January 13, 2015

Regrets, oh, how they linger

     Sure, I have a few.
     One hundred and ninety-seven months ago, I gasped, Why didn’t I think of that?  There I was, alone, sitting in a dimly-lit movie theater watching “Saving Private Ryan.” I’m talking really alone. I was the lone ticket purchaser for the 1998 matinee.
     Two days earlier, we had buried my father.  I needed to unplug and exhale. I figured a blockbuster movie would help me think about something besides my sorrow. But as I watched a family walk through Normandy’s graveyard, up on the big screen, a pang of regret almost knocked me out of my plush seat.
     I said aloud, “I could have done that!”  But I hadn’t, and it was too late.  Oh, my, the regret.  I could have taken my family to the South Pacific and let Big Dink tell us about his World War II experiences.  Without threats of Japanese gunfire and air raids, we could have retraced his steps, 50 years earlier in the Philippines.  What a history lesson and bonding opportunity that could have been. But I didn’t do it.
     Then last week—sitting between two strangers—the regret washed over me, again.  This time the theater was packed, people watching Louie Zamperini defy atrocities in “Unbroken.”  When I muttered, “I could have,” the lady on my right leaned over and asked, “What’s that?” In a whisper, I apologized and turned my focus back to the screen.
     But seeing all the gruesomeness and suffering, I couldn’t get my mind off my dad, the skinny small-town boy-turned WWII medic. Before joining the Army, he had worked at a funeral home and driven a hearse that doubled as an ambulance.  I never asked him how he wound up wearing a Red Cross armband.  The only stories he told were comical. Seeing “Saving Private Ryan,” I realized that I hadn’t asked him about the whizzing bullets, the gore and dragging wounded buddies to safety.  The core of regrets is could-have-and-should-have.  
    Several times during “Unbroken,” I tried to picture my dad in that bloody conflict.  He never talked about the ugliness of battlefield injuries and death.  That was standard for many of the Greatest Generation.  They just did their jobs and didn’t talk about it.
     Big Dink wasn’t a big man, but he had a big heart, filled with compassion, and big guts to overcome obstacles.  As a boy, I watched him, hundreds of times, console families and check his emotions, as he handled funerals.  He had a secret weapon to fight those sad feelings.
     And now I imagine he used the same arsenal of anecdotes to combat grief, as he did during WWII.  There’s nothing funny about death.  Big Dink was all about respect, but I am convinced his sense of humor got him through the war and his 30-year funeral director’s career.  He loved to laugh and make you laugh.

     There was nothing funny about what The Bird and Company did to Louie and other prisoners of war. And there’s nothing laughable about the incredible way Louie was able to forgive his tortuous enemies. But as I sat in the movie, I fought back anger at America’s enemy, using Big Dink’s anecdotes.  
I could hear “Doc” telling about the time he tried to give a constipated country boy an enema.  After he thought he had explained the procedure adequately, the solider kept jumping all over the bed.  Exasperated, the Tennessee hillbilly shouted, “Careful, careful, Doc!  If you ain’t careful, you are going to stick that thang right in my tail.”
     Here are two more regrets:  
     We war too much.

     We laugh too little.