Satori or Something Like It
By Julia Whitehead, Executive Director of the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library
When I was a young Marine Corps lieutenant, I often reflected on the body, my body, that was physically strong, despite the knee damage from hiking 20 miles with a heavy pack and a physically lighter but psychologically heavier M-16. Despite the toe nails that turned black and fell off because of bruises sustained by running down hill in combat boots. Despite the ulcer I was developing because I was “not in the right career field for me.”
I was grieving over the death of my father then. He died the year I went on active duty, just after I graduated from the University of South Carolina. Dad was a young man during World War II, finishing up his flight school as the war was ending. He was a middle-aged man when I was born, the surprise baby, just four years before his first heart attack. He was 71 when his weak heart finally gave out. I was 22 then.
Although I was taller than Dad by the time I was 15, he was a giant of a man to me. Nearly every day of my life I worried that his body would succumb to the inevitable heart attack. At the same time, I celebrated his incredible mind, his energy, his heart… that precious heart. He once told my mom that the reason he had what his doctor called an “enlarged heart” was because he loved her so much. It was at the time of his death that I figured out that the mind is the most important part of the body. And when I figured it out, nothing ever would be the same again.
Through a series of fortunate events, I left the Marine Corps and went straight into a job with Random House, as an editor. By coincidence, I find myself working with Random House often now as they published many of the works of Kurt Vonnegut. I left Random House for a position in Alexandria, Virginia, as magazine editor for the Military Officers Association of America, which lobbies for better support for our military service members. Nearly 30 years old then, I decided to leave that special job. I sought out the overseas experience I did not get in the military. I taught English to 100 Thai children at a school outside of Bangkok, Thailand. Arriving in country alone, I left Thailand with new friends and a mind full of memories. I learned from the Thai people that we should take care of each other, whether it’s through food, shelter, healthcare, or emotional support. Loving those around us helps them but it also helps us to have a healthy mind, regardless of our individual circumstances.
When I left Thailand, I was bound for the state where I was born, the state where my parents taught me about James Whitcomb Riley, James Joyce, and George Orwell… about Hoosiers who championed workers rights… about civil rights leaders… and about a little boy who was mistreated for contracting AIDs through no actions of his own.
I knew that when I crossed the state line, I could turn on the radio at any time and find a John Mellencamp song playing. And that was just fine by me. I was home.
Although my Dad never got to meet my wonderful husband, J.T. and our beautiful boys, Joseph and Daniel, somehow he is still present in our family. And if I end up with an enlarged heart of my own, well then my family will know that it must have happened because I love them sooooo much.