I wrote this essay about a month after 9/11, a couple weeks after my dad died. I’m sharing it today in honor of Monty Earl Essex, Marine private born 11/21/46 and died 11/12/12. He was the recipient of the Purple Heart. His daughter Melissa is a friend of mine.
My father died six days after September 11th, and he was well enough for many of those days to glimpse the television, which for some reason they encouraged him to watch. He couldn’t speak–first, they thought, because of a breathing tube, but once it was removed, they realized he couldn’t talk anyway, because he’d had a stroke. He was unable to write. So he lay there in his bed, mute, watching the crisis unfold. No wonder his blood pressure went from dangerously low to normal.
My father was an Air Force Colonel. Briefly, in World War II, he was the youngest officer in the European Theater. He spent over twenty years on active duty. His medals are on display at the Pima Space and Air Museum in Tucson, Arizona. He was a Republican his whole life. My father also never stopped learning, never closed his mind. In 1972 he voted for McGovern because he had a bad feeling about Nixon. A few days before he got sick, he was at my house telling me about the book he was reading: Lies My Teacher Told Me. He had a list of three more books like that he wanted to read; he left it with me so I’d know what to buy him on whatever the next occasion. My father respected Jerry Mander and hated the BIA. And the only thing that disgusted him more than George W. Bush was the Supreme Court and his fellow citizens for allowing a political coup without so much as a skirmish.
My father loved the American flag. He’d retired by the time I came along, and when I was a child he flew the flag on special days in front of our house. At the end of the day, he folded it carefully and put it away. I wish I could have driven around with him after 9/11, those final days, and gotten his take on the reactionary epidemic of Old Glory on every antenna and bumper. If the past is any indication, my dad’s reaction would have been thoughtful and hard to put in a box.
That late September day I sat under the awning at his funeral, staring at the six foot cotton flag the Honor Guard had unfolded in front of the four of us–his immediate family. Staring at it, I saw again what I saw as a child: the rich hue in the fabric, the complexity of the weave, the dense energy an icon brings. I saw my father’s flag. The breeze blew faintly and the bugle played “Taps”. The air echoed from the rifles’ three volleys.
When the spokesman for the Honor Guard knelt on one knee and delivered the flag to my mother, he thanked her on behalf of our nation for my father’s devotion to his country. The flag was perfectly folded, a tight, star-studded triangle, when he placed it in my mother’s hands. She nodded, tears of dignity gracing her cheeks. My arm was around her.
As we headed out of the cemetery I was grateful that my father’s care for his country stayed with him until his last breath. I grieved with him and for him about the way things were. I wanted badly to ask my mother for something, felt that child-fear of asking too much. In my little girl voice I ventured, “Mama, could I hold Daddy’s flag?” She turned and smiled. “I’d like nothing more,” she said, handing it to me. I cradled it tightly all the way home.