One bled out, the other bled in

(Dreamstime)

It's been a bloody January in France. I suppose most months are bloody there, as here, but not in a way I notice. Not in a way, with nicknames, Charb, and relationships, son of the chief rabbi of Tunisia, that leaves me visualizing the victims.

My father died in January, 44 years ago. I was 18. When I reached the age he was when he died, I scheduled a cardiac scan. I don't know what I expected to find. My father's heart broke in ways that cannot be measured.

I'm thinking about the bloodshed in Paris and I'm thinking about my father, because, I believe, it was another war -- same continent, different century, other young men with guns -- that unraveled his life and led to another January death.

My father had one brother. I never met him, but his shadow hung over my life. My uncle was, by all accounts, kinder and more responsible than my father. My grandmother says he would come home after a date and sit with her on the porch, telling her all about it. I doubt anyone was still awake when my father came rolling in.

My uncle went to college. My father ran bootleg whiskey along the farm-to-market roads of the Texas panhandle. My uncle enlisted during World War II and went into the army as a junior officer. My father, as a farmer, had a deferment, but after his brother went off to war, my father enlisted, too. He joined the Navy, went to training and promptly sent a one-line telegraph to my mother. It read, "Betty, come get me."

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My uncle was part of the Allied invasion of Italy. He died during the Po Valley campaign. The soldiers who made the long journey to my grandparents' house in Tulia, Texas, told them this story: My uncle and his men were in a foxhole. An Axis soldier threw in a grenade, which exploded, wounding my uncle and many of his men. My uncle, the survivors said, wouldn't let the medics tend to him or evacuate him until all the other wounded had been seen to. By the time his turn came, my uncle had bled to death.

He died on April 17, 1945. Hitler would die less than two weeks later. The war in Europe would end on May 8, 1945. Three weeks and my uncle might have gone home, back to the farm and Musick Produce and Farm Supply, with the Purina checkerboard sign out front.

My parents always said he died "one day after the war in Europe ended." It's as if they could not help but heap absurdity upon their grief. He not only died young and far from home in a country to which he had no ties of history or kinship, but, in their telling, he died as a casualty in a war that wasn't.

My father was on a ship in the San Francisco harbor when his brother died. He was waiting to be shipped out for the invasion of mainland Japan. Instead, he was sent home as the sole surviving son of parents who had lost one in combat.

My father never fired a gun in battle. He never, to my knowledge, killed a man. He just killed himself. I can attest to that, because I watched it happen. It was a slow death, a 25-year-long re-enactment of his brother's bleeding out.

My father bled in.

My grandparents kept all the letters their dead son had written home from Italy. They kept the letters his friends and fellow soldiers had sent after his death. As long as they lived, a color snapshot of my uncle hung, enlarged and framed on the living room wall. The colors in the pictures faded over time, the sky bleached and his green dress uniform melting into a green-tinged tan. The picture was taken as he left home for the last time.

My grandparents tended his grave, planting climbing roses on both sides of the headstone, hauling water in buckets in the back of the pickup to water the plants. But they never spoke of heroics or noble sacrifice. They were farmers, whose whole lives had been spent coaxing abundance from hard, dry soil. They had watered the land with their sweat. It seemed to them a waste that he watered a land not his own with his blood.

My father came home and had more children and built a house and took a job and began the serious work of his adult life: drinking himself to death. He drank to forget. He drank to feel. Then he drank to stop feeling. At some point in the long dying, my father added amphetamines in the morning to wake up and barbiturates at night to go to sleep. The drugs were provided by one of his childhood friends, a pharmacist who, pro re nata, conveniently ignored the dates and amounts on prescription pads. "As needed," it turns out, was several times daily.

My oldest sibling is 13 years my senior. She and her friends remember my father before his brother died. They tell stories of a man I never knew. My sister's friend says, "I adored your dad. He was smart and funny and generous and kind." But I was only 5 when she left for college and then marriage and a life far away from the death that my father bore and at which he labored.

The worst years were before us.

My father believed that some cosmic mistake had left the wrong brother alive, and he would work the magic backwards. His heart was strong, so it would take all of my childhood, but my father finally managed to dig his own foxhole, to crawl in and never come back out.

I think about the murdered, and their murderers. I think of them in France and in all the places I can now name -- Chechnya and South Waziristan -- without knowing more than a name. I think of the dead in places, like Fallujah, that haunted us once and now haunt us again. I think of the dead in a river valley in Italy, a place as remote to my grandparents as the moon. And I think about the way shed blood seeps and stains. Because I know how the stain spreads, even to those still unborn.

[Melissa Musick Nussbaum's writes at thecatholiccatalogue.com.]

This story appeared in the Feb 13-26, 2015 print issue under the headline: One bled out, the other bled in .

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