Dear Dad: I'll Be Hearing You . . .
Monday, November 6, 2006
In a Delaware hospital, conveniently located right off Interstate 95, I walk into the intensive care unit looking for my father.
When I finally find him, after being given the wrong room number by the receptionist, I am grateful to see that he is perched straight up in his bed, facing the shower curtain that passes for a door in the ICU.
"You don't look so bad," I tell him, in the bantering tone we so often use with each other. My father raises a forefinger in greeting.
Attached to his finger is a small neon-red bulb that is supposed to monitor his pulse rate.
"ET, phone home," he says.
I smile at him, relieved. Despite Dad's having just had a tumor removed from the back of his brain, his well-honed sense of humor seems to be intact. Fortunately, his razor-sharp memory also seems unaffected.
Standing next to his bed, I think about how the preservation of memory has shaped our relationship. Throughout my childhood, Dad regaled me with stories of his stint in the Navy during World War II. The effect was so strong that I chose "The Caine Mutiny" by Herman Wouk as one of my favorite eighth-grade reads along with teen-romance novels by Betty Cavanna.
But it wasn't until more than four decades later that I decided to preserve his wartime memories in a more concrete way.
"I'd like to tape you," I had told him, explaining that this would be an "official" interview: I would be armed with a packet of questions from the Library of Congress's Veterans History Project.
On the drive from my home in Silver Spring to my parents' home in Wilmington, however, I started to worry that my father's initial receptiveness might dissolve into reticence or, even worse, the inability to take the whole idea seriously. Even as a 50-plus-year-old adult, I was still afraid of feeling like the little girl who would cry loudly and pitifully whenever her father teased her.
But as soon as I arrived, my parents welcomed me with stacks of photo albums, V-mail -- letters written on a special form that would be microfilmed to save shipping space, then enlarged at an overseas destination before delivery as a facsimile -- and a copy of a discharge document from the Navy Personnel Separation Center in Bainbridge, Md., for my father, Louis Brown.
While he signed the release form for the Library of Congress project, I set up the tape recorder.