|The Veteran and the Daughter
Three months after leaving hospital, Jack Jacobson’s leg, at age 22, still doesn’t properly obey his mind’s command, nor is his sleep restful, in fact his entire outlook on the world has changed, but for one thing, one person who doesn’t judge him for anything other than his ability to be a good father.
Jack left his town, his friends and family, to join the Marines; stirred to do so by the events of 9/11. That is the man he can no longer remember, the life he had before a roadside bomb blew away his left leg, took the sight of his left eye, and impaired the hearing in his left ear beyond repair. Jack Jacobson doesn’t know what he feels. He just doesn’t know.
Today, wearing blue denim shorts, and running along the ocean’s ragged edge, his daughter stopped running, stooping to collect yet another seashell.
Just six months ago he was lying in a heap of broken metal, his flesh torn, and a river of blood ebbing away his life. It was in those moments of fading consciousness that Jack believed his life with her was over; the experience of sharing in her life gone. He knew that she would run and laugh and cry, but he wouldn’t be the person there when she graduated, fell in love, had her first child. He was dying in a heap of metal, in a country he’d never heard of before 9/11, and knew, in his agony, that she would run, laugh, graduate, wed, and have a child while living in a free country.
She looked back at him, holding aloft a perfect seashell. He waved his acknowledgement before she ran onward, searching out more perfection.
Farther down the petticoat shoreline, a dark shining mass rocked side to side amid the froth of shallow waves, and as the two get closer it becomes obvious that the mass is, in fact, a dead dolphin. The small child looks up, her eyes asking a question that her mouth will not.
Jack wants to turn her away; turn her attention back to collecting seashells, anything but stare at a dead dolphin, but her tiny hand kept pulling him forward.
The dolphin’s skin is shredding, and as waves recede, rivulets of blood pour from its empty eye sockets.
“It’s dead, daddy, isn’t it?”
He nods, gently squeezing her hand.
“It looks alive. It moves when the water comes in.” She says.
It was true; in death as in life, the dolphin’s body accepted the water’s pressures and took them for its own. Even the head moved, scanning the sea with empty eye sockets.
“Why has it got holes in its tummy?”
He held out against answering.
“Don’t you know, Daddy?”
He stood with her, side-by-side, hands clasped, facing death’s reasoning for the second time in a year.
“Who knows why things have to die, sweetheart, who knows.”
“I’m glad fish don’t feel pain, Daddy. It must be nice not to feel pain.”
Was this the time to explain, he wondered, that this was no fish, that there was indeed pain, along with the inability to breathe, to suffocate in pain, to feel life leaving in the midst of panic and fear.
“It’s a mammal, honey; it breathes air like you and me. A dolphin isn’t a fish.”
His throat tightened. He felt the wind pushing at his body, and as the waves rolled in the dolphin rolled onto its side. A gaping gash showed itself and the grey entrails wriggled like worms from its belly.
“Did someone do this, Daddy?”
He looked down, letting go of her hand, pulling her small body tightly into his side.
He hugged her as he thought back on his own short life, being the son of a fisherman.
He understands that somewhere out there, a man, perhaps a father, is fishing for his livelihood; a fisherman respecting the ocean’s bounty, its creatures, its whales and dolphins, and hoping to catch just enough fish to support his family. How could he teach his daughter why things die in such a terrible way?
Few fishermen are rich beyond their dreams; most, like his father, carve a living from long days and meager hauls; every haul meaning clothes for his children, a better education, food in the larder, wood for the fire.
Was he going to tell his daughter that on this particular day, a fisherman, perhaps with his first decent haul in weeks, and joy in his heart; would see that feeling of joy turn into anguish as the net surfaced, revealing a dolphin struggling for escape, with no way to release the dolphin and keep the fish.
At home the fisherman’s wife is mending clothes, concerned about the thickness of her daughter’s school shoes, and wondering how they would afford this year’s school books. Next month, with one good catch, they would have enough money for a new pair.
Jack stood on the shoreline, holding his daughter, his body damaged, his mind tormented, his life changed, and for what? Maybe just so his daughter could read about all whales and dolphins in the oceans.
There are many reasons why a dolphin lay dead in the water with a slit in its belly. There are many complex reasons why young men die on roadsides in foreign countries.
He was brought out of his far away thinking by the question of his daughter asking why people could be so cruel.
“We don’t know if it was cruel, darling.”
“Did someone try to catch the dolphin?”
He knelt down and tried to explain death to his daughter.
“Sometimes things don’t die the way we want them to, sweetie; sometimes things die and we don’t know why, and sometimes things die and we do know why. It doesn’t make dying or death any easier to understand.”
Do you think this dolphin died for the right reasons, Daddy?”
A hole opened up in his chest. The one he believed had been closed.
“Yes, honey, sometimes there’s a good reason for a dolphin to die.”
“Can we bury this dolphin?” She asked.
He had always felt a little ashamed of his inability to deal with a difficult situation where his child was concerned. He just wanted to love her and never be the monster. Never have to discipline, or teach the less important things, like math or algebra.
He knelt with her. Together they scraped at the sand until they had a huge hole three feet deep. He knew the sea would reclaim its own on the next tide, or the one after that.
Waiting for a wave to assist him, he hauled the carcass into the hole.
“Mummy would want us to say a prayer, is that alright?’
‘Do you have one you could say?’
“I only know the one Mummy taught me, can I say that?”
“Sure, you say the one you know.”
She placed her hands palm to palm.
“I know you're worn, I know you're torn
I know you're losing all your hope
'Cause you're a long way from home
I know you're worried
I know you're scared.
I'd like to put my arms around you
And show you that I care.”
She brought her flatted hands down from her face.
"That was a nice prayer, honey. Let’s continue our walk, shall we?”
She took hold of her father’s hand to continue their walk on the beach.
The idea that a single shot to the head, or that alcoholism might be the answer shamed him while he held onto the hand of his daughter.