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A year ago marked the opening of The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial. I haven’t been able to make it to the East Coast in several years, but I’m planning my first visit to this important Memorial this March, when I hope to see it adorned by, among other things, falling cherry blossom leaves. Right now, though, the website has a zippy little virtual tour that I recommend you take.

Disability is at once the most alienating and most inclusive of problems. Everyone is a heartbeat away from lifelong paralysis through earthquake or car accident or school shooting or God knows. Everyone is eventually going to be disabled, one way or another. (Well, unless death comes unusually swiftly.) And yet, for the chronically disabled and wheelchair bound, there’s a world they must live in that just isn’t made for them, that finds new ways to slight them every day. While the last few years have seen a remarkable surge in empathy for women and persons of color – as evidenced by hundreds of articles about campus policies, trigger warnings, Confederate flags, police brutality, etc. – neither veterans nor differently abled persons have rarely been at the forefront of anyone’s Twitter-shaming campaign.

I don’t pretend that my child’s autism diagnosis lets me understand the struggles of families of chronically disabled veterans. But perhaps my level of empathy has risen just a bit.

I know that sense of shock, as immortalized in the scene in The Best Years of Our Lives when Homer returns home, uses his hooks-for-hands to wave goodbye to his service-mates, and his mother breaks down crying. First and foremost, it’s the feeling of raw sorrow for your child: all the potential he had for a “normal” life (whatever that is) wiped away, all the pain and bullying he’s going to endure. Second, it’s the feeling for yourself: if you truly love this person – and how can you not love your child – the rest of your life will be a series of daily burdens. Forget freedom, forget Thoreau’s Walden, forget lying on a beach all day sipping piña coladas – from now on, for both you and your child, it’s twice as much to work to get to half of what “normal” people experience (whatever that is).

I’ve seen random dogs bark at my autistic child more than they bark at my neuro-typical one. It’s as though they sense weakness or that something’s off. If there’s any veteran out there who can’t hide his or her handicap and gets bothered at random dogs barking – I get you, man.

I wonder if veterans who can’t hide their wounds feel judged by strangers – if our vets think that strangers are thinking “why did you go to war in the first place?” “couldn’t you have avoided injury?” “why did you live and my loved one died?” – that sort of thing. I hope they don’t. I sometimes find myself wondering if people think I or someone I know dropped my child on his head (for the record, there is nothing like that on the record). None of those thoughts do anyone any good, do they?

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One thing I like about The American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial is the flame in the middle of the water — to me that says so much about the painful dissonance of disability, about capability and non-capability, about feeling so normal and abnormal all at the same time. Another thing I like about it is that it doesn’t discriminate between physical and intellectual disabilities. (Such separation is necessary in the case of, say, the Paralympics and the Special Olympics.) Many, many veterans have mental scars that aren’t as visible as missing limbs, and today I think about them, honor their service, and give as many virtual hugs as I can. My mother had three brothers, and they all served. We lost two to suicide, one of those while he was on his Merchant Marine vessel. Would my uncles have decided to take their own lives if not for the things they’d seen and done as servicemen? Perhaps, but I find it hard to believe that the military had nothing to do with their impaired mental state. Sacrifice is real, and it can often be lifelong. Thank you, U.S. Park Service, because the tortured elocution of “Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial” is nothing compared to the torture that hundreds of thousands of our brave veterans are suffering in their heads even now.

Thinking of them on Veterans Day and every day, for all they did to keep us safe.

I just want to finish this little piece by saying a few things to my 6-year-old child who has never spoken to me. Who knows if some veteran or vet’s family member will find them useful. I’d like to think so.

Dear My Beloved One,

I love you. Sometimes I wish I didn’t. I love you and I’ll always be here for you. You can drive me crazy. I’ll always support you. I’ll sometimes be infuriated when you don’t do something that we both know you can do. I’ll always cheer on your successes and try to mitigate your failures. I have moments when I need space from you. I’m always very proud of you. I’m beyond frustrated at your condition, but my love for you is unconditional.

Let’s not pretend this is an easy life. Maybe life isn’t easy for anyone, but it gets harder when you’re dependent on others. You will have struggles we can’t even anticipate. You will find yourself diminished beyond reason. I will be here, but we will experience pain, you and I. It’s coming, and we just have to remember that we knew about it beforehand, and we can deal with it. The pain is worth it, because we only get one life, one little eyeblink of time, on this planet, and we can’t let that eye close too soon just because of a little suffering.

More than anything, I want you to be as happy as you can be. I hope we can find some job for you, some way of serving others, that you can do comfortably. Perhaps you can enter numbers into a computer. Perhaps you can help scientists plan for the future. Perhaps you have all kinds of ideas and you want to tell them to me. I’ll be all ears the minute you do.

The struggle is real. But so is chocolate. So is sunshine on wet grass. So are birds singing, and trains whistling, and children laughing, and tides washing up on the beach. We already experience all that together and we will go on experiencing it. Because, at this point, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because I love you. So let’s go out there and be the best (we) we can be.

–         Daniel Smith-Rowsey

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