A dear friend recently lost her husband, the love of her life. It’s one thing to know that someone you love is ill and his or her death is expected. However, to come home from work and find them gone is terrifying, and that is exactly what happened to her.
When the news finally got to me, I did what I had to do. I got in touch with my friend and told her I understood, probably more than some people would. My Van died while we were on vacation. One day he was by my side while visiting and enjoying family and friends. Then suddenly I was standing with my son Doug as Van passed on at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Reno.
My dear friend and I talked about grief, that terrible “thing” we are left with when we lose someone we care about. She had heard something that, as I remember, went like this; “Grief is the price you pay for love.” I smiled. How very, very true. God gives us the grace to handle terrible problems like this, as well as the continued ability to sleep, eat and manage to live on.
We find purpose in each and every day, for without this there would be little else. One special blessing — and for me it’s just that, a blessing — are the wonderful memories each and every one of us have during what is called “this life we live.” Often my boys — Van’s stepsons — talk about the lessons he taught them, fondly remembering the stories he told when they were fishing and hunting together in the Sierra Mountains.
Van talked freely about his early years growing up in New Jersey. He didn’t talk often about his war years and only when it wouldn’t cause us pain. However, he sometimes would open up when we were alone, especially at places sitting under the stars in some beautiful campground. It also helped when I’d given him a second scotch and water. He wasn’t inclined to talk about friends lost during those terrible war years.
One time when talking to the boys, Van recalled being friends with actors Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin. Like Van, they were Marine Corp Drill Instructors. There were a few times when I could tell he was having a bit of a problem with unpleasant memories, usually when something in a war movie hit a nerve. It was only then he would talk to me about actual events.
Van spoke about the freezing cold in Korea when, with buggles blowing, the Chinese would come down over the white snow-covered mountains, their uniforms looking like chocolate sauce completely covering the white. He said he always thought the same thing — “Today I die.” Van also spoke about his father holding his hand as he went with Van to enlist in WWII because he was underage.
Van said what it was like in Vietnam, before I’d married him, of his hiding in a rat-infested ditch to keep from being killed as bullets flew by. We moved to Cascade, Idaho in the early 1980s. The tiny town was all of 1,000 people. Van and I went to check things out, and found a bar sandwiched between a pharmacy and some other business. We sat down and ordered drinks.
Van spied chicken gizzards in a jar. We sat enjoying cocktails and those silly snacks. Then a great big young man came over, tapping Van on the shoulder. This “kid”said something about not wanting any Marines in their local bar. Somehow, there was no imagining Van was anything but a Marine. Van turned to him, putting down his glass, holding out his hand.
Van then said, “I fought in three wars, I don’t fight in bars. We just moved here and I’d like to shake your hand.” That young man didn’t know what to say. Most surprised, he suddenly laughed out loud, and shook Van’s hand. Then he bought us each a second drink. They stayed friends the entire time we lived in that quiet town.
Van preferred working outside. In the first seven years after military retirement, we lived in Fresno where he worked for their road department. California’s heat and fog drove us to Nevada where he worked in Myer’s Hardware in Carson City. We eventually moved to Idaho where he worked for the Forest Service. There’s more in my next column about the boys and Van camping in the mountains, and our move to Idaho.
Edna Van Leuven is a Churchill County writer and columnist. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.