My Name is Bill and I am Dying

My name is Bill and I am dying. I suppose if I were in a twelve step program there would be a chorus of "Hi Bill!" but there isn't. You see, there is no twelve step program for guys like me who are dying; we do this alone. That's the thing that bothers me the most: I can't decide if I'm more upset by the fact that I'm dying or the fact that I'm alone.

The reason I'm dying is that I can't breathe. I have something called "chronic obstructive pulmonary disease" that the hospice nurse calls COPD. I just call it emphysema or because I smoked a pack of cigarettes every day for 55 years. When I explained to my daughter that my lungs were getting hard and inflexible she said: "Well Pop, why should your lungs be any different from the rest of you?" It's funny how the things that made me feel like an adult have turned on me: the cigarettes, the booze, the jokes. Maybe I won't be so upset to leave this world because I hardly know it. The world where I fit in died a long time ago.

I should probably begin at the beginning and tell you where I started. I was born in 1923 in a small town in Massachusetts; don't blame me for this, I didn't have any choice. My parents did the best they knew but it was hard for them. They were still new to this country, the customs, and the language. Years later my father told me that we all had to grow up together and learn how to do things. The first thing I really remember was when the stock market crashed 1929. I didn't know what the stock market was but they said it wasn't like a plane or a train where we could see the wreckage. But it did have all of our money and it must have gotten burned up or something because my mother told me that we lost all of it in the crash. So did everyone else we knew, even the few rich ones. A few years later my father lost his job and that was somehow related. That must have been some crash because everyone was poor after that. I don't know what we would have done without the monsignor at church. Somehow he found the money to make sure all the families at St. Polycarp's had enough food and he kept the Catholic school open. God I wish I knew how he did that. He seemed larger than life back then, and he still does. I wonder how he faced death.

I never liked school and kept telling my parents that it made more sense for me to drop out and bring in some money. Most of the adults I knew didn't finish high school and I don't remember anyone who went to college except the priests and doctors. I knew I wasn't smart enough for any of that and I hated sitting a classroom with the endless cycle of learning, testing, and forgetting. I also hated seeing my father work dawn to dusk with the WPA to keep a roof over our head when I could have been helping. When I remember the 1930s that's what I remember: being hungry and scared and fighting with my parents about school. They kept saying that I would make more money if I finished school but we needed it right now. Finally in 1940 I wore them down and dropped out of school after the 11th grade. I got a job at the paper mill and the first day I brought home my pay was the first time I felt like a man. I'll never forget how proud I felt giving the money to my mother. The economy was improving but we were still a long way from being comfortable.

I hadn't really given any thought to where I would go next, as it turns out I didn't decide. I went to mass on December 7, 1941 just like I always did and we were just sitting down for Sunday dinner when our neighbor Mrs. LaChance knocked on our door and told us the Japs had bombed some place called Pearl Harbor. She was one of the few people in our tenement who had a radio and we were used to getting our news from her. It sounds funny to say this but my father's first question was: "What country is Pearl Harbor in?" I had barely ever been out of the state; Hawaii seemed like it was on the other side of the moon. About 30 of us crowded around Mrs. LaChance's radio that day trying to understand what happened and what it all meant. Finally one of my friends said what nobody wanted to admit: "Looks like we're all going to war now. I hope we win because I don't want to have to learn Jap." It's funny how I'm not even supposed to use the word "Jap" now but nobody thought anything of it then. At least we knew who the bad guys were. The next day most of us went down to the recruiting office and signed up. A few went to the Navy and Marines and a few decided to wait until they were drafted. I signed up because I didn't want anyone to think I was afraid to fight. I was though. That night Fr. Chartier said mass for all of us who were going to fight. The memory of the people that night who promised to pray for us kept me going through some awful times in the next few years. I know people who get to this part and want to know what it was like to be in battle, but I'm not going to talk about it. There's no way to describe what combat is like and it just brings up painful memories. If I could bottle the sleepless nights and nightmares and sell them, I'd be a rich man.

The one thing I do want to talk about was the day at the end of boot camp when there was a pack of cigarettes left on my bunk. If there was one day in my life I wish I could live over again, it's that one. One of my buddies told me that the tobacco company was giving them out free to all GI's and it seemed like a patriotic thing at the time. I don't know if they knew what those coffin nails would do to us but I stopped believing their denials a long time ago. Anyway, I unwrapped my first pack of cigarettes and lit up. It didn't feel like much at the time but they told me it would help digestion and calm my nerves. I didn't go another day without lighting up until 7 years ago when I just couldn't inhale enough to smoke. I lost track of how many times I tried to quit before then, and my kids tell me that I damaged their lungs too; something they call "2nd hand smoke." Hell it's not the only way they think I ruined their lives. They won't let me plead ignorance on this one either.

The other gift I got from the army was the chance to see parts of the world I had only heard about. Boot camp was in Biloxi, Mississippi and the train trip was incredible. I had never been in something moving for that long and we all just stared out the window like we were sitting still and the land was moving. Then I went to Europe; it wasn't the vacation people dream about but being in Paris after it was liberated from the Nazis made it all worth it. I knew that for the rest of my life I could say: "I was in there." The army gave me a front row seat to experiences and places that were beyond my dreams to that point. I remember thinking that when I had children I would bring them to Paris so they could see what I saw. Chalk up another dream that never happened.

When I finally came home again in 1946 I was a different man. I felt pride that I was a part of making the world safe again. We all talked about defeating evil, making sure names like Tojo, Hitler, Mussolini, and the rest were footnotes to history. We had answered our country's call in desperate times and we knew future generations would thank us for all that we sacrificed. If only that were true. When I first got back to town I didn't even need my uniform; everyone knew who I was. My money was no good at the local bar and people I barely knew stopped me on the street to thank me for what I did; I'd give my right arm to have that feeling these days. Maybe all the time I spent in the bar wasn't a good idea, but it was a place where I always felt welcome. There were always people to talk to and I developed a taste for good scotch. I don't think I drank more than anyone else, that's just the way it was. There were always drunks around (I know, the word now is alcoholics) but I never missed a day of work and I was never arrested. You have to understand how it was back then: it was nothing to enjoy a few pops and you wouldn't think of going to a social event without at least having a few beers. So this is another thing this disease has taken away from me: I haven't had a drink in 4 years. It's crazy when you think about it, but all the medication I take isn't supposed to be mixed with alcohol and the last drink I had almost did me in.

Anyway, back to the days when my life worked. Like most people I knew I expected to get married and settle down. With all the upheaval of the depression and the war it never seemed like there was the opportunity for normal life but now that the war was over and I was back to work. Helen and I had gone to school together but I didn't much notice her at the time. I would see her at church where she sang in the choir; I started making a point of going to the mass where she sang. I asked her if I could walk her home and we started dating. This story is pretty common and one of the priests later told me that the first 5 years after the war he felt like he did nothing but weddings and baptisms. I didn't think much about it, but when we got married in 1947 I just expected we'd be together Ôtill death do us part. That's what we promised. She didn't smoke but didn't seem to mind that I did and she would have a beer on a hot day. By 1952 we had two children and I had bought a small house. I had had a few promotions at the paper mill and life seemed good to me. When I think about the 1950s I think about raising children, working, bringing home my paycheck and mowing the lawn. Dull stuff, but I think back on those old days and can't believe how good it was. Mowing the lawn may seem like a chore, but I loved it. My father never got to mow his lawn and I remember how proud he was of me when I bought a house that had a yard. That was a pride I never was able to pass to my son. I wonder if he has a yard now. I also think the time I spent alone with my lawnmower I was working out some of the bad memories from the war. We never talked about this at the VFW but I wasn't the only one who cut the lawn sometimes before it needed it.

I'm not sure when things began to change but I think it probably started when John Kennedy was assassinated. That day was bad enough but it seems like before that time we knew what the rules were. Those were days when the enemy was far away and spoke a different language. Where right was right and wrong was wrong. Where people did what they were told. Where nobody had heard of a place called Vietnam.

I know, I know, John Kennedy's assassination didn't ruin my life, but it seems like my life has never been the same as it was before that day in 1963.

My son was born in 1948. I'll never forget how proud and humbled I was the night he was born. I wanted to go out and shout to the world: "I have a son!" Growing up he a normal kid. We were able to send him to Catholic school, he was an altar boy, and I always hoped he'd be the first member of our family to go to college. He was 15 when Kennedy was killed and we stayed up late into the night talking about it. He was terrified and thought this was the beginning of the end of the world; this was the first national tragedy that he had ever experienced. I loved him so much that night. I told him about Pearl Harbor and my fears (when I wasn't much older) that we would be conquered by Japan. We talked about fear and hope, doubt and faith, and he talked about the dreams he had for his life. This was probably the last meaningful discussion we had.

He graduated from high school a year and a half later but by then it was becoming clear that he didn't want to go to college. He had always been a decent student and I didn't think much of it, but he told me that he didn't see any point in going to college. I accepted it but reminded him that he would probably be drafted and that more and more troops were going to Vietnam. He knew he needed to get a job if he wanted to live at home and he got a job as a night watchman at another factory. It wasn't much of a job and hoped it would be the kick on the pants he needed to go to college. God knows that job would have motivated me to get out.

I worked days and he worked nights. We were both around most evenings and got into the habit of watching Walter Cronkite together; a friend of mine says that was our first mistake. It was like everywhere you looked there was conflict. If it wasn't the negros (I know, I know, I mean blacks or Afro Americans or whatever) trying to vote or the Mexicans in California unionizing it was the college students protesting the war. I never understood that these boys were exempt from the draft and instead of using that time to study and learn, they were out protesting. Anyway my world was pretty small then and I didn't think much about conflicts hundreds or thousands of miles away. My son sure did though and didn't have much patience with me when he started yelling at the TV. He had all these plans to go to Alabama or California and be "part of this" whatever "this" is. I didn't know how he could do all of this and keep his job but it didn't matter because all he did was talk about it.

We also started arguing about Vietnam. I don't know why it was so hard for him to understand that this was the first warning shot of Communism's world domination. He just kept going on and on about how this was an evil war and we had no business butting into a civil war. That was bad enough but then he started talking about going to Canada if he got drafted. In my worst nightmares I never thought I'd have a draft dodger for a son. I never thought he'd do it, but he did.

I don't remember exactly when but I think it was sometime in 1968 when he got drafted. Funny how I volunteered for war instead of waiting for the draft because I didn't want anyone to think I was afraid to go to war. Now my son not only waits to be drafted, but won't even go then. I didn't want him to go to war and I was afraid of what might happen to him if he went but I still can't believe he ran. He kept to himself a lot those days and I didn't know what he was planning. Then one morning my wife sat me down and handed me a note. He said he was going to Canada to avoid service, that he knew I wouldn't approve, and hoped that someday I'd understand. He was right about one thing: I didn't approve. I still don't. The hardest part was he never had the guts to face me and I've never seen him since. By the time my wife showed me the letter he was already on his way to Canada and out of my life. There have been chances to see him but by that time it was too late.

This was probably the hardest time for the whole family; everyone seemed to be angry at everyone. My daughter was still in high school and even she blamed me, as if it was my decision to run away from responsibility. I was so ashamed that I avoided my friends, stopped going to the VFW and did my best to stay away from places where people could comment on my failure as a father. It's still hard to talk about this and I can't believe I haven't seen him in over 30 years. I wonder how he is doing.

My son's decision to go to Canada was probably the beginning of the end of my marriage. Right, I know, I'm not supposed to blame the failure of my marriage on someone else, but that's just how it began. My wife didn't like his going to Canada but said she understood his decision to go. She even told me she'd worry less with him there rather than Vietnam and that made it OK. She made it sound like I wouldn't have worried about him in combat. For Christ's sake I was in combat and know what it's like. We got to the point of being weary of the arguing. She didn't think I knew, but she was in contact with him. She made arrangements with one of her friends to be the go between so his letters never came to our house. I pretended not to know this was going on. Our marriage was different after that; no matter what we did or said to each other, Canada was always there. I remember sitting next to my wife at our daughter's high school graduation and all I could think about was what it was like when we were close enough to make children.

Things were also different with my daughter. She was only 16 when all this happened and I didn't talk about this because I didn't think it affected her; boy has she told me how wrong I was. She graduated from high school in 1970 and at least she went to college. There were days when I thought she was going (and spending my tuition money) only so she could protest the war but I have to give her credit: she did finish college and now she's the only one who keeps in touch with me. She has the only grandchildren I know.

After my daughter went to college my wife and I were left alone in the house. Funny how when the kids were little we dreamed of these days. We had plans to travel the country. Now things were so strained between us that we barely talked. She had her job, I had mine, and that was about it. After a few years she started taking classes at the local community college and frankly I supported it because it got her out of the house. On the nights she was home I started going to the VFW or Knights of Columbus Hall. When she finished college she asked me for a divorce and I didn't even fight it. I talked with the priest because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to go to church if I was divorced. Maybe part of me thought that I could use excommunication as a sledgehammer to keep her in the marriage but he explained that being divorced wouldn't be a problem. Another thing that had changed. God, when I was a kid I never knew anyone that got a divorce; that was for some of those Hollywood starlets, not for someone like me. So after 26 years and 2 children my marriage left me too.

There's not much more to write. I moved out to an apartment because I didn't need much and I didn't want to be paying for rooms that wouldn't get any use. I worked until I retired in 1988. When I finally retired I didn't do any of the things I planned on doing because I didn't have anyone to do them with. A few years after my divorce I had a girlfriend for a few years but that didn't last. I wasn't sure what I was going to do with the rest of my life: then COPD answered that for me. The last few years I was working I began to notice that I got out of breath more easily but I assumed it was because I ate too much and didn't exercise enough. I started getting bronchitis a few times a year and it was getting harder and harder to kick. I don't even remember how I got the news about this. So I sit here and watch TV and breathe: that's my full time job. The last time I saw my wife was in 1980 when her mother died and I felt like I needed to go. It was awkward to see her with her new husband but she looked happy and I understand from my daughter that they like to travel.

So that's my story. I have just one question: can somebody tell me how this happened to me? How I followed the rule but the rule didn't follow me? How my life shrank to a few rooms, an oxygen machine, and occasional visits from my grandchildren? The nun who brings me communion keeps saying that the sufferings of this world will only make the next one all the sweeter. I hope she's right. It sure feels bitter now. My best respite now is sleep and the promise the nuns made to me when I was a child: when I get to Heaven I won't even remember how bad this was.