My father passed away in October. It’s taken me a while to write this. I started this two weeks after he’d passed with the intent to publish it much sooner; it’s just taken me this long to get my thoughts in order. Things are like that when you grieve, I think…. must be part of that whole “time heals all wounds” adage thing. I just honestly couldn’t find the right words; I’ve written parts of this over and over, nitpicking it to death for weeks on end. Nothing feels normal still. It’s been six months and I still haven’t hung his medals or the flag that flew over West Point for him. I haven’t even ordered a flag holder because I still can’t pick the “right one” even though they pretty much are all standard. Nothing feels normal or right about him not being here and so I’ve been fighting every bit of it, railing and raging in my own private way (for what it’s worth) against the passage of time.
I keep thinking back to his funeral. My sister and I were asked if we wanted to speak at his service. Initially, I had said no, but the night before his funeral service, I thought that I might, or rather that I should, or I might regret it later if I didn’t. At the hotel, our room didn’t have paper so I couldn’t make notes and truly, up until the very moment I stood up, I didn’t know exactly what I was going to say. I honestly was shaking and quivering so much that I didn’t actually remember what I had said. (Later I watched the video and was shocked I sounded half coherent.) After the service, several people told me how wonderful what I said was but it felt very incomplete to me. I decided on the way home that I would write what I should have said into a blog post for posterity and this is the product of those longer thoughts.
For some background, Dad was born on December 9, 1950, in Pickaway County, Ohio to Curtis Lemaster and Gladys Earline Cordle, both natives of Kentucky. He had 3 brothers, Bertie, Gene, and Keith. We lost Bertie, the last brother, on September 11th, just weeks before my dad. Dad was the last to go, which seemed somewhat fitting as he was also, from all eyewitness accounts, the rowdiest of the bunch. My poor grandmother… she had her hands full with those four boys and my dad sure gave her some worrisome times. He once rode a bull on a dare and it plowed through a barbwire fence, shredding him from head to toe. Once he was hit by a car while riding on his bicycle and as the squad drove by with him in it, he waved to his mom who was sitting on the porch snapping beans. He also ran his arm through the wringer washer up to the shoulder, crushing it. There’s more but I think you get the picture that he was a perennial handful – and he was ONE of FOUR.
I don’t know how to explain this next part without it sounding cruel but as a genealogist and historian, you have to learn to not put today’s values on the past. Things were different then; people thought about and acted differently when it came to raising children. Grandpa Curtis was born in 1918 and Grandma Earline was born in 1923, both coming from large families with meager incomes. Nothing about their lives appeared grand or easy. As such, my grandparents sort of adopted a policy that aside from food and a roof over their heads, if the boys wanted something, they needed to work for it. My dad said he was eight years old and worked on a farm baling hay to get money to buy a ball glove, a bike, jeans, and even shoes. He said time and again, that nothing was ever just given to them. As rough and unfathomable as that sounds to modern parents if nothing else, it did instill a great work ethic in my dad and he was able to do things for us girls that he never had as a child.
Dad graduated on June 5, 1969, was drafted, and inducted on March 16, 1970. Dad was a gun loader on a tank and served two tours in Vietnam. He earned four Purple Hearts and 2 Bronze Stars. (We entered him into the National Purple Heart Hall of Honors a few years ago. You can see his entry here.) Growing up, dad was very reluctant to discuss Vietnam. We were not allowed to watch war movies – I’m 48 and I’ve still never seen Full Metal Jacket or Hamburger Hill. He had photo albums we were not allowed to look at and Army jackets we were not allowed to touch. My older cousin Tony recently confirmed to me that he remembered those photo albums and that he remembered looking through them when my dad came home – the one specifically horrified him because it had photos of body parts and bloody corpses of the Viet Cong. I did manage on several occasions to slip into their room to look at those photo albums while they were away. Where my dad once had three of those albums, throughout the years, he purged himself of two of them, leaving just a photo collection of landscapes, mangled tanks that had hit land mines, distanced views of the USO shows, and unidentified soldiers/friends. Gone were the photos that caused him anguish through the years, of faces he couldn’t look at any longer, things he had been a part of, and events that haunted him since the moment he stepped back onto American shores.
Like many soldiers who came home, Dad had demons and they showed themselves throughout the years. We didn’t talk about PTSD in the early 1980s and there wasn’t exactly a big support network for veterans coming home like there is now. He drank… a lot. We got involved with the church and I think he believed he could pray the pain away. I’m not sure when it started going sideways for him, but one night, I heard my mom yell out in pain – he’d sat on top of her chest and she woke up in time to see his fist come down and punch her in the face. (He did something similar to my step-mom years later.) Things fell apart not long after that and they divorced. As a child, parents don’t tell you things. You’re not privileged to their hurts, worries, or concerns but even so, you still know when something just isn’t right… and dad just wasn’t right by any means.
Growing up, I knew my father had served in Vietnam but I wasn’t quite sure what that entailed. As I explained at his funeral, our school barely covered WWI and II, let alone get to Korea or Vietnam and with him forbidding us to watch shows about Vietnam or even remotely talk about it, my understanding of what he experienced was very narrow. Through the years, he would let little bits slip here and there but out of context, it didn’t provide a good narrative of what he went through over there. It wasn’t until we were stationed at Fort Benning when we visited the National Infantry Museum there did I get a slight glimpse of what they had endured. There was an interactive walkthrough of the jungles of Vietnam, hot, humid, and unnerving. As you walked through the plant-crowded pathway, the lights were low and suddenly there was shouting, flashes, smoke, guns firing, and you literally felt your heart pounding from the chaos. I teared up instantly thinking of what my poor dad had to endure at such a young age. When I told him I’d been through that room and how I couldn’t make it the few minutes without having a near panic attack, he chuckled and said “Imagine that for years.” Had I not been in that room, I’d never have known. Even fake, the experience left me rattled to the core knowing that it had been real and much worse for him.
That room changed something in me, changed the way I thought about my dad and my experience with him growing up. I now understood a bit more why he couldn’t be a husband to my mother or a father to my sister and me – he was still partially over there. He had tried to come home and return to his pre-war life, marry the girl, have the kids, find a good job, and have the “All-American dream” but the bandage he had put on his wounds had slipped off. He was broken and it had been a delusion to think that things could be normal for him again. He walked away from everything and everyone to live at the bottom of the barrel for years because I don’t think he knew how to live with himself or his demons any longer.
Even as understanding as I try to be and knowing what I do now, it’s still very hard for me, even 30 years later, to not be hurt by the things we experienced as kids. I know (now) he was trying to find a way to heal, but as a child, you don’t care. All you know is that your dad is gone – he’s not watching you march in flag corps, not seeing you dressed up for homecomings or proms, he’s missing birthdays/holidays, and you feel like the least important thing in his life. It’s harder as a hormonal, crabby teenager to not take it personally and get bitter when he supposedly divorced your mother, not you. There was an emotional chasm that developed for years between us but after the birth of my daughter, things changed and softened somewhat. Not just in my life, but in his. He was slowly getting on the road to finding himself again and as he did, some of those demons that plagued him seemed to quiet down a bit.
Dad had a series of strokes a few years ago that left him with frustrating issues between his brain and his speech center. He would be thinking and meaning to say the word ‘dog’ and somehow, out would come the word ‘kitty’ instead. Other common words he couldn’t physically say would become rings, wings, or waters – he could write some things down or draw what he was trying to convey. It was a vicious circle for my step-mom and him; he was annoyed she couldn’t understand him and she was having fits trying to get him to write things down so she could understand! For me, living in New York, it felt devastating – gone were the days I could just call my dad up and randomly ask him questions about his family, his childhood, or talk about history. Sure, I could call and hear his voice and he could tell me about the weather (sometimes) or his ‘kitties’ but the serious, meaningful relationship I had with him had been cut short. The brief two or three-minute chats were just horrible, little tortures. I’m sure people would say I was lucky to still have him after his series of strokes, but through the stunted, often unrecognizable chatter of a two-minute conversation, did I really have “him” still? I feel like I’ve been in mourning for years now.
On August 16th, they found out my dad had stage 4 cancer in his lungs and hip. There was much hope that chemo would be feasible but after one treatment, it was evident that it was progressing too quickly and he was sent home with hospice care. My sister had visited him in the hospital before he was sent home and managed to Facetime me quickly so I could see him. He looked dreadful and weary. I went home to Ohio on October 1st to see him and when I walked into their house, he was in the front room in a hospital bed. He looked so terribly small and frail. All I could focus on was his hands and how thin they looked. My dad had this thing he’d do for us and the grandkids where he’d crook his big, beefy pointer finger and we’d try to straighten it out. We never could as hard as we’d try and I remember thinking when I was younger that my dad must have been one of the strongest people alive. It was a silly trick but it always gave lots of giggles – and here he was now with these thin hands that looked like they’d break if I patted him too hard.
During my visit, I remember thinking how much he looked like his father with his silvery-white hair. Sitting at his side with my daughter, I wondered if he was ready. They’d told him he had cancer and he seemed to understand that he was dying. We had just lost his brother Bert just two weeks before my visit which meant my dad was the last of their family and I sighed and said as much to him. He nodded somewhat sadly. He winced and rubbed his leg in pain and said he was hurting, mumbling to himself ‘Why, I don’t know why.’ And before I really meant to, I blurted out “Are you ready?” He looked at me, slightly smirked, and said “I’m ready. Whenever.” I don’t know if it was a relief or just heartbreaking to hear. Going back home to New York and leaving him was extremely odd. I thought I’d have something more prolific or comforting to say knowing it would be the last time I would see him alive but instead, my mind melted on the spot and said something insignificant instead like “Get some rest.” as if that would cure his cancer somehow. I felt like a right git the entire way home.
What I wanted to say to him was something that I heard, oddly, just shortly before coming to Ohio while listening to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman on Audible. It was so beautiful and haunting that I had to play it several times… it was lines from Dialogue of a Misanthrope with His Soul, a two-thousand-year-old manuscript from Ancient Egypt. I talked about it at his funeral…
Death is before me today:like the recovery of a sick man,like going forth into a garden after sickness.Death is before me today:like the odor of myrrh,like sitting under a sail in a good wind.Death is before me today:like the course of a stream;like the return of a man from the war-galley to his house.Death is before me today:like the home that a man longs to see,after years spent as a captive.
I was so moved by this… comforted even. I mean, death is, and has always has been, strange to me. As children, we are taught to fear it, and people try to outlive and run from it, but as an adult and especially in the line of work I do, I think of death as more of a gift for the departing person. It pains the living to lose them, surely, but how can we not rejoice for the release from suffering that the person will find on the other side? I wish I could have conveyed this to him and wished him a good journey but I just lost my thoughts that morning looking at him for the last time. Get some rest. Really, Jill. Ugh.
Shortly after I came back home to New York, dad started going downhill quickly and on October 11th, he started talking to his mom (who passed away in 2006) and yelling down the hall that he “was coming!” He was reaching for invisible things and by the 12th, he was unresponsive to questions and just really wasn’t “there” any longer. He was struggling to breathe even with his oxygen all the way up. Just 8 days after I’d come back home to New York, on October 13th, Dad passed away around 3:15 pm. That day is sort of a blur to me after my step-mom called to say he’d passed away. I went into what I can only describe as ‘work mode’ calling everyone who needed to know, followed shortly by travel arrangements, shopping for dress clothes/shoes for Jon, printing photos, and purchasing frames for the memorial table at his service. We hadn’t even really unpacked since coming home the first time since we just knew we’d be heading home again sooner rather than later.
His visitation was an odd experience. I know I process death differently – when it’s your job (cemetery/historian) and your hobby turned job (genealogist), your viewpoint is a bit different than most. I wasn’t crying, I wasn’t unduly down or depressed – I was just stressed and anxious more than anything. Honestly, I was happy to see so many cousins and several of my aunts come to his showing, one even having just experienced their own loss with my dad’s brother Bert just two weeks prior. There was a lot of love in that room and it made the pain of his loss lessened somehow and eased my mind (and soul). There was also a weirdness – nobody said anything but there was a sort of invisible pressure that instead of smiling, I should have been somber and mournful. I couldn’t help it though – for all the strife dad went through, the PTSD dreams, and the horrible pain he was experiencing right before his death, how could I not be joyful that he was now free from all that? I’ve never been a “glass half full” type of person but in this instance, where the pain and suffering were unrelenting and he was wasting away, death can only be seen as mercy and for that, I was thankful.
The service was nice – a bit too fluffy and overtly religious than I would have preferred, especially since he hadn’t been in any church for over 30 years. There just didn’t seem to be a lot of “dad” represented in the service conducted by the pastor; I thought that was a shame but when it’s conducted by a person who doesn’t really know the individual, it feels like they’re just reading the stats from the obituary with some random facts collected from family members prior. I mentioned in my speech that dad and his brothers were “more sinners than saints” and that they were the “terrors of the county” during their time to which there were a few quiet giggles from those who knew them best and grew up with them. They were a rowdy bunch and they were proud of it. All in all, it was decent, my complaints aside. Having organized multiple veteran funerals, I knew the hardest part was going to be the military gun salute. Sure enough, my step-mom jumped and latched onto my arm when the first round fired. I leaned over to tell her this part and that hearing TAPS would be the worst of it. There were sniffles coming from everywhere behind us – no matter who you are or how many times you’ve heard it, you’d have to be a statue not to get a tickle in your throat or a tear in your eye at hearing it played. It just gets you every.single.time.
Dad was cremated and while most people want ashes, I had asked for a lock of his hair. A while back I had found a lovely woman on Instagram with a company called Mementos Entwined that specializes in hair work… as in, the old braided, Victorian hair art lockets, rings, and such. Dad always had longer hair – I don’t know if it was rebelling from his Army days or what but he always kept it longer even when we teased him mercilessly about it. So when I saw that Victorian hair art was making a comeback, it perked my interest in having his hair braided and set into a locket. I made a full video about that entire process below – it’s an amazing journey to go through and I wanted to share my experience and my choice in choosing to do that. The hair work and design were by Gina at Mementos Entwined, the Era Locket was created by J. Hannah, and the Custom Love Token was engraved by Heirloom Engraving. (That is a hideous video thumbnail but it won’t let me change it. Thanks, VideoPress.)
Here are some MUCH better pictures of dad’s locket courtesy of Gina from Mementos Entwined. The weather has just not been cooperating enough to go take my own outside in sunlight properly yet. (Click to enlarge.)