The VA called today. Tomorrow won't work for our visit. Seems the volunteer administrator had something come up so they want us to come Thursday instead. I am confused. Why do we need a chaperone to deliver cookies and say, "Hey!" to veterans? Are these veterans armed and dangerous? Will they take me hostage? Or is the VA worried if they let a crazy cookie toting woman inside and allow her to wander freely from room to room that some of the veterans might go missing? What am I going to do, bring them home with me? Ok, maybe I would but still, a chaperone, seriously? So Thursday is VA visit day, hopefully. Why am I starting to get scared?
I was thinking a lot about the veterans today as I prepare for this visit. Then I remembered an article I wrote last summer when our town hosted the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. I hope I can do these men justice through my words.
Joseph Anthony Janowicz was a tall, thin, quiet man. He loved my cousin Maureen and was going to marry her in just a matter of weeks when he was killed. It was 1968 and the Vietnam War exacted a toll on our family that would send ripples of pain for years to come.
The day the call came telling of Joe’s death, I was at my Aunt Meta’s ranch in Cayucos, California. The Thorndyke ranch was the epicenter of all family happiness on my mother’s side. It was the place everyone wanted to live, vacation or visit. The ranch was berry picking and horseback riding. It was family dinners followed by boisterous conversations over coffee afterwards while the children played under the dining room table. It was family. No matter who you were before you walked through the door, you were family once you entered the ranch kitchen.
Having spent my first ten years being a part of such a wonderful, happy place as the ranch, it was difficult for me to fully comprehend the pain that enveloped the entire 140 acres the day Joe died. To see my cousin Maureen in such deep sorrow and our family surrounding her with little hope of healing this wound brought the reality of Joe never returning home. As days went by and plans were discussed in regards to when Joe’s body would be flown home and when the funeral would be held, I hung on every word. Having never been to a funeral before, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect but one thing I did know. Joe was coming home and I would get to see him and tell him goodbye. I found great comfort in this thought.
As our home in Los Angeles filled with family and friends coming to stay before the funeral, I thought of Joe. I thought of the Janowicz family reunion I had attended with him and Maureen. I thought of riding in the backseat of his car when he and Maureen would take me to the movies with them. I thought of how much I would miss being a part of their lives. I wondered if my cousin would ever be the same again and I cried alone in my room as the adults busied themselves with funeral preparations. The day of the funeral, my mother came to tell me I would not be going with them. She felt I was too young and it wasn’t a good thing for me to experience. I begged and pleaded through tears but she wouldn’t budge. The decision had been made and was final. I stayed in my room as I listened to everyone leave and I cried.
Forty-one years later, I received an email from my pastor saying Piedmont was bringing the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall to Piedmont. They were looking for readers who would be willing to read the names of the fallen. It would take about eighty hours to accomplish reading the more than 58,000 names. I immediately signed up.
July 1, 2009 the wall passed down Piedmont Road, escorted by hundreds and hundreds of motorcycles. As I stood on the side of the road with my eleven year old daughter by my side, I wept. I wept because Joe was coming home. I wept because I would see him as I read his name on that wall. I wept knowing I would carefully rub a pencil over the paper I would place over his name. I wept because I would finally be able to say out loud,” Welcome home, Joe.”