USS Corry (DD-463)
Paul N. Garay
Flo Garay and sons at the 2008
annual USS Corry shipmates reunion
Painting of Paul Garay by son Peter Garay
from a photo taken at Normandy a few years
before his father died.
THE QUIET MAN
My Dad was a hero. During the invasion of Normandy the destroyer he was serving on, the USNS Corry, hit a mine. As his vessel was sinking he saved the lives of two men. After this event and before he abandoned ship he lowered the ship’s flag and took it with him into the English Channel. Fifty years later a picture of the Corry’s flag graced the cover of National Geographic magazine. In that edition there was an article entitled “Untold Stories of D-Day” When the article talked about my father’s destroyer and the flag he saved, the author accidentally misspelled his name. If he had lived long enough to read the story I don’t think he would have cared much because of his easy going nature. But I do. For the record the correct spelling is Lieutenant “Garay.” In addition to saving our country’s flag that afternoon so long ago, my father was also awarded the bronze star for bravery in action.
One other small act took place that day that the article didn’t cover. Before he abandoned ship, Lieutenant Garay was standing on the Corry’s bridge alone with the Captain. As the ship was sinking beneath their feet the Lieutenant turned to his Captain and said, “Captain, I think you had better remove your shoes because they’re about to get wet.”
My dad didn’t have a lot of luck on ships during the war. His next assignment was in the Pacific theater where his new ship was also knocked out of action, this time by a lucky (if there is such a thing) Kamikaze. My father ended up getting wounded in this melee and was subsequently honorably discharged from the Navy.
After the war Dad married Mom, and the two of them settled in together and began the business of raising a family. In spite of my father’s experience in the war he remained enamored with boats and the sea. My father built the first boat we owned as a family from scratch. It burned up during one of our trips to Shelter Cove when someone left a metal tackle box on top of the engine’s battery. The entire boat went up in flames right next to the highway where we had pulled over to inspect the plume of smoke that was billowing out from under the canvas tarp that had been lashed over the boat. I remember dad standing with the spent fire extinguisher in his hand, looking wistfully at the boat’s charred hull resting on the trailer and saying, “At least she didn’t sink on me.”
Back home Dad shrugged the fire off and started to build another boat, this time out of steel and cement. Over the years we ended up owning lots of boats. My family was never wealthy in the monetary sense of the word so most of our boats were usually old and in need of some sort of repair. Consequently, all of our boats spent a great deal of their lives propped up in boatyards waiting to be made seaworthy again. Camped out beneath the shade of his desires, my father would patiently scrape, sand, paint, and caress the hull of each of his boats until he was intimate with each one of them. My mother was an exceptional woman. She never became jealous of my father’s relationship with his boats or the sea.
The last boat my family owned was a wooden thirty-two-foot Grand Banks trawler my father named Tradition. Though Dad loved sailboats, with age I think he came to enjoy the ease and comfort of the iron jenny over the canvas propulsion of some of his earlier crafts. The last few years of his life would find him motoring around the sloughs and backwater eddies of California’s Sacramento River delta where he kept her. Toward the end when he was getting too old to operate the Tradition by himself, he would still visit her every weekend at her moorings and putter about finding things to paint or repair.
Of all my dad’s boats, Tradition was the most special to me. When I was aboard her, I forgot all about the world beyond the maze of dikes and levies which contained and channeled the delta’s broad and slow-moving waters. Exploring the river’s many muddy tongues, our family fished, swam, loved, and lounged around basking in our perfect balance. Back on land I buried the treasure trove of those memories deep into my heart for safe keeping. Opening that chest today floods my face with tears. When my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, my parents made the decision to sell the Tradition so my mother wouldn’t be burdened with it after Dad passed away.
His cancer first came calling on Christmas Eve. My parents were spending the holidays with my family and me. In the evening close to the children’s bedtime, my father remarked to no one in particular that he was having a hard time catching his breath. Dad was the kind of man who could be choking to death and all he would say was, “I’m having a bit of a hard time breathing.” Pain was something he was able to exercise great control over. At the dentists office he would have his teeth drilled and cavities filled without Novocaine. In the middle of the night we rushed him to the hospital. Dad spent three days there. They stuck some tubes into his lungs, drained them, and then pumped in some fresh air to re-inflate him as if he were a flat tire.
The next episode took place a few months later. Same deal. He couldn’t breath due to fluid in his lungs. Same procedure. Yet still no firm diagnosis as to what was causing the fluid to collect. They say the third time is the charm. This time it only took a few weeks before his lungs began to fill again. After a bunch of head scratching the doctors finally diagnosed him with lung cancer and moved him up to the oncology ward. “Lung cancer? It can’t be, my father has never smoked.” I said.
When the doctor told my father the news, Dad asked, “So how long have I got?”
“Six months, maybe more.”
“So I’m a goner.”
After he said this my Mom started to break down and cry. The doctor began to mumble something about the importance of not giving up. “Doctor, can I please speak privately with you outside?” I asked as I motioned him to the hallway with my hand.
Outside dad’s hospital room I told him that my father was not giving anything up. “He is a man who knows when it’s time to let go,” I said. Ignoring this, the doctor then went on to explain how my father could probably be kept alive for another six months or even longer if he’d agree to undergo a series of procedures that would slow his lungs from filling up with fluid.
“Thanks, I’ll let him know what his options are,” I said.
Back in the room I explained to dad what the doctor had told me about continuing treatment with the siphoning tubes and the air compressors. He looked tired and without humor when he said, “No, I don’t think so, Peter. The quality of my life is not so good anymore.” I realized that for the first time in his life his pain had finally become too much.
Before sending dad home to finish dying they kept him in the oncology ward for a few more days of observation thinking he might change his mind. The only thing he ended up changing were the channels on his T.V.
During his stay in the hospital there were two other people who left their mark on me.
The first was a close friend of my parents that dropped by the hospital to visit. All of this was a familiar scene to her because she was a nurse by trade. Sitting around my father’s bed we were all trying hard to have a light conversation. In one of the rooms nearby a patient was loudly expressing the bondage of their unbearable pain. My parents’ friend broke the rhythm of our “remember when” storytelling when she said, “God, why’d they have to put you next to a moaner?”
The next person I neither heard nor saw. Instead I read her thoughts. On the first floor of the hospital there was a little room, which served as a chapel. The entrance to this sanctuary was covered with a heavy curtain of purple felt. The room behind the thick drapes was only big enough for three or four people at a time. Inside there was a bench, a small table, a cross on the wall, and some burning candles. Drawing back the curtain I ventured into this safe haven to pray. Kneeling, I prayed that my father wouldn’t have to suffer a long drawn-out death. After I was done, I noticed a thick leather-bound register lying on top of the small table. Curious, I opened it and began to read the various entries. Most of them were simple prayers, much like my own. Skimming over the pages I found one story that caught my attention. She began her first entry by writing her name, which was Cosette. She was seventy-seven and her illness was also cancer.
I think Cosette’s story first grabbed me because I once had a friend named Cosette in high school. Her desk was across from mine in Mrs. McFarland’s Spanish class. For fifty minutes each day her name became “Little Cornchop.” Cornchop was a pretty girl. She had short-cropped auburn hair and her round smiling face was speckled with cute brown freckles.
This was to be Cosette’s first treatment. She was asking for God’s help because she was scared and had no one to assist her through her upcoming ordeal. Reading the dates of her subsequent entries, I could see her visits were spaced out in weekly intervals. She left seven entries total. With each succeeding entry I could tell that her treatments were extinguishing, one by one, all the little sparks of life that were left in her. In her final thoughts she wrote about her loneliness and the burden it was becoming to bear. Her last prayer asked God to please take her because she was unsure how much longer she could go on. The next week the space where she would have normally left her mark was empty.
I often ponder the question about what ended up taking Cosette. Was it loneliness, cancer, or the power of a prayer? With age, I’m beginning to lean more toward my answer. As for my friend, Little Cornchop, I wish I could look back and ask the age-old question we all ask ourselves from time to time, “I wonder what ever happened to him or her?” But I can’t do that with Cornchop because one afternoon as she was returning home from school, a monster abducted her and erased her from this earth.
Once we got Dad home and set up in the spare bedroom he began to let go. Since I was there along with my mother the only person he had left to say good-bye to was my brother who was at sea. We learned from his employer that it would be two days before the vessel he was sailing on would reach port. I asked my Dad if he could wait it out for a few more days so Randy could bid him goodbye. No matter what anyone else may tell you, the truth is, the tough part about going to sea is the being gone.
This time, I was fortunate to be home. My brother, on the other hand, was left to be counseled by our shared mistress, the sea.
When Dad finally gave into his pain and asked for help I called Hospice and they were at my father’s bedside within the hour with pain medication. As I offered him a big heaping tablespoon of morphine,
Dad said, “Go easy on that stuff, Peter, I don’t want to get addicted.”
“Dad, you’re in the check out line here, don’t worry about getting hooked.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” He replied with a defeated grin.
He took his medicine and made a sour face like a small boy swallowing a spoon full of castor oil. When he had finished smacking his lips, his merry blue eyes grew cloudy as his eyelids twitched closed. Lying there in front of me, I began to notice small things about him I had never observed before. For instance his skin was transparent and ancient looking with blotchy bruises of varying hues beneath its surface. The strong muscles that had once pulled me out of the water when I had clumsily fallen from the boat we were fishing in, now hung limp from his withering frame.
Back then, I was still a small boy who had yet to learn how to swim. After saving me from the sea he held me out by the scruff of my neck in front of himself with one arm as he inspected me for damage. As I hung in the air, sputtering and kicking, he repeated his first cardinal rule of boating safety: “For crying out loud, Peter, how many times have I got to tell you this! That’s why you never stand up in a small boat!” Then he gently lowered me back down onto one of the skiff’s thwarts.
As he lay before me now, I rubbed and patted his bald and soft head with the palm of my hand and wondered why I had never been able to touch him with such tenderness before. I guess men just have a hard time touching each other unless one of them is dying or one is not a man yet, as was my son many years ago. I still hear his little voice filling the air with joy as he broke away from his mother’s side and ran to meet his grandpa in the airport that day yelling, “Papa Paul! Papa Paul!” No sweeter sight on earth could I behold than watching my father reach down and sweep up my charging son. I continued to stroke his head for a long time, all the while talking to him.
Two days later my brother called from overseas and spoke with my father. It was difficult to watch dad try to regain control of his world long enough to be coherent in his goodbye. Most of the words he managed to speak tumbled out of his mouth in a jumbled up thick slur. In the center of his struggle he managed to find five clear words that he was able to sort into their proper order. With his last moment of clarity he said, “I love you too, Son.” Then like an invisible quicksand, the turbulence of his confusion sucked the rest of his words under. I damned the morphine for this disabling feature then thanked it for quietly cradling him away when he was finished talking to my brother.
I whispered into his ear, “Remember to take your shoes off, Dad,” then kissed him. And that was it. The shadow of death then fell.
In the end my Father didn’t rage against the dying light. Instead he chose to go gentle into the good night. His death was fitting for a man who loved the sea as he did. He ended up drowning. As the cancerous fluid filled his lungs to their capacity his mouth dropped open, he emitted a little gurgling rattle and the quiet man named Paul Nicholas Garay slipped away beneath the waves and was no more.
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