Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Agent Orange and Uncle George

By Ashley Intveld

I was in my eighth grade chemistry class when my name was announced from the classroom loudspeaker. We had been discussing the process of electron placement in the various orbits of an element, and as soon as my name was called to report to the front office ready to go home, my mind went blank. I knew what going home during third period meant, especially considering the past weeks leading up to this day, and I knew it didn't mean anything good. 

Book bag slung over my left shoulder, I descended the stairs of my middle school to find my mom with tears staining her shirt. She wiped them quickly to ensure that I wouldn't notice as she gave me a solemn hug.

"Uncle George isn't doing well. This may be our last chance to say goodbye. Grab your things," she said to me through forced sentences. My mom had a knack for failing to keep her composure, despite her dire efforts. I couldn't blame her. Her brother had been her best friend long before I came into the picture. And she was driving to the hospital in Hackensack to say goodbye to him for the last time.

My Uncle George was a large man. His hands tripled mine and he towered well over my own head, which isn't really any justification for his height. His belly was round, often filled with beer and Oreos; a late-night snack that never promised life-everlasting. It did, however, keep him satisfied. He had white hair, odd for his age, and brilliant blue eyes. They would tear every time he laughed. He was that kind of uncle; the guy who would rub his knuckles playfully on our scalps as he giggled and wriggled to be set free. He was a good man, and it wasn't his time to go.

Not now, not while my mom was struggling to keep her mother cognizant of the year and her father from wetting himself. She needed Uncle George, like any little sister needs her big brother.

I sat among my cousins and siblings as we painstakingly waited for any word from the doctors. Uncle George had been sick for only about two months before our final visit. He was perfectly healthy until one day he coughed and in his napkin he found blood splatter. He went to the doctor that day, and Uncle George was never the same again. His cough was guttural and made those around him cringe when they heard it. He was rarely awake and when he was, his speech was hindered by the interruption of his wheezing breaths.

The cancer he developed was so rare and rapidly spreading, the doctors held little help for Uncle George's remission. They couldn't confirm it, but my mom had the answer the doctors were to afraid to confirm. It was because of his constant exposure to Agent Orange during his stint in Vietnam. 

Upon his return in the 60s, Uncle George was a completely different person. He was grouchy and cold, and awoke often in the night screaming from the horrendous images that tainted his dreams. Little did he know that he didn't just bring home frightening images in his head, but something fatal that lurked deep within his lungs.

Uncle George passed away later that week. The doctors simply stated his death to be from cancer, but where that rare cancer came from is what raises eyebrows in my family to this day. Agent Orange, a deforestation technique introduced to the war effort in the 1960s, benefitted American soldiers in eliminating vegetation to easily spot approaching intruders. However, the invisible intruders eventually got the better of them many years down the line. I consider Uncle George to be sufficient proof.

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