Sailing to Byzantium, by W.B. Yeats
Just a short time ago, after nine years of flu shots, my father died. He’d survived the Great Depression; he’d survived life in an orphanage until the age of four and then life on the streets of gang-infested Irish Harlem. He’d lived through a march across the African front and Algiers in World War II and had survived a bullet at the Battle of Anzio. But he couldn’t survive mainstream medicine.
My dad’s “adverse events” began with neuropathic numbness in his feet and mouth which led to choking and falls and then ended with clusters of tiny strokes and a type of malignant heart rhythm—all of which are curiously associated with chronic mercury poisoning. Bedridden for almost a year in a nursing facility, he stopped eating a few weeks before his death, joking that he was “fed up”.
My dad was almost 87 when he died, so there’s no limit to the usual alternative explanations for his decline in health, regardless of how healthy his lifestyle had been.
Other “alibis” were piled on with each drug added to his regimen for the domino effect of compounded conditions.
But unraveling my father’s death isn’t my point. I’m writing about my dad because he’s one of the main reasons, along with my mother (who deserves a biographical novel), that I was even able to face what happened to my children and, subsequently, what may have happened to my dad himself.
On one of my last visits with my dad and then again on Veteran’s Day, I realized that autism warriors (for the title of Jenny McCarthy’s book) come in many forms. The child who battles, the parents who crawl through fire, the alternative practitioners who defy orthodoxy and then those emotional athletes who allow themselves to stomach the evidence of injury of a friend’s or family member’s—or even a stranger’s—child.
It’s all remarkable to me and I wonder what gave any of us the wherewithal to stand up to convention and face realities that are sometimes so unbearable that it’s like “looking into the sun”, as Joyce Carol Oates wrote regarding the loss of a child. It can’t be done, but some manage without going blind. It doesn’t just boil down to whose ox gets gored either, since we all know of many other parents of injured kids who rage against the very thought that their government, their doctors and their regulatory agencies allowed and even hastened what may be the worst medical disaster in world history.
When my husband and I told him what happened to our twins (once we understood ourselves), my father grasped the ramifications immediately. He didn’t hesitate—he just closed his eyes, shook his head and took it in. It wasn’t beyond his ability to conceive.
This meant a lot to me, I have to say. My dad was never a conspiracy nut and had an almost paranormal radar for bull. By that very token, he’d begun to suspect that this mysterious child epidemic of ill health and cognitive disorders he was hearing about on the news could not be solely from genetic causes. Genetic epidemics didn’t make sense and, these days, everything and the kitchen sink are being ascribed to genes. He thought it was “malarkey”. After all, he’d taken a bullet fighting a campaign of atrocity which was based, at its roots, on eugenic-genetic voodoo. That there was little public objection to these genes-for-all theories was of little consequence to him: universal paralysis and denial over what can be done in the name of science and progress were simply déjà vu to him.
Having heard of it on PBS, my dad told me he didn’t buy the “refrigerator mother” theory; otherwise he felt he would have seen a lot more flapping and spinning among the terribly neglected, frequently institutionalized children he grew up with. He wasn’t impressed with “increased recognition” or any of the other alternate theories because he’d never encountered a single stricken child or adult until two of his four grandchildren regressed (his impression matches statistics: there are vastly more children affected by autism today than there were individuals of any age in mental institutions or listed as “mentally disabled” in the U.S. in any year prior to 1959).
So, aside from my dad’s value as an eyewitness to history and as a junk science-filter, it was obvious that one of the big factors in my ability to come to grips with the awful clues and start saving my kids was that I wouldn’t have to be orphaned from my family for my pains, even if I’d have to accept being orphaned from polite Kindermusik society and mainstream social precepts. Like everyone else in the community, my husband and I lost friends, not just because our children’s illnesses represented a cloud of misfortune or “defect”, but also because our views on how they became ill threatened the illusion of a safe world, one in which good things only happen to good people (and bad things happen to bad). I’m pretty sure this would have been more painful if my dad hadn’t already been down this road and given me the map.
Would I have folded without my parents’ shoulders to stand on? I don’t know. Even those members of the environmental autism community who can’t exactly credit elders with support for the concept of vaccine causation must be able to recall some example, some object lesson they passed on—maybe in spite of themselves—which bolstered the capacity to see the writing on the wall or just imparted the strength not to blink. Maybe that’s how we honor our parents and other role models rather than blaming them for mythic crap genes—by grasping what we do. Even if they don’t believe us, maybe we should tell them so before it’s too late.
Then there are some in the community who, like my dad, came out of virtual vacuums with hearts and minds somehow calibrated. It’s not a feat I can claim and this really amazes me.
As he lay dying, my dad asked all of us in the family to recount any stories we remembered which might illustrate what he’d been able to impart to us or what we’d learned from his mistakes. Facing death head on and being a theist (not an atheist, he would remind us), he wasn’t so sure he’d be able to enjoy our eulogies after the fact and he gave us the gift of being able to tell him to his face what meaning he’d had in our lives. I was happy to be able to answer positively because I’d thought so much about it.
I recounted to my dad some interesting contradictions from his life which I thought traced how he might have bequeathed some common sense and maybe a little intuition. I’d never seen my father shed a tear in my life before this, but hearing my responses, he wept several times, though he mostly laughed—then deferred credit to my mother. For him to accept it, I had to frame the homage as “blaming” him—for skepticism, stubbornness, maybe a bit of caped-crusaderism. All through, my dad understood that foremost on my mind was how I’d come to differentiate fact from delusion when it came to my children’s welfare. I “blamed” him for this fixation. He would have felt he’d failed otherwise.
Like his namesake, the Irish rebel Roibéard Eiméid, my dad had a penchant for the underdog and the road less travelled.
Born Irish in Irish Harlem during the “Cotton Club” (among his favorite films) era of gang wars and racism, my father considered himself a member of the human race and no other.
Though he was disowned to an orphanage for the first four years of his life and later raised by alcoholics, my dad rarely drank and valued family above all else, as though it were something rare and exotic. Being orphaned by society for one’s beliefs wasn’t much of a threat.
Because my dad grew up with few positive male role models, he didn’t embrace the idea of becoming a father until his forties. But once he had a house full of females, he took the role of husband to a working wife and father to two small daughters so seriously that he joined the National Organization for Women in its early days and gave speeches on inequality in education. My mother always thought it was a hoot to see my dad lumbering ruggedly to the podium, unaware of his status as poster boy for “real men support women’s rights!”
On one of my final visits, I reminisced in more detail about how my dad served in the infantry in WWII and got his Purple Heart. He didn’t like hearing about it unless there was a point. When my sister and I were kids, my dad only relented to tell a few select episodes from the war with the intention to make us sorry we’d asked, but to this day I’m not because I think the history explains a bit.
As he’d told it, at 6’2”, my dad was too tall for the hurriedly-dug, narrow foxholes near Anzio beach and there was no time to customize. As he and the other men followed orders to sit tight, he found he could either stand up with both arms in the hole and his head poking out or he’d have to duck his head in at the cost of raising one arm above ground. After he sensed he’d been “heads-up” long enough for any of the multiple sniper to take aim, he changed postures just as a single bullet went through his raised left arm, halfway between the shoulder and elbow, severing nerves and arteries. Moral to the story: listen to your guts.
It took him three years in physical therapy to get the use of his left hand back and maybe the rest of his life to process what he saw on his way to Italy and on the beach, but you could say that my father actually did dodge that bullet: even if it went through his arm, it had been intended for his skull. He was lucky in more ways than one.
When my dad first arrived in North Africa, there was a private in his unit (whose name my dad couldn’t recall) whom the other men scapegoated and called “the rabbit”. “The rabbit” had apparently been recycled from too many fronts and used to jump under any available bunk when shells struck too close, but was otherwise competent. My father, on the other hand, said he found himself barely reacting to the shells and had a sense that “the rabbit’s” response was natural and human and that his own was a result of damage. This was why he decided to get the other men off “the rabbit’s” back— maybe in defense of some souvenir of humanity in the war. He didn’t want to clobber anyone, so he was creative about it. As he had as a kid, my dad singled out the ring leader of the bullies and simply told him he’d had “bad dreams” about him. Bullies, my dad explained, are always primitive thinkers; terrified of the contagion of bad luck, perceived weakness, and “difference”. The ring leader, eager to get amnesty from my dad’s “nightmares”, gave amnesty to “the rabbit”. The bullying stopped, morale improved and my dad was made corporal.
He gave few other details about the invasion at Anzio, except that it was “the rabbit” who saved his life by crossing the line of fire to drag my wounded father out of the foxhole. Few others in the unit survived the ensuing battle, something which my dad never lived down.
A commonly heard opinion is that the Anzio invasion was an ill-conceived failure in an otherwise relatively just war, the result of a battle of wills between Allied commanders. My dad described seeing the half-charred body of a beautiful boy soldier near the beach and thinking that some mother had obviously devoted her life to nurturing this child, all for him to end up as “cannon fodder”. Audie Murphy, Medal of Honor recipient and veteran of the same battle, wrote The Crosses Grow On Anzio:
Praise be to God for this captured sod that rich with blood does seep
With yours and mine; like butchered swine’s, and hell is six feet deep
It makes sense that those who once were collateral themselves would know what a low value is put on life in certain circumstances, especially when “the greater good” is the prevailing rationale. Maybe this is especially so when the greater good truly is sincerely the aim of those making the lousy decisions.
In the end, of course, the bullets my father couldn’t dodge were in the form of mercury-laced flu shots. The crosses grow for young and old.
As my father’s health plummeted further, he eventually lost his ability to speak. It was chillingly so much like my son’s protracted regression after vaccinations, except my father never lost his wits and he continued to communicate with us by pen and paper, though he could barely hold his hand steady. He apologized for his spelling. In the ten or so notebooks he’d filled, there wasn’t a word of regret for himself; instead, he centered his despair and anger on what had been done to children. Of his own demise, he shrugged and wrote, “Crying over spilt milk. Worry about the kids”.
Along with my mother, he offered any form of help he could muster, offered money for the twins’ treatments, and sought information on chelation. He didn’t want to be shielded and he cried with relief every time we reported the children’s frequently dramatic improvements. He expressed admiration for the safer vaccine and environmental movements, writing that these things were necessary to “sustain democracy”. I told him I would naturally do what I could to pitch in because I was as pig-headed as he’d always been, which delighted him.
As anyone with chronically ill children knows, there’s an added tragedy in how little precious time we’re able to spend with ailing or aging parents if visits require travel. On the last of my too-brief and too-infrequent visits, my dad spent a lot of that precious time discussing the corruption of industry and regulatory agencies and the virtual legal immunity of the vaccine industry. He wrote about what he felt certain industries were seeking:
My dad would have liked to see his grandchildren recover. He would have liked to see justice done. He would have liked to see more “kids” come home from the current war. He would have liked to see Robert F. Kennedy Jr. appointed to the EPA (as would we all). One of his last acts on earth was to vote for Barack Obama, so clearly this was his hope and it’s mine that he would not have been disappointed.
Dad was lucid to the last. This fact might not be so reassuring to the more corrupt members of the medical establishment. My dad, an avowed agnostic all his life, had begun to think about his personal concept of God towards the end. Knowing him, if he met his maker, he went with some thanks for the wonder of it all, some reticently told tales of the wars he’d seen, a life well lived and a formal complaint. Robert Emmett, rest in peace.
Adriana Gamondes, a former theater director, lives in Massachusetts with her husband and recovering twins.