A long battle. Small victories. And a sticky beer stein filled with irrelevant things.
These are what remains of my father’s tags from the 50′s. They are not his issue tags, but recreations of them that he’s had since the 50′s. When he died I inherited them, and as a child I was always fascinated by these little stamped pieces of tin. He kept them in a dirty brown ceramic stein he got in Germany when he was in the service, along with assorted other keys and oddities he collected throughout his life. By the time it came to be in my possession the stein was in a dusty box in his closet. It was filthy and sticky, the years of chain smoking with this stein sitting just over his shoulder had left it unsavory to the touch.
But not to me. I reached for it instantly while my sister and I were going through his possessions. The Latin and Germanic text on the sides was now almost invisible beneath the sickly yellow cake that held on to this artifact of his youth, but I knew it instantly from years of reverence. I recall when I opened the lid to dump out the contents and saw those tags my heart raced and my eyes widened to their zeniths. I had forgotten about them as I got into my twenties, you see.
My twenties were a blur of his different cancer diagnoses and treatments, surgeries and follow-ups. While friends were touring Europe on student visas, I was removing needles from my father’s chest implant. And these needles carried chemotherapy drugs so toxic that I was to be rushed to an emergency room for treatment should any have leaked on my skin during the removal. I had forgotten all about the tags and the stein they lived in. They were just things at that point, and pretty irrelevant things at that.
And then dad died. And then we found that box. And in that box we found that stein. And in that stein we found these tags. And in these tags I found the value of irrelevant things. Touching them for the first time in what must have easily been twenty-two years or more, I felt like I was doing something mischievous. Dad would never let us touch that stein by ourselves, and had always supervised me when I was allowed to hold those 30 grams of rigid metal. I remember looking around to make sure the old man wasn’t looking. I rubbed the two tags together and heard the metal scrape together, a delicate tinny sound that reminded me of ice skates. I asked my sister if I could have the stein and the tags on the spot and she said, “absolutely, I don’t want that smelly old thing in my house.”
I couldn’t fault her, it was a smelly old thing and it contained irrelevant things. Also possibly a treasure map, but that’s a different story.
I took the stein and it’s contents home and immediately got a chain for the tags and wore them under my clothes for about a month after he died. I wore them to his funeral, as well as the Hawaiian shirt I am wearing today in that photo above. You see, they were a symbol of everything I loved about my father. They were a symbol of my childhood, and my reverence. But they had also become something else: These stamped pieces of tin became my dog tags for the years I spent by his side, slogging out of the despair and hardship of his cancers, his Parkinson’s disease, and his eventual dementia. They became my reward and my remembrance for fighting in a battle 15 long years with only small victories, and one casualty. They became the symbol of the man in that desperate foxhole next to me, that I laughed with, fought with, fought against, and held while he cried. My friend. My father.
I took them off after about a month partly because I felt I needed to move forward but in all honesty mostly because I was afraid I’d lose them. To the rest of the world they were irrelevant things, but to me they were everything that made me who I am and I would be heartbroken if they were lost. I don’t wear them often now; only on special occasions really.
I wore them the first year I rode support with my mother on her first 3 day Breast Cancer Walk. I wore them the first two thanksgivings and Christmases he missed. But really now, I only wear them twice a year.
One is on March 12th, the anniversary of his death. One is today, November 15th, his birthday. He would have been 78 years old today. I’ll turn 38 years old tomorrow. He was 40 years and one day older than me, a fact that becomes increasingly more poignant the closer I get to 40 myself.
The only other times I will wear these tags is on my wedding day, the birth of any of my children, and the day I’m interred myself; because on that day they become once again just irrelevant things.
I love you dad, I miss you every day. And as much as I hated it at the time, the most important years of my life were spent in that foxhole with you. Happy Birthday.
P.S. Thursday I get a pink mohawk carved into my head, as I have every year after the first year my mom walked the three day. Friday I go support her as she and her team walk in San Diego. She’s a cancer survivor as well you see, and while some people look at shaving my head into a ridiculous pink mohawk is an irrelevant thing; to my mother, myself, and the five thousand walkers on that three days it’s a symbol.
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