I am at peace with death’s inevitability. I know that I have far less time in my future than I have had in my past. But I’m comforted with knowing that I have lived a fulfilled life. My children are thriving. My writing is accepted and admired. I have made a real contribution to the understanding of what happened during the Vietnam war, especially at the end with the fall of Saigon in 1975.
It hasn’t been a perfect or very virtuous life. I’ve faced my share of losses and sorrow, and I’ve done things I regret. But I’ve also had great joys, and I worked hard to make life better for others. On the whole, I’m satisfied with the gifts life has given me and with what I have done with those gifts.
At the moment, I’m confident that I can face the dying process bravely and peacefully. I am determined to make it as easy as I can for others, particularly my children. I long ago discovered that what I do for others constitutes the greatest gift I can give to myself. Compassion heals and brings peace.
And I am relatively satisfied that I’ve accomplished my mission on earth. I’ve done good work that will survive my death.
I see no signs that death is close by. I’m remarkably healthy for a man my age. I have been a runner and weight lifter all my life, and I’m careful about my diet. But one never knows what the future holds.
That said, I’m not ready to die right now. I have too much work to do. I’m hawking a new book for publication and writing two others. I have blogs to write, presentations to give, people to help.
In short, I accept the inevitability of death and I’m at least somewhat prepared to go through the process of dying in a way that will cause the least discomfort for those around me. But not yet. I need more time because I still have important work to do.
American cultural avoidance of the subject of death notwithstanding, I need to contemplate my own ending. The preparatory stuff is already done. That’s not the issue. It’s to come to terms with my own ending.
I wish that I were religious and could look forward to life after death. I was raised as a Christian, and I very much want to believe in God and a church. And I do my best to persuade myself. I pray every night before I sleep in hopes that there is a deity up there who’s hearing me. It’s not working.
At bottom, I conclude that when I die, I cease to exist. That’s hard to accept. I comfort myself by saying that I’ll live on in my books. I remind myself that my children are a part of me that will go on living after me. I focus on the good I have done during my life, the people I’ve helped, the things I have changed for the better. Somehow, none of that is very comforting.
Every culture, from the beginning of time until today, has believed that the soul survives the death of the body. We have created endless religions that emphasize life after death. Despite all that, I am compelled to recognize that my existence will end. Tom Glenn will cease to be. I’m working to accept that.
So what’s left is to come to terms with two aspects of death: its inevitability and going through the process of dying. Am I strong enough, calm enough, wise enough to do that?
As I move through the last quadrant of my life, I am forced to think about death. It’s not so far away any more.
I’ve long since finished my will and final instructions. I’m in the midst of downsizing from a huge house to a modest townhouse (to save my children from having to go through all the travail of getting my house ready for sale after my death). In the process, I’ve thrown away or given away all manner of possessions that I no longer need, everything from furniture to clothing to books. I will have finished the preparations long before moving day arrives.
I’m sobered by recognizing that at two points on my life, I faced death head-on—first during my years in Vietnam when I regularly went into combat, later when I volunteered to work with AIDS patients, even though I knew I might contract the disease. At both times, I knew full well that I might die. I accepted that.
Now I’m faced with death for a third time. I’m determined to accept the challenge bravely.
All that has got me to thinking about how we, as a society, contemplate death. I conclude that we don’t. We treat death like we treat bodily functions—we pretend they don’t exist. Discussion of the way we relieve ourselves or propagate is vulgar. Mentioning any of their aspects is in poor taste.
And so it is with death. In newspapers I read and programs I listen to, death is never discussed. We avoid the word. We speak vaguely about how someone has “passed.” It is as though we Americans have banned death. We refuse to admit its place in our lives. It is downright improper of me even to mention it.
In other cultures I’ve lived in, both bodily functions and the end of life are normal topics of discussion. In Vietnam, for example, people talked about them casually, as facts of life. The same was true among the French. Nor was death dreaded. It was considered a natural part of daily living. What a contrast to us Americans.
As far as I can tell, only the Americans and the British are skittish about these subjects.
In the 14 December 2018 Washington Post, Michael Gerson published a column called “Secularism without Humanism.” The point I focused on was that in modern times, self-interest has become the driving force for most Americans.
As noted in recent posts here, I learned very young that helping others was more important than anything I could do for myself. Immediately after graduation from college, I enlisted in the army. Military service taught me that teamwork was far more effective than individual effort. Most important, I learned that putting my life on the line for the good of others offered rewards greater than anything I did for myself. Service to others is the ultimate fulfillment.
My thirteen years on and off in Vietnam made me understand that the greatest good I could do was to help the men fighting by my side. Each of us was willing to sacrifice our life to save the man next to us. I saw men die, but I also was able to save lives. That experience transformed me.
In the years after Vietnam, I became a volunteer. I worked with the homeless, served the dying in a hospice, and cared for AIDS patients. I got into volunteer work to help me cope with my own Post-Traumatic Stress Injury, the consequence of my time on the battlefield and living through the fall of Saigon. I learned that compassion heals.
I still take care of others. I’ve become a pen-pal to another Vietnam vet who is in prison. I exchange several times a day brief notes with a mentally disabled man in Wales. I look after a woman who just turned ninety. The gift of being able to help others is the greatest gift I have been given.
I am blessed to have learned early in life, thanks to my military service and time in Vietnam, that giving to others is what we are put on earth for. My fulfillment is complete.
A recent conversation with another Vietnam veteran made me realize that veterans, as a proportion of the U.S population, is rapidly diminishing. In 2016, 7 percent of U.S. adults were veterans, down from 18 percent in 1980, according to the Census Bureau. Expressed differently, almost half of the Americans 75 or older are veterans; only 3.48 percent of those between 35 and 44 are. We are close to becoming a dying breed.
Our numbers began to decline with the end of the military draft in 1973, coincident with the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Vietnam. All of us of military age before that were, with few exceptions, subject to being called. Many, like me, enlisted voluntarily. I can’t think of a single man of my generation who isn’t a veteran. We all did military service. Although I know a fair number of men and women currently serving in the military—I spend a fair amount of time with armed service members—I can’t think of a single non-military man or woman I know in their twenties and thirties who is a veteran.
The implications of the decline of the veteran population are urgent. My experience in the army, especially basic training and combat preparations, changed me from a boy to a man. I learned what I was capable of; the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological strength I had; the wells of courage I could draw on; and the pride I could justifiably take in defending my country.
I find myself in sympathy with those who call for restoration of the draft. I think we owe it to our young people to help them become all they can be. I believe that all of them can benefit from some kind of service—if not in the military then as members of the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps or other organizations whose mission is to help others.
I learned as a young man—a boy, really—that service to others is the finest service possible. And that by serving others, I transform myself.
As more time elapsed since the end of the Vietnam war, more and more books on the war saw the light of day. Apprentice House published my The Trion Syndrome, about a Vietnam vet suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI), in 2015. And the Naval Institute Press brought out my Last of the Annamese, set during the fall of Saigon, in 2017.
Meanwhile, another novel on a related subject, No-Accounts, was published by Apprentice House in 2014. It tells the story of a straight man caring for a gay man dying of AIDS. The novel resulted from work I did to help me cope with my PTSI. At the height of the AIDS epidemic, I volunteered to take care of men dying of AIDS. I found that when I was focused on people in desperate need of my help. my intolerable memories faded into the background. I learned that compassion heals. In a five-year period, I had seven AIDS patients, all gay. They all died. The experience moved me so deeply that I wrote a novel to express my anguish.
My success in getting my books about Vietnam published and the change of attitude of the American public about the war have helped to ease my sense of shame and restore my pride in the work I did under fire for the good of our country. Today I am openly proud of having served in Vietnam. And I go out of my way to honor other veterans who sacrificed as I did. They deserve the best our country can give them. And they have every right to their pride.
A question from a reader prompts me to talk about my publishing history. In yesterday’s post about pride, I mentioned that I couldn’t get my books about Vietnam published for years because the U.S. populace didn’t want to hear about the war. Then about five years ago, things changed. Younger Americans wanted to know what happened during the war. My books found publishers.
By 2012, I’d despaired of getting my Vietnam novels into print, so I self-published Friendly Casualties, a novel in short stories, as an ebook on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword explains its origin: “This novel-in-stories results from the many years I spent in Vietnam during the war. Nearly all the characters are based on people I knew, many of them killed by the Vietnamese Communists. Most of the incidents described are drawn from real events or an amalgam of happenings. Even now, after almost forty years, I still hurt. And I’m one of the lucky ones.”
Quoting from an earlier blog post about the book: “Friendly Casualties uses a form I’ve never encountered with any other writer. The first half of the book, called ‘Triage,’ is a series of interrelated short stories, eight in all, that relate fictional versions of happenings I had encountered in my thirteen years in and out of Vietnam. The second half, ‘Healing,’ is a novella that weaves together the events in those stories, uses some of the same characters, and shows how so many events during the war were interdependent.
“To my surprise, Friendly Casualties was a critical success. Seven readers gave it a five-star review on Amazon.com. They accurately divined my intent, to portray all participants in the Vietnam war, men and women, Vietnamese and Americans, as casualties.”
My shame was diluted and my pride revived. Readers understood that I and other Vietnam veterans are and remain casualties, men who sacrificed for the good of their country.