The air is thick, the day seemingly endless, but people’s moods are lightened by the sound of children somewhere shouting, the stirring hiss of cicadas, and the clouds so distant that no one would think twice about a rainy day. There is the ceremony in the cemetery. The ones I walked with my relatives every year down Aldrich Street and make our way to the heart of Gowanda. Sunny days. Children loudly making new friendships over clover bracelets and monkey bar flips. Adults standing with their arms folded taking quick glances at the irreverent children and a second glance to scout for the children’s negligent parents. Though the adults always looked impatient, they never seemed truly engaged at these ceremonies. No, I think their minds were stuck on the extra beer that is in the fridge. Yet quiet is what they chose. And when the guns shot fire in salute, all eyes become lowered.
When I was young I remember looking around, I wonder why everyone so quiet? Why slow down on this day? What’s wrong with people? Everyone is acting like someone died.
People have died. That was the reason that in high school, students were ushered through the doors of the gymnasium to find a seat in the Memorial Day assembly. One after another, students were handed red, polyester poppy flowers that were attached to some green plastic stem that acted well as an awl and better as a prod to jab their neighbor with. Usually such an act of deviousness would result in the smirking approval of peers and the stare of death from the teachers. To me, it wasn’t worthwhile; after all, although I was always a bit clueless towards the gravity of death and valor, my parents did bring me up to be respectful—“at least stay quiet,” they would demand.
As I have learned in being a teacher, instilling empathy in a child is a difficult task. However, hoping to reach urban students by blaring country music through quivering speakers buzzing out vibrantly strummed guitars that, to the unappreciative ear, lean towards audibly offensive levels of treble, would best corral support from at least the first two rows of bleachers. Otherwise, as was for my case, it was probable to witness many a student miserable and bored out of their mind at these assemblies. After everyone was seated, the music finally faded and someone would walk to the podium.
Historically, the speaker’s voice would always be hard to listen too. A voice that did not speak like angels, but rather like a voice strained by the emotional weight of talking to a crowd of apathetic teenagers, maybe they were just nervous to speak. And if the speaker’s voice did not register on levels more nasally than the last breathes from the whipped cream can, then it was the reverend’s baritone voice. The sort of speaker that made everyone’s body vibrate, but never quite shook the soul.
Every now and then I would look up from my hands to listen to a few boastful statements towards America and American soldiers. The person would say “our country,” “our soldiers,” but as far as I was concerned the only thing I owned and participated in at that time were what my parents gave me or the things that I bought. To the side of the stage, guardsmen and women dressed in their respective uniform, holding their chivalrous rifles in stoic reverence. In another direction, I could see students snickering, sleeping, or staring off, like me, into their own world. “It was 2:09 like twenty minutes ago,” I would think, writhing in a state of annoyance. Slowly the assembly went by. I twirled the flower in my hand into a propeller. I twirled every second of that assembly. I concluded my apathy by a long sigh of boredom.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I never took the poppy flower to heart. Or at least, the red, polyester plastic poppies that the school handed to every student. However, in my own garden this year, days before Memorial Day, orange poppies rose from the ground along with calendula and coreopsis. Orange, for as long as I’ve lived in Knoxville, has never held such substance until I saw these flowers. I could say I stared at the poppies for a long moment, but really it was an exchange of my heart and understanding that stopped time. Instead of just seeing light and texture, I saw memories and feelings of the families of veterans. Even further I saw landscapes changing, destroyed, disturbed, or just adapting.
A word for these images? Death.
Explained? Death not as in ending, but death as in the beginning of time transitioning.
The first thought that comes to mind is how every year poppies are grown to honor the fallen soldiers, every year those poppies drop more seed, and every year those seeds become one more flower to honor more of the dead. There is a meaninglessness that has been imposed on these flowers by virtue of war, but still holds value on its connection to death.
And yes there is death, but what of when people don’t die? As in to forever live with the sores of their experience? When I first began to ride my bike to and fro high school, my dad would scream at me, furious and afraid. “Well, what if you fall off? What if you die? What will your mother think?!” None of these things really sunk into me. After all, even now I still have never experienced a death of a love one. Unless you count the farm animals and pets that we had growing up. The inability to empathize hindered my ability to understand the depths of these possibilities. It was until my mother, calmly added, “and what if you don’t die? What if you end up paralyzed spending your years in a wheelchair?”
Such a drastic change to life fears me more than death. If transformation and change is valid way to see death, then by those fears I am inhibited. Friends throughout my life have made large changes, be it moving, life paths, or changing their complete identity. Closest to my heart is my father, a veteran of the Vietnam War, was a victim to the Draft. Though he did not die in war, something did die in him upon his time serving. Though his body was fully able, his soul was disabled and paralyzed by the screaming sounds that deafen his ability to even hear his children’s laughter. He was the one who didn’t want me to ride my bike. From what I know of him, I can understand his fear that motivates him to protect me from the unpredictable.
From stories that I’ve been told from my aunts, my dad had an energetic heart. He was still an idiot, but at least lovable. When he got back from war, he, like many of the 1.7 million soldiers drafted in the Vietnam War, was traumatized by the horrors of war. He did not return home as Elias Hatem Attea, Jr. No he was different, turned inside out, and felt the world in such a strange, formidable way.
As his second son and fifth child, I was exposed to the changes in his behavior and those effects on his children as he aged. Growing up, he was present on a very unpredictable basis. Sometimes he went out of town for weeks at a time, and sometimes, despite his physical presence, his emotional presence was not available to us children. In a way, his lack of presence made himself known. There was a void in the room, and I felt it, deeply so. What creates that void? An unhealed wound and a soul still agonizing over its injury.
Yes, a life that was torn apart from my dad, but all wounds must heal, if we let them do so. For my dad, I’m curious if he ever let those experiences heal. Somewhere in my mind, I believe that my dad never was able to heal those scars because he was never willing to remove the infliction. It’s painful, I can only imagine. People who’ve been injured by gunfire can choose to live with bullets in their body for reasons of cost of surgery or fear of pain. But every day that injury is felt, subtly altering the person’s day driven to humility or to be laid out in misery.
I think of my dad’s struggle to make amends with life, to accept the changes and move on, and then I think of his fear of me riding my bike. A small thing, seemingly, with large consequences possibly. As people we act on our consequences until we’ve been pinned by our injuries and every small movement stunts us with a sharp pain. What is the threshold for someone who has experienced such pain day-after-day? They must get acclimated to it, right? Perhaps, but that person still must be in pain.
In this country we honor our dead, but we neglect our aging and wounded. These sentiments can be seen visible by the way people acclimate to change. People grow old or have their lives altered and become a burden to others. Or, at least that is how such individuals become treated. We wait for the elderly or wounded to pass on so that we have to accept the news and move on in our life. Whether it is the person who has experienced a life altering event or the people who come to care and know those individuals, the process of acceptance is difficult to enact.
Acceptance is pulling out the shrapnel from the wound to begin the healing. Acceptance is also allowing yourself to bury the corpse that you had led around all these years. What if one doesn’t make amends to their current state? Well, if a corpse is not buried, then the buzzards will come to follow you, nipping at the soles of the body. One way or another death comes to instill its transition.
Like the sunrise or sunset, the world is flooded and washed in orange and red to signify transition. I have come to see that symbolism in the poppies that grow in my garden. It’s not just about honoring our dead, but accepting that nothing will be the same, but for that very reason the world continues to move.