Thanks, Dad

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The Field of Honor flags hang still as I walk among them, their stripes melded together with not a hint of breeze to break the humid, stifling July early evening. Yesterday, they fluttered and flew. Today, nothing. I wish they would, walking between poles in the slightly curved display of hundreds of flags.

It would be a better photo op, at least.

A few years ago, I zip tied these flags to the poles, along with a couple dozen other volunteers in the VFW multi-purpose room. I purchased one for my dad. I thought he would be proud to have his name there, giving passing people the chance to thank him for what he had done long ago on a ship in the South Pacific.

I toured that ship last summer. I walked the same decks he had as a boy in 1944. Yes, a boy he certainly was. Sixteen year old—probably the age of one of the cafeteria servers in the black and white photos that hung in the bowels of the ship-turned-museum. For all I knew, that photo was my dad. I didn’t know what he looked like at sixteen. I didn’t know what he had done on that ship.

I don’t know how much of his choice to enlist resulted from patriotism and how much stemmed from a deep desire to get away from home. Regardless, for two years that teenaged boy who would be my father walked those decks, heard those guns, ducked enemy fire, and committed acts of both bravery and horror of which he never, ever spoke.

Maybe the flags hang silent for a reason.

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For the first time in the twenty-two years we’ve lived in our little community, I didn’t march in the July 4th parade. (Technically, it’s July 3rd here, but who wants to be technical?) I heard the celebration from my backyard, the usual pre-parade chaos of sirens and drums, not quite ready for prime time. I usually heard it from a much closer proximity.

I’ve walked that parade route as a 4H volunteer, a community theater board member, and, most recently, as a library participant. Possibly as a garden club member, too, tossed in one year for fun. I’ve walked it in rain and in scorching heat. Once, we walked it in a thunderstorm, but that disbanded quickly, and I spent a couple hours locating my children who had fled the 4H float and taken refuge in that same VFW hall.

It seems community can’t get rid of me here. Part of me missed the chaos and camaraderie; part of me appreciated the relative quiet and definitely the air conditioning.

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Seventy-five years ago, my dad stepped on a ship that must have been the largest structure that southern-Illinois-bred boy had ever seen, sporting a new buzz cut and a uniform doubtless too big. He fought a regime that only believed in human dignity insofar as the humans looked like white northern Europeans and thought like they were instructed. Which means, they didn’t think. They chose to look away. They chose to scapegoat their personal fears and woes. They chose to excavate multiple reasons why what was happening must be so. It had to be a deep dig.

There is nothing, nothing on the face of this earth or in heaven, that justifies treating an image of God as anything less than that. We must dig far to find those things, because they do not lie anywhere easy in God’s good world.

A few years ago, I bought that flag and its memorial, waterproof pouch for my dad, and they put his name on it. They printed the years he served the US Navy, 1944-46, and I remembered that pouch when I walked the metal stairs and touched the cold bunks of the USS Iowa. What he did there died with him, but I knew he had grown up quickly in those years, and I knew he understood why he had gone.

This year, I chose not to walk the parade, because I could not step in time to a theme of “Let Freedom Ring” when it does not and is not for so many. When boys my father’s age on that boat are in cages and babies have to defend themselves in court. When parents who only want their children to live have them stolen instead. When people die because they dreamed of freedom, and even to request it was denied.

I wanted to, but I couldn’t.

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I think that choice also honored my dad. Dad believed in fairness. He believed in treating humans as fellow humans. He believed in fighting evil and naming it for what it was, even if that fight for him began more as a way to leave his parents’ difficult home than as a declaration of human rights. He believed Teddy Roosevelt.

He had seen what happens when we look away.

Rosie the Riveter, Home Built Sewers, and the Holy "I Can’t"

I can’t. Do you say those words often? I don’t. Like, never. “Yes, I can” runs in my veins like iron runs through our well water. I would have made a great Rosie the Riveter.
Not only don’t I ever say “I can’t,” but if someone says it to me (as in, “you can’t do that”), well, that’s probably the best motivation to ensure I will try.
I think this is a result of being the daughter of a man who built his own garage and laid his own septic tank. (That last one at night, on account of the law frowns on home built septics, apparently.) My dad repaired washers and dryers for a living. He didn’t exactly have a degree from the Ty Pennington School of Demolition and Carpentry. He just never knew he couldn’t do things, so he did them.
This stubborn inheritance may be part of the reason why, just prior to getting sick last June, my calendar included five speaking engagements, one vacation for five, a writer’s conference, a pastor’s conference, two kids’ graduations, a weekend road trip, normal work, a wedding . . . and a partridge in a pear tree. I’m certain there was no connection between that and the getting sick thing. None whatsoever.
All this to say—I’ve been saying “I can’t” a lot the last five months. And I’ve hated it.
I can’t commit to a mission trip. I can’t take a walk around the lake. I can’t promise I’ll make a two-hour drive. I can’t sit up at the table to play a board game. I can’t sign on to help promote your book. I can’t even get off the stupid couch to turn off the TV. Yes, it’s been that bad. Friends I’ve wanted to support haven’t been supported by me. Kids I’ve wanted to spend time with have had to do their things without me. And I’ve rebelled against the I cant’s. Oh, how I have rebelled. Inwardly, because it’s tough to rebel too strenuously when “I can’t get off the couch” is the one “I can’t” that’s absolutely incontrovertible.
I’ve never known the complete, frustrated helplessness that is physical disability, nor the depth to which it can affect your outlook. (Not to mention your disposition. Those people who suffer sweetly through illness? Yeah, so not me. I’m a certified crank. True story.)
I knew I hated hearing “you can’t,” but I never knew how deeply I would despise saying “I can’t,” knowing it to be true, and feeling the fear of not knowing when it would not be.
I can’t” are two little words, containing an ocean of meaning, complexity, and emotion I never realized. I rebel at their truth. I don’t think I’m the only one.
In fact, I know I’m not, because that little incident in the Genesis Garden happened when two people looked at one another and thought, “Did He really say we can’t? I don’t like that.” And we all know how that ended.
No, being forced into I can’t because of physical limitations and fighting the limitations God created are not the same thing. But the former only exists because the latter occurred. On some level, the “I cant’s” we hate are all a result of the “I won’t” chosen so long ago.
All this time, I’ve been trying to figure out what I can learn from the past five months, and maybe it’s simpler than I’m making it. Maybe, it’s that discontent with the results of that one big, disastrous “I will” is OK. Not just OK, but encouraging. A sign of life. A proof that we know in our being this is not how it was meant to play out.
Maybe it’s OK to hate our I cant’s. Maybe they’re a reflection of our restlessness with the way things are versus the way they should be. We know we were not made for sickness and disability and frustration. We know the world was not created for hunger and cruelty and greed. One huge cry of frustration at our “I cant’s” really may be a healthy cry. A cry of birth, signaling our anger at not being able to heal the ills around us.
And after the angry cry of birth comes the living. The refusal to give in to the cant’s and the agreement that whatever we can matters.
I know someone with a chronic illness who so often can’t. Yet when she can, she fights human trafficking with every ounce of her passion. Are the two connected? Does her frustration at physical difficulty interplay with the willingness to fight against an evil the world was not meant to hold? Oh, I think it does.
I think our real limits can always fuel our discontent with unjust limits. It should not surprise us, really.

CS Lewis felt and explained our discontent often.

“The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing — to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from — my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back.” 
Unlike my friend, I am going to get better. This will be over, and I’ll be back to being my contrary active self. But when “Yes I can” is back, I hope it fuels a different sort of discontent. One not so much focused on me but on fixing what has been broken and retrieving what has been lost.


What have you discovered through your “I cant’s”?