Cold

January 20th, 2022

It’s 5:00 AM and it’s four degrees Fahrenheit outside. That’s brutal. The sun isn’t up yet, so it will probably get even colder. I don’t plan on going outside very much today.

Our son, Stefan, came over to our house yesterday. His Iron Worker crew was putting up a new bank building in southeast Milwaukee. They quit early because of the strong winds. Stefan and the other guys were using a crane to move the structural beams, but the gusts were too wild to keep the steel from twisting in the breeze. The lengths of steel were going to hit something or somebody, so they gave it up.

Stefan told us that it was also intensely cold at the construction site. The wind chill just made it worse. He could see white clouds billowing from some nearby smokestacks, and those streams of vapor were moving horizontally in the stiff breeze. Stefan had worn all his padded, insulated clothing to the job yesterday, and his hands were still going numb by the time he quit working.

I worked in the cold for many years. I know from experience that sometimes it is impossible to wear enough clothing to keep sufficiently warm. A person can only bundle up so much. Protective clothing may keep a person comfortable for a few hours, but not for an entire shift. I could never work outside for ten or twelve hours straight. I had to take breaks to warm up inside the office, at least for a few minutes.

I supervised a third shift dock operation at a trucking company. I opened up the facility every Monday at about 1:00 AM. In winter the concrete dock was dark and cold. On especially frigid nights, I would turn on the overhead lights on the dock and watch them flicker for a while. The fluorescent lights would struggle dimly until the ballasts warmed up a bit. The bitter cold was unpleasant, but the gloom of the dock was unnerving.

Nothing wanted to move on the really cold nights. Forklifts would not start (even if they had been plugged in). Overhead doors and dock plates were stiff and unwieldly. Both men and machines worked grudgingly. We would bring in a driver to do nothing but start up reluctant tractors for his entire shift.

When I ran that shift, I longed for daybreak. The darkness made the freezing weather somehow more unbearable. The sunrise didn’t really cause the temperature to increase. It gave the illusion of warmth, and sometimes that was good enough.

Dawn on a bitterly cold day is a strange thing. The air is clearer than usual, and objects in the distance have a sharp edge to them. The sun comes over the horizon like an orange ball of flame, but it gives no heat with its light. It is like a frozen fire.

I retired six years ago. One of the main reasons for quitting my job was to avoid working outside during another winter. Working in the cold drains the energy from a person’s body. At the end of a shift, I would go home, eat supper, take a shower, and go directly to bed. A few hours later, I would wake up and do it all over again. The winters wore me out.

I can see the same thing happening with Stefan. He is young, but the cold takes a visible toll on him. Eventually, he will be worn out too. There is no avoiding it.

Tight Dharma

January 20th, 2022

I just put Asher down for a nap. Our thirteen-month-old grandson is taking a well-deserved break. So am I. When Asher rests, I rest.

A couple weeks ago, the Zen sangha began the annual period of “Heart Kyol Che.” What is “Heart Kyol Che”? I’ll let our abbot, Peter, explain:

“Kyol Che is a traditional Korean Zen retreat. The name means “tight dharma” or “coming together.” In Korea, it is the three-month winter and summer periods when monks and nuns do intensive sitting practice in the mountain temples.


The Heart Kyol Che is an opportunity for students who cannot sit the traditional Kyol Che, or who can sit only part of it, to participate by doing extra practice at home and doing together practice as they are able. This will run concurrently with the traditional Kyol Che. By doing this Heart Kyol Che together, we will strengthen our own practice, and provide support to our fellow students who are able to sit the traditional Kyol Che. We in turn can draw inspiration and energy from their commitment.”

Heart Kyol Che is a struggle for me. I would like to do sitting meditation. I would like to chant sometimes. It just doesn’t happen. I wrote an email to the other member of the Zen group about my concerns. Here it is (slightly redacted):

“I just put Asher down for a nap. I am keeping an ear open in case he rouses himself. Even when he sleeps, I need to be wary.


Anyway, I briefly attended the opening for Heart Kyol Che yesterday morning. It was a similar situation. Asher was asleep, and then he wasn’t. 


I was interested in the comments about committing to doing extra practice. They made me smile. How can I commit to doing anything more than what I am doing now? I got up at 5:00 this morning to get ready for Asher, and I have been watching him ever since he woke up dark and early. (Karin is asleep. She needs it.) When Asher is up again, I will be right back at it: feeding, carrying, and cleaning him. I guess holding a toddler’s hand for a couple hours qualifies as walking meditation. 


The point is that all of the standard practice that we do is currently not possible for me. I haven’t sat on a cushion in well over a year, and I don’t see that happening any time in the near future. My focus is solely on our little blond sumo wrestler. There is nothing else that can take priority over Asher. Nothing. 
We are supposed to gain enlightenment and save all sentient beings. Well, Asher is my path to enlightenment. He keeps me in the moment, and he constantly shows me how I can help. I love him when he smiles. I love him when he plays with his toy trucks. I love him when he shits his diaper.” 

I received several responses to my message. They were generally supportive, or at least understanding. Peter’s message was wise and reassuring:

“For sure, your practice now is Asher practice! I liked what Zen Master Dae Kwang said in his talk about Heart Kyol Che is all about intentions. (I think you may have dropped off to do Asher practice by then.) Anyway, I don’t think anyone is expecting you to do any practice other than Asher practice. That is your practice now.


We sometimes have the mistaken view that “practice” is something special, out of our normal life. This is not the case, quite the opposite. Yes, we have some additional practice forms that people can do, but practice for me is just waking up to each moment and being present to life and how we are living it.


As you know, we do have some different formal practice forms that can help us in achieving this wakeup, which can be as simple as reciting Kwan Seum Bosal on a male (much like rosary practice), or just sitting for a few minutes while Asher sleeps. These little practice tidbits have helped me in the past when our kids were young, and I didn’t have much extra time. But I think the best practice is just being present with Asher, Karin, and your family now.”

Other people from the sangha told me similar things. As Peter mentioned, “practice” is part of everyday life. It has to be. Otherwise, all the meditation and chanting and bowing that are typically aspects of Zen are just sterile exercises.

It is the same with other spiritual traditions. As a Catholic, I engage in a number of rituals (e.g., attending Mass). The sacraments of the Catholic Church are there to bring a person closer to God. Being closer to God means becoming more compassionate and loving. From what I have experienced, the prayers and rituals of the Jewish tradition exist for a similar reason.

Religious exercises need to have a litmus test in the physical world. If my “practice”, whatever it may be, does not help me to better love God and my neighbor, then I am wasting my time.

Prayer in Action

January 18th, 2021

“See how these Christians love one another.”- Tertullian

Jeanine brought us dinner on Sunday evening. She carried into our house a large pot of chicken soup, along with some bread, fruit, and gelato. Karin was thrilled that Jeanine gave us all this.

She told Jeanine, “Oh, thank you so much! This is a lifesaver!”

Karin may have exaggerated, but not by much. Getting a home cooked meal from somebody is a big deal for us. We don’t hardly ever cook. We care for our toddler grandson, Asher, 24/7. It is difficult for us to find time to sit down and eat a meal, much less find the time to prepare one. We get takeout sometimes, but mostly we just grab a bite to eat when Asher is napping.

Jeanine didn’t have to cook for us. She didn’t have to drive half an hour to our home to deliver the food. She knew that we are continually focused on Asher, and she wanted to help us. She wanted to care for us as we care for Asher.

Jeanine and her husband, Kevin, are members of our church. They go to the same Mass that we do each Sunday. Karin used to sing in the choir with Jeanine in the days before Asher came into our lives. They are good friends.

Karin and I always bring Asher with us to Mass. Well, we have to do that. We certainly can’t leave a one-year-old at home by himself. Jeanine greets Asher when she comes into the church. She smiles at the boy, and he smiles back.

Jeanine told us, “We love Asher. He brings us such joy!”

Jeanine wasn’t just being nice. She meant what she said. Asher is exceedingly popular at Mass. He really does bring joy to the members of the congregation.

One woman said to us, “You do such a good job with him. He is so well-behaved.”

I don’t know how to respond to that. The kid is only thirteen months old. Can a child that age act “well-behaved” in any meaningful sense? He is who he is. Asher isn’t doing anything. He is just being Asher, and he is loved for that reason alone.

People at our church say that they pray for us. We are grateful for that. Quite often they do more than just pray. They ask us how we are. They call or write to us. They give us things for Asher. Sometimes, like Jeanine, they feed us.

Prayer, if authentic, motivates the pray-er to do something. Prayer leads to words, which lead to action. If I sincerely pray for a person, I will reach out to them. I will help them as best I can. I may not be able to solve their problems. I may not be able to ease their suffering. However, I will ensure that they are not forgotten.

Prayer and love are intimately related. Christians are supposed to love each other and pray for each other. Sometimes we pray, but we don’t really love. If that is the case, then our prayers are sterile and dead.

Many Christians have gone out of their way to help Karin, Asher, and myself. I have to note that we have also received prayers and assistance from our friends who are Jewish, Buddhist, and Muslim. Christians do not have a monopoly on love and compassion, not by any means.

We are grateful to all of these people. We only hope that we can pray for them and render them aid when they need us. We want our prayers to be more than just good intentions.

Caring too Much

January 17th, 2022

I had a long conversation with a young woman on Saturday afternoon. I started by asking how her job was going. She sighed and said,

“I cared for six COVID patients yesterday.”

“Oh…”

Then she paused for a moment and said,

“But I only cried once.”

The woman is a freshly minted nurse. She just started working at a local Milwaukee hospital. She is currently working in the ER. The nurse has only been there for a couple months, and she is already exhausted. Timing is everything, and her timing is exceptionally bad. It’s not her fault. COVID is raging right now, and she walked right into the fiercest part of the pandemic.

She told me, “I talked to a nurse who has been working for thirty years. She said that things have never been like this. Years ago, they had a shortage of equipment, and they had to get creative with what they had available. But it’s never been this bad.”

The young woman works twelve-hour shifts three or four days a week. Her schedule changes, so I don’t know how many hours she gets in total each week, but those are long shifts. I used to work for twelve hours straight, and I was always completely drained at the end of day (or night). She is always busy in the ER, usually too busy. The work is fast-paced and stressful. It wears on her.

The woman told me a story about a 92-year-old man who was in the ER. He didn’t make it. She said,

“He was the nicest man. He always said, ‘thank you’. He never complained.”

There was nothing this nurse could do to save the man. It’s not her fault that he died on her watch, but the death haunts her.

The woman explained to me that the hospital is completely full up. There are no open beds. The ER is often filled to capacity. Overflow patients sit in the waiting room, and they wait and wait. There aren’t enough nurses. Everything is maxed out.

What seems to bother the nurse most is that she can’t give the patients the care that she wants to give them. She doesn’t have the time or the resources. She doesn’t want to be the person who makes decisions that might determine whether a person lives or dies.

A long time ago, I was an Army helicopter pilot. I was responsible for the lives of the passengers riding in my aircraft. That was sometimes a heavy burden. But it was never anything like what this young woman has to bear. She is intelligent and she is strong, but still…how much can she handle?

She told me that FEMA was scheduled to come and help in the middle of January. she asked,

“It’s the middle of January now. Where are these people?”

I don’t know all the reasons why she chose to become a nurse. I am sure that part it was to serve others, to heal the sick and wounded. She cares deeply about her patients.

Is it possible to care too much?

The Struggle to Get Here

January 11th, 2022

“To be an enemy of America can be dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal.” — Henry Kissinger

I know an Afghan family. I use the term “know” loosely. I have never met these people. I have never spoken with them. I was placed in contact with them by a friend of mine who worked for years as a peace activist in Afghanistan. The activist knows the mother/wife in the family personally. My friend asked me to be their “buddy”, and to help them in whatever way I can. I agreed to do that.

I don’t know exactly where this family is living. I don’t need to know. They are somewhere in Pakistan keeping an extremely low profile. Their fled from Kabul before the city fell to the Taliban. They cannot go back home, and right now they cannot go anywhere else. Their goal is to find a new home in a country that is safe for them. Pakistan doesn’t qualify.

I had a consultation with an immigration lawyer on Zoom yesterday. I wanted to find out how this Afghan family could come to the United States. The lawyer, a young woman in California, tried to explain to me what was available to them. There was a lot to take in, and the attorney was not terribly optimistic about their chances. She talked about the family applying for a humanitarian parole. This method of coming to the United States is described as follows:

“You may apply for humanitarian parole if you have a compelling emergency and there is an urgent humanitarian reason or significant public benefit to allowing you to temporarily enter the United States. Anyone can file an application for humanitarian parole. If you do not have an urgent humanitarian reason for your visit, you must follow the normal visa issuing procedures set by the Department of State.” – from the USCIS website.

This is probably easier than applying for refugee status. Getting refugee status (if the person is outside of the U.S) or asylum status (if that person is already within the borders of this country) is a total bitch. The individual applying for refugee or asylum status has to prove that he or she has been persecuted in their home country, or that their lives are in imminent danger if they should return there. The burden of proof is solely on the petitioner. The United States does not have to prove anything.

Two years ago, I sat in on a session of the Immigration Court in Chicago. A migrant that I had been trying to help was in court seeking asylum status. She was from Mexico, and she was living illegally in the U.S. with her children. She had a lawyer with her in court. The woman and her lawyer tried to convince the judge that her life was in danger if she returned to Mexico. Her boyfriend (the father of her children) had managed to run afoul of somebody higher than himself in the food chain of a cartel. The boyfriend fled, as did this woman and her kids. The woman pleaded with the judge, literally begged him, to give her asylum.

He refused.

The woman had not provided sufficient documentation to show that she was in danger. She also did not give a good enough cause for her potential persecution. The kicker with applying for asylum or refugee status is that a person not only needs to prove that they need protection, but they also need to show that they are being persecuted for five specific reasons: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. It’s not good enough that somebody wants to kill you. They have to want to kill you for one of those five reasons.

Asylum denials are often in the range of 90%+ at U.S. Immigration Courts. Who flees their country with documentation proving that somebody is out to get them? The cartels usually don’t send out signed letters to warn people that they are going to be murdered. I bet that the Taliban don’t do that either. It is often impossible to prove that a person’s life in threatened. Hence, the high denial rate.

The humanitarian parole does not have such a strict standard. However, this Afghan family in Pakistan still needs to show that their lives are at risk. The lawyer that I spoke with on Zoom indicated that the vast majority of humanitarian parole applications are being denied by USCIS. It’s the same story as with the asylum cases. The applicants cannot provide sufficient documentation to convince the U.S. government that they are in danger.

This family has already applied for humanitarian parole. Now they wait for their case to wind its way through the Federal bureaucracy. A lawyer told me today that they might wait a year for a decision, and the decision may very well be “no”.

How is it that the United States could fight a war in Afghanistan for twenty years, and now the Afghans who helped us are left twisting in the wind? There are thousands of people like this family I know. They are suffering. They have no idea what the future will bring. They have little hope.

The only thing that they did wrong was to trust us.

What Do I Do Now?

January 1st, 2022

“Be here now.” – Ram Dass

A few flakes of powdery snow fell from the sky to settle on to the shoulders of the people standing at the gravesite. It was cold. A man wearing a fedora pulled his overcoat closer to himself. Everybody wore something on their head. A couple men only had yarmulkes as head covering. The ground was frozen, and a light wind ruffled the top of a tent that had been set up for family and guests.

I think of that day as I carry Asher in my arms. It’s cold today too. I got up dark and early to care for our one-year-old grandson. I am watching over Asher so that my wife, Karin, can a get a bit more sleep.

The funeral was only three days ago. It was the second funeral for me in as many weeks. Ellis died after a long struggle with cancer. His death came as no surprise, but it still hurt. I am not sure how Ellis felt about me, but I loved the man.

Asher plays with his blocks and his little trucks. I sit on the living room floor with him, observing how his tiny hands move quickly and with dexterity. His fine motor skills improve with each day, with each passing hour. The boy scatters his toys throughout the house. Later, I will pick them all up to give Asher the opportunity to do it all over again.

The rabbi explained at the beginning of the service that the “levaya”, that is the funeral, comes from the word to “escort”. He told all of us gathered that the levaya consists of two parts: we first escort Ellis to the next life, and then we escort his family to their period of mourning. Our job was to give Ellis a proper burial, to send him on his way to Hashem.

I am feeding Asher a banana. He loves bananas. He is shoveling in the pieces of fruit with both hands. He is hungry and apparently ambidextrous. He loves food. He savors it. When Asher eats, he is in the moment. nothing else matters.

Each of shoveled earth on to Ellis’ coffin. The members of the family recited the mourner’s kaddish. Then all of us there formed two lines facing each other. We formed a path for the members of Ellis’ family to walk as they left the grave to go to their cars.

Rabbi Dinin said.

“We are now going to escort Jane and her family as they go to grieve for Ellis. You don’t need to say anything to them as they pass by. There are no right words or wrong words to say. Just be there for them. Just be there.”

We spoke softly to the family as they walked past us. Perhaps they heard me say, “Be at peace.” Maybe not. I did what I could.

There is a fundamental question is Zen: “How can I help?” It is not a riddle like: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” It is an eminently practical question. We ask ourselves this question continuously. Zen meditation enables a person to recover the innate ability to know what to do moment to moment. We rediscover our way to intuitively know how to help.

The answer to the question is often simple, but seldom easy. Sometimes it means taking control of a situation. Sometimes it means getting the out of the way. Sometimes the answer calls for gentleness. Sometimes, as any soldier knows, the answer may even require an act of violence. However, we know what must be done, and we are able to do it, if we choose.

I have just put Asher down for a nap. I held him close to me until he fell asleep. I had no need to look at him. I could feel his breathing slow down, and I could feel his whole body relax. Asher is at peace.

After Ellis’ family got to their vehicles, I walked away. I glanced back at Ellis’ grave. He too is at peace.

Adults

December 28th, 2021

“When I was little, I thought that adults knew what they were doing. I was wrong.” – Stefan Pauc (my youngest son)

I spend the early hours of the morning watching over our grandson, Asher. He is a one-year-old toddler, and he requires me to be constantly vigilant. The boy is always exploring his surroundings, and always just moments away from getting into trouble. Often, I have to say things like,

“Don’t touch that! It’s hot!” or “Where did you find that?!”

He doesn’t understand the words that I say, but I’m pretty sure he understands the tone of voice that I am using.

Despite my best efforts, Asher still manages to get a bump now and then. Apparently, the sharp corners of any piece of furniture must have especially strong gravitational pulls, because his forehead seems oddly attracted to them. It is impossible for me to keep the boy perfectly safe. He is a moving target. I am not omniscient, and I am not omnipresent. In short, I’m not God.

Adults are supposed to protect children, and I think we try our best to do so. However, the world is a dangerous place and children have to venture into it. Their job is to continually test their limits and push them to the edge, and our job is to make sure they don’t fall off of that edge. There is always tension between those two endeavors.

It makes me wonder sometimes: How do adults function in the world? I’m not sure that I actually know any adults. I know a lot of grown-up kids. If the standard for being an adult is for that person to know what they are doing, then I, along with countless others, are clearly not adults. Most of the time we are just kind of faking it. We muddle through scary situations, and hope for the best.

Years ago, I think it was when I was at West Point, I watched a movie in class. It was an old, black and white, version of “Lord of the Flies”. The film was based on the book by Wlliam Golding. It was the story of a group of British boys stranded on an island. As they fend for themselves, the veneer of civilization is stripped away, and they descend into barbarism. It’s not an optimistic tale.

The final scene in the movie is moving. There is no dialogue. The boys reach the shore and encounter a naval officer, who has arrived to take the children home. Our professor asked us a question about that scene. He said,

“Tha naval officer is there to rescue the boys. Who will rescue the naval officer?”

I have often thought about that question. Is there a meta-adult who will rescue us? Jesus? Buddha? Anybody?

A Baby

December 21st, 2021

“Not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness, but trailing clouds of glory, do we come From God, who is our home: Heaven lies about us in our infancy.” – William Wordsworth “Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting: The soul that rises with us, our life’s star, Hath had elsewhere its setting, And cometh from afar.”

At Christmas many people display a creche, a manger scene. The focus is always Jesus, the Christ Child. All the other figures in this display gaze at the infant with adoration. They recognize that the child is divine.

Every child is divine. Every baby comes from God.

When I held my little grandson, Asher, in my arms early this morning, he was warm and tired. When he rested his head and slowly went to sleep, I could hear his soft breathing, and I could feel the rise and fall of his chest. I could smell his hair next to my face. I could see his right cheek against my shoulder.

Asher was at peace, and so was I.

Asher is also God’s son.

Saying Goodbye

December 18th, 2021

Beth Hamedrosh Hogodel cemetery is located at 134 S. Dana Ct., Milwaukee, WI. It is a hard place to find, at least it was for me. I drove past the entrance by mistake. There was a cement truck blocking most of the street and I thought the road was closed, so I drove around to find a different way into the place. There was none. I had to circle back and squeeze through the only open section of a bridge that was being replaced. The Jewish cemetery is small, actually tiny in comparison to other graveyards. I-94 is right next to the cemetery. The highway and the burial ground are only separated by a dilapidated wooden fence. The location could hardly be called peaceful.

I was several minutes late for Jim’s funeral. Jewish funerals tend to be brief. Jim’s service lasted barely half an hour. I missed the first part of the rabbi’s eulogy. Even though he had a microphone and loudspeaker, it was hard to hear his comments over the roar of the semis on the freeway. It was also a windy day with grey clouds skittering across the sky. Between the howl of the wind and the noise from the traffic, it was difficult to understand any of the rabbi’s talk.

The rabbi, from what I could make out, spoke about Jim’s intelligence and his commitment to the things that mattered to him. He said that Jim was a brilliant man. I would agree with that. He taught mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His outside interests were eclectic. He once gave a talk at a Purim celebration about Yiddish cabaret music in Odessa and Lvov prior to World War II. That was a rather obscure topic, but Jim was able to make it fascinating to me. Jim was one of those people who never stopped learning. He had the insatiable curiosity of a toddler.

I only knew Jim from our conversations at kiddush after the Shabbat morning service. Jim didn’t talk much. He preferred to listen. I found that to be refreshing. Most people, including myself, are not good listeners. Jim was.

There were maybe twenty people at the graveside. Some wore yarmulkes, some not. I didn’t. I knew a few folks there from the shul: Neil, Ken, and Susan. The others were strangers to me. Each of us knew bits and pieces of Jim’s life. It is unlikely that anybody knew him completely. We all cared about him.

The rabbi explained a ritual to us that was traditional for funerals. Each person was encouraged to shovel a spade full of earth on to Jim’s casket once it was lowered into the ground. This was one last act of kindness that we could perform for our friend. It was an act for which we would never receive any recompense in this world. The rabbi went on to say that we should use the back side of the shovel blade to move the dirt. Using the wrong side of the spade indicated our reluctance to say goodbye to Jim. We were doing something that needed to be done, but we did it with sorrow in our hearts.

I participated in the tradition. I had never done that before. I shoveled a bit of soil on to Jim’s coffin. I found it to be a deeply moving experience. It was a physical act, something tangible.

Goodbye my friend. Peace to you always.

Artifacts

December 9th, 2021

I left the Army in the summer of 1986. For reasons that are now obscure to me, I kept some of my uniforms. I put away my dress blues and my Class A uniforms for safe keeping. I placed them in a closet with my full dress uniform from West Point. There really wasn’t any point in hanging on to those clothes. I just didn’t want to let them go.

In March of 1987 our first son, Hans, was born. When Hans came into our lives, then I felt like I had a good reason to keep the uniforms. I figured that, when Hans was old enough to understand, I would show them to him. It seemed like a good plan.

It wasn’t.

In 1991 my wife, Karin, and I built a house, and the uniforms found a home in a new closet. Sometime after that we had a major thunderstorm roll through the area. It dropped a couple inches of rain, and it knocked out the power during the night. This, of course, meant that the sump pump did not work. This meant that, hours later when I looked down the stairs into the basement, I could see my reflection in the water on the floor. The water wasn’t deep, but it was a mess to clean up, and the basement was damp for quite a while, even with a dehumidifier and fans going full blast.

A long while after that, I remembered Hans and my uniforms. I looked into our bedroom closet and found…nothing. I asked Karin about it, and she told me that she had put the uniforms into a suitcase and placed it in the basement. I looked around and found the suitcase on the basement floor. I opened it up and found my uniforms. They were soaking wet and moldy. Absolutely nasty. I threw the uniforms and the suitcase directly into the trash. There was no saving any of that.

I was livid, just furious. I took it out on Karin, and she couldn’t understand why I was so upset. I didn’t understand why either. I just was. I talked to Hans about that incident years later. He thought for a moment and said,

“Yeah, I think I remember all that yelling. You and Mom started going to therapy after that.”

That sounds about right.

I didn’t get to show Hans anything. That hurt. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but I felt like part of my past had been stolen from me.

Fast forward to December of 2015. Hans joined the Army in 2009, and was deployed to Iraq in 2011. He ETS’d from Fort Hood in 2014. Then he moved into an old Texas farmhouse with Tom, an elderly widower that Hans knew well. Tom lived in the house with their dog, Fritz, while Hans worked for a fracking outfit in east Texas.

On the last day of 2015, the old farmhouse burned down, with Tom in it. Fritz died in the fire too. Hans also lost almost all of his worldly possessions. The only thing he had left from the military was his DD214 (discharge papers). Everything that Hans had from Iraq was gone. He had his past stolen from him.

To the casual observer it might seem that the loss of military memorabilia is something insignificant. In monetary terms that’s true. In other ways it’s not. The loss of my uniforms and Hans’ loss of artifacts from his time in Iraq hurt us because those things were memory aids. They were talismans. Seeing, touching, or even smelling these objects conjured up memories that were otherwise unavailable. These things were comforting in the sense that they were physical proof that what we had experienced was real. Sometimes, without them, it is hard to believe that we were once soldiers.

I kept one thing, and I never showed to Hans until he was in high school. I had my class ring from West Point. I would occasionally pull it out of a drawer and gaze at it, like Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings”. Eventually, I got tired of that. One day I walked into Hans’ bedroom and handed to him.

I have never seen it since.