Monday, June 18, 2012

*BEST OF DTB #192* A man of 10 decades

What is the measure of a life whose eyes have seen 10 of some the most significant decades in modern history? 10 decades unequaled in  technological advancement but also unmatched in gratuitous violence and bloodshed. On the day my Dad was born, in 1929, our nation was about the same distance from the Titanic disaster as we are now from the start of Bill Clinton's second term. The space that separated us from the miraculous events of Fatima and the end of World War 1 is now what separates us from 9/11.

My Dad entered the world just as the Roaring 20's were about to come to a crashing halt. He was 4 months old when the stock market dropped 11%. Try to imagine the Dow dropping by 1400 points today in a day. It is not merely a passage of time, my Dad is a living witness to some of the most violent transformation in world history, much of the impact of which will be debated for decades to come.

The man whose life has now spanned 14 Presidents, from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama and 5 wars (serving in 2 of them), has been colored by what he has seen, in both good ways and bad.

As the few remaining grains of sand pour out from the hourglass of his life, a legacy will endure. 5 Sons, 14 grand-children (13 living, 1 deceased) and half a dozen great- great children will press on to renew the pursuit of what he always had hoped to acheive- a legacy of love, family and values and not one of monuments.

My Dad was married before his 22nd birthday and had endured the Great depression and 3 wars before he reached 40. He was married the same year that Bobby Thompson's shot was heard 'round the world and Doris Day sang the Tennessee Waltz. It was a different time, unimaginable to the eyes of today's generation. Dwight D Eisenhower was the President of the United States. That was the last time our nation was led by a war hero. American patriotism was at it's zenith, families were not afraid to leave their doors unlocked and kids prayed in school and said the Pledge of Allegiance. In my Father's family, his two sons were altar boys preparing for the priesthood.

Who could have guessed what was coming? It was the Pope who said we were about to enter a phase when families would have to become living martyrs for their faith because of the rise of evil in the world. Who could have known that it was the end of America's age of innocence?

It was on a Friday in November when shots rang out in Dallas, Texas. Those shots didn't merely take down a President, they shattered the innocence of a nation. The explanation given to a grieving nation was so absurd as to insult our collective intelligence. How fast we fell from the notion that our government could be trusted.

The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy heralded the beginning of the reviled government, a trend that continues to this day.
So despised was Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam war that it ripped our nation in two like had not been seen since the civil war. Unfortunately, it divided our family, and that was the exact hell into which I was born.

Luke 12:52-54  52 For there shall be from henceforth five in one house divided: three against two, and two against three. 53 The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against his father, the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother, the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. 54 And he said also to the multitudes: When you see a cloud rising from the west, presently you say: A shower is coming: and so it happeneth:

During the 1960s and early 70s, his two twin sons put him through sheer hell as they got into drugs and the wrong crowd and became involved in gangs and the anti-Vietnam war movement. It would only be fair to say that he put them through hell as well. There was war and there was my mother having a nervous breakdown. It was not a pretty time.

This, and the shockingly difficult transition to civilian life for this retired Army Master Sargent was a crushing blow that I am only now beginning to understand. It was in the midst of all the chaos that his other 3 sons grew up, having all 3been born, on military bases. My brother George was born in September of 1963 in Panama. It was only a couple of months before the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

My parents vowed that their next son would be named John Fitzgerald in honor of the memory of our nation's only Catholic President. As it happened, it was me who was born, in Fort Meade, Maryland, a year after George, almost to the day and I have carried the name John Fitzgerald Benko ever since. My parents never got over me becoming a Republican in the early 1980s.

My brother Jeff, the 5th son, was born in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. It was about three years later that my father retired from the army and him and my mom moved into the home in Lorton where they still live today.

On the day I was born, my father was 35 years old. He was almost 37 when his last son was born.

To put this in contrast, I turned 37, the day before 9/11, with my oldest starting her freshman year in high school and our baby boy having passed away 3 1/2 years before.

I have only now come to understand that my early relationship with my father was doomed from the start. This was a man that was beaten down by life in ways that I was about to learn.

My families story was one of almost constant tragedy and hardship and it was one of those tragedies where I can look back in retrospect and see just how painful it was for my father that he and I could not connect. The date was January 17th, 1977. It was a day after the 25th birthday of my father's twin sons and 4 days before the birth of his second grandchild. It was on that day that I was in a sledding accident that nearly cost me my life. As I went into seizures and a coma, my poor father rushed to the hospital. There were no cell phones then, there were no text messages, no updates of any kind. Just a 12 year old son desperately clinging to life, and a father speeding to be at his side.

It took about 45 minutes for my dad to get to the hospital in Fort Belvoir. By that time, the doctor's had come to the conclusion that my situation was grave and my poor dad arrived just in time to see me loaded into the ambulance and the ambulance speed away, rushing me to Walter Reed hospital in Washington, DC. No update, no text message.

This was before the day when every hospital had a helicopter and an ambulance was a fully functional ICU. Ambulances then were for one thing- get the patient to the hospital as quickly as possible. In my case, that meant 80 miles per hour or more, all the way to Washington DC, weaving in and out of traffic, shooting down the shoulders and the emergency lanes. My poor dad did not even know where I was going. He had only one option. He had to keep up with that ambulance no matter what. That is exactly what he did. It is about 50 miles from Manassas, VA to Fort Belvoir Va to Washington, DC and my father, who I have never seen drive more than 50 miles per hour, drove that whole distance with the gas pedal mashed to the floor, swerving, panicking, crying.

I didn't understand it until later, but when my dad broke through the door of that emergency room, I was barely clinging to life. I didn't see the white expression or the tears washing down his face and the sheer hatred I had towards my father froze my heart too much to allow me to believe it. Yes, at 12 years old, I hated this man and I firmly believed that he hated me. When the family told me what he looked like, I had to believe they were either lying or that it was my brother George who he thought was in that ambulance.

Can even God forgive such hatred?

I am not going to whitewash my relationship with my dad. It was hell. My anger towards him was not at all without merit but my hate was. Hate is a vile and corrosive poison that ruins lives, starts wars and leads to damnation.

What did my father receive for his heroic ride? He and my mother were given the news that they needed to prepare for the worst, that it was more than likely that I was not going to survive the night.

The key to learning to love someone is empathy. Empathy, not sympathy. To empathize with someone is to walk in their footsteps. It was only in the aftermath of my personal family tragedy that I came to understand how it is for a parent to be hated by their own child. This is a monstrous cross.

Through the years, I tried to reach this man and he tried to reach me. I was 38 years old when that finally happened.

We now understand each other.

I can now know that had I died that night in January of 1977, his chance to reconcile with me would have died with me. My Father is dying now but he is reconciled with God. Could that have happened if I had not lived?

This much I know. Without the hope of being fully reconciled with my kids, and seeing them reconciled with God, I don't know that I could have the will to live. Yesterday was very likely the last Father's day I will ever have with my dad but there have now been enough for me to say "well done, dad".

You taught me about love. You taught me about bearing burdens and carrying crosses. You taught me the values of honesty, integrity and that the most valuable things life offer are those that money cannot buy. Most of all, you taught me to never give up on life and love and that love really can move mountains. You made faith and forgiveness and salvific suffering real to me and not theological abstracts. You have pointed the way to heaven.

The value of the ascent to the summit is directly proportional to the size of the mountain. Yours is priceless.

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