I have the privilege of driving my five-year-old son and my five-year-old niece to school weekday mornings. This time is usually marked by chatter in the backseat. I sit, drive and listen. Conversations generally are about the family pets, the weather or whatever is on their minds. This morning, I was halfway listening to NPR when I was struck by their conversation.
“No Dana” Owen said, “Your bones go in the ground and your skin goes up to heaven”
I started to chuckle thinking of bags of skin flying up into the stratosphere. It's both grotesque and comical.
Dana would have nothing of this, “Your skin goes to heaven?” It was a mix of angry disbelief and confusion.
At this point, I launched into trying to explain the soul to a couple of kindergartners. That was a dismal failure. Soon Dana was talking about her family cat that must be in heaven. Owen retorted something about his recently departed fish.
Owen asked, “Do we go to heaven then come back?”
Dana chirps in, “I want to be a cat.”
Owen, “I want to be a bird so I can fly.”
“Does heaven have a floor?”
All I can say is, “I don't know.”
“How do we get around in heaven if there's no floor?”
“I don't know.” I reply.
I was caught off guard by this exercise of existentialism so early in the morning.
I didn't go back to my NPR program, I was lost in thought. I dropped them off and headed home. My mind turned to the joys of being a parent. The opportunity a parent has to guide, to listen, and to be part of a developing life. Two Kindergartners, in the backseat of a car, debating what happens to us when we slip away from this world.
Due to my father's exposure to Agent Orange, I could've very easily missed out on this conversation. After we were married, my husband and I questioned whether we should have children. We waited five years. What if they had problems? My brother and his wife could've also decided not to have children. After all, my brother has a sister with multiple birth defects and watched our father slowly deteriorate from his Vietnam experience. There were many unknowns for us.
Today, I was reminded of many women, my age, who I met when I traveled to Vietnam last October. Several have made the conscious choice to focus on a career and not a family. One woman with an obvious limp told me she could not bear to bring a child into the world who may have disabilities like her. She stated that she would instead, focus on a career and help the Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange and dioxin, VAVA, a nonprofit organization who helps Agent Orange victims in Vietnam. My heart broke for her, no husband, no children. Her decision was so finite, a lost opportunity for a special type of happiness and fulfillment. But a part of me completely understood her choice.
Another young woman, who had no legs and was missing a hand, was very interested in learning about my children. She asked if they were born healthy. I assured her they were. She asked if I was afraid to have children. I told her I was. She said she'd like to have a family one day but was not sure she would find a husband. After looking at pictures of my boys, she seemed hopeful.
There are American women just like me whose father served in Vietnam and question whether or not to have children. Maybe their mother has had several miscarriages like my mother did. Maybe they have a sibling who has an unexplained disability. Maybe they themselves are ill and cannot focus on family right now. The second generation of women in America and Vietnam suffer from the decision to use agent orange during the Vietnam War.
The women who married Vietnam veterans have struggled through grief unknown to most. Their husbands came home from the war different both emotionally and physically. Many marriages ended in divorce. The marriages that lasted have been bittersweet. Some women have watched their partners become alcoholics or drug addicts, spiraling out-of-control. Many women have lost children to miscarriage and disabilities.
My mother had three miscarriages. She suffered two prior to my birth, and one between my brother and me. Sometimes like today, my thoughts turn to these brothers or sisters I never knew. Will I know them when I come to eternal life? Why them and not me? ...“Does heaven have a floor?”
A large percentage of these brave wives have watched posttraumatic stress take over their partner’s lives. My own father slept in the backyard with a loaded gun to protect his family during times of increased paranoia. He went through periods where he became sullen and withdrawn. The wives struggled to bring normalcy to their family. Now, at an alarming rate, they are watching their husbands succumb to diseases brought by exposure to Agent Orange. They are widowed and left to fight alone, such an unfair tragedy after what these women have given to their family.
This morning I agree with Owen,
“I want to be a bird so I can fly.”
I want to fly over the pain that is Agent Orange, for one day of my life to be detached from it's legacy and soar above with no grief…
My Nieces and My boys dressed for Halloween