The King of Sadness

“There is so little to remember of anyone – an anecdote, a conversation at a table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the peGander Dogrished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming habitual fondness not having meant to keep us waiting long.”

― Marilynne Robinson

 

My wife calls me the King of Sadness. She won’t read anything I write if she is not in a place where she can safely cry. While she sees the need for me to be cathartic and to give others permission to grieve the losses in their life by being honest about my own, she begs me to write more stories of joy and celebration. I think I do. Let me explain….

Today in the lobby of the hotel where we stay while I am receiving care at the VA, a long-term resident overheard me imploring the desk clerk and manager to look out the back door. There, autumn had gently pushed aside summer, the temperature was a perfect 65 degrees and the sun was burning away a sweet fog that had been gently communing with the pond around which Gander walks every morning.

The resident, who for as long as I have known him, has been full of anger and is known for being disgruntled and volatile and feared as mentally unstable. He has more than one sadly descriptive nickname. We parted ways after he once reached down in an attempt to strike Gander when he thought Gander might brush against him. He hates dogs and has fabricated stories to management in an attempt to get them banned from the hotel. If I thought he could be trusted with an animal, I think there is no human more in desperate need of a pet than this man.

Another guest asked our hotel curmudgeon today what everyone was going to look at outside. His reply: “Nothing. Just a little fog on the pond.” His disconnection from the beauty, only a few steps away, refreshed in me an understanding of things I had desperately needed to comprehend.

That “little fog” today, surrendered itself to a beautiful day, and took with it some of the pain and confusion I had been feeling. At the BMW Golf Championships yesterday, Gander and I were both emotionally and physically bruised when a crush of people eager to get an autograph from Tiger Woods pinned us against a retention fence. We were collecting the autographs on a flag to donate to Freedom Service Dogs to auction at their fund raiser this coming weekend. Tiger, afraid of the consequences of staying much longer stopped signing one person short of our position which we had staked out for almost two hours. We left the course almost immediately. On the way home I thought through my day. A few hours earlier, Phil Mickelson’s press agent had responded to my request to take a pic of him and Gander for an upcoming article about the PGA and wounded warriors by saying that Phil felt if he couldn’t take pictures with all vets he would take pictures with no vets. I was licking my pride induced wounds when I heard the news of the shooting in Washington. I quickly wrote a Facebook update: “The more I am around people, the more I love my dog.” My wife reported to me today that I kept her awake as I fought the demons of the day through a fitful night.

There was a book on the market several years ago entitled, The One Minute Meditator. At first glance you might react cynically and believe it to be a cheap pop culture attempt at mindfulness. Not so. In a country where TV news hopes to consume the better parts of our day with polarizing and demoralizing information; where we have lowered our heads six inches, below where it could be in appreciation of the beauty around us, in order to search for “likes” or another SMS; where a Phil Michelson, who makes more in a week than my father, a decorated hero who gave his life for his country made in a lifetime cut short by war, hasn’t time for a picture; where I have seen my government lower the flags to half-mast more in the last 13 years to honor those lost to mass murder than I saw it lowered the whole of the rest of my life in celebration of those who served us, it is important for us to start finding the pleasure in simple acts…

We would do well to drop what we are doing for a moment of silence, or to savor the taste of something delicious in our mouths, or to close our eyes for sixty seconds and let music translate the words our hearts desperately want everyone to understand, to watch a sunrise, or to stroke the fur of an appreciative pet….

How many suicides could be averted? How many could we lift out of depression? How many innocent souls could remain here on earth instead of being violently sent early on their journey to whatever awaits us beyond this life? To how many could we give a moment of pleasure before they are caught up again in the din and roar of a hurried, harried day of trivial pursuits we have come to believe are important?

This year I have watched closely as Gander created thousands of those kinds of meditative minutes. He was a conduit to all that is good in the here and now and to everything in need of remembering. He has provided a spiritual firewire, for me and hundreds of others he has not even met, needed to access the divine. He has facilitated smiles and goodwill in people worldwide. He has started the healing of many a broken spirit. How he has nurtured health in me and others is important: Often it starts with a memory and a moment of shared grief or loss. He reminds us of the dog that made their lives whole and the times and people that surrounded that period; he joins people with memories of a better time by taking them back to that place before somehow guiding them into the present and a celebration of what once was, maybe with the wag of a tail or an understanding kiss on the hand or cheek. Saul Bellow said, “Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” We remember a time when we felt wanted, needed and important.

Grief and the sadness that goes with it are part and parcel of appreciating all that is good. They are travel companions much more comfortable with each other than we know. I have long thought that monsters willing to strike an innocent animal or discharge a lethal bullet in the direction of a stranger must have a monstrous sorrow so tightly constrained that there is little room in their hearts for anything but anger or rage.

I may well be the King of Sadness with Gander as my advisor: Some Merlinesque wizard who can summon the past and cast a spell that empties us of sorrow so we might appreciate, if only for a minute, the joys around us that never really left. I just provide food and shelter for this magical character. He makes us wise by example and allows us to sleep better at night, to be better to all creatures we will meet in our short lives. He helps stretch those meditative minutes into hours, days, weeks…..

I’ll sleep better tonight…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PS:

IN DOGS WE TRUST has an e-book option and it is ready for publication!

There are 25 incredible stories by some of America’s best writers in the print edition.
We have four days left!!!
Please help make it happen. Profits on publication go to Veteran and Service Dog Charities.
http://ow.ly/oXZy2

 

How to say “Semper Fi” in Polish

I dread turbulence, but I worry more about unexpected troubles on the trip through immigration or a TSA line. After seven hours on a train, followed by 15 hours in the air, I lack enthusiasm for a jet stream of questions from a uniformed officer of my own country. Asking why I have been in China for seven years is reasonable, questioning why I want to return always seems a little odd. After boot camp and OCS I was pretty certain I would never voluntarily put myself in a situation where I would be screamed at 24/7, but after a few minutes with TSA personnel at LAX last year I realized we are all back in boot camp and not likely to graduate as long as the war on terror continues. But, I digress…

After clearing customs in Chicago–interesting that you do the same thing with immigration that you do in a minefield–I mustered the last of my energy to catch the shuttle for hotel.

In sharp contrast to my greeting at O’Hare was the outstretched hand of Paul Kowalik the man behind the desk at the Baymount Inn near the airport. We had never met before, but after learning that I was a veteran he enthusiastically welcomed me home and thanked me for my service. It was the first time anyone had ever said those words to me. My peers from the Vietnam era must be as shocked as I am, but grateful that the one thing most people in our divided country can agree on is an appreciation of those who have served in the armed forces.

Paul’s actions seemed heartfelt, but I sensed there was something motivating his special enthusiasm and asked him about his feelings. He told me his brother had served in the Marines and had been deployed to Iraq shortly after the allied invasion.

I was no longer jet lagged and listened intently to Paul tell me the story of his family’s emigration to America. Their father, who had been doing business here for a decade, moved Paul’s mother and brother to Chicago. He died only two years after relocating, but, the family was determined to gain citizenship. Paul’s brother Jakub joined the military after the 9-11 attacks hoping to make a difference for his adopted country and to gain a leg up on immigration while earning money to pursue college after enlistment. There are approximately 31,000 “green-card” soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen in the U.S. military. They’re permanent legal residents but not U.S. citizens. Yet, like Jakub, they chose to defend the country where they live.

On Mothers Day 2003 Jakub and other young Marines ordered to call home. Danuta Kowalik, his mother, was thrilled to hear from her son and grateful he was safe and able to call home. She asked about the $900 protective vest she had sent to him, as did many parents when safer gear was not issued to troops, and asked about his work. It was the last time she would speak to him. He became the first non-citizen soldier killed in Iraq when the unexploded ordnance he had volunteered to help move detonated.

“He was kind and generous and volunteered for everything” said his brother Paul. His family is no different. Danuta belongs to Gold Star Mothers an organization with the the highest dues and most difficult membership requirements: You must have lost a child to war. Danuka devotes time, talent and money to helping families who have made the ultimate sacrifice. And Paul reaches out to veterans at every chance. It is not unusual for him to pick up the bill at a diner for a table of new graduates from nearby Great Lakes Naval Station.

In a ceremony held by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and attended by Illinois Lt. Governor Pat Quinn, Jakub was granted posthumous citizenship. “I think that when someone gives their life for our country, they certainly should be citizens,” said Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who attended the ceremony. “I think Jakub is in that great tradition of patriots who believed in liberty, freedom and democracy.”

Danuta Kowalik clutched a framed certificate that officially granted her son, Lance Cpl. Jakub Kowalik, something that, in her eyes, he had already earned–American citizenship. “Citizenship for Jakub was a special thing because he dreamed of it,” Danuta Kowalik of Schaumburg said Tuesday, on what would have been her son’s 22nd birthday. “It was like a special gift I got for my son today. I’m sure he’s smiling now.”

And in December of last year, just before his birthday, Paul was granted U.S. citizenship. “This is the greatest country in the world. They welcomed me to America last year. I know how that feels, so I want to honor any soldier who was away fighting for us,” he said.

I saw Paul last week and will see him many more times I am sure. I am awed by their faithfulness to each other, their son’s memory and to veteran soldiers. “We are family now,” he told me as we hugged goodbye. “Welcome Home!”

 

 

Related story on NPR: 25 troops become citizens. Kandahar