Wednesday, July 29, 2009

STORY by Eli Morales

My first conscious feelings of terror, doom, and the apocalypse came from watching SCUD missiles and fighter jets fly through the air on our push button Trinitron T.V. I knew that there was a war going on but it wasn’t until I saw the images of the Gulf war that I understood what war might be.

That night I lay in my bed wondering when the bombs would start falling and seriously considered my death and the end of everything I knew. I was ten.

Ten years later. My cousins entered the Army to pay for college. I was slightly jealous, or perhaps nervous that the family would see them as men, doing men things, doing their duty, while I, only half-Puerto Rican, went to college and did soft, unmanly things.

My cousins, twins, my age, finished school and were shipped off to Korea and Iraq. I finished college and moved to Oregon to work in public service. Family reunions were yellow-ribbonned affairs with lonely fianc├ęs talking about the future plans for their soldiers. News of the twins traveled around the room. They continued their tours and I continued living my life.

Frequent e-mails from my aunts about how to support the troops conflicted with my feelings that they shouldn’t be there. One of them came home from Korea. The other was wounded in Iraq. He came home and showed everyone his scar. Entry and exit wounds. For some reason everyone was proud of him. For what? Getting shot?

My family seemed to glorify his experience as a triumph and a sign of the right thing to do. But months later as his brain broke down, pondering the meaning of jumping into cesspools and following orders that lead to the death of his friends, I could see that his journey was no glory to him. His wife asked if I could talk to my ex-girlfriend’s father, a congressman, about getting him help for PTSD.

My family struggled with their own misunderstanding of what had happened. The war did not seem to make him into the theoretical man that emerges from battle. Hollywood was wrong. The actual man went through life wondering about its meaning, and wishing war had never come.

Separately, he and his brother called me to say they wished they had parts of my life, mostly the part where they didn’t go into the Army. We talked about living on one’s own and what freedom was like. They wanted my advice on how to figure out their new lives as civilians. We were 26, but they had just got out of college.


That morning I actually wanted to clean the house, which happens very rarely. I forget what I had in my hand when he called, I just remember I didn’t want to put it down. But the inner voice said very firmly, “Sit down and enjoy this call,” so I did.

He could talk endlessly about himself, his memories. That morning he was entertaining. He told me a story I had never heard, that his father, who worked in the jewelry business, used to go to nudist colonies. His mother never went along. One time, when he was still a boy, his father took him to one. He said it was remarkably asexual. People were doing the ordinary things they would do on vacation, they just did them without wearing clothes.

He talked about his family, as he often did, occasionally veering off to talk about Paris, where he lived for a few years in his twenties or thirties. And we talked about his health. Less than two months before, he had a respiratory ailment that didn’t go away, and after several weeks his partner persuaded him to go to the doctor, where he collapsed, his lungs filled with fluid from the malfunctioning of his heart. The same thing happened the first time he had a heart attack—he had it in the doctor’s office. (Since then, he’d been joking about how dangerous it can be to go to the doctor.) As with the first one, they were able to get him to the hospital and take care of him. The doctors wanted to do surgery this time and put in a stent, but he didn’t like the idea of having something foreign in his body and he didn’t like the idea of surgery, so opted not to. At any rate, he couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital. Some of the people in his life agreed with his decision, because at his age, 82, anything could happen once they put you under; some people thought he made the wrong decision.

We both agreed he’d made a great recovery. He sounded so strong, so full of life that morning. “You sound like you’ll be around for years to come,” I told him, and he told me, as he often did, how his mother lived far into her nineties, and his uncle even older. His father died relatively young. He told me about his father’s passing, but I don’t remember it now.

At some point I looked at the clock and saw two hours had passed; it was getting close to the time I had a class to teach, for seniors, actually. I told him, and he raised his voice to a false, strident pitch, saying, “Okay, goodbye then—as usual you haven’t let me get in a word edgewise,” and we both laughed at his acknowledgement of his tendency to go on. Then he said “Goodbye, dear,” and hung up, a more abrupt ending to our conversation than I would have liked, though it gave me a few extra minutes to get dressed to go out.

The next morning a mutual friend called me to say he had passed away the night before. His lungs had filled with fluid again. His partner heard him coughing and called 911, but by the time they came he was unconscious, probably dead already, though they took him to the hospital.

To say nobody saw it coming is an understatement, even though he was in his eighties and had had those two previous incidents. I found out later that in the month or two since the last one, he had phoned almost everyone he knew, his large, multi-generational family, his large circle of friends, and talked to each at length. In retrospect, it seems like even though on a conscious level he felt like he had many years to go, on a deeper level he must have known his life was ending. I was moved and honored that I was one of the last people he’d spoken to, that we spoke on the very last day of his life.

So many people I’ve known have died in these last ten years or so, people younger than me, people older, and it’s always awesome when that last page is written, the story of that particular person concluded. But his passing was a shock—he was so alive and so filled with the joy of it, it seemed like he would live forever.