05/31/10 - posted by Frank Dunnigan
Excellent, jb! A friend gave me a copy of that just after Mom died in 2002. I keep in in my bookcase, and occasionally recite it just before raising a glass to remember those who are no longer with us.

You've prompted me to document another family story...

It’s been nearly 10 years since I became responsible for one of my father’s elderly cousins. Until that time, I knew Ray only as a quiet, introspective soul that I would bump into occasionally at family weddings and funerals. However, with the unexpected passing of his last sibling, Ray was suddenly alone, with no immediate relatives to look after him. Under the provisions of his late brother’s will (never before revealed to me), I was named Ray’s legal guardian.

Ray had been a happy-to-lucky kid, born a twin in 1924, who spent most of his life living on 43rd Avenue in the Outer Richmond. He and his twin graduated from Washington High School in 1942, and immediately enlisted—Hub, as he was called, in the Army, and Ray in the Navy. While their older brother, John, a recent engineering grad from Cal, served in an office at Hunters Point, Hub was sent to Italy, and Ray was assigned as a Pharmacist’s Mate on a battleship in the Pacific. I still have the small red and white flag, with its 3 blue stars, that hung in the family’s living room window from 1942 until they were all back home in 1946.

Sadly, only John and Hub were “safely” back at home. Ray returned, but in his role working with the medics, he had seen some of life’s worst images, and these remained a burden on his mind and soul for the rest of his life.

His brothers quickly re-assimilated into civilian life. Ray, on the other hand, was in and out of VA facilities for some time before he landed a job as a streetcar operator with the MUNI in the early 1950s. It was not longer before it became clear that the stress of driving a streetcar was not a very good match for a veteran who was still working to resolve many emotional issues. He soon left that job, and returned to VA care for several more years.

By the late 1950s, the doctors and therapists in the VA had done all they could for him, and Ray was sent home from a Los Angeles-area facility to his parents on 43rd Avenue, for whatever care and support they could offer. Although physically well, his emotions were unpredictable. For a normally mild-mannered individual, his concern with order and detail led to some unhappy episodes requiring police intervention, not unlike some of those related here by others, and for the most part, many relatives put some distance between themselves and Ray.

As his parents grew old and infirm in the 1960s, Ray’s care and compassion began to outshine his problems once again. He was the live-in caregiver to each of them, and watched proudly as they enjoyed long and happy lives in their own home, while he undertook the daily physical chores of running a household.

Once his mother Alice died in 1982, though, Ray understood that it had been a mutual care-giving relationship. While Ray bought the groceries, did the driving, mowed the lawns, and ran the errands, it was Alice who managed the finances, paid the bills, and dealt with the mail—all things that caused anxiety, confusion, and worry in her son.

He was fully agreeable when his only surviving brother, working with a therapist at the VA, suggested to Ray that he might enjoy living in a VA-sponsored board-and-care home. He made the transition, and continued to live among other elderly service-members who relied on him for daily trips to the doctor, the grocery store, and many Giants’ home games. He was proud of the fact that after more than 50 years of driving, he had never received a ticket, nor been involved in an accident. Among his few treasured possessions, was a small gold pin, given to him by the VA, in recognition of more than 10,000 hours spent as a volunteer.

Ray made his final transition to the nursing facility at the Fort Miley VA medical center on Clement Street in 1997. Once there, he continued his role as a helper, introducing new residents to the layout of the facilities, from his perch in a wheelchair. Even as his body declined physically, that part of his brain that was so concerned with order and detail remained sharp. He would recite for the staff as well as visitors an entire history of Fort Miley from the early days, through each of the new buildings, and the plans for the future. From his room, high above Clement Street, he could look down on his old house and backyard on 43rd Avenue—sometimes with joyful recollections, and at other times with dark, gloomy silence that he could not share with anyone.

A few weeks before his death, the principal of nearby St. Monica’s School, which Ray had attended many years before, sent each one of the residents of Fort Miley’s Long-Term Care unit a grocery bag filled with hand-written Valentine’s Day cards from the students. Ray brought these out every day, and read them—to himself, to visitors, and to the staff. Those children will never know how much good their warm thoughts, spelled out in crayon and construction paper, did for a kindly old man just before his death. One of them will stay with me forever—a large red heart, dripping with gold glitter, “Dear Veteran, Thank you for saving the United States of America for all of us. Your friend, Kim.”

While going through Ray’s papers just before his funeral, I came across a letter that he had received in March of 1946 from then-Secretary of the Navy, James Forrestal, thanking him (and several million others with the same wording) for their accomplishments in bringing about the conclusion of that war. Reading those simple words at Ray’s funeral brought tears to the eyes of the small group in the church that day, especially the passage: “For your part in these achievements you deserve to be proud as long as you live. The Nation which you served at a time of crisis will remember you with gratitude.”

As I type this, I glance up at that faded flag with the 3 blue stars, and think of what was, what might have been, and what will be—thanks to Ray and to millions of others just like him.

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