I open my eyes and Buffalo Bill Cody, or Cody, as we call him, is wagging his tail wildly in the bed next to mine. My dad sits next to him, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, and I shyly wave at him, but he doesn’t wave back. I lean forward and wave bigger, insistent that he acknowledge that I am awake too. He mirrors the gesture and whispers “what time is it?” My phone is scrounged from its home under the pillow. “3:30.” Cody jumps from bed and licks my face, and I jump from bed too, like a kid with presents to unwrap.
We coax my sleepy mother into the car and go. At a gas station coffee stop I pick out half a dozen festive doughnuts. I count down the miles to DC, and bounce my knees to the Allman brothers. As the co-pilot, I am also the tour guide. “On the right we have the Potomac River! The site of something significant in the Civil War probably. Robert E. Lee, you know, etcetera etcetera.” Dad nods quietly, Mom smiles.
And then we’re there, at the place I imagine my dad’s been imagining for the last thirty years. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” he’d confided to me on the drive over, “but my shrink didn’t think I was ready.” “I’m glad we’re doing it. I think it’s a good idea,” I’d insisted.
Though we’ve begun crossing the damp grass, I can’t see the Wall, but I see the binder of names at the edge of the walkway. “Where is it?” I demand, peering through trees and dimness.
“It’s there,” my father chokes, and I am startled. He sounds like he’s drowning, and the raw pain on his face means suddenly I’m drowning too. I reach for his arm, the way I did as a child when we walked into the waves of Daytona Beach.
Together we weep and stumble forward. My dad’s breath is frantic though his mouth betrays only the slightest quiver, as if he’d be perfectly fine if only there were more oxygen in the park at this hour. I scan for the names I’d researched, boys from the town where my Dad and I were both born.
“Here’s Arthur Dewey,” I whisper and point. Dad chokes and squints as he traces the outline of the name. He tells me Arthur Dewey’s nickname when they were in school together, before they shipped out, but I forget it immediately. I do not want to know the man on the Wall, just the one crouching next to me. I listen to my father’s quiet sobbing, and I fantasize about pummeling the tan bouncing joggers that pass in a parade of neon indifference.
We walk to the statue of the three soldiers. “Pink towels. Pink fucking towels,” Dad mutters. “I told your grandma I needed towels, because mine had dissolved in the heat, and she sent me pink fucking towels and I had to trade them, because what was I supposed to do with pink towels?”
I am instantly indignant. I can picture my grandma’s fear and love as she packed those towels, and why does he have to be so concerned with his masculinity? Surely a pink towel is better than no towel.
But as I look closely at the towel draped around the bronze statue soldier’s neck, I realize that a flash of pink would be an obvious target in a jungle, and it was camouflage – not machismo – that motivated him. I wonder how many times in my life I will mistake my father’s meaning. I wonder at the gulf of understanding between us.
Cody snarls at the bronzed boy faces, their hollow eyes locked in perpetual alarm at something unseen. “What’s wrong with him?” I ask, wondering if there are ghosts here. “Pink fucking towels,” my dad tells the dog, and we walk back to the Wall.
We pinpoint the name of Ed Miles, one of the few men memorialized on the Wall even though he technically survived the war. In Vietnam Ed lost three of his limbs and an eye, but he came home and did beautiful things anyway. Ed Miles was an activist who found, organized, and donated prosthetic limbs to land mine victims around the world, and his organization won a Nobel Peace Prize for their big, world-changing work.
He did smaller things too, like counseling Vietnam vets. When Ed and Dad met in the mid eighties, it was about a decade after their return from Vietnam. My father was beginning to accept that he was an alcoholic, but he still didn’t know how to live. Ed helped him heal, and was the Best Man at my parents’ wedding. I think Ed made it possible for my family to exist. And eventually he died from his war wounds and they carved his name into a wall.
I touch it and pray a thank you. I whisper to my reflection that I will try to be more like Ed. We walk on.
“Where is Anthony Quint? Look up Anthony Quint,” Dad says with sudden urgency. I’ve noted the names of several dead friends, but this one is unfamiliar to me. We return to the binder, and heave the first half of the laminated pages aside in search of Q’s, finding the coordinates we need. Mom and I trace our fingers down the slippery granite, counting the rows, racing each other to find Anthony first, but we both lose. Dad steps between us and points again and begins gasping for air more desperately than ever.
“He was my commanding officer, the only one I really knew. He was checking on us to make sure we were okay. At first I didn’t know that he’d died. I didn’t even realize I’d been hurt too. When I went to find him he’d been crushed. He was crushed so much he’d turned all black.”
I squeeze my dad’s huge mechanic’s hand, willing him to crush me a little bit too, to physicalize the pain of this moment. He pulls away and pushes his fingers into the grooves of the letters, making imprints in his skin.
“I’m sorry you died,” he whispers. He says more things but every word is a labored gulp.
“I’m sorry Daddy,” I whisper. “Poor Dad,” Mom whispers. We look at each other and my eyes ask her “what do we do?” and her eyes say that there’s nothing for us to do.
We head back towards the car, and I think it’s over, and I’m not really there because I’m looking at the sunrise behind the Washington Monument, and wondering if I am a good daughter, and wondering who would I be if I weren’t a veteran’s daughter?
Dad stops abruptly, turns, and walks back down the length of wall one more time. For the first time I let him go alone. I am arrested by the vision of him and his wall self walking together, almost touching as his real-Dad-hand reaches for the faded mirror-hand in the Wall.
I’ve glimpsed the part of him that is black and twisted by fear in his awful PTSD flashbacks or moments of cold unreachability. As his child, I couldn’t understand or forgive this part of him. I only wanted my real Dad, the giant who held me above the waves when I thought I was drowning.
Now at the Wall I see his shadow self walking in step beside him, and I realize this dark, blurry, wall-Dad, obscured by the names of dead boys, is who I am here to see. Even though it took the air right out of his lungs to do it, he brought us here so we could acknowledge it together.
We quietly make the climb back to the city, Dad stopping every few feet to pet Cody and slow his breathing. We finally emerge at the edge of the great lawn, and I feel nothing but gratitude.