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What Makes a Man (poem)
By W. D. Ehrhart
Even as my dad lay dying, cancer
back a second time and moving fast,
he blurted out, "I should have fought!"
Apropos of nothing. Out of nowhere
but the secret reservoir of memory
and shame he'd carried all his life, the weight
of it I never fully understood
until that moment. World War II, he meant.
The two of us alone: a man who'd missed
the great adventure of his generation,
Ike's Great Crusade, the crucible for all
those other men around him all his life,
the test they'd passed, the club he couldn't join;
his son, the ex-Marine, the one who'd come
back home from Vietnam insisting it was
all just bullshit, just a lethal scam
that only proves how gullible
each generation's cannon fodder is.
Only in that moment in that room
did I begin to grasp how impotent
my father must have felt through all those years,
how much he must have taken my enlistment
as a personal rebuke, and how my
subsequent insistence that I'd
validated nothing in myself
must have been to him a kind of treason.
Dying now, in 1988, he still
could not let go of Cousin Bob
who'd been dismantled by a German mine
but died a man in 1945,
not like this: wasted, helpless, haunted
by the shades of what he thought he was
and what he wished he'd been, a nurse's aide
to change his bedpan, too much time to think,
and nothing either one of us could do
to change a thing.
—W. D. Ehrhart
Reprinted from Thank You for Your Service: Collected Poems by W. D. Ehrhart, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019.