Monday, March 29, 2010

History of Touch

published in the Waimea Gazette in 2005:

No one will tell me the stories of my grandfather. I have asked my grandmother many times, and her only response is a kind of blank searching, a dim confusion and often a reference to whatever is showing on her television at the time. I have gotten used to watching its movement in the reflection on her glasses. I have gotten used to her emptiness. I endow her with the greatest of anguish, because it is the only way I can understand a woman who won’t speak of her husband, or even of her children as they grew. Some days I think she has no memory of them. Even of my father who sits before her during our customary biannual 30-minute visits, making attempts at small talk, speaking gently, as if to protect her from something they both know and will not speak.

My father was too young when my grandfather went missing in the Korean War to remember him, or to remember his mother and father together. What it felt like to touch him. That day in September of 1952, when my grandfather’s plane did not return from its mission along MIG Alley over the Yalu River, my father was orphaned. He and his two brothers lost their father, though many would hold out hope of his return for years to come, and they lost their mother. She was in their lives, but she became a ghost. A shell of what she had been. My father has not a single memory of a tender touch from his mother, the entire time he was growing up. Finally, at fourteen, he left. Why wait around for something that was lost before he ever became cognizant of a void? It just made sense.

Last year when the crash site of an F-86 Sabre jet, along with the remains of Captain Troy Gordon Cope, was exhumed from a Chinese man’s front yard, my relationship with my dad changed forever. It is difficult to describe. It’s not like we were waiting. Fifty plus years after the fact, and we were not swimming in daily grief over the loss of my grandfather, and yet what was not there, what never had been, had forged a chasm between us that was so wide I had settled in to the idea that I would never be able to traverse it. Distance was ours, and we moved along in our way, loving each other, but always aware of some ghost between us.

It was not the ghost of Grandpa Troy. Perhaps he’s taken another body. Some 50-year-old man or woman out there, living the next leg of the spirit journey. Or camped out in my mother’s heaven, waiting. I have a sense of him as infinitely patient. No, it was not his ghost, but the ghost of my Grandma Rosie, still living in the town of my father’s youth. It has not occupied her body for many years, 52 I suspect, though something exists in that body to move it from room to room in her tiny South Modesto home. Her ghost has been hovering between me and my father for the last 33 years, all of those that have comprised my life. Where it breathed its lamentation for the 19 years preceding my birth is a mystery to all. But last May, I think we squeezed her out of that space. Unintentionally, mind you. I think I would have taken her in any form, had I understood, so great was my need to know her. But I did not.

When we walked into the JPAC building (Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command), my father and I crossed a threshold. It was the doorway somehow to a place we never thought we’d find ourselves, and it was to represent our effort, as much as anything else, to find each other. Our charge was to view the remains of my grandfather, to see them safely stowed and folded into an army blanket, according to a tradition that dates back to World War II, and to follow their progress from laboratory to funeral home to airplane to home soil, where Grandpa “Gordie,” as he was called, would be buried in a full military service at Dallas Memorial Cemetery. I was amazed at the treatment we received from the JPAC staff, from Senior Advisor Johnie Webb and the lab’s Evidence Manager, Sardiaa Plaud. We were apprised of the general mission of JPAC and of the ongoing effort to recover the bodies of missing soldiers from past wars as far back as World War II. We were taken aback by the sheer humanitarian aspect of this division of the military, devoted solely to accounting for these missing men and women, devoted solely to providing closure to their families. The debt that is owed to these families is duly acknowledged, and it was with great reverence and formality that we were ushered back to the labs and secure areas of the building.

Sardiaa led us on a tour of the facility and told stories of JPAC’s successes over the years, carefully treading the line between her exultation of the science of their work and her awareness of the bittersweet nature of their successes. Her compassion and energy for our individual cause, her conviction that ours was a groundbreaking case, and her utter respect for my father’s loss were compelling, and when we were finished she felt like family. It is not like me or my father to welcome a stranger so easily into our personal experience, especially if that experience is difficult or painful. Indeed I had refused a British documentarian the opportunity to accompany us on this visit to JPAC only a few weeks before, simply to protect my father’s privacy and to hold sacred what it was that we were doing. But my father grasped Sardiaa’s hand and spoke to her in a way that told me she was in. Forever. If ever she needed anything. If ever we could be there for her in the way she’d been there for us… Yes, she was in, and I was never more grateful for a person’s grace and sensitivity than I was then.

The moments we spent together in the presence of my grandfather’s remains were ones I will never forget. After having taken each piece of bone from its Ziploc bag with such delicacy one would think she was handling robin’s eggs, Sardiaa ushered even the scientists in their lab coats out of the room, so that we could be alone. The silence and the whiteness of the space, the way my dad struggled with tears that surprised him in their intensity and relentlessness, it was all very surreal, and yet I felt entirely grounded, like we belonged there. “If you’ve never touched your dad, you know,” he said as he reached to touch the bone fragments. And I did know. And it was not only about his dad but about the whole convolution of his life, of the changes put in place by the extraction of this man from it. It was baffling. I touched the bones then, too. It was shared loss, loss at the cellular level. Representation of change. What might have been. What was. And I touched my dad, too. I hugged him. Hard. It was then that I felt Rosie’s ghost slip out from between us. She didn’t mean to be there, I knew. Perhaps I had set her there in my obsessive interest in her past and our shared history. In the countless poems I had written to define what seemed nameless to me but wholly integrated in my own identity, my own self.

When we finally reached Dallas and stood on the tarmac as the coffin was lowered from the cargo compartment of the airplane, I stood with my arm looped in my father’s arm. I felt us as inseparable. I knew him in a way that I could never adequately describe with words, though I knew even then that I would make it my mission to try. Something had healed between us, and I was grateful to the man whose remains were here encompassed in a green wool blanket beneath his army uniform with all its decorations. 52 years after his death, and he was still changing lives, still having a profound impact on us. Ours is only one story of conciliation around this event. My father’s sweet Uncle Carl, Gordie’s brother, sent a card in the week following the service, thanking us for being present at this “bittersweet pickle of a time.” I have begun a correspondence with my cousin Johnny Cope, Gordie’s oldest son’s boy, who followed his grandfather and his father in military service as an aviator. His experience, standing by the graveside in his dress blues, honoring our grandfather and perhaps for the first time understanding even in small part, what his father lost as a child, is a story in itself.

Back at JPAC in Hawaii I had placed two leis of tuberose inside the coffin, on the pillow. I had been asked if I wanted them pinned inside, and I had said no, because I knew they would surely wilt and need to be removed once in Texas. Six days later, it seemed to me miraculously, those leis were still white and alive with the fragrance of the islands, and they remained in the coffin for the service. They are buried with my grandfather, Troy Gordon Cope. They are my thank you to him. For teaching my dad about sacrifice and in his way, about how to love. For healing our wounds, so many years after he left this earth.

I believe in the great love between him and my Grandma Rosie. She did not attend his services in Dallas. Indeed it is difficult for her, health wise and emotionally, to leave the confines of her house these days. But she was there. I felt her. When the F-15’s of my grandfather’s own 335th Fighter Squadron, flew overhead in the missing man formation, I felt her in the movement of the air around my ears, and as I gasped to see the fourth pilot disappear vertically into the clouds. She was there, represented subtly by the red rose in the white bouquet my mother had ordered for the ceremony.

I think she knew-- the day he was proclaimed Missing in Action. She knew he was gone, and it was then she began to float, hover in the air rather than occupy the body she had worn with him. I sometimes still hope that she will find herself. Reunite body, mind and spirit. Recreate the trinity of the woman my grandfather loved and prayed to rejoin after his last mission, scheduled only a few short months after his last letter to his brother Slim. He had written of taking his boys fishing and of his love for Rosie. She was so beautiful, he had said, and his adoration pervaded the letter that was ultimately returned to Uncle Slim, along with his own final letter to his little brother. I hope secretly that she will finally speak, finally give me the stories I have always wanted to hear and that would give my father the answers to all of his questions. And yet this experience, this crazily anachronistic occurrence, has left me satisfied, and it has given my father the thing he has always needed, it turns out. The chance to touch—his father, the truth, his own hurt, and finally, his daughter.

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