas, and life is never simple. Dad will get worse, and finally die. But he can now see a very large circlewarmer, deeper, shinier now, a vast ring of light. It is the lights carried by a goodly company slowly approaching, in the name of the Lord.
It isn’t fair. I know it isn’t. In my mind’s ear, I still hear the shrieking, bereft mother. How I wish she could see what he sees, but God must have decided to reward her another way. Perhaps by surprising her one day, with an invitation to cast off the ruined past in exchange for a similar visitation.
And so now? We go on, day to day, week to week. The end of life can be as full of discoveries and adventures as its beginning. On this week’s visit I will bring him aerial views of the city where his sister lives and where his parents are buried. •
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