An Academic Walks Next Door to the VA

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Academic Walks Next Door to the VA

My father was a career enlisted man in the U.S. navy, and my mother also served in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. My father died in late September, 1994, but my mother is still alive. She is somewhat frail, though certainly capable of conversation. This past summer, for instance, we discussed the meaning of the word “balmy” and spoke of the various regions in the world with occasional climates to which that word might apply.

My mother is currently living in a skilled nursing facility (SNF) about a fifteen minute walk away from where I live in Long Beach, and I suppose one could say that I have chosen to write about her tonight because I have just come back from visiting her there. I brought her a ripe avocado and one of her favorite cookies to eat, but she was too full from dinner to consume more than a fourth of the cookie. Her appetite had been faltering in recent months, so I am heartened that she seems to recovering it enough in the past week so that she is eating three times a day.

Being responsible for and monitoring the care of an elderly parent can be an overwhelming task, and certainly the next few months are going to be even more challenging than this past summer. Of my mother’s six children, I am the only one living in the vicinity of her current residence. It gave me a boost of solidarity, therefore, to get a message from the poet Garrett Hongo this afternoon that included a photograph of him with his mother. I don’t spend much time with poets my age these days, and it was reassuring to see a poet I have known for a long time also helping a parent along the same road, the one that leads (as he put it) to the River of Heaven.

This afternoon, the contingent part of that road led me once again to the VA center on Seventh Street in Long Beach. The VA is right next to the CSULB campus, so I am able to park at work and just walk over. I felt very fortunate this afternoon. Several people, one named Tim and the other Monique, were exceptionally helpful in helping me move my mother’s paperwork along. There were a couple other people, whose names I didn’t manage to record, who also were helpful. On behalf of my mother, I want to thank the VA for the assistance they are giving her. Being a Navy brat was a difficult way to grow up, but seeing my mother get this assistance helps compensate for those hardships.

Getting my mother assistance, including her benefits as a WWII veteran, during the past three years has involved keeping copies of all her service related documents, including her honorable discharge.
One detail, however, almost eluded my search. Fortunately, my mother can still recall her mother’s maiden name. Most of the time, when the VA asks that question of a veteran, they are not expecting a name to be cited that was exchanged for a husband’s surname well over a century ago. In fact, the name the VA had on its records for my mother’s mother’s maiden name was wrong, and it was satisfying to get that tiny part of her record corrected.

As I walked back to my car on the CSULB campus, I thought to myself how few of my fellow faculty ever have the need to walk onto this adjacent institution. I must admit that one of the factors in my discomfort with academic culture has to do with my upbringing in the military and the sometimes contradictory virtues its discipline fuses into a sense of duty and honor. While I wish it were otherwise, I don’t think it’s possible for my fellow academics to understand how much it shaped me, or how that shape will always make me a stranger in their midst.