Death can be peaceful and beautiful.
Or it can be very, very ugly.
Dad wasn’t a fan of the ugly; nor would any of us be. When Dad finished his mortal journey Wednesday evening, fortunately the end came peaceful and beautiful. My Dad is Edwin Clark Patterson. He was 75.
Dad saw too much of the ugly side of death during the early stages of Vietnam. Dad never went to Vietnam, he was stationed in Japan with the Air Force, but he saw the effects of war firsthand the few months he worked in the morgue.
Being the morgue clerk probably wasn’t the worst duty, especially when you think of the grunts beating the bushes in Vietnam. But it wasn’t as nice as his time at Edwards Air Force Base in California. While there he worked for Gen. Curtis LeMay, who he talked about for years, and knew Neil Armstrong and some of the other Apollo astronauts.
Dad’s morgue duty took a turn for the surreal when he had to process the paperwork for his roommate who had left for Vietnam just a week earlier. This was Dad’s roommate, and his best friend. They did just about everything together. Now he’s gone, lying in a body bag on a cold piece of steel.
If you can, try to imagine what Dad must have felt that day in the morgue. It’ll help you better understand the rest of the story.
Dad’s roommate coming through the morgue wasn’t his only soul-wrenching experience with death. Once he was assigned to escort home the body of a young black man who had been killed in Vietnam. At the time Dad was just a young Airman 2nd Class in his early twenties. Despite his low rank, and relatively young age, he was the official military representative for the family. He dealt with their sorrow, frustration, and the complexity of their anger fueled by the tense racial issues our country was in the throes of.
A final incident seemed to cement a deep despair in Dad’s soul. While coming home from Japan, on a train ride through San Francisco, Dad experienced some of the frustration felt by the American people. He and the other GI’s were yelled at, taunted, and called baby killers.
Dad’s military experience, though not combat still helped create a very real post-traumatic despair that settled deep inside his soul. His journey attempting to cope took Dad through many bottles of whiskey over many years. His journey out of the bottle actually deepened his despair, and for the next roughly ten years Dad battled depression that at times bordered on suicidal.
If that’s where Dad’s mortal journey ended, and there was a time when I was afraid it would, death would have been undeniably very ugly. I’m grateful Dad chose to find ways of dealing with alcoholism and depression.
Dad found strength in family, God, and weekly AA meetings. I was a teen when he first start going to the AA meetings held in the old fairground auction barn just down the street. Occasionally I would go with Dad to offer a little silent moral support. I’ve since wondered if he “let me” tag along to give me a little taste of the world of an alcoholic.
This past December Dad celebrated 33 years of sobriety. AA gives out coins to mark the length of freedom from the bottle. They start with a coin for the first 24 hours, then one to 12 months, then each year. Dad was silently proud of his first year coin. When I deployed to Iraq in 2004, he “loaned” me that coin saying if he could make it through the “toughest year of his life” I could make it home from Iraq. I carried it in my pocket for 18 months and was honored to return it to Dad when I came home.
Learning to love is one of the many battles of addiction, loving yourself perhaps the hardest. Dad shared with me many times he learned how to love, himself and others, because others first loved him. And they loved, he felt, despite all the reasons he gave them otherwise. Dad found this love in his family, old friends, and new friends. And he strived to learn how to give it back to each.
Life is a journey for each of us. In our own way we strive to find love, happiness, and peace. Dad’s journey was long and painful at times, and not just his journey with cancer. Life was tough. Yet, through his tough journey he found love, he found happiness, and he found peace. And not just at the end of his life. Dad discovered each, sometimes in just tiny little bits, but those little bits added up to an extremely rich and joyful life.
Finally, I would be remiss, and Dad would be waking up to have a word with me, if I didn’t acknowledge the hand of He who held Dad’s hand through his toughest times. Dad believed in God and never lost his hope in his Higher Power. In Him he found the peace he was looking for.
Dad’s funeral services will be in Richfield, Utah this coming Thursday. You can read his obituary at here:
Have a great Monday. Thanks for letting me share.
p.s. Take 15 minutes today to remember those who walk a difficult journey through life.