I’ll tell him how I nodded and smiled when classmates said I was so normal compared with the crazy veterans from the news, self-medicating through it all, ignoring the post-traumatic stress diagnosis the nice V.A. lady had given me because I was fine, not normal but fine, and I could handle the not-fine parts by myself, as I always had.
I’ll tell my son it wasn’t until him that I accepted my new self and returned to the V.A.
The literary community I’m now part of would ascribe much of this to militant capitalism, to toxic masculinity. I don’t necessarily disagree. But someone in this broken world needs to work with their hands and not their ideas. Someone in this broken world needs to do the dirty work, whether that means carrying the gun, showing up to open the laundromat or caring for critically ill Covid-19 patients.
Honor? Providing for one’s family? Wanting to be part of something bigger than oneself? These are not archaic notions, and believing they are is not morally large but humanly small, a sign of unique American privilege. How we utilize the best instincts of our youth is a responsibility that belongs to us all as citizens of a republic.
We want for our children so much more than this earth can offer. Or, as Porter wrote in another time of plague and war, not with a little sense of irony and impossibility, “If our children are spared these things, then let us say with all reverence that these dead have not died in vain — the war, the war, the WAR to end WAR, war for Democracy, for humanity, a safe world forever and ever.”
Values such as honor and selfless service are often ascribed military values. This has been rightly celebrated in post-9/11 America. As the coronavirus continues to grip our country, one positive that may emerge is a social awareness that courage and service aren’t military virtues but human virtues, ones being exhibited daily by nurses, truck drivers, grocery clerks and pharmacists, all holding the line right now, because they must.
Thinking back to 2017 now, I realize that “It’s not always like this” was a foolish promise. I have no idea what awaits my son’s lifetime, or his America. It could well always be like this, or God forbid, worse. Good intentions are no match for the harsh, unexpected gales of existence.
I will keep this promise, though. I promise to tell my son that whatever he does, wherever he goes, he’s to remember what it means to be alive. Through all the crises that await, he’s to notice the weather and the colors of the day. Hear the shouts of children playing. Then hold those sounds, deep in his soul, for when he needs them most.