My father’s funeral is this Friday, but I won’t be there. Just as I wasn’t there with him in the intensive care unit a few weeks ago. Or at the nursing home where he returned to die.
I can’t get to Boston in time to attend his funeral. Massachusetts has imposed a 14-day self-quarantine on those entering the state.
My father graduated from high school a semester early when he was 17 years old so that he could enlist in the Navy during World War II. He was assigned to the Marines as a Navy corpsman to treat the wounded. He participated in the capture of Iheya Island and then Okinawa, attached to combat team eight, Second Marine Division, in June and July 1945. And on Sept. 24, 1945, he disembarked from the USS Freestone in Nagasaki Harbor, as part of the first group of U.S. troops to enter Nagasaki after the second atomic bomb flattened the city, killed or wounded tens of thousands of Japanese civilians and ended the war. I would later learn that being a Navy corpsman required more than treating wounded American Marines (and Japanese people), it meant picking up body parts and trying to match them with others before putting them in bags to ship home to the U.S.
My father rarely spoke about his time in the military while I was growing up. When he did, it was to show me things like how to make a bed or fold a Marine blanket the way they had taught him in boot camp. But as I got older and learned more about the Pacific campaign, I realized that the lesson my father continued to teach was the one he had learned from the Marines: keep going, just keep going.
After the war, he was a complicated man who lived a simple life. He was lucky enough to get a job at the Westinghouse Corporation in Boston in a large factory that made industrial fans. A machinist and union member, he eventually became a shipping clerk and shop steward before Westinghouse sold the group to a German company — ending hundreds of high-paying jobs.
Not only was my father out of work for the first time in his life, he also lost many of his closest friendships built on the factory floor over decades. But he joined another union and worked part time as a hotel waiter. And he had his bowling league to see some of his old Westinghouse friends. Together, they did what my father and his buddies did during the war: They kept going.
Years later, when both my father and his second wife were facing long-term care, I talked him into applying for VA benefits. There were parts of his life, those my sister and I would not forget but tried to look past, that indicated post-traumatic stress disorder. When I took him to be “diagnosed,” the VA contractor interviewing him asked if he had ever been depressed or thought of suicide. By then, my father was in his 80s. He looked at the man silently. Who was he to ask these questions? Who was he to judge my father or his life?
After college, I traveled to Asia and then Africa to work with refugees. Some shared how they had left dead or dying relatives behind. Without time or means to bury them, they tried wrapping their bodies or at least their faces in cloth before leaving them by the side of the road or dropped overboard. They didn’t dare: if they went back or delayed, they too could die. So they kept going, they had to keep going.
That drive to survive, the duty to do everything you can to live and to make sure that others around you stay healthy and will live, does not erase the sense of failure or even shame from not performing a duty as basic as burying your father. Trying to preserve one’s honor and decency amid fear and death, conflicting duties, defeat and losses, sacrifice, and forced retreats — these were the challenges my father faced as a young man barely out of high school. These conflicts are never resolved satisfactorily, the failure always haunts.
My sister, who is immunosuppressed, also can’t be at the funeral on Friday. Instead, she’ll watch the service on her phone, just as I will. And together we’ll do what millions of others will do this year when they cannot say a proper goodbye to their loved ones. We’ll keep going, we’ll all just keep going.
Peter Charles Choharis (email@example.com) lives in Maryland with his wife and two daughters.