I always feel a little sad on Memorial Day, not just for all the brave people that died to preserve our country, but I also miss my stepfather, Al Johnson, who passed away ten years. Al grew up in Montana where his grandfather was a local sheriff. At six years old Al was taken to meet President Franklin Roosevelt. President Roosevelt was in a wheel chair with three strapping Secret Service Agents protecting him. When the president asked little Al what he wanted to be when he grew up, Al looked up at the Agents, and said, “I want to be a protector.”
Eight years later, he ran away, lied about his age and joined the Marines. He was sent to Iwo Jima, where he received medals for bravery. He was a career Marine and spent seven tours in Vietnam, where again he won many more medals.
Ironically, when he died it was not his war injuries that killed him, but asbestos. He was extensively exposed to asbestos in Vietnam where it was used in the construction of all manner of tents, barracks etc.
In the last stages of his illness, which was compounded by stage 4 lung cancer, the doctor told us we should convince Al to move into hospice mode as he was suffering so much. My mother said bluntly, “He won’t listen unless he hears it from the horse’s mouth.”
When the doctor told Al that he was dying, Al smiled sadly but joked, “I guess it would have made no difference if I had been a saint.” My mother wept, and went out to have a cigarette. Yep. A cigarette.
When the doctor left and we were alone, Al looked at me, reached for my hand and gave it a squeeze, “Are you going to be okay?”
It was so like him to be worried about me, when he was the one dying.
I attempted a smile. “You have always been my protector, what will I do when you’re gone?” Al had always been the one who would help me make repairs on my house, come over at 4:00 am to kill a water bug or a mouse, and even worked on my films when I was in college. To this day the cat porch he built in the window is still functional.
“You’ll be fine – haven’t I taught you well?” It was true that each time he’d helped me with a task, he would teach me to be able to do it the next time. I nodded, and forced tears back. “What did you mean about not being a saint?”
“They teach you to try to be good so that you’ll get into heaven, but the unspoken promise is that if you are good you will live long and die well. I never believed it, and I turned out to be right.”
“But your whole life practically was devoted to doing good.”
“But not in my spare time. I partied, fought, danced and loved.”
“And you think this is why you are suffering so much?”
“No and that’s my point to you: You’re going to die one way or the other, so you may as well do whatever you feel, so long as you don’t hurt anyone else.”
He lay back exhausted. The last thing he said to me was, “Enjoy every moment – it goes fast.”
I pass that thought onto you, dear reader: “Enjoy every moment – it goes fast.”
Copyright ©2014 by Marilyn Horowitz